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A look at some our recent Game of the Year winners—Spelunky, Metal Gear Solid V, Dishonored 2—suggests that baked-in narratives are less important to us than personal stories plotted by physics and AI. That's broadly true, but not to the total exclusion of videogame storytelling, of characters and dialogue and, to give an overarching definition of what we mean by 'story' in this case, 'sequences of events which may be influenced by the player but are not authored by them.' The setting, the conflict, the reasons characters act (through us) and the consequences for those characters. You know, stories.
Some say games are bad vehicles for this kind of storytelling, full stop. Others argue that while the stories in games are often bad, it's the fault of the storytellers, not the medium. And yet another camp argues that games are the greatest storytelling medium of all time. In listing our favorite stories, we will resolve exactly zero of these contradictory views. Unconcerned with theory for the moment, we just want to celebrate the stories that stuck with us, and recommend a few games for those who love to be told a good tale. Here are our favorites, as picked by regular PC Gamer writers Samuel Horti and Richard Cobbett, as well as the whole team:
Hellblade is an important game, not just because of the subject matter it tackles—a young woman’s struggle with psychosis—but also because it proves that modern-day audiences are willing to listen to developers that want to tackle difficult themes.
Pict warrior Senua is on a journey to retrieve her lover’s soul from the depths of the Norse underworld of Helheim, and she’s prepared to go up against the gods to do it. Her battles with towering, undead Vikings mirror her struggles against her inner demons, and through sparse writing and long, lingering close-ups of Senua’s face you really feel her pain. She bares her soul to the player, and it’s utterly moving.
The inner struggle is the one the game wants you to focus on, but there’s still subtlety on the surface, too: you can look back at the end of it and think about how Senua’s outward journey reflected her inner torment, making connections that weren’t obvious at the time.
The first Thief game tells a neat noir story complete with dry narration from a cynical protagonist and a femme fatale who hires him for a dangerous job. The end result of its tangled plot has him stealing from a god of chaos and changing the world. Thief grows from a simple mash-up of hard-boiled fiction and steampunk into something much more complex. Over the course of the next two games it explores the religious consequences of a god's death and the Mechanists who rise in his absence, and by the third game follows those explorations of chaos and order by focusing on corruption within the Keepers, the group dedicated to balance Garrett left behind at the start of that first game.
There's a neatly cyclical quality to the three Thief games, which end where they began—not just with the Keepers, but with a scene of a child being caught pickpocketing. Only where once Garrett was the kid, now he's the adult deciding the fate of that child. So many videogame heroes get dragged back again and again, long after their story is done, so Garrett having such a complete arc is a pleasant rarity. The reboot's Garrett could never live up to it.
The overarching tale of the Finch family is full of intrigue, but it’s the individual stories of each family member that stand out. Returning to the family home as the titular Edith, you poke around the abandoned house, slipping in and out of the memories of the various characters as you gradually piece together a moving tragedy.
Each is told as an inventive mini-game. You transform into a shark, chop fish on a production line and listen to poetry while flying a kite. The simple mechanics provide the perfect window to learn about the personalities of each family member. These vignettes are moving, and deceptively layered and rich, changing your perception of what you’ve heard before while also advancing the overarching plot. The game offers a masterclass in environmental storytelling, too, with each object in the house giving you a new insight into the family.
Quite simply, it’s the pinnacle of the first-person narrative game genre, and toppling it will take some doing.
The first two Mafia games each contain their own compelling stories, built from familiar cinematic influences—but the first is my favourite, telling a more sympathetic tale of cab driver Tommy Angelo being drawn into the criminal underworld, before finally trying to escape it. The cutscenes look like they're being acted out by Gerry Anderson puppets by today's standards, but it felt like careful attention was paid to the writing, cinematography and use of music in Mafia's story—plus the smoke effects are still nice. The shock ending, which we won't ruin here, ties into Mafia 2 in an utterly dazzling way.
