Interactive fiction as immersive sim?

One of the interesting things that I’ve been contemplating a lot since I started writing my interactive fiction story is the comparison between parser IF and the immersive sim genre. I think it’s an interesting comparison, a fun way to think about and explain how IF works.

The whole idea of immersive sims is that the world you play in is a coherent environment that’s designed to exist as a self-consistent location with its own proper internal logic, history, and atmosphere, where the obstacles you need to overcome arise naturally from the environment and the story, and the solutions to those obsticles arise just as naturally because of the in-depth simulation and reactivity of the environment, and the player’s toolkit. Thus the world isn’t “videogamified” and simulation is both the obsticle and the solution to the obsticle.

This seems to me to be what good long form parser IF is already doing to a fairly substantial degree (like Anchorhead!). For one thing, parser IF generally features proudly a world model with objects and state and relations between those objects and myriad actions to try and interactions to examine and so on, simulation which allows for complex sandbox experimentation, just like in immersive sims. And just like in an immersive sim, in parser IF you typically progress the story by solving various problems and obstacles in the environment using the tools you’ve collected and other aspects of the environment, obstacles. I really get the same sense I get from what I consider to be good parser IF obsticles when I listen to videos about the design of Deus Ex for instance.

So what am I trying to steal from immersive sims in my game? Well, it’s hard as a single person to create a world that’s as simulation-heavy and open to unintended solutions to things as a proper immersive sim, but I’m doing my best to make sure every major obsticle has at least two substantially different solutions, each with their own benefits and drawbacks and even ways of effecting the story, so that my IF will have a more branching directed acyclic graph feel like an immersive sim such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where you’ve always got three different ways to get through each level/mission. I’m also trying to give the player abilities that can be used in a great many situations, even ones not specifically intended, so they have a consistent set of tools to draw on. It’s a small toolkit, only two abilities, one of which has three different options they can choose, but I think that’s relatively new. Which brings me to my final point: I’m trying to make it so players have some ability for their choices to effect the nature and abilities of their character (in this case, choosing between three different cybernetic arms, depending on which there will be different solutions to later obstacles available to you). This is a big aspect of immersive sims, namely “picking your build.”

What does everyone think?


In my experience, this is one way to make for a satisfying player experience. When I’m designing puzzles, if I can, I try to make the code generic and not refer to specific objects unless I absolutely have to.

For example, in Scroll Thief, the functionality of the LESOCH spell doesn’t have special cases for the places where it needs to be used—it has an effect on supporters and open containers in general. Which means it should work reliably across the game, rather than just in the specific place where it’s the solution to a puzzle. This sometimes leads to unintended solutions, but that’s all part of the fun!


I’m basically doing this, to an extreme: my main WIP, for example, is build around the concept of discovering a new world with its knowledge & lore, whose is a new take of the ancient “treasure hunt”, here the “treasure” are the knowledge and lore of said world.

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


You can “waste” a lot of time on the “sim” bit, but usually it’s not altogether entertaining to play. Even then, people will want to do things it can’t do and say thing the parser won’t understand.

I have reluctantly concluded, it’s better to spend the effort on story-building rather than allowing the player to do random things.


Inform and most parser systems with a world model do allow what can be thought of as “physics modeling” in text. As opposed to each puzzle having one solution, the author sets up several systems that hopefully interact with each other to allow experimentation and possibly emergent gameplay the author did not think of. Like how people will set up lines of explosive barrels just to make impressive fireworks in Half Life or arrange cars like dominos in Grand Theft Auto.

Example: a puzzle which requires weighting down one side of a seesaw but one rock isn’t heavy enough. The player can spend time finding enough rocks, or decide what items in their inventory they can part with that are heavy enough to fill the basket and save time.

The one thing about adding sim elements is it can make the game difficult to test because the author won’t think of every solution. Perhaps the player can befriend and convince the elephant from another room to stand on the end of the seesaw which could be a brilliant emergent out-of-the-box solution or break the game because now the player can keep all those rocks they aren’t supposed to have later, and the elephant can’t accompany them through the door for the “find all the peanuts” puzzle further on. But that may be a trade off - players feel rewarded when a solution they think of works, even if they have to go back and do it again because they need that elephant.

