Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Warren Spector is stuck in Prey. The director of Deus Ex, who has worked on many games since labeled "immersive sims"—in fact, he coined the term in a post-mortem of Deus Ex—has been playing the modern games inspired by classics like Thief and System Shock. But he hasn't finished Prey yet. Or, as he puts it: "The crew quarters are kicking my butt."

He's enjoying it though, just as he enjoyed the other recent immersive sim from Arkane Studios, Dishonored 2. "I thought they were both excellent examples of what I think of when I say 'immersive sim,'" Spector says. "They removed barriers to belief that I was in another world and they let me approach problems as problems, rather than as puzzles. I'm really glad Arkane exists and that they're so committed to the genre. Without them I'd have fewer games to play!"

Spector's not the only one who'd mourn their loss. Arkane is still around, but there's this uneasy feeling in the air that there's now some reason to worry. Not about Arkane, necessarily, but the immersive sim in general, this genre held up as the shining example of PC gaming at its most smartest and most complex. None of the last three big-budget immersive sims—Prey, Dishonored 2, and Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—have broken a million sales on Steam.

It's always been a niche genre, defined by player freedom, environmental storytelling, and a lot of reading diary entries. How long can they be propped up by the fact that some designers really like making them?

Arkane's Prey is the latest in the System Shock lineage.

Don't call it a comeback

In the 1990s and early 2000s immersive sims seemed like the future, an obvious extension of what 3D spaces and believable physics and improving AI could do when working together. But they rarely sold well. When Ion Storm’s third Thief and second Deus Ex game flopped, the studio closed. Looking Glass Studios, responsible for System Shock, Ultima Underworld, and the first two Thief games, was already gone. The immersive sim went into hibernation for years.

Despite the love and praise for games like Deus Ex, they're not easy to sell to players. Jean-François Dugas, executive director of the Deus Ex franchise at its current owners Eidos Montreal, says it can be tough even convincing people to make games that let players deviate from the critical path.

"You need to realize and accept that you will build a ton of material that a good part of your audience will miss," he says. "Since you are building possibilities through game mechanics and narrative scenarios, you know that you might not be able to bring all the pieces to the quality level you would like. You have to rely on the effect of the sum of the parts to transcend it all. The GTA series is a great example of that. When you look at all the pieces individually, they’re not the best in class but what they offer their audience when combined is unparalleled. After that, there is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea," he says with a laugh. 

Deus Ex's Hong Kong, richly detailed and packed with things to discover.

Spector disagrees with the notion that immersive sims are harder to convince publishers on. "Honestly, I haven't really noticed any particular challenge. It's not like you go into a pitch throwing around geeky genre identifiers. The reality is that immersive sims are action games, first and foremost and most people get that. It's just that the player gets to decide what sort of action he or she engages in and when to do so. Selling action games isn't that tough. Well, at least it's no tougher than selling any other game idea—they're all tough to sell!" 

There is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea.

Jean-Fran ois Dugas

After Looking Glass and Ion Storm's closure the influence of immersive sims was still felt, as people who'd worked on those games brought similar ideas to Oblivion, Fallout 3, and BioShock. The immersive sim philosophy survived in STALKER, Pathologic, and the early projects of Arkane Studios, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.

And then in 2011 Eidos Montreal's prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution came along, a true immersive sim and one with the Deus Ex name stamped across it. It sold 2.18 million copies in just over a month. The year after that Arkane teamed with Bethesda to bring out Dishonored, a game in the lineage of Thief which enjoyed "the biggest launch for new IP" of the year. Sequels to both followed, as well as Prey, Arkane's spiritual successor to System Shock. The immersive sim was back.

And yet in 2016, Mankind Divided's launch sales were significantly lower than Human Revolution's. In response the series has seemingly been put on hold, though a publicist told me Eidos Montreal are "not quite ready" to answer questions on why it appears to have failed, or whether there will ever be another full-size Deus Ex.

Jensen tried so hard, and got so far. But in the end...

There are plenty of potential reasons why Deus Ex: Mankind Divided sold disappointingly. It launched a long five years after its predecessor. Its microtransactions and pre-order model were unpopular, and though reviews were positive, most noted that it felt shorter and had an even less satisfying ending than Human Revolution. And yet, though they lacked those specific problems, neither of Arkane's immersive sims was a smash hit either. Perhaps Dishonored 2's launch issues on PC hurt sales, though the history of video games is full of rocky launches that sold like gangbusters. As I write this, Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 is still in Steam's top 25 in spite of its bugginess.