Mafia 2, meanwhile, focuses on Vito Scaletta and his best friend Joe some years later. Vito gets into the mob to clear his family's debts, following a memorably boring sequence where you work at the docks, doing legitimate and repetitive work until you choose to walk away. The story ends somewhat abruptly, though some might argue that elevates its closing moments, but the friendship between the two main characters is what I remember loving about Mafia 2, as well as believing this story was actually taking place across two decades.
You’d think that if you take a murder mystery, chop it into bits and deliver all those parts in the wrong order then the resultant story would be a mess. And in most cases you’d be right. But not in Her Story. You flick through a database of police interviews with a young woman, pulling up clips by searching for keywords and watching them on a battered CRT monitor. Each video reveals a piece of the jigsaw, and it’s your job to slot them all together in your mind.
The minimalist presentation wouldn’t work without astonishing acting and tight, punchy writing. Through a single screen the game depicts more drama than most blockbuster movies. Each clip you watch changes your mind about the case, and then the next clip makes you realise just how wrong you were again.
It’s a showcase of ambiguous storytelling done right. Even if you watch every single clip, and therefore know what every jigsaw piece looks like, the overall picture will still be blurred by your own interpretations and preconceptions. It means different things to different players, and you learn something new every time you play.
While it’s the first game that gets all the attention for its fantastic concept, it’s Bioshock 2 that’s secretly the high point of the series. Under Jordan Thomas and his crew, a story once primarily about a city became a story of its people. The victims of Rapture. The next generation, emerging as butterflies from a cocoon of poverty and deprivation. It told real stories of people who followed a dream, only to realise that they were in service to someone else’s. And then of course there was Eleanor—Lamb of Rapture, and far superior as a character than Bioshock Infinite’s Lamb of Columbia. Through actions rather than words, you guided her nascent morality in a world where morality was routed in human concern rather than big plot twists, as the ‘dadification’ of gaming arguably reached its zenith. This wasn’t your story. It was your merely your privilege to begin hers.
An emotionally draining game that has caused many a tear to drop on our keyboards. To the Moon's premise seems overly complex at first: in the future, a company can travel into your mind and implant new memories in a way so that present time-you believes them to be true. But really, it’s a story about one man’s dying wish to visit the moon, hence the title.
The game take’s place inside the memories of that man, called John. You travel backwards through his mind step-by-step. So at the beginning of the story you pick up mysteries, and as you go back in time those mysteries unpack themselves piece by piece (wait until you know what that rabbit means—you’ll weep). It never hits you over the head with anything, which means you feel clever for picking up on its nuances.
But its intelligence is not what sticks with you. The memorable bit is the game’s exploration of love, loss and regret, all three wrapped together in something that’s a comedy one minute (it’s seriously funny in places) and a tragedy the next.
This obscure British gem has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late, and justifiably so. While the script is more than a little on-the-nose and the basic concept is a fairly stock haunted house setting giving way to a fairly stock battle between good and evil, it’s not really the plot itself that makes ROTH so special. It’s the details, some of which may actually contain the devil.
Few fantasy or horror games have presented such a wonderfully fleshed out world—the sense of stepping into something bigger than you could ever comprehend, with every scrap of it meticulously detailed and woven into a grand tapestry. Ignore the relatively primitive 3D engine. The joy of ROTH is in the descent to understanding, dealing with powers, and the moments of compassion that emerge from it, like being faced with a trial from a seemingly implacable god willing to bend the unbreakable rules of his domain because your situation is so dire as to have drawn his impossible pity. It was a world that dripped with fantastical history long before the likes of Dark Souls were a glint in their creators’ sadistic eyes, and remains a beautiful obscurity that badly deserved its sequel.
GTA IV dialled back the wacky, fun stuff of San Andreas—military jets, jetpacks, getting fat from eating burgers—in favour of a sober story set in a stunningly realistic interpretation of New York, Liberty City. This meant that, as an open world game, GTA had less moments of large-scale, thrilling chaos than we'd eventually see in GTA V, but the flipside of that was a more interesting story. GTA IV is a pretty sincere tale—and it has a few thematic links with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, which also has a protagonist who can't really escape his past life.