And it often requires testing cheat codes. One of my games had a ghost who wandered freely and collected any loose items the player set down. So many times in testing I’d be trying to see if some completely different puzzle worked and along would come the ghost to steal the thing I was specifically working on and I’d have to chase him down. That led to me creating a way to scare the ghost off with a camera flash, so emergent implementation is possible as well.


Yeah I’m not so much focusing on building a robust simulation under the hood, as that is incredibly time consuming, but trying to get most of the gameplay feel of an immersive Sim by giving the player a consistent and broadly applicable toolkit with which to solve things and multiple ways to solve everything all of which integrate into the environment well. And believe me, I am definitely not neglecting story!


Sometimes if you create a dense enough world, all those random things reacting together can create emergent story for the player. I’ve told my tale of getting into an ill-planned three-way romance in Fable 2 that ended in tragedy that I don’t believe was planned, but my brain connected the dots so it made perfect sense in my version of the story I was working through.

Of course it’s always great to have planned sim elements within a set story. Multiple puzzle solutions are usually always welcomed.

I think the aversions you might hear are mainly warnings against trying to make a completely clockwork world with no planned quest or story which is a lot of work to make operate properly - although that is the ideal some people aspire to: a world a player can live in and create their own goals and adventures. What most of us have found in IF is you can’t really plop the player down and say “do whatever you want” like it’s Minecraft - they need at least a primary goal or series of quests or some kind of motivation because choice paralysis is a real thing!


I’m not sure if this is just a case of cognitive resonance, but I’ve half-designed a game in which there were two elements - there will be the world stage, where the player is free to send their avatar off to explore, build, whatever, but then there is a local stage, on which there will be scripted encounters, puzzles, and games. There is also a place to which they can return in the world that will always have a local adventure. Currently, because I have too many projects on the boil at the moment anyway, it’s just a paper design.

I’m not sure if there’s a market for this kind of game, but I only ever write games that I’d want to play and the problem with traditional IF game is that because I’ve written the puzzles, I don’t get to have fun solving them. This way, I’ll at least get to enjoy the world-sim side of the game.


Yeah, I think thats what @jkj_yuio was warning against, due to my use of the word “simulation,” but I actually wasn’t talking about a “fully simulated” world in that sense at all. I agree there’s a definite pitfall with going way too far into trying to make everything simulated and responsive to every kind of interaction — the clockwork world, to borrow your phrase — because a clockwork world by itself isn’t very fun and is incredibly labor-intensive.

But I think the “simulation” aspect can actually be had without making every object responsive to every possible action and combination of other objects, which is what a naive clockwork simulation would try to do. Instead, you can take the route the immersive sim takes, which is what I’ve been talking about, where players have a defined set of broadly-applicable abilities (actions they can take) that have general implementations instead of acting as special-case keys; then, every object only has to be responsive to those abilities (and maybe to a few other objects) and that’s it. It significantly cuts down on the combinatorial explosion because there are sharply defined limits, yet it still allows players to interact with things in ways that haven’t necessarily been preprogrammed, and lets them feel like they’re empowered to manipulate the world you’ve given them, so it still feels simulation-y. Better still if you make sure to design each obsticle such that multiple routes/abilities can be used to solve it.


When I was talking about deep simulation and sandbox stuff in parser IF and immersive sims, I was talking about the potential that an actual world model brings, and the fact that their simulations are deep and sandbox-y in comparison to many other kinds of games, even when not going full clockwork.


You’ll get nothing but manic agreement from me on this. There are reasons to keep parsers “focused and on task”, but it is also 100% the medium that can do justice with Deus Ex styles of immersive sim, and this particularly is why some of my more ambitious ideas are planned for implementation in a parser.


Hell yeah! A like-minded IF author! And yeah, parser IF really does seem fundamentally similar to immersive sims with its emphasis on the world model and manipulation of it. Like really it’s a startling parallel to me.


