Immersive sims are some of the most celebrated titles in all of video games, even if they rarely sell the most copies. Early immersive sim games found themselves inspiring titles from first-person shooters to horror games, while also embracing evolution themselves.
With such a focus on player choice and the ability to solve problems as players see fit, immersive sims can illustrate the best of what video games have to offer. Immersive sims let players take a step back, survey the challenges ahead, and pick the best tools and approaches for the job. They’re engaging puzzles solved by often ingenious tools, and that’s why players love them.
From the classics that set the tone to more modern approaches to the formula, don’t expect to put the games on our list down quickly.
We have to start this list with the original Deus Ex, which many consider not just the best of the immersive sims, but the best game of all time. Deus Ex takes place in a virus-ravaged world, where conspiracies among the hidden elite seek to control the populace through information warfare and controlled extermination. While there are several endings to work towards, one thing remains constant – if you mention Deus Ex, someone will reinstall it.
The original System Shock from 1994 consolidated many of the standards of immersive sims, though it didn’t age particularly well. Enter the 2023 remake, which reimagines the setting in a fantastic and approachable title that melds horror and action into an immersive whole. Try to repair the damage you incurred by releasing the ethical constraints on the now-homicidal AI SHODAN while surviving the machines and monsters she set upon the Citadel space station.
Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, and Robbers, or S.T.A.L.K.E.R as we tend to call it, takes place in a fictionalized version of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone following the famous nuclear disaster. Find the secret of the anomalies that alter reality as you collect weapons, build your gear, and ignore the residents telling you to leave. Get out of here, stalker!
Bioshock 2 was originally seen as a downgrade after the original, but time has vindicated the gameplay of this sequel as the best in the series. Head to the underwater city of Rapture as you try to save your Little Sisters and introduce those who stand in your way to Plasmid powers and the spinning metal of your mining drill.
You might need to go on cooldown after figuring out the three different title sections of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines but don't let that hold you back from trying one of the immersive sims' best. This title takes you to Los Angeles as your created vampire seeks out undead mysteries, feeds upon human cattle, and most importantly, maintains the masquerade. Just remember to install the fan patch if you try this one, it's notoriously buggy in its original release!
Thief 2 took the experiment that was the first title and expanded on its formula with better gameplay, improved maps, and a more immersive overall world. Players take the sneaky shoes of Garrett as he uncovers a vast conspiracy around a religious sect in this immersive sim. Set in a steampunk city, Thief 2 naturally emphasizes stealth, but it also allows its players to fight and manage some horrible griefing to the guards via traps and special ammo.
The last of the Kojima-led Metal Gear series, The Phantom Pain embraced the open world and an enormous number of customizable weapons and gadgets. This entry took what was traditionally more stealth-based gameplay and brought chaos into the mix in a way few longtime fans anticipated. Sprint around the battlefield as Snake, uncover the secret of a bioweapon and have Ocelot constantly surprised at the choice of soldiers you kidnap to join your cause.
Prey is technically a sequel, though its relationship to the prior entry is really in name only. Taking place on a space station, this immersive sim has you investigating an alien infestation, trying to survive, and choosing from a varied skill tree. You can also play as one of the select few female videogame characters to ever don a space suit, at least as long as you aren’t shapeshifting into a box.
This one might stretch the definition of immersive sim a little, but there's no doubting the emphasis on choice that makes the Hitman games great. The most recent of this long-running series even lets you download the maps from the previous two games, providing the biggest adventure yet. Hitman has you dedicated to exploring maps, disguising yourself, and using whatever you have available to get away undetected. Some of the solutions here are truly genius, even if we couldn't figure them all out on our own.
Dishonored 2 is also a fantastic game, but for an introduction to the world, we have to recommend the original. Dishonored provides you with a variety of mystic powers and fascinating tech as you work to clear your name and restore the rightful heir to the throne. Don't be surprised if you jump right into the sequel after completion as you sneak through this world…
From traditional stealth action games to roguelikes and anything in between, immersive sim games come in many shapes and forms. As fun and loved as they are, it's also a somewhat niche genre that often doesn't get the mainstream acceptance it deserves. We can only hope that they don't stay this way, as we look forward to sequels for some of our favorite long-dormant series.
An immersive sim is a video game that builds the core around its experience around player choice. Immersive sims can use this foundation to crossover with other genres and subgenres too, such as stealth games or roguelites. Each problem in an immersive sim often offers many solutions.
Immersive sims can be open world, as long as the immersive sim elements remain strong. Open world immersive sims can introduce additional design challenges like more complex NPC behavior, but they're just as viable an approach as a more linear game world.
Immersive sims do not have to be first-person. They can be played from any camera angle, such as third-person, or even those traditionally reserved for the top RTS games. First-person views are the most common, but they're not the only option.