Even in their heyday all it took was two commercial failures, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, for immersive sims to go out of fashion for years. Are we about to see that happen again?

If the future isn't bright, why is Adam Jensen wearing shades? 

Human Revolution and Dishonored both seemed to find an audience beyond traditional immersive sim fans, beyond the people who know to try 0451 in every combination lock just in case. Their success encouraged Eidos Montreal and Arkane to go ahead with big-budget follow-ups, but of course games cost a lot to make, both in terms of time and money, need to justify that with strong sales.

Spector says, "it's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies! I think part of the reason for that is that immersive sims require—or at least encourage—people to think before they act. They tend not to be games where you just move forward like a shark and inevitably succeed. In the best immersive sims, you have to assess the situation you're in, make a plan and then execute that plan, dealing with any consequences that follow. That's asking a lot of players who basically have to do that every moment of their waking lives—in the real world, I mean."

Dishonored 2 applies the immersive sim's freeform gameplay to combat like nothing before it.

It wasn't just immersive sims that didn't sell as well as expected in 2016, however. Titanfall 2, Street Fighter V, and Watch Dogs 2 also struggled for their own reasons—while big, acclaimed games like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 dominated. Dugas says that "your product needs to be more than 'GOOD' today to be successful—whether you are making a movie or a game. People have options and last time I checked there are only 24 hours in a day. If you are not good enough, your audience has gone somewhere else. Bottom line: I believe that if we make outstanding games, no matter what type of genre it is in, people will be there, whether it’s an immersive sim or not."

It's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies!

Warren Spector

Jordan Thomas, who worked on Thief: Deadly Shadows and all three BioShocks before going indie with The Magic Circle, puts it this way. "Are immersive sims suffering specifically in the market or is everybody? I lean more towards the latter. I think the games space is experiencing a new boom and the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time. I think that immersive sims traditionally have struggled a little bit with helping people to understand what they're about because they're about many things. They're about a feeling, a cross-section of ideas, whereas a game that is like, 'No—this is just to quote Garth Marenghi—Balls-to-the-wall horror,' it's easier for people to wrap their heads around from a marketing perspective."

Making games like these is expensive, too. "Looking at something like Prey," Thomas continues, "everything is just sparkling. The sheer amount of salesmanship that can go into all of the different reactions that the player can concoct with their chemistry set—literally, in that game, but you know what I mean. The idea of objects being combined to some clever result, every single inch of it shines."

Prey's artfully constructed space station.

As an indie developer, that level of detail and scope is simply out of reach. "I do think that most indie games that would self-accept the label immersive sim have to compromise because the games that typically are associated with this subgenre were kitchen-sink games."

Perhaps immersive sims are just a particularly tough sell in a crowded market. The next ones on the horizon—a Dishonored 2 expandalone, a spiritual sequel to Ultima Underworld, and both a new System Shock and a remake of the original—might face the same problem. They all have something else in common, though. They're all tied directly to existing immersive sims, whether directly or spiritually. None of them are brand new ideas.

It's said that though few people saw the Velvet Underground live, everyone who did seems to have formed a band of their own. The original Deus Ex sold 500,000 copies, a decent amount at the time, and it can seem like practically everyone who bought a copy became a game designer (or at least a games journalist) after studying from its design bible. Its influence is unavoidable, as is System Shock's. That's not to say their influence makes for bad games. Prey is the best thing I've played this year, even though it's essentially System Shock 2 with zero-gravity bits. But there's perhaps a limit to the number of spiritual sequels to the same games we really need. If poor sales motivate future immersive sims to move further from their roots, to try out new settings and inspirations, that might be a silver lining to their current troubles.

Hope comes in the shapes of games that incorporate some of the core elements of immersive sims without being kitchen sinks. Thomas gives the example of Near Death, a survival game set on an Antarctic research base.

"Near Death is made by folks who worked on assorted BioShocks and Deus Exes," he says, "but it is not oriented towards combat whatsoever. It is set in a world with no magic, just you versus an environment which, arguably, is one of the callsigns you might associate with immersive sims." It's another game that presents problems rather than puzzles, in "a fully realized environment that has rules that you must learn in order to eke out an existence. It is that concept writ large. You are trying not to freeze to death and you are using your wits to combine systemic objects in the environment based on some amount of real-world common sense."

More and more games like Near Death are picking elements of the immersive sim to focus on.

It may not seem like it when you're punching a tree to collect wood for the hundredth time, but according to Thomas there's a direct connection. 

I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that.