The idea of coding something like this makes my brain scream. But the idea of playing it makes my heart go pitter-pat. I think parser games can do such much more than they are doing, which is in no way, shape, or form to say that traditional parser games aren’t the bomb. They are my favorite games. But I’m excited to see ideas for taking it in new directions.



Even visual 3D games have basic physics, sure, but that is not the core of interaction in these games, it’s more like an interactive boundary or structure. The actual interactions that made Deus Ex really shine were based on what functions and behaviors stuff had, in addition to the physics foundation.

Parsers might not always have as much depth in physics, and some stuff might need to be faked, but if you take immersive sims and remove the physics, 80% of the mechanics still remain, and those mechanics look a heck of a lot like a parser game!


I feel like this is the grand plan for both @alexispurslane and me, lol.

There is so much potential that would make even the more mechanically-intense visual games look simple. Like, there is magic in this medium. It’s one of the primary reasons why I arrived here.


Yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking. You (@inventor200) encapsulated my thoughts really well. (My chronic issued are acting up so I’m foggy today so expressing them satisfyingly is hard)

1 Like

Well, I Am Prey was one of the things I’m talking about. Making a parser game that acted like a platformer was like… wow. I’m psyched about all this innovation.


I don’t think my game is going to be nearly as impressive, mechanically, when it comes out. This is an underlying guiding philosophy and long term ideal for me, but with the game I’m working on right now I don’t want to stretch the mechanical or simulational envelope too much — playing it safe, if you will, mostly because I’ve planned for it to be huge, detailed, and very difficult novel-quality writing, the best I’ve done so far, using everything I’ve learned from two failed previous novels (at 120k words each) and myriad short stories, so doing all that plus doing something truly radically new mechanically would I think be far too ambitious. Plus it’s not actually the vision I had for this work. But the underlying considerations for what IF can learn from immersive sims are there, and I’ve begun to adopt some of it.

1 Like

I think this is wise. I just wrote a 2-player parser game, and I had grand plans for it, and then thought I’d better do a short, simple test case. It was cool puzzle to code, but will anyone want to actually play it? Who knows. So yeah, trying a proof-of-concept game first is the way to get the best feedback about the idea. I know I’ll play it, 'cause I think the idea is rad.


This is my kind of thread. I’ve been thinking about this a lot while working on my current project, as the world model with its simulationist feel and emergent qualities are pretty much what makes the potential of parser-based IF so unique to me.

I hope to someday write a parser game that truly offers “problems” that can be solved by experimenting with the rules of the world like in an immersive sim, instead of fixed single-solution “puzzles” like in a typical adventure game which is ideally “find the one solution the author had in mind, be led there by carefully placed clues”. And there are parser games that have done a pretty good job at that! Emily Short’s Metamorphoses comes to mind.

But, suffice to say, it’s hard! Just one simple example: I love how, in parser games, you can pretty much “drop” items anywhere in the game world. If I can throw my apartment key on the nightstand before going to sleep, I get a kick out of that. It’s just one of those little roleplaying touches that gets me, well, immersed. On the other hand, what’s stopping me from leaving the apartment, forgetting the key on the nightstand, and not being able to get back? I mean, on one hand, weird as I am, I would get a kick out of this as well – after all it’s so true to life! On the other hand, do I want to potentially frustrate players, even earn a “cruel” rating on the zarf scale, just for that?

Yes, I could just add a simple “Hey, I shouldn’t leave the apartment without my keys.” and that’s it. But what’s with other places the player isn’t able to go back? Should I check for every potentially dropped item? Should I put in a “WARNING: You won’t be able to come back here” message, breaking immersion in a rather inelegant way? Should I just trust the player to not drop things in random places? I mean, you can throw random stuff into the river in Anchorhead, losing it forever, but who has ever actually done that? I was even thinking of implementing a “lost and found” office in my game for cases like that, but at that point the voice that says “Dude, just disable the drop command, graphical adventure games have done it forever” gets really damn loud.

So yeah, a whole lot of questions and not many answers from me here :smiley: