There’s something special about getting fully immersed in a gripping first-person game that invites you to solve problems in your own way. The first time gamers booted up titles like Thief or Deus Ex, they were met with a wide-open world that said “yes” to the player’s style. If they wanted to employ stealth and avoid violence, that was an option. If they wanted to live out their Terminator fantasies, the games accommodated that, too.
As the genre matured over the years, more advanced gaming technology allowed developers to push the boundaries further. Better graphics and more robust enemy AI have allowed immersive sim games to present convincing sandboxes for players to experiment with. In recent years, the genre has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to attention from online gaming outlets and YouTubers who champion some of the genre’s best entries.
Today, we’re counting down the best games in the niche but beloved immersive sim genre. Some of these titles are heralded as the greatest games ever made, offering such robust storylines and immersive gameplay that they can live on in your mind long after the credits roll.
The first Thief was technically impressive upon its release, with its lighting system and stealth gameplay. But the second entry in the franchise is widely considered its high point. Each of the second game’s 15 levels allows the player to approach them in unique ways. No matter how you prefer to tackle these puzzles, you’ve got plenty of options.
The immersive sim genre is at its best when it allows players to treat each level as a puzzle to be solved. This is why so many of them are stealth games, first and foremost, but allow for players to improvise and solve problems through open conflict if things go sideways during “Plan A.” This makes them more immersive, for one thing, because it feels more realistic.
For instance, in Thief II, you play as a regular person who just wants to pilfer jewels and gold from people. He can’t exactly hope to get into a swordfight with every guard in every castle he infiltrates, so he instead relies on stealth and his own quick wits to get the drop on his enemies and sneak out with as much loot as he can fit in his knapsack.
In many ways, Arkane’s Dishonored franchise functions as a modern-day spiritual successor to Thief. The games see the player controlling Corvo Attano, a former royal guard of the queen of Dunwall. Its fictional setting is loosely based on England in the Victorian era, and this influence gives the game a pseudo-historical veneer that allows its deviations from our world to stand out.
For instance, Corvo can use mystical powers granted by an extradimensional god called The Outsider. These powers include short-range teleportation to shape-shifting into swarms of rats. Some of the more advanced techniques are even more terrifying. For instance, a power named Domino allows Corvo to link enemies together, so if one of them dies, everyone else in the chain falls, too.
Dishonored fully immerses the player in the world of Dunwall by using plentiful in-universe broadcasts, audio logs, and written materials to tease out a rich historical backstory. Moreover, players are empowered to tackle the labyrinthine levels however they choose, using their mystical abilities to either sneak through sprawling cities and claustrophobic back alleys or employing their blades and pistols to blast enemies away. It helps that the game’s storyline centers on a truly gripping mystery that players are encouraged to solve through gameplay.
Cruelty Squad is perhaps the strangest-looking game on this list, but it’s a superb immersive sim in its own right. It’s a creepy, surreal experience, full of garish colors and rudimentary graphics. Its biting satire is strong enough to break through these unusual presentation choices, though, and the surprisingly addictive tactical gameplay on display here will keep you coming back for more.
What looks like a purposefully off-putting game at first turns out to be a scathing takedown of consumer culture and imperialism. The walls of retail spaces are made entirely of vinyl toys based on Funk Pop figures, characters can be resurrected after death for a nominal fee, and human organs are sold on the stock market. Everything is a commodity in this world, and corporations run everything.
The game’s sickening presentation and surrealist atmosphere are just the surface level of a game that’s really about something much more troubling: the commodification of human life under corporatism. It’s a trippy game, but one that is well worth playing. Its visuals and radical message will likely stick with you long after the credits roll.
The 2017 game Prey doesn’t actually share anything in common with the 2006 game of the same name. That misconception helped artificially deflate sales of the excellent 2017 game. People who wanted something like the original Prey disliked the new game’s standalone nature, and those who didn’t like the original avoided the 2017 game because it shared the name.
Despite this naming confusion, Prey (2017) is a fantastic immersive sim that tasks players with surviving in a space station overrun with shape-shifting aliens. It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking game that offers you plentiful ways to tackle its creepy, claustrophobic areas. Players control Morgan Yu, a character who has spent years studying the Typhon on a space station named Talos I. As the player progresses through the game, it gradually becomes an open-world immersive sim–players can connect areas together through gameplay and find new ways to traverse the station.
The game’s plotline is also as mind-bending as it is engrossing. Players can choose whether to assist the human survivors on the space station or leave them to their own devices. The game’s multiple endings hinge on these decisions, so mindful players can see the consequences of their actions play out as they explore the space station.
You might notice that several games from Arkane Studios made this list, and there’s a good reason for that. Arkane is simply one of the best game studios when it comes to making immersive sim games! Deathloop is no exception: it takes the mystical powers and stealth-action gameplay of Dishonored, adds a Groundhog Day-style time loop and injects a heaping helping of James Bond and Quentin Tarantino for good measure.
Players control Colt, the security officer for a scientific expedition group called AEON. AEON’s scientists have successfully harnessed a temporal anomaly on the sub-Arctic island of Blackreef, and now everyone on the island is caught in a never-ending time loop that sees the same day play out over and over. The only way for Colt to break the loop is by assassinating all eight of the “Visionaries,” AEON’s leaders.
The game allows players to explore four sprawling areas at different times throughout the looped day. Visionaries who are defeated in one loop will come back in the next with no memory of the prior day. However, one of them, Juliana, is capable of keeping her memories across the days and is hellbent on keeping Colt from breaking the loop. The game functions as a tense cat-and-mouse chase, with Colt trying to set up his assassinations and Juliana doing everything she can to stop him.
Bioshock is one of the best video games ever made, but its status as an immersive sim has drawn some controversy among genre purists. It’s a first-person title with some light stealth elements, a somewhat open approach to level design, and a fantastic narrative. However, it’s notably more linear and closed-ended than some other entries on this list, making it a bit more of a hybrid between an immersive sim and an action game.
Still, Bioshock ranks among the best introductions to the genre ever made. Players who love Bioshock’s multiple endings, complex discussions of morality, and tendency to say “yes” to the player would likely find something to love in every game on this list.
And, if you’ve managed to avoid the game’s biggest spoilers, you’re in for a treat. Bioshock features some of the most mind-blowing narrative twists ever seen in a video game, and newcomers who haven’t been spoiled will certainly understand why the game was such a monumental piece of media upon its release in 2007.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The third Deus Ex game, Human Revolution, improves on the original title in nearly every way. It’s a sleeker, faster-past game with an equally immersive world. Adam Jensen is a likable protagonist who proves to be much more than the gruff everyman he initially appears to be.
Human Revolution offers players so many ways to solve each problem that it makes other games look restrictive by comparison. Sure, you could bring a shotgun and a bag of grenades in and try to brute-force your way through your enemies. Or, you could put skill points into your social augmentations and try to win a debate with your opponent, convincing them to see things your way and let you through without a fight.
That freedom is critical for any immersive sim, and no game before or since has done it quite like Human Revolution. Sadly, its sequel, Mankind Divided, never quite reached the same heights, and the franchise went dormant in the intervening years. With any luck, developer Eidos Montreal has something new in the franchise brewing behind closed doors.