The name "immersive sim" has come to label these games. A cursory Google search reveals that the term, in this context, has been used since at least 2007, though it hasn't entered common parlance until somewhat recently. It's a name with solid roots - Looking Glass studios not only made Ultima Underworld (1992), System Shock (1994) and Thief (1998), but it also made plenty of actual simulations, including flight and driving sims.
I have a few problems with the name "immersive sim." A simulation, as it's usually thought of, is a model of a system that develops according to the rules of that system. The mechanisms of a car, airplane, or even the development of a city can be simulated and drawn out. However, when referring to a game like Dishonored or Gone Home, that definition doesn't hold up. What's being simulated? A unique situation. The name "immersive sim" when applied to these games asks us to imagine that each element in them acts according to consistent rules. When a game also tells a linear narrative, such a belief is impossible.
While Dishonored provides multiple narrative outcomes based on player decisions, the player will always encounter the same story beats each play-through: the empress is killed, Emily is kidnapped, Emily is saved, each assassination target is taken care of, etc. Such a linear narrative negates the idea of a full simulation. If all of Dishonored was really an immersive simulation, the player might be able to kill "the conspirators", or any of the main characters at any time, including Emily. The player might be able to team up with one of the assassination targets in their own bid for the throne. The player would be able to have a full conversation with any of the characters in the game. To get around this, the game uses the contrivance of the silent protagonist. Dunwall is a rich world filled with interesting characters and motives - yet none of them are truly interactive. The non-simulated system here is the motivation and agency of the each non-player-character in the story. This (reasonable) limitation is abstracted away through writing and two-dimensional characters.
Steve Gaynor is up front about Gone Home's pseudo-simulation: "'simulation' in our case is not a literal term. ...What it means is allowing the player to do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context, and ensuring that the gameworld reacts in the way you expect." The important part of Gone Home is that you are in the house, interacting with it according to consistent rules. That consistency is part of what makes the game immersive.
To take a momentary detour into psychology: Spatial Presence Theory is the theory that describes the nature of immersion in media. There's a pretty good breakdown of it at The Psychology of Video Games. Briefly summarizing, and I quote:
"1. Players form a representation in their minds of the space or world with which the game is presenting them.
2. Players begin to favor the media-based space (I.e., the game world) as their point of reference for where they 'are' (or to put it in psychological gobblety-gook, their 'primary ego reference frame')."
The author goes on to say that there are two groups of characteristics that make games immersive:
3. One group, which he calls "richness," includes environment, world, and sensory detail.
4. The other group is more important to us right now, and includes in the game world "lack of incongruous visual cues, consistent behavior from things, an unbroken presentation" and "interactivity with items."Those four requirements for immersion are the hallmark of Looking Glass games and those of the lineage. Most important to these games is the idea of "consistent behavior from things." Austin Grossman, a game designer and former Looking Glass employee, described the studio's design philosophy as having "a notion that immersive gameplay emerges from an object-rich world governed by high-quality, self-consistent simulation systems." These systems form the backbone of gameplay in the genre. Gone Home has a system that allows the player to pick up and turn objects over, looking at them from every angle. Dishonored (2012) is chock full of simulated, interactive systems, including plague rats, guards that walk around and can spot/attack you, explosive whale oil canisters, hackable machines that run on said canisters, and plenty more.
Simulating systems in a game allows it to be consistent and, therefore, immersive. A game that isn't consistent is any that uses internal objects in anomalous ways - such as in scripted or quicktime events. Dishonored (2012) and its ilk eschew such events in favor of emergent gameplay, which occurs through dynamics between systems. For example, the following scenario can happen organically in Dishonored:
Corvo sits in a roof overlooking a courtyard. At the opposite end is a "wall of light," a deadly barrier that only guards can pass through. Three guards stand in front of it, guarding the whale oil canister that powers it. Corvo teleports behind the guards, grabbing the whale oil canister (which turns off the wall of light) and throwing it at them. It explodes, killing the guards. Guards on the other side of the "wall" hear the noise and come running. A passing rat pack eats them all.At least six different simulated systems are engaged to make that moment possible. Each system interacts dynamically with another to make an exciting, unique, "emergent" meaning. This game design falls neatly into the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics Framework, developed by former Looking Glass employee Marc Leblanc. The MDA Framework states that "mechanics give rise to dynamic system behavior, which in turn leads to particular aesthetic experiences." Basically: rules make up systems, and interacting systems create experiences.
While it may not be right to call these games simulations, or even "immersive sims," their immersion is a by-product of simulated systems within the games. "Immersive" and "simulation" are two concepts that these games revolve around from a design perspective - but is it the best thing to call them? As I said before, none of these games are simulations in and of themselves, but do simulate various systems internally.
Gone Home doesn't seem to have too many dynamic systems or emergent gameplay (it is too early for me to say for sure), yet adheres to the same design concepts that make games in this genre immersive. "Simulation" doesn't seem to apply here heavily. Remember, the important part about Gone Home is that "the player [can] do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context." That context happens to be an empty house, and the player actions consist largely of looking at stuff.
I think I have a better name for this genre, one that would encompass Gone Home, Dishonored (2012), Far Cry 2 (2008), System Shock 2 (1999) and the like: "YAT." It's an acronym, standing for "You Are There." I like it, but of course I like it, I made it up. But here's why:
- It gets to the point. "Immersive sim" is fairly self descriptive, but says nothing about the type of experience you'll be having. By contrast, "You Are There" implies immersion without the claim of simulation. When you play a YAT, you know you'll really feel like you're there. "Sim" in "immersive sim" is confusing.
- It replaces FPS or RPG. Games like System Shock 2 (1999) have long been alternately, awkwardly labeled "FPS," "RPG," or even "FPS-RPG." "YAT" is a separate acronym that distinguishes the genre from two of its influences.
- It's concise and catchy. "Immersive sim" is somewhat clinical.
- It speaks to the potential of the genre. Gone Home is trying something new by being non-violent. Seeing the term "you are there" in conjunction with Gone Home and the world of Dishonored makes one wonder "where else can I be?"
- It respects the legacy of the genre. In a 1994 interview with Doug Church, lead developer on System Shock, he used the phrase "you are there" twice, elaborating thusly: "We wanted to concentrate on making a really immersive 3-D world that you can interact with. The emphasis is on giving you a feeling of being there, in this rich, exciting, active environment you can work with."
That sounds like a genre description to me.