Niko Bellic, an Eastern European veteran who comes to Liberty City to start again, soon finds himself dragged back into a life of killing. The tragedy of Niko is that you sense he knows it's the one thing he's best at. It's melodramatic but effective—a daring effort to bring GTA into the modern age with a more dramatic story.
The Yawhg is coming, and it isn't going to be good, and that's all you know. This fantastic little game sends up to four players around town to prepare for that coming disaster, and each simple decision—teach the king your seductive techniques or let him flounder?—can lead to terrible things at the end of the brief adventure (or rarely, something good). The writing is concise, unembellished, and biting; simple fantasy tales that may end with stolid brutality or newfound wisdom, whether you spend a week drinking in the tavern or meditating in the garden.
Danganronpa stands out from other visual novels because, rather than a game about making decisions, it's a game about making deductions. You play as one of 15 students trapped in an elite school where the only way to graduate (read: escape) is to kill a classmate and get away with it by lying and framing your way through a murder trial. If anyone pulls it off, the remaining students will also be killed, so everyone has a stake in every trial—doubly so if you've grown attached to the victim or the prime suspect.
The process of collecting, considering and presenting evidence makes for a far more interactive experience than merely navigating dialogue, and the trials work because Danganronpa has colorful and interesting characters you won't want to see die. They look like one-note caricatures at first glance, but you start to see different sides of everyone as antagonist Monokuma ratchets up the stakes with unique twists. It becomes clearer and clearer that everyone has something to hide, and the dread of suddenly losing a favorite character, or accusing one of murder, should not be underestimated.
When did games get so political, people demand. Well, try 1985, with one of the most beloved text adventures not to involve hitchhiking around the galaxy or exploring an underground kingdom. A Mind Forever Voyaging is interactive fiction doing something that no other medium could do—to put you into a world, and let exploration tell its story. Yes, in many ways, this was the first walking simulator—its setting, a Matrix style recreation of a small American town, and you a sentient computer program charged with stepping into progressive simulations of the future under a popular senator’s Plan For Renewed National Purpose. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. Over the course of the game you experience America’s collapse around you, complete with now familiar sites collapsing into decay and your own family becoming victims of an oppressive theocratic regime. Can you stop it, despite your only presence in the real world being as a scrap of data on a computer?
A solid space romp from start to finish. A lot of RPGs struggle to sustain forward momentum for more than a few hours at a time, but Mass Effect 2 does it for 30, constantly nudging you from one point in the galaxy to the next by presenting you with a series of interesting missions, each containing its own short story. It gets the balance just right between exposition and action, with enough big set pieces to keep you on your toes.
The characters are the glue holding it together. The series has some of the best personalities you’ll find in games (and Garrus might just be the best NPC of all time). Walking around the Normandy after a mission to hear the quips of each crew member in turn is a joy, and you can dig even deeper into their personalities in the companion missions, which provide some of the best moments in the entire series. Learning more about them, and forming these personal ties, lends more weight to the overall plot. Even though you might not care about the Geth or the Reapers or the fate of humanity, you care about your crew, and whether they make it out of the game’s bombastic ending alive.
It also has the benefit of being able to incorporate the decisions you made in the first game, which makes for a richer, more personal tale. It’s an excellent space opera that Bioware struggled to better in both Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda, and a game against which all their future titles will rightly be measured.
What can we say about The Witcher 3 that hasn’t already been shouted from the rooftops? The Bloody Baron quest alone warrants its place on our list. To focus just on that would be a mistake though, as barely a moment goes by without a reminder that CD Projekt are playing in a different league to almost every other RPG studio out there. It’s in the plots, which effortlessly merge myth and fairy tale and fantasy. It’s in the humour that underlines everything. It’s in the cheeky imagination of a studio as happy to have you chase after a missing stone phallus as your long-lost adopted daughter. But mostly, it’s about seeing this wonderful world through the practiced neutrality of Geralt himself—a man who can’t stop his compassion and sympathy bleeding out through his stoic front, no matter how much it might make his life easier. What many games demand long cutscenes to tell, this one often handles with nothing more than a subtle eye animation, or an obvious opinion held back. The Witcher 3 tells great stories, but it’s how they all weave together and filter through their star and his unique perspective that really makes them special.