Jordan Thomas

"I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that. When the trend caught on it felt fresh, right? It felt liberated from some of the rhetoric associated with immersive sims and very seldom about story at all. It's if you took the parts of the genre that we used to say we loved, which were that all of the rules of the game could be atomized and combined into new molecules—that's what we told ourselves as developers of these things. 'This is a real place, man! With a sort of mathematics that you can learn to speak and you're gonna express your mastery through doing that!' But survival games are that crystallized and they let go of a lot of the high-minded philosophy and let atavism rule."

Survival games aren't the only place the influence of immersive sims is felt. New open-world RPGs and sandbox games are all obliged to emphasize player choice. Horror games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 borrow directly from the immersive sim playbook right down to the environmental storytelling through graffiti, and stealth games like Hitman with creative paths to murder can evoke the same feeling. Indie games like Consortium, The Magic Circle, and even Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon each take aspects of the immersive sim each and expand on them, and so do walking simulators. Both Gone Home and Tacoma take the bit of Thief where you rummage through someone's belongings and read their diary, building up an idea of who they are, and make that the entire game. Tacoma is even set on an abandoned space station, possibly the most immersive sim location imaginable.

If immersive sims become too commercially risky for the current climate, and if they go into hibernation for another decade, they won't really be gone. Thanks to the spread of their concepts throughout games they can't really go anywhere—because they're already everywhere.

Team Fortress 2

I tried.

Without bagels, I’d probably live to be 100 years old. But I have regular access to bagels and sourdough loaves and this sandwich bread always in my house called Birdman that’s covered in seeds and I don’t know why. I eat the stuff so fast I’ll be surprised if I make it to 50. 

In videogames, bread often gives you health instead of slowly seeping it away, a beacon of hearth and health. It’s been this way since the earliest games, and as technology became more capable of producing detailed environments and uncanny human likenesses, so too advanced the fidelity of the loaf. But the evolution of bread didn’t happen in a straight line. Diverse genres, art styles, and game engines shifted the purpose and priority of bread throughout the ages.

To get a clearer picture of how game bread has or hasn’t evolved, we’ve taken a look back at its implementation in some best games ever made to some of the most obscure.

BurgerTime (1982) 

As one of the earliest depictions of a hamburger bun, BurgerTime did a decent job. And it should have, given the name. Notice the inference of sesame seeds on the top bun and how the light diffuses on the bottom bunk. Early pixel art set a high bar for bunwork. 

Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1992)

A decade later, the burger genre fell out of vogue and fantasy roleplaying games stepped into the limelight. Ultima IV didn’t feature bread in a major way, but was an early example of inventory art, proof that you didn’t need the latest in computer graphics to make a great loaf. 

Jesus Matchup (1993) 

As a preteen, I went to a Catholic church camp even though I’m not and have never been Catholic. I ate the body of Christ even though I wasn’t supposed to and my friend Brian chastised me after the fact. He said I needed to get confirmed first and that I broke some kind of holy rule. The bread was just a thin wafer, like a sugar cone without the sugar, and maybe the aftertaste of it was a taste of hell itself. Jesus Matchup’s brown lump captures my disappointment exactly.

Ultima Online (1997) 

Pixel loaves hadn’t evolved much between Ultima IV and Ultima Online, but for one minor detail that changed the bread game forever for a few months. Ultima Online’s bread features a small blemish, giving the impression of a bite or piece ripped away for light post-adventure munching. The loaf went from inanimate prop to inanimate prop with history

Thief: The Dark Project (1998) 

Whether Thief should commended or condemned for its early attempt at modeling a 3D loaf is beyond me. All I know for sure is this: that’s a log. 

Someone’s in the Kitchen! (1999) 

You may know Steven Spielberg for his hit films like E.T. and Jurassic Park, but did you know his name was once mentioned in a trailer for a game he probably had nothing to do with? Someone’s in the Kitchen! isn’t just good reason to call the police, it’s a bad point-and-click edutainment game with one hell of an opening theme song. Also, you make a sandwich in it while a demon toaster—who is going to kill me, I saw it in a dream—judges your creation. The bread looks like my little brother sat on it, and is a shade of yellow I’ve only ever seen in bathrooms built in the 70s. Clearly, the late 90s weren’t great for game bread. 

The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind (2002) 

Even the modern masters of 3D bread had to start somewhere. In Morrowind, Bethesda drew inspiration from something other than felled trees and instead turned their eye to the sky, probably. I’m guessing here. They managed to suggest bread by texturing a footballish shape with what look like photos from the visible surface of Jupiter, a perpetually storming gas giant. 

