Immersion’s become something of a buzzword in recent years, and as a result it lost most of its meaning. It means something different for everyone, and nobody seems to agree on what makes a feature “immersion-breaking”, barring intrusive, unexplained interfaces, or some implementations of multiplayer, perhaps.
To make things simple, let’s just boil it down to: an immersive game is one that can help you imagine you are the character you play more than you are a person in front of a computer, and help you become involved in the game world’s intricacies. There are many facets to immersion, and most of them contentious, but these are the very basic-level precepts.
So let’s see some immersive games, then, shall we?
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
|Genre:||Action role-playing, first-person shooter, stealth|
Deus Ex games are, by all accounts, immersive cyborg sims. In Human Revolution you play as Adam Jensen, a former cop and current security chief at Sarif Industries, a corporation specialising in creating cybernetic augmentation and prosthetics. You got beat up in an attack on the research division, and your injuries were so severe only extensive cybernetics could save you. You never asked for this.
Existential problems aside, the cybernetics give Adam a chance to interact with the world in very fun ways, and the first-person perspective is styled as the actual retinal display of your character. The world feels tangible, especially when you get strong enough to pick up extra-heavy objects, or snoop around hacking into computers to read people’s emails is rude, but makes the world feel real.
Dishonored is an immersive sim putting you in the shoes (and creepy mask) of a supernaturally gifted bodyguard/assassin, Corvo Attano, who not has some avenging and rescuing to do, because Empress Jessamine, whom he was protecting, was assassinated, her daughter was kidnapped, and Corvo himself thrown into jail, wrongly accused of murder. There’s a lot on his plate.
A large part of Dishonored’s immersive quality is that fact that powers you have aren’t used only in scripted, pre-planned locations: you are free to Blink virtually anywhere, combine certain abilities in creative ways, and the game will accommodate your plan. The world is also just as tangible as in Deus Ex, you can even pick the bullets shot at you if you use the Bend Time ability.
Fallout: New Vegas
Obsidian Entertainment’s shot at the modern Fallout games resulted in one of the cult classic RPGs of the 2010s. You’re playing as the Courier whose recent assignment was delivering a poker chip to New Vegas. Unfortunately, you get shot a good distance away from the destination, and the chip was stolen. But you don’t have to get it right away, you can go just about anywhere.
The map of Fallout: New Vegas is massive, and it’s very easy to get lost in exploration, or amid the factional politics between the powers vying for control of the Hoover Dam. With a flexible, class-less progression you can customise who your Courier is to a great degree, helping you get into a role you imagined during character creation. The world isn’t very dynamic, but it’s complex and interesting.
|Release year:||2002 (Gothic 2), 2009 (Risen)|
Few studios, if any at all, make action RPGs that are as immersive, or gives as strong a sense of the world, as those of Piranha Bytes. Gothic 2 and Risen are the finest examples of that style of video game worldbuilding, and they share quite a few traits, and one of them is that the UI is minimal, and that includes the lack of a minimap: you have to navigate by opening a map from inventory.
Another aspect is that while the maps are smaller than usual, they are meticulously designed so that every location looks unique and after a while you become so familiar with them that you rarely need to reference the map. This familiarity, unique locations, and hand-placed secrets and rewards make exploration feel worthwhile and rewarding, especially since there are few lock-off areas.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
|Genre:||Action-adventure, hack and slash|
The kind of immersion offered by Hellblade isn’t a warm blanket of escapism offered by many other games. Instead, especially when you’re playing on headphones, it’s the kind of immersion that hits you right in the soul in a similar way it hits the eponymous protagonist Senua. See, she is a Pict warrior who is suffering from psychosis, and one of the symptoms are the voices she hears.
Especially the voices she calls the Furies are always speaking to her, sometimes advising her, sometimes leading her astray, and if you have your headphones on, they can really mess with you. There’s also no user interface when you play the game, making Furies and Darkness your only guides. It’s unpleasant, but it really puts you in the mind of Senua, which is a powerful kind of immersion.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
Kingdom Come Deliverance has the distinction of being one of the most historically accurate games out there. The developers, Warhorse Studios, spent a lot of time researching Kingdom of Bohemia, which would eventually become the Chech Republic. You get to travel around the region as Henry, a blacksmith’s son, who gets tangled up in a large succession conflict for the throne.
The immersion in CKD comes from several angles. One is that the game pays attention to time, and it’s possible to come late to an event or miss it altogether. There’s also a degree of survival mechanics like hunger, and the immersive, reasonably realistic melee combat and armour systems. Henry even has to learn how to read, and until he does books are almost unreadable due to scrambled letters.
|Genre:||Action-adventure, vehicular combat|
Mad Max didn’t get a lot of attention, which is regrettable. Not only does it capture the atmosphere of Mad Maxian post-apocalypse, especially the post-Fury Road one, but it’s also a really cool world to explore in your car. Most of the map is the sea floor, with all the water evaporated in years past. You’ll drive under ruined bridges, hide from sandstorms in a dilapidated lighthouse, and loot shipwrecks.