Investigating an abandoned spacecraft inhabited by untrustworthy AI is a videogame staple, and it's been done well (most recently in Prey). Analogue: A Hate Story is different. For starters it's a visual novel rather than an immersive sim, and also it's an exploration of the societal pressures on women in Joseon-period Korea.
The spaceship Mugunghwa (named after South Korea's national flower) is a multi-generational slower-than-light colony ship whose inhabitants, over the centuries, regressed to a feudal society that somehow collapsed 600 years before your investigation begins. In other games like this you might read emails about changing the passwords on the armory—in Analogue the logs tell the story of competing dynasties in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (but do so anyway). It's historical fiction wrapped in sci-fi trappings that bounces the two off each other, you and your new AI companions examining and reacting to the text as you go. It's about how the past isn't as far behind us as we like to think, and has a thematic richness that honestly puts a lot of other games to shame.
Here are the ingredients: a spooky deserted island; a group of quirky teens who are better at banter than any of us; a mystery involving radio frequencies. Saying any more than that about Oxenfree's story is tricky, because it's a twisty one. Fortunately it's not just a great story because it will surprise you, but because of how it's told, which is in naturalistic dialogue any Kevin Williamson movie would be proud of. Characters talk over each other freely and you can interrupt them as well—when you make a dialogue choice you're never sure if Alex, the protagonist, will save it for the next gap in conversation or blurt it out immediately.
So many games have a scene where somebody interrupts someone else, but what actually happens is that character A stops abruptly, there's a significant pause, and then character B jumps in with a line obviously recorded in a different session, possibly in a different country. Oxenfree doesn't do that. Its dialogue has a flow that you can get caught up in, so you're already engaged even before its plot uncurls and rears up in your face.
What does it mean to be alive? Sci-fi stories have grappled with the thought for decades, largely telling the same sad story over and over again. Who would’ve thought that the developers of the classic Amnesia: The Dark Descent would follow up with one of the most gripping, mind-bending, horrifying takes of all in Soma? Maybe it just took inhabiting the body of a character inhabiting a dead body to give the premise the punch it’s been needing. Its optimistic ending is the biggest surprise, given that you’re repeatedly confronted with puzzles that risk the lives of junkpile robots also harboring a human consciousness inside them. They might look like rusting mounds of metal plates and bolts, but they’ll also tell you they’re happy and don’t want to die. What if a human with their guts hanging out told you the same thing? Renegade and Paragon alignments won’t help you.
Deranged monsters roam the halls (and you can turn them off now), but they too are confused, semi-conscious beings in unfamiliar bodies. They’re mostly a sideshow to the main attraction, the underwater research station built to harbor the remnants of humanity after a comet devastated the surface. In order to discover who you really are and save whatever you can of humanity on a glorified USB stick, you’ll need to descend to places without light or life in some of the most oppressive, uncomfortable underwater environments this side of Bioshock. But for every plot twist Rapture holds, Soma has two, and they’re all going to make you feel like shit.
Jake Hughes was working as a model designer on Starship Troopers when he received a call from Peter Marquardt. Marquardt was an actor—he played the bad guy in Robert Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi—but he also had a passion for games. The pair originally met on the set of Wing Commander IV, where Marquardt was shooting for the game’s cutscenes.
“He calls me up and he says, ‘Hey, John Romero is making a company and they’re looking for associate producers, come on out,’” Hughes says. “Peter was working on Daikatana, and Tom Hall was needing an associate producer. So I came out and I met Tom, and we connected instantly … because they all knew about Starship Troopers.”
A week later, Hughes was offered the job as associate producer of Anachronox, the third game by Ion Storm Dallas. He was one of around 80 individuals invited to join the company at that time. Most were men, nearly all were under 30 years old and their backgrounds ranged from model designers to members of bands such as Information Society. Few of them had worked much in the games industry before. “Tom was actually the only person who had the experience [on Anachronox],” Hughes remembers. “This is, of course, Ion Storm, right? Where ego is a thing.”