World of Warcraft (2004) 

Just two years later an MMO, known for prioritizing multiplayer features over looking good, managed to bake bread that an Orc could tolerate. While the left loaf looks like a water chestnut, the precise angles and light divots up top are a convincing enough illusion. The right loaf, except for it’s undercooked coloring, nails the shape. And the inner texture marks a defined border between crust and light, fluffy inside. I’m tempted to throw some mayo, lettuce, tomato, and a bit of thinly sliced night elf meat on there just looking at it.

The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion (2006) 

Maybe Bethesda should’ve prioritized bread resolution DLC over horse armor. At a glance, one out of ten times I’m going to say that’s bread. The other nine times I’m going to say that’s a large misshapen potato. I lived in Idaho for a while. Got invited to a ‘Baked Potato Party' and yeah, they get that big.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (2007) 

While 3D game bread moved into potato territory, Recettear reaffirmed that pixels were still the way to go. Its depiction of Walnut Bread takes a good squint to make out, but when you get up close, the shades of gold and brown and white light diffusing on the outer crust nearly flash the entire baking process on the back of your eyelids. “Walnuts, soft dough and a bit of sugar…” do more than an extra dimension ever could.

Dinner Date (2011) 

I’d flake on a guy who thought it’d be a good idea to dip that twisted loaf in some red shit too. And look at that distribution! I’m not sure what’s being distributed, but half of that isn’t even bread, it’s Dark Brown Stuff. Jesus, man. We should never be able to see inside the bread if the tech isn't ready and can’t simulate a good bake. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) 

Star Baker goes to Todd Howard this decade. Look at the fidelity of this loaf. A nice rise, detailed textures, and I can nearly hear the muffled tip-tap from the even bake. Forget adventure and the snowcapped mountaintops and vampires and dragons—like a toilet in a Tarantino movie, a good loaf is the keystone of any open world. 

Minecraft (2011)

Well regarded for its wild redstone contraptions and horrifying monuments to pop culture, Minecraft’s bread has been largely ignored, and for good reason. You’re one of the most successful games of all time, and a brown lump is the best you can muster? I’ve felt more love radiating from an old hotdog bun.

Scribblenauts Unlimited (2012) 

You can tell this was made in a bread pan, small specks imply the bread is airy and light, you can summon it whenever you like, and nearly every humanoid creature will eat it. It’s a crude child’s drawing, sure, but Scribblenauts built put time into simulating natural, albeit simple, bread world behaviors. Consider it this immersive sim, the System Shock, of bread. Place it in the world, and the world reacts to its presence.

Bioshock Infinite (2013) 

Source: David Miles on YouTube

If one game knows how good its bread is, it’s Bioshock Infinite. If you were to press pause and inspect the 3D baguette, it’d be possible to nitpick small design decisions, like texture resolution, flour distribution, and grain density, but because the bread is sandwiched with context—the dancing bread boy and his believable reaction to owning a baguette inside a big patriotic amusement park city held up by balloons that Ken Levine imagined using his brain, his very own personal brain—it doesn’t feel out of place. Realism is helpful, certainly, but the game world needs to feel alive, like a natural home for bread above all else.  

Team Fortress 2: Love and War update (2014) 

Bread is only monstrous when left to mold, and Team Fortress 2’s Love and War update bottles the essence of in a cute, tragic short film. There’s little purpose to the bread in-game aside from a few dough-themed items. Personally, I interpret it as a commentary on the state of game bread as nothing more than a simple prop and HP potion skin, new ideas and advances left in the pantry to rot. I see you Valve.

I Am Bread (2014) 

As a goofy physics playground, I Am Bread is fine. I do take issue with how controlling a slice feels like maneuvering a heavy sponge. Bread isn’t heavy and sandwich bread isn’t durable. One fall off the table and it’s over, usually. I Am Bread forgoes natural bread behaviors for the sake of a joke, but I’m not sure we’ll be laughing when our kids start to think they can wash the dishes with a sandwich.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) 

Everything about The Witcher 3’s world feels hand-placed. Small villages, big cities, and even monster-infested caves are brimming with life and purpose, but in order to maintain such a sprawling illusion, nearly all props and people are static. NPCs sit in the same place spouting the same lines and props like bread just sit there, looking delicious, but forever out of reach. What an awful game.

Fallout 4 (2015) 

After setting a new standard for 3D loaf work in Skyrim, Bethesda dropped the atom ball in Fallout 4, spending more time on the bread box than any bread at all. Modders came to the rescue again, modeling slices, sandwiches, and adding recipes any old ghoul could follow.