Deep canyons, uneven „roads”, enemy and ally bases set up in oil rigs and other maritime infrastructure make for a really cool, unusual world to explore. You need to find water, which doubles as a medkit, your car (highly customisable) needs fuel, and occasional repairs especially after a convoy battle. Even your progression is linked to doing specific things in combat and exploration.
Mount & Blade series
|Release year:||2008 (first release: Mount & Blade) – 2020 (latest game: M&B2: Bannerlord)|
The Mount & Blade series is essentially a big faux-Medieval sandbox, letting you play the part of a newcomer to the land, trying to make a living, preferably through warfare. You are completely free to move around the overworld map and enter cities to do business, accept quests, or participate in tournaments for gold and renown. Battles and sieges are the most important here, however.
Once armies clash, you’re transported to a battle map alongside the forces you’ve assembled and you fight until somebody wins or retreats. The losing side may end up prisoners of the victors, so there’s a chance you’ll spend some time in shackles yourself. Although the world is fictional, there are no fantastical creatures or magic, and the factions are inspired by real-world nations and cultures.
|Developer||Unknown Worlds Entertainment|
The immersion offered by Subnautica is twofold. Your character is immersed in the ocean of the alien planet he crashed on, and the game presents it so well that you get inevitably immersed in the aquatic world. The first-person perspective helps, because it not only removes the distinction between you and the protagonist, but also lets you admire the gorgeous vistas of the sunlit waters.
The flipside is that it also puts you closer to the less friendly animals, many of which will be eager to attack you. As it’s a survival game by default, you need to take care of your meters, most importantly the oxygen supply. Subnautica’s ocean is stunningly created, with amazing wildlife (some of which you can domesticate), if you aren’t unsettled by the water environment, you will have a great time.
|Release year:||2005 (the first release: Yakuza) – 2020 (latest release: Yakuza: Like a Dragon)|
|Genre:||Action-adventure, beat ’em up, role-playing game|
|Developer||New Entertainment R&D Dept., Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Syn Sophia|
The Yakuza series is somewhat notorious for its detailed recreation of Tokyo’s Kabukichō district, in the games called Kamurocho. The series can be over-the-top in the way it presents combat and minigames, but otherwise it is remarkably well-grounded in reality, and unlike Kingdom Come’s medieval Bohemia, people can actually visit Kabukichō in real life, and they have.
A large part of Yakuza games comes from realising how many playable elements the setting has. You can race small RC cars, sing karaoke, play table tennis and plenty more. Each game has a different set of minigames for you to participate in, and they do a great job making the small slice of Tokyo feel fleshed out and full of life. The first two games even got remakes, making them easier to get into.
Check Yakuza games on G2A.com
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
|Genre:||First-person shooter, survival horror|
|Developer||GSC Game World|
Based on a science-fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was an unexpected hit of the year 2007 (we did mention it was a great year previously). It is set in an alternative incarnation of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is peppered with spots of bizarre, seemingly supernatural activity, which bloomed after the power plant tragically malfunctioned.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was possibly one of the most immersive and brutal games of that year, depicting a fascinating and, ahem, viscerally believable place. It even made sure to include several endings to account for the players’ progress and decisions, to help make the story of the Marked One truly their own. The first-person perspective, and survival mechanics were a great boon too. Watching out for the radiation and staving off the hunger do a great job selling the reality of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s setting.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
|Developer||CD Projekt Red|
What sells the reality of The Witcher 3 world, aside from its expansive open world are people going about their business whether you see them or not, they talk, and in general appear to have their own lives to take care of instead of just waiting to give you a quest for a magic sword. They would hide from the rain, shout insults at Geralt, or bark out an off-key song.
Also: watching the day seemingly turn into night as the storm comes over the horizon, and the pines swaying in the wind is a one of the kind experience. If you use the Quen sign you can even see rain splashing against the protective barrier, and if you use Aard in water, you can see it ripple under the sign’s power. That’s a beautiful attention to immersive detail.
|Developer||2K Boston, 2K Australia|
Another game from 2007! BioShock went for much more spatially oppressive environments than S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but instead provides a subtly and aptly guided tour of the half-ruined underwater city inspired by the aesthetics of the early 20th century. BioShock works on many levels, and it finds a way to close the gap between the player and the protagonist in a spectacular twist.