In March 1997, Hughes made the drive from Los Angeles to Dallas to join Ion Storm. Its lavish office in the penthouse of Dallas’s Chase Tower wasn’t ready yet, so the team used a smaller office in the interim. Hughes’s office cubicle was connected to Romero’s. “I actually got to hear him play deathmatch every night,” he remembers.
For Hughes and everyone else involved, Ion Storm Dallas was videogaming nirvana, a company with huge talent, huge investment and huge ambitions, dreamed up by arguably the most famous man in the industry at the time. The honeymoon wouldn’t last, though. Within a year the studio would be plagued by turbulent office politics, a slew of public image crises and a host of development problems from which its reputation would never fully recover.
Ion Storm Dallas was founded on 15 November 1996. Its four founding partners were John Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty. Hall and Romero had previously founded id Software along with John Carmack and Adrian Carmack (no relation), while Porter and O’Flaherty had cofounded a company together which they sold to the publisher 7th Level.
“In January 1996 I decided to leave id Software after shipping Quake,” says John Romero. “I contacted Tom Hall while he was at 3D Realms/Apogee and asked him if he’d be interested in starting another game company later in the year after Quake shipped.” At the time, Tom Hall was working on Prey, a first-person shooter that was struggling to find direction, and which ultimately wouldn’t ship for another ten years. “Romero called me one day and asked, ‘What if there was a company where you could design the game you want?’” Hall says. “I replied, ‘That would be a dream.’”
The four men came together to begin planning their outline for the company. “We all agreed that we should name the company something that represented the new vision: multiple game genres developed simultaneously,” Romero says. The initial proposal was ‘Dream Design’, but there were several other companies using that name. “I made up a bunch of names and logos, and Romero really liked ‘Ion’,” says Tom Hall. “But that was also similar to others, so we looked at various words to combine with it.” Romero states that the ‘Storm’ part of the name came from his lead coder Kee Kimbrell.
Ion Storm’s slogan, meanwhile, was ‘Design is Law’. It stemmed from the frustration Hall and Romero experienced at id, where they were forced to wait for John Carmack’s latest 3D engine iteration before they could make a game. The pair believed that game design should come first and the technology should facilitate it. In 1996, this was a radical idea. Romeo and Hall planned to achieve it by licensing the technology from other companies, bypassing the need to build it themselves. “Ion Storm was to be a creative release,” Hall says.
The founders would each be in charge of their own team. Hall, Porter and Romero would design a game each, while O’Flaherty would oversee the art team assisting the other three. Meanwhile, they needed someone to run the day-to-day business, so they turned to another disillusioned id Software employee.
Mike Wilson was id’s head of marketing, and had previously been VP of development for DWANGO, an early online gaming service that provided the matchmaking for Doom’s multiplayer. After several years waiting on Quake, Wilson was bored. “They were gonna keep on doing what they were doing, which wasn’t very exciting for me at age 26,” he says. “What John was up to seemed greener pastures at the time.”
Wilson was hired as CEO of Ion Storm, primarily to ‘big-up’ the company in marketing. But he had bigger plans for Ion Storm as a business. id had rocked the industry with its 3D shooters. It had made huge money and spawned a legion of similarly lucrative imitators from Duke Nukem to Rise of the Triad. Publishers were desperate to get a slice of the pie, particularly from anyone associated with Doom.
“The publishers were lining up to throw money at a game design on a cocktail napkin,” Wilson says. “If you were part of that Dallas mafia you could get a $2 million or $3 million deal.” Before Doom, developers would usually get single-digit royalty percentages from their publisher. After Quake, Wilson struck a deal for 40% royalties with Activision for Quake’s first level pack. “It was just a Wild West,” he says.
Between August and December 1996, Romero and Hall started talking to publishers with Porter and O’Flaherty joining the negotiations in October. “Eidos became a strong contender because they were on the rise and had the cash to fund several games at once,” Romero says. Ion Storm negotiated with Eidos for $3 million for each of its three games, plus 45% royalties.
Wilson’s plan for Ion Storm was bigger still. Back at id, Wilson had wanted the company to publish its own games and reap all the money from its products. But John Carmack was interested mainly in pioneering technology and didn’t want to turn id into a games publisher. Consequently, Wilson brought this plan over to Ion Storm. “The plan was for Ion to be part of what would later become GodGames—Gathering of Developers—and so we were gonna knock out these three games from Eidos, one from each partner, and I was to be working on the self-publishing plan in the background.”
Wilson states he was on holiday when the deal was officially signed. When he got back, it had changed dramatically. Ion Storm was now into Eidos for not three games, but six. “[Eidos] really wanted to lock these guys up, because they were investing in what would help start the company,” he says.
The other founders told Wilson not to worry. They could halve the workload by creating a second studio to make three of the six games (what would ultimately become Ion Storm Austin). Besides, the whole point of Ion Storm was ‘Design is Law’. The issues that had plagued id during Quake’s three-year development wouldn’t be a factor as Ion Storm would use tried-andtested tech. The games would be built in no time.
Everything about Ion Storm’s early days was larger than life. A few months in, the studio moved into Dallas’s Chase Tower. To get to their office, the designers had to change elevators on the floor which hosted the Petroleum Club. “Which is exactly what it sounds like, a bunch of oil money barons sitting on leather and mahogany smoking cigars [and drinking] scotch,” says Wilson. “And here comes all these young long-haired dudes in shorts and combat boots, going up to the penthouse which those guys absolutely fucking hated. It was really meant for assholes in the oil industry, but suddenly there are these new guys with Ferraris who could afford that place.”
The penthouse office (completed in 1998) was 22,000 square feet of real-estate that had never been occupied. Its interior was designed specifically for Ion Storm. Facilities included a theatre, an arcade, a dormitory and a shower room. “Nobody used the shower. But sometimes at night we would bring in LaserDiscs and watch movies,” says Jake Hughes. “We would get food delivered sometimes and we would hang out. We’d play deathmatch.”
The internal culture of Ion Storm has been the subject of much fascination. Ion Storm Dallas is frequently cited as being the industry’s first ‘rockstar’ developer. It was a word that conjures an image of wealth-fuelled extravagance and excess, the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Everyone I spoke to who worked at Ion Storm Dallas refutes this image. Hughes describes it as “malarkey”, while Richard Gaubert, the writer on Anachronox, explains the atmosphere was “less like a rockstar environment and more like a dorm”. After work, the designers would play Quake, and later Quake II, deathmatch until late at night, an activity that was punctuated by swearing, smack talking and the occasional breaking of keyboards and computers. Gaubert cites an example of some of the studio antics: “I remember one day, sitting on the floor of the hallway outside my office, trying to get some writing done,” he begins. “Sometimes a change of scenery helps with writer’s block. And nearby, to my left, some engineers were wrestling on the floor, and to my right, my boss was drawing a picture on the whiteboard of himself sodomising a religious figure. I remember drinking in that moment and thinking, ‘man, I work in a weird, weird, wonderful place.’”
This fraternity-like atmosphere wasn’t exclusive to Ion Storm. In fact, it had been carried over from the glory days at id, when the founders lived together in a lake house in Shreveport, Louisiana—ordering in pizza and playing D&D while making Commander Keen, and later smashing keyboards and throwing CDs at the wall of their Mesquite office while making Wolfenstein and Doom.
Ion Storm was partly Romero’s attempt to bring back those fun and carefree days, only with the creature comforts Ion Storm’s wealth afforded them. “We wanted the environment to be fun, because we believed that if you’re not having fun making a game, it will show in the final product,” Romero explains. “Our developers were gifted, driven modders who had a passion for making fun stuff.” The approach was successful to a certain extent. “I loved every minute at Ion Storm,” says Hughes.
Whatever the reality of Ion Storm’s culture, the press was more than happy to view Ion Storm through the rockstar lens. “John was the perfect personality for them because he had the crazy long black hair and he would say whatever,” Wilson says. “He was driving the yellow hummer and the Ferrari, and had the big McMansion in north Dallas. He was just exactly what they wanted.”