Dishonored 2 (2016) 

Karnacan bakers know how to bake bread. Lovely rise, nice crust, but a bit low res I’m being honest. Eating it gives you a small dose of HP, but the animation is a simple swipe-and-swallow maneuver. It’s pan for the course, and not much else. In 2016, it’s a good bake, but it’s not a great bake. 

The future of videogame bread

How far have we come, really? From BurgerTime’s advanced bun art to Dishonored 2’s simple dark loaf, videogame bread feels without a sure destination—a lumpy mass that needs more time to prove. Perhaps the future holds loaves we never could have imagined, or abominations, such as virtual reality pumpernickel that virtually tastes like sourdough. 

Will Call of Duty: WWII pay proper homage to the history and show families turning their nose up at National Loaf? Maybe someday we’ll spend as much money on naan as we do on spaceships in Star Citizen. All we know for certain is that bread will be there, a short roll for every dodge roll and an abundance of biscuits to crowd every RPG inventory.

PC Gamer

We’ve been playing stealth games for decades now, infiltrating military bases undetected, choking henchmen from behind and packing ventilation shafts with their naked unconscious bodies. But making sneaking fun isn’t easy. Full spatial awareness, how to communicate your visibility, and reliability of tools and AI behaviors are a hard thing to pin down. Luckily, these games pull it off without disturbing a single dust mote. They’re the best stealth games you can play on the PC right now, and what we recommend for players looking to get their super quiet feet wet. 

Deus Ex

Deus Ex' sandbox structure made it a landmark study in open-ended design. The large environments and varied upgrade tree are designed to give you ways to solve tasks expressively, using imagination and forethought instead of a big gun. Nearly every stealth game on this list borrows something from Deus Ex, and it’s easy to see why.

Deus Ex pulled off experimental, player-driven stealth design in huge, tiered environments. It was the cyberpunk espionage dream, and for many modern developers, it still is. The last two entries in the series, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, play with similar, more streamlined design, and while we recommend them as well, they still can’t brush with the complexity and novelty of the original. If you’re not big on playing old games, install some mods like Deus Ex Revision, and give it a shot.

Hitman

After Hitman: Absolution, it seemed that Blood Money would stay the golden standard for silly stealth sandbox shenanigans indefinitely, but IO Interactive surprised us all with Hitman’s new episodic format. For the better part of 2016, we were treated with a new level every month, each featuring a different setting, layout, and pocket universe of NPCs going about their clockwork lives. Agent 47 is the screwdriver you get to jam in wherever you choose. Watching the mechanism break around you (and reacting to it when things go wrong) is central to Hitman’s charm.I like the way Phil put it in his season review: “Strip away the theme and fantasy, and you're left with a diorama of moving parts—a seemingly perfect system of loops, each intersecting to create a complex scene. It's left to you to decide how you want to break it—whether it's by surgically removing key actors, or by violently smashing it all up with guns, bombs and a stuffed moose.”

Supported with a steady stream of updates, including temporary Elusive Targets and remixed levels, it’s still possible to play the entirety of season one in new ways (and season two is already in development). We might be getting a steady stream of Hitman forever, and videogames are better for it.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

In the years since Chaos Theory, Splinter Cell and the majority of stealth games have veered from a focus on purely covert scenarios, and it’s easy to see why. Chaos Theory is a complex, punishing stealth game whose gratification is severely delayed (for the better). Getting through an area without a soul knowing takes pounds of patience and observation, and getting caught is not easy to recover from. It was a slow, arduous crawl, but a crawl unlike any other in the genre, with a level of realism we haven’t seen since. 

Accompanied by a Sam Fisher at peak Jerk Cowboy, as difficult as it was, we laughed through the pain. The multiplayer was also a bold experiment in asymmetry at the time, pitting Sam-Fishery spies against first-person shooting soldiers in a tense game of hide and seek.

Thief 2

Alongside Deus Ex, the Thief series introduced new variables to stealth games that have since been adopted as a standard nearly across the board. Using light and shadow as central to your visibility, Thief made stealth much more than the visible-or-not dichotomy of implied vision cones. 

The Thief series is still unparalleled in the subtlety of its narrative and environmental design. Jody Macgregor sums it up in a piece on the very subject: “Thief II ramps up the number of secrets within each level, but even with as many as a dozen hidden rooms and stashes to discover their placement is always just as subtle. A shooting range conceals a lever among the arrows embedded in the wall behind the targets, a bookshelf is slightly out of alignment, a glint of light pokes through the edge of a stone in a wall. Compare that to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which sometimes hides one of the many ducts you can climb into behind a crate but more often plonks them into the corner of rooms beside a neon sculpture.”

