I feel like I was a bit down on Cyberpunk during out roundup of the upcoming games of 2020. I didn’t mean to be. In fact, I’m excited about the game. I’m a huge fan of the Witcher 3 and William Gibson is one of my favourite novelists, so combining the developer of the first with the themes and setting of the second is entirely to my liking. But I’m equally excited about what Cyberpunk might mean for my favourite gaming genre of all – the immersive sim.
Now, hopefully you all know what an immersive sim is. I’ve certainly banged on enough about them here. But just in case you don’t, immersive sims include games like Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored, System Shock, Ultima Underworld and Prey. They’re an offshoot of RPGs that are typically first-person, and place particular emphasis on dynamic, highly interactive, consistently simulated systems that react both with the player and each other. In theory, they’re the ultimate expression of sandbox gaming, providing with an objective and the tools to complete it, then letting you approach that goal however you like.
For me, immersive sims represent some of gaming’s most significant achievements. Unfortunately, they’re also about as popular as an egg in your coffee. Throughout their history, immersive sims have been critically adored but commercially shunned. Thief, often reckoned as one of the most influential games ever made, only ever sold about half a million copies. And that was Looking Glass Studios’ most successful game.
As for the handful of immersive which achieved commercial success, they’ve always failed to capitalise on it. Both Deus Ex and Invisible War sold well, but the latter’s less-than-stellar reviews, combined with the underwhelming Thief: Deadly Shadows, spelled doom for developer Ion Storm. A decade later, Dishonored brought in a healthy crop of new immersive sim fans, but the (even better) sequel didn’t sell nearly as well, forcing the studio to “rest” the franchise. The same thing happened with the rebooted Deus Ex too. Human Revolution sold well. Mankind Divided didn’t, and as a result it’s unlikely we’ll get another Deus Ex anytime soon, if ever.
Part of the problem is those games which succeed in bringing the ideas of immersive sims into the mainstream end up having to sacrifice a certain level of depth required to make immersive sims work. A classic example is Bioshock, which has the DNA of an immersive sim, but is structurally an FPS, with no real ability to sneak or talk your way out of a situation. Bethesda’s RPGs also bear many of the same qualities, but the systems are watered down to accommodate for the broader canvas Bethesda paint on.
It’s a Catch-22 situation. Immersive sims are commercially unsuccessful, so the only way to make a profitable one is to change it into something else. I’m not sure why this is, although I think part of the problem is a failure to communicate what makes immersive sims so much fun to play. “Immersive sim” is a dreadful genre name at the end of the day.
Cyberpunk, too, markets itself as an RPG. But anyone familiar with immersive sims can see that the combat and moment-to-moment decision making bear all the hallmarks of a game like Deus Ex. It’s the classic fighting/sneaking/hacking trinity. This is why I’m excited about Cyberpunk’s potential to effectively communicate the ideas of immersive sims to a broader audience, and prove that these kinds of games can have major commercial success.
I’m also keenly imagining how Cyberpunk might encourage other developers to dip their toes back into immersive waters. Human Revolution and Mankind Divided were effective precursors of Cyberpunk, sharing many of the same themes and mechanics. But the series was put on ice because Square Enix felt there wasn’t enough of a market for a third game. If Cyberpunk can prove otherwise (and let’s face it, that game is going to sell like an iPhone that cooks you breakfast in the morning) then surely it would only be prudent business for Square to start making another Deus Ex.
And that’s just an immediate, very obvious potential consequence. Immersive sims have never had a massive, truly blockbuster hit. It came close with Deus Ex and Dishonored, but their success didn’t even come close to games like, say, Skyrim or The Witcher, and definitely not something like Minecraft. Games whose success made it inevitable that other developers would try to mimic it, to take those same core ideas and spin them in a new way.
The obvious response to this is “Oh great, so we’re going to get a bunch of Cyberpunk knock-offs?” But that’s what’s so interesting. Unlike say, Battle Royale, you can’t just slap a new skin on an immersive sim and sell it. You have to commit to those ideas, else it will be critically panned.
Of course, all of this is highly speculative. But at the very least, I’d be surprised if Cyberpunk didn’t cause Square to re-ignite the Deus Ex franchise, and possibly gave Arkane license to return to games like Dishonored. Or perhaps Steam’ll just be filled with clicker games bearing a Cyberpunk theme. Oh no, that’s what’s going to happen isn’t it? All my hopes and dreams will be buried in a mountain of Cyberpunk clickers. Forget everything I’ve said. We're all doomed.
February 17 2020 | 09:00