Moreover, Romero’s seemingly abrupt departure from id to start his own, more ambitious company was the ideal story for the media. “A desire for the out with the old, in with the new, because id’s boring now. John Romero’s not even there,” Wilson says. “They created this rivalry between the two companies that would not have existed otherwise, and that led to friction with the technology.”
Wilson was happy to give the press what they wanted, presenting Ion Storm as this bold, ambitious, in-your-face new developer. But nobody factored in the gap between the studio’s boisterous internal culture with the outside image of the company as gaming’s new North Star. “While marketing’s goal was to convey how excited the company was for its products and its future, it had the opposite effect—it came across as egotistical,” Romero says. “Needless to say, the Daikatana ad was a thick layer of icing on that cake.”
Romero refers to the infamous “John Romero is about to make you his bitch” advertisement, which appeared in magazines in the spring of 1997. Wilson explains the ad was created by an agency belonging to the Richards Group in Dallas, specifically the work of the artist who also designed Daikatana’s cover art. Wilson thought it was hilarious, epitomising the in-your-face attitude at the core of the company. “I remember very clearly presenting that ad to John in his cubicle,” he says. “He also thought it was hilarious, and was like, ‘Fuck yes.’ And then he sorta started to think twice about an hour later. He was like, ‘I dunno man,’ and I think my words to him were, ‘John, don’t be a pussy.’ And that was it. He signed off on it.”
Neither the press nor the public got the joke, and from that moment the relationship between Ion Storm and the outside world began to sour. “We let that happen, let ourselves get talked into it, and it was too early and the wrong way to go,” Tom Hall says. “We should have shut up and made awesome games.” From this moment the press would begin to build a new, far less pleasant narrative about Ion Storm, and events within the company would only serve to reaffirm the suspicions of those on the outside looking in.
Arguably the biggest mistake Ion Storm made was failing to establish a clear hierarchy within the studio from the start. Romero was Ion’s figurehead, but he never intended to run the business personally. id got rich by making great games and getting other people to sell them, and Romero planned to do the same at Ion Storm. Hall, similarly, was there to make Anachronox. Todd Porter and Jerry O’Flaherty were more business oriented, in theory, but they also had their own teams to run. Wilson, meanwhile, was technically CEO, but had no real executive power. “Myself and the other business guy [COO Bob Wright] owned a combined 5% of the company,” says Wilson. “Those guys owned the rest.”
When Ion Storm moved into the Chase Tower penthouse, the four partners moved from their temporary cubicles into their own offices. These became known as the ‘Four Corners of Power’, reflecting the theoretical structure of the studio. In reality, what emerged from this structure was a battle for supremacy between Mike Wilson and Todd Porter.
Like Hall and Romero, Porter had worked his way up the ranks of game development, teaching himself to code on the Apple II before joining Origin. “Todd is very charming. He’s good looking. He’s very funny. And he’s got a way about him,” Hughes recalls. But Porter hadn’t enjoyed Hall and Romero’s level of success. “I would say that he probably didn’t deserve to be on the reputation level of John and Tom, as far as what they’d done,” says Will Loconto, Ion Storm’s audio director, who worked on both Daikatana and Todd Porter’s game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. “But he jumped right into it and I think he felt like he was right up there with them.”
Indeed, it’s claimed that Porter’s newfound power had gone to his head. Wilson recalls that in a conversation with the other founders, Porter “asked them to all wear blazers to work so that new people would understand who were the bosses, and they would be respected”. In another instance, Porter asked one of Romero’s level designers, Sverre Kvernmo, to get him a coffee. “In his blazer, just like he was literally the guy from Office Space, like, ‘That’d be great, if you could just get me a coffee?’ It was like, ‘Do you know who that is?’