The first two Thief games are interchangeable as the ‘best’ for most players, so be sure to play them both, but the second takes the cake as a best-of recommendation for working out some UI and AI kinks from the original. But with both games, install a few mods and it’s fairly simple to make them easier on the eyes and our modern design sensibilities. 

Mark of the Ninja

The biggest challenge facing stealth games has always been how to communicate whether or not you’re visible to enemies. While we’re still working out the kinks in 3D games, Mark of the Ninja solved just about every problem with two dimensions. 

Through clear UI cues, it’s easy to tell how much noise you’re making, whether or not a guard can hear it, and what spaces in the environment are completely safe to hide. There’s almost no room for error, at least in how you interpret the environment and your stealthy (or not) status within it. Accompanied by swift, springy platforming control and a robust ninja ability upgrade tree, by the end of Mark of the Ninja the challenge reaches high, but so too does your skill.

Dishonored 2

What surprised me most about Dishonored 2 is the density of its level design. Like other stealthy immersive sims, it features huge levels with any number of potential routes for getting through, but Dishonored 2 is the first to make me want to see every inconsequential alleyway. Nearly every space is as detailed as a room in Gone Home, decorated with natural props and people that tell a specific story. 

There are more systems and choices than ever, and while you explore, how you dispose of or sneak by guards is a playful exercise in self-expression and experimentation. Emily and Corvo have their own unique abilities, and a single playthrough won’t get you all their powers. Summon eldritch tentacle arms to fling psychically chained enemies into the sea, or freeze time and possess a corpse during for a particularly, uh, daring escape. Just make sure not to miss Sokolov’s adventure journals, they’re a treat.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

I think The Phantom Pain’s appeal is best summarized by how everything going wrong typically means everything is actually going well. Samuel’s anecdote from his review is a perfect example: “I forfeited a perfect kill-free stealth run of one mission because I couldn’t get a good enough sniper angle on my target before he took off in a chopper. Sprinting up flights of stairs to the helipad, my victim spotted me just in time for me to throw every grenade in my inventory under the chopper, destroying it, vanquishing him and knocking me over, before I made a ludicrously frantic escape on horseback. It was amazing, and I’m not sure it would’ve been vastly improved had I silently shot the guy and snuck out.” Wish I could’ve seen it, Sam.

For a series to go from weighed down by cutscenes, spouting nonsense about nuclear war and secret Cold War contracts with a few simple stealth sequences to a full blown open world stealth sandbox masterpiece (and on the PC too) was quite the surprise. As a silent Big Boss, there are hundreds of hours of wide open stealth scenarios to tackle in MGS5, despite its thinner second chapter. Systemically, this is one of the most surprising stealth games ever made, and as bittersweet a swan song as Kojima could leave us with before departing Konami for good.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

It took me six months to finish Amnesia. It doesn’t allow you to play stealth games the way you’re used to, and by removing old habits, so goes your sense of security. The sanity mechanic intentionally denies you your habits by distorting your view and slowing down your character while looking at a patrolling enemy monster. Lovely, beautiful, safe, warm light also plays a part. The darker an environment, the sooner you’ll lose sanity, but if you whip out a lantern, guess who’s going to spot it? That gross bag of skin patrolling the halls. The enemy AI isn’t particularly smart or surprising, but in an atmosphere as rich as Amnesia’s you’ll think they were put on this earth to hunt you down, specifically. If you can stomach the scares, it’s a must.

Alien: Isolation

More than an incredible homage to ‘70s futuretech and the world of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece in horror, Alien: Isolation’s chief antagonist is a major step forward in first-person stealth horror design. The alien is a constant, erratic threat. It actively hunts you, listening for every small noise and clue of your presence, hiding in wait above for a sneak attack or—what’s that sprouting from your chest? Nice try. But besides the accomplished alien AI, Isolation makes good on its 25-hour playtime by constantly switching things up. 

As Andy Kelly wrote in his review, “In one level you might lose the use of your motion tracker. In another, the alien won't be around so you can merrily shotgun androids like it's Doom 3. Then your weapons will be taken away, forcing you to make smart use of your gadgets. It does this all the way through, forcing you to adapt and readapt to different circumstances, using all the tools at your disposal.” Alien: Isolation is both a striking, authentic homage to the films, and a consistently creative stealth gauntlet. If you don’t mind getting spooked, don’t miss it.

Invisible, Inc

Invisible, Inc nails the slow tension and tactical consideration of XCOM, but places an emphasis on subversion of enemies and security placements rather than direct confrontation. You’re not an overwhelming offensive force, and getting spotted almost always spells your doom. 