Although the game itself is ten years old now, there still people who may remain oblivious of the big reveal, so we have one thing to ask of you: would you kindly refrain from spoiling it for others in the comments?
Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines
Troika had a short, but outstanding run as a video game developer. Although Arcanum is still fondly remembered by some, and The Temple of Elemental Evil was perhaps the finest adaptation of D&D 3.5 rule set in a video game, none of these games share the legendary status of VtM: Bloodlines.
Years pass and nobody has yet created a better game not only about vampires, but also about being a vampire (Dontnod, don’t mess Vampyr up, please). VtMB is a real treat, and allows you to immerse yourself fully in being a child of the night and make some sweet goth/rave music. What?
The necessity to keep your thirst for blood at reasonable levels, maintaining your ever flimsier Humanity to stave of the bestial side of your new nature, and keeping up the secrecy of the vampires’ existence in a centuries-old Masquerade make Bloodlines much more than just an edgy power fantasy.
It also happens to be a great adaptation of the legendary RPG system by White Wolf, under the same name: Vampire the Masquerade (which got a gorgeous anniversary edition several years ago).
The Stanley Parable
|Genre:||Interactive story, adventure|
Stanley Parable is something of a curiosity here, because it’s being meta af doesn’t hurt immersion one bit, quite the opposite.
In SP you play as a corporation drone named Stanley, who through irrelevant contrived circumstance is left alone in the office building he works in. He also happens to have a Narrator commenting every step of Stanley’s attempt to leave the premises or do pretty much anything. It’s not a game one can easily describe, because so much of it relies on the surprise and discovering new situations and commentary, but believe you me: before long you’ll be fully invested in the game.
|Genre:||Action-adventure, stealth, survival horror|
We had a number of immersive survival horror games recently, like Resident Evil VII. There is, however, something gripping about Alien: Isolation. Maybe it’s the familiar threat of a Xenomorph that does it for many people?
It’s easier to immerse oneself in setting we are already familiar with, and hiding from the Alien is different from hiding from obscure monsters, if only because we’re sneaky specifically because we know all too well what’s going to happen if we’re discovered without our power loader.
The Elder Scrolls
|Release year:||1994 (first release: TES: Arena) – 2020 (TES: Blades)|
|Developer||Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda Game Studios, ZeniMax Online Studios|
The Elder Scrolls in general are the go-to solution if you want to immerse yourself in a world full of stories to tell, places discovered and still to discover, and multi-layered systems emulating things you’d expect to be possible, from alchemy to crafting, to tomb raiding.
Systems may differ from game to game (no spellcrafting in Skyrim is a wasted opportunity), but the essence is kept: create your character, finish the tutorial section, and then do whatever you want, indefinitely. You can ignore the main quest forever and the game won’t force you to pick it up, content with letting you just roam the lands being heroic, villainous, or just gathering resources to craft something magnificent.
|Developer||EA Redwood Shores|
Interfaces in video games are the kind of arbitrary features we’ve come to just accept as an intrinsic part of the experience, unless they are absurdly obtrusive and make playing harder than intended.
Dead Space solves this problem by ditching an arbitrary interface completely. Health bar? Now it’s represented by a glowing tube in the back of your character’s suit. Ammo? A holographic display of your weapon shows how much you have left. It make you pay more attention to the surroundings, instead of the interface, which boosts the immersion significantly. Suddenly the confrontations with the grotesque Necromorphs are much more engaging when you don’t have a convenient and fast way of checking how you’re doing on a resource front.
|Release year:||2010 (M2033), 2013 (Last Light), 2014 (Redux)|
|Genre:||First-person shooter, survival horror|
Another, after S.T.A.L.K.E.R. post-nuclear first-person perspective game, Metro 2033 was created based on Dmitry Glukhovksy’s novel under the same title. Released in 2010 is quickly gained popularity, large enough for a more complete Redux version and a sequel titles Metro: Last Light.
It’s similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in a way, but put more emphasis on travelling through the corridors of the Moscow Metro and Metro-2 housing a community which survived a nuclear strike in 2013 (I remember it as if it was yesterday). While not as flexible as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it creates a very vivid scenery and enables both gung-ho and stealthy playstyles. It also has some moral decisions to make, although the game doesn’t draw attention to them. In a way Metro mixes some of the best aspect of BioShock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., creating a very immersive experience.
The good(?) ending
So that’s a few games which happen to be pretty good at providing the layer with a sense of immersion. There are many more, and possibly drawn from various genres, because what’s immersive to some players isn’t to others. Many, myself included, manage to be immersed in isometric RPG, while others find it unimaginable, so yeah.
What are your types? Which games make you feel “there and then” in the world presented? Let us know in the comments.