“He was cruel to people, and I feel bad saying all this because, look, we were all immature, egotistical assholes at that time, there was no question about it. And Todd was older, significantly older, and my guess is like most of us, he’s a completely different person than he was in 1997. But at that time he was fucking horrible,” Wilson continues. “I told him one time very publicly that he can’t talk to people like they’re construction workers. You’re not a foreman and these people are artists and programmers.” Wilson isn’t the only one who saw something off with Porter’s attitude. “He was never a jerk to me, but I saw him do it to other people” says Loconto.
There are several given explanations for Porter’s alleged behaviour. At 36, Porter was one of the older staff members at Ion Storm—several years older than Romero and a decade older than Wilson, who was supposed to be CEO. This may have implied a natural superiority. In addition, to try to fast-track one of the company’s six game projects, Porter had brought over a half-finished strategy game from 7th Level named Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. He convinced the other founders he could have it out the door within three months. But in fact the project took a year to develop. When it did finally release, it bombed in reviews and sold a measly number of copies. “Everything was a distraction from the fact that he wasn’t actually making a game, and he had no idea how to make a game,” claims Wilson. Loconto cites an example from the project that Porter was developing before bringing Dominion over, a game called Doppelganger. “He hired these 3D artists that came in and made these 3D statues of all the monsters in the game, before there was a game.”
Between them, Porter and O’Flaherty began encroaching upon other areas of the business. Porter began turning up to Daikatana team meetings, which baffled the designers, and the pair hatched a plan to create a comic book publishing wing of the business, which Eidos promptly shut down. These various schemes, alongside the troubled developments of first Doppelganger and then Dominion, began sucking money from the company. “[The founders] didn’t realise they were gonna be competing for resources too,” Loconto says. “When they’re telling Eidos they need to hire three more producers for Todd’s team, I’m not sure how well that went over with Tom and John.”
Wilson was no milksop either. He was an uncompromising business negotiator, could be just as fiery as Porter, and incurred a scandal himself when he borrowed company money in order to pay for a new car after wrecking his own. The key difference, according to Wilson himself, was that he was liked by the other Ion Storm employees because he took their side whenever Porter went off on a power play. “I was 26 and full of piss and would just take it out of Todd at any chance I got, because I was just like, ‘somebody’s gotta fuckin’ call this dude out on being an asshole or this whole company is going to be an asshole,’” he says.
I contacted Porter about the statements made against him at Ion Storm, and his own recollection of events couldn’t be more different. “I liked Mike Wilson back in those days and like him still today. In fact, a couple of years ago we attended a good friend of ours’ memorial and had beers together.” Porter also disputes that there was a “mythic power struggle” between himself and Wilson. “That just didn’t exist. We disagreed, for sure, but you have to remember that Mike was the CEO, Bob Wright was the COO and they ran the business.”
On the subject of the blazers and the coffee, Porter says, “I truly don’t remember doing those things,” and that he “would never intentionally be cruel to anyone.” He cites the long working hours and staying overnight at the office trying to get Dominion finished, and says, “It’s highly likely I lost my temper from exhaustion. But that doesn’t make me cruel—it makes me human.”
As for why Porter brought Dominion over from 7th Level, he explains that, “I believed in the project and wanted to finish the game I’d started,” but also adds that at the time 7th Level was going bankrupt and he “didn’t want to see all those people I hired—who had become my friends—lose their jobs”.
In the end, Wilson entreated Romero to fire Porter, stating, “We have to get rid of him.” Together they went to the office of Bob Wright, Ion Storm’s COO, to discuss how they would do this. But in the elevator Romero decided he wanted to give Porter another chance, and so the firing never happened. Not long after that, Wilson was called into a similar meeting, where he was told he was being let go. They cited the friction that Wilson was causing with Porter, alongside his unwillingness to let go of the GodGames plan. “You’re not ever gonna play nice with Eidos, you’re pissing them off, and we can’t do this [Gathering of Developers] plan while we still owe all these games. We need to just focus on making games,” Wilson says, recalling the gist of the conversation.
Wilson believes that Porter persuaded Hall and Romero to fire him. “He was having them over at his house on weekends and they had talks like, ‘Wouldn’t everything be great if Mike just wasn’t around and there wasn’t all this fighting?’” But Porter claims he had no knowledge of Wilson’s impending firing until