Chris puts it well in our Best Design award from 2015: “To the stealth sim, it introduces completely transparent rules. You always know what your options are, what the likely results of your actions will be, and your choices are always mitigated by resources that you have complete control over. There’s no chance failure, and very little trial and error. You either learn to make all of these totally-fair systems dance, or you fail.”

The turned based format means you get unlimited time to make a decision that would take a split second in a real time stealth game, but because of the extra space for consideration, Invisible Inc. piles on the systems, making every infiltration a true challenge, but one comprised of fair, transparent rule sets. Dishonored may test your sneaking reflexes, but do you have the deep smarts to be a spy? Invisible, Inc will let you know one way or the other.

PC Gamer

At the end of Thief: The Dark Project, one of its characters muses on the future. Beware the dawn of the Metal Age, he says, looking out over the steampunk city. That line was contributed by Terri Brosius, one of the game's writers and designers as well as the voice of Viktoria (she also provided the memorable voice of System Shock 2's villain Shodan). The dialogue was a spur-of-the-moment addition, but it helped shape the series. Thief II would eventually be given The Metal Age as its subtitle, and the story of an industrial revolution overtaking the city would become its plot.

That's how committed the original trilogy of Thief games are to their foreshadowing, and it's part of what makes them unique among immersive sims.

In Warren Spector's post-mortem of Deus Ex all the way back in the year 2000, he coined the term 'immersive sim' to describe the type of game he and Ion Storm had created. Deus Ex needed its own subgenre because it is, as he put it, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game. Immersive sims are games that combine elements of other genres so you can play them your own way, with multiple paths to discover, each of which lets you jump genres as you please. These are the games where you can get past obstacles by talking or sneaking or killing, or sometimes even hacking them or casting spells at them or flying right over the top.

All that variability, all those systems intersecting to encourage player choice and freedom, are what it takes to count as an immersive sim. They don't require a conflict between philosophically distinct factions going on behind the scenes, but it's a common element nonetheless. Deus Ex has its Illuminati, System Shock 2 has the Many versus Shodan, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines has competing undead clans, Dishonored has the Hound Pit Pub loyalists acting against the spymaster's conspiracy, and so on. In the Thief trilogy, progenitors of the immersive sim, it's the religious cults of Hammerites in conflict with Pagans, with the Keepers looking on as kind of referee-assassins.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided continues the tradition of player choice, but without some of Thief's subtlety.

You can't just dump secret history on a player straight away. Immersive sims are about freedom to choose your own way of playing, and not engaging with a bunch of boring exposition is a valid choice. (These are usually the games where you can jump on a table while someone is talking to you.) Instead designers hint at the backstory, letting players uncover it so we feel like we're learning things we're not supposed to, experiencing the the same rush we get from finding an unlikely method of infiltrating security.

Subtle as a thief

In Thief: The Dark Project, the first of the series, the Pagans are a cult you don't know much about until you realise one of your employers, Viktoria, is a member. By this point you're at least four missions deep and have been facing off against the rival Hammerites since mission two. But as early as the game's opening level, 'Bafford's Manor', there are hints of what's to come.

A letter from one of Bafford's agents describes Viktoria in passing immediately after summarising how the Hammers are interfering with his plans. Each mission's introductory cutscene opens with a quote from a song or prayer, several of which turn out to be Pagan texts. Those things are seeds that will bear terrible fruit later.

By the time you meet Viktoria you've probably forgotten the letter that mentions her. It's just one of many pieces of scene-setting in a level that also includes notes to a chef about how to prepare dinner, ledgers of illegal payments, a warning to the guards that they need to lift their game, and a letter about expensive relics worth acquiring. Some of these seem immediately relevant as a thief those descriptions of valuable relics are useful pointers, as is knowing the guards have a reputation for drunkenness but others are pure scene-setting.

Thief is full of the kind of scene-setting that broadens your view of its world, and that allows it to hide foreshadowing like this in plain sight. The first conversation you overhear outside Bafford's Manor is two guards arguing about going to the bear pits. One insists it's a good time because the scrawny bears have been fitted with spikes that make them vicious, while the other is old enough to remember when bears were terrifying beasts who didn't need all that knifery strapped to them.

While the bear pits are never mentioned again the theme of nature in decline becomes central, and a world where people need to be reminded the natural world is dangerous as the Pagans plan to has just been set up.

