A lot of high-fallutin’ games critics like myself are playing Baldur’s Gate 3 right now (it is one of the best games ever, after all), and a lot of those critics are declaring the game a success story not only in the genre of RPGs, but also in the genre/realm/fuzzily defined cluster of game design ideas that most people don’t understand known as the ‘immersive sim.’
Now, I love immersive sims. I count some of my favourite games—Dishonored, Prey, Deus Ex—among them. And yet, I’m acutely aware that writing about these games risks no one reading about them because ‘immersive sim’ is just the most dry, unappealing way of describing them. In fact, I’ve suggested before that ‘immersive sims’ need a new name just to sex the genre up a bit and help it get some well-deserved attention.
The good thing about Baldur’s Gate 3 is that it’s so relentlessly popular, and defined primarily as an RPG (which it is), that it gives me an excuse to talk about immersive sims once more while piggybacking off the biggest game of the year.
So what is an immersive sim, and how is Baldur’s Gate 3 one? I was chatting to our JRPG guru Mo the other day, who (being a guru in a genre that’s historically had zero immersive sim attributes) was curious about how I’d define this strange term. I ended up coming up with something like this:
It's all about creating AI and objects with believable, reactive attributes, then chucking them into a simulated game world where they can dynamically interact with each other in unscripted ways. The player is given the tools to interact with and exploit the behaviours of the AI and objects in this system—and get them to interact with each other—to achieve the objectives the game sets you in myriad creative (and unexpected) ways.
Oh, and let’s have some fun. Let’s see what ChatGPT has to say about it in the same amount of words:
An immersive sim game is a genre that prioritizes player freedom, interactive storytelling, and environmental immersion. These games create intricate, realistic virtual worlds where players have agency to make impactful choices and solve challenges in multiple ways. Key features include open-ended gameplay, interactive environments, player agency, realistic world-building, rich storytelling, RPG elements, and emergent gameplay.
Pretty good, ChatGPT, but I really do think words like ‘AI,’ ‘Unscripted’ and ‘simulation’ need to be in there. In fairness though, the word ‘emergent’ covers it pretty well, and yes, world-building tends to be a part of these games too.
Anyway, let’s move on from my wanky showdown with ChatGPT and get to the fun part of showing how this manifests in a game like, say, oh I dunno, Baldur’s Gate 3. An immersive sim is a game where you can stack 45 boxes on top of each other so that they create a tower high enough for you to be able to vault over the ramparts of a city, sequence-breaking and skipping the ‘assigned’ way to get there; it’s a game where the main story can withstand you killing off any character in the game, letting you complete it irrespective of who’s left alive in the world; it’s a game where there are always multiple access points to an area you need to get to, and endless ways to resolve (or avoid) a combat encounter.
An immersive sim is Baldur’s Gate 3, where you can take on a goblin camp using good old-fashioned combat, you can use stealth to sneak past them, you can be accepted as one of them, you can use poison their booze supply, or you can create a ‘Barrelmancer’ and fill the camp with a chain of carefully spaced barrels to create a veritable fireworks display. And these are things just off the top of my head! Each area in Baldur’s Gate 3 is its own system with a thousand possibilities.
In a more ordinary example, I was playing just yesterday, and seemingly failed a quest for a rather combative lady who asked me to grab a Githyanki egg for her from the nearby ‘yanki stronghold. I accepted the quest as my main character, but then when I spoke to her as my Githyanki companion-with-perks Lae’Zel I thought it’d be appropriate to turn down the offer—staying in-character and all that.
The lady didn’t like that, a fight ensued, and we killed her, marking the quest to procure the egg for her as ‘Completed’ (but really, we failed). However, on her person the lady had a letter from some scientific guild in Baldur’s Gate, stating the place where the egg should be delivered, so even though the quest hasn’t been reopened officially, I’ve now found an alternative method of completing it later in the game; it could also lead to new opportunities with thoe folks I’ll be handing the egg to, and will also likely make my reward bigger, given that I’ll now be handing it straight to the people who requested it, rather than handing it over to the middle-woman.
Point being: the request for the eggs from this science institution exists out in the world—the quest isn’t just triggered into existence by certain conversations—and whether you follow the prescribed method in your quest log or find your own way to get the egg to its destination doesn’t ultimately matter. It’s pretty neat, pretty immersive-simmy!
Some people find the lines between RPG and immersive sim a bit blurry, but the reality is that ‘immersive sim’ can be treated as a particular set of rules for the game world itself (simulated, systems-driven sandboxes tailored to maximise player expression), while RPG is the broader genre or ruleset for the entirety of the game (levelling, inventories, RNG, character customisation, shaping the story through dialogue and other choices etc.). I’ve all the love in the world for The Witcher 3, for example, but it’s fairly rigid as actual simulation goes, doesn’t provide tons of possibilities for experimentation and player expression, and progressing through the game is largely restricted to combat and dialogue. Great game, good RPG, not an immersive sim.
You can always pick out ways in which a game isn’t an immersive sim—paragon of the genre Deus Ex is quite restrictive about who you can and can’t kill to complete the game, Bioshock’s pretty limited in its AI behaviours and player expression is very much geared towards FPS combat. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect expression of this strange genus of games, more like a checklist of criteria they need to qualify (and if they get, say 7/10 of them, they’re in). Baldur’s Gate 3 checks a lot of the boxes, and in fact is probably one of the greatest ever examples of an immersive sim, as well as an RPG.