That's the best kind of worldbuilding: hinting at what's to come without you even realising it, while giving the feeling of a larger world beyond the levels you explore. Contrast that with Dishonored, a game that does many other things very well but is full of dialogue in which characters blatantly foreshadow later levels. During Corvo's prison escape through the sewers you overhear two of the City Watch talking about how scary the Flooded District is, setting up a level there. Granny Rags tells you her parties used to be even grander than the ones at Boyle Manor , as you'll see in that level.

If the bear pits conversation happened in Dishonored it would be to foreshadow a level that culminates in choosing whether to assassinate a mechanical bear or free it from servitude to rampage through the Distillery District.

Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in the series, has a famous mission set in the Shalebridge Cradle, an abandoned building with a history of horrors that include periods where it was used as an orphanage, an insane asylum, and both at once. If that seems unlikely, Kew Asylum here in Melbourne housed both the mentally ill and wards of the state until the 19th century.

You might hear an optional conversation in the Stonemarket hub about Shalebridge Cradle if you visit the right shop between levels, but you're just as likely to become aware of Shalebridge Cradle in the Old Quarter hub, where it looms over the eastern streets. You've passed its frightening visage and wondered what's up with the world's creepiest building over there before the story's got to the point where you realise you'll need to jump the wall and explore it. You're already dreading the place.

The foreboding Shalebridge Cradle.

While immersive sims tend to foreshadow both their stories and locations, there's something else they need to hint at as well. These are games defined by their freedom of choice with regard to styles of play, but worried about the possibility players might not notice solutions and try to brute force every problem, shooting their way through and not having a good time.

The first level in Thief to give you complete freedom in how you infiltrate a building is 'Assassins', in which you break into the mansion of a crime boss named Ramirez. The outer wall has an open entrance, but it's guarded, the walkway is well-lit and it's covered in crunchy gravel that makes a lot of noise when you cross it. It's doable, but there are better ways over that wall. Adjacent to a low section of it there's a Tudor-style protrusion with wooden windows, which make perfect targets for a rope arrow. It's also possible to go low-tech and stack crates until you're high enough, which you're clued into by two neatly stacked crates nearby.

Once past the outer wall there's the mansion itself to breach. There are two balconies that can be jumped to from guard towers, which your eyes are drawn to by tiled roof sections that happen to be bright red. A gap in the back of the building is noticeable from a distance because of the distinct shadow it casts.

These clues about entrance routes aren't repeated in later levels you can't trust red roofs and stacked crates forever but are there to make you realise how many options are available so that you start to hunt for them yourself.

Thief II ramps up the number of secrets within each level, but even with as many as a dozen hidden rooms and stashes to discover their placement is always just as subtle. A shooting range conceals a lever among the arrows embedded in the wall behind the targets, a bookshelf is slightly out of alignment, a glint of light pokes through the edge of a stone in a wall. Compare that to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which sometimes hides one of the many ducts you can climb into behind a crate but more often plonks them into the corner of rooms beside a neon sculpture.

Even harder to notice is the Thief games' use of water as an element of level design. When you transition from the relatively safe streets of the city to the more dangerous interior of Bafford's Manor it's through a well, and when you travel from the empty utility station outside Thief II's Shoalgate Watch House to its well-guarded inside, that's also through water.

The haunted mines below Cragscleft Prison are entered through water, and so is The Lost City. A bridge has to be crossed before you arrive at the manor in 'Assassins', and though you don't have to swim out of the well in 'Precious Cargo' it starts raining once you exit.

In every case water marks a dividing line, emphasising that you've crossed into a high-risk area without the HUD needing to note it. Even if you're unaware of the motif, subconsciously the idea that things are about to get real as soon as you get wet seeps in as you play.

Compared to the original Thief trilogy, other immersive sims feel almost insecure and more obviously designed in the ways they lampshade upcoming twists in their story, later levels you'll explore, and the ways you can explore them once you reach them.

With their ubiquitous airduct entry points and audiologs scattered around incongruously to insure you don't miss a single nuance of backstory they rarely surprise us in ways that feel organic. The gun that goes off in act three was not only on the mantelpiece in act one, but two guards talked about the odds of it going off and then recorded the gunshot and left the tape in a nearby trashcan.

Thief lets you know what's possible but does so with subtlety. It's a game about hiding that hides its own possibilities in plain sight, and other immersive sims could learn from that.

...

Search news
Archive
2017
Oct   Sep   Aug   Jul   Jun   May  
Apr   Mar   Feb   Jan  
Archives By Year
2017   2016   2015   2014   2013  
2012   2011   2010   2009   2008  
2007   2006   2005   2004   2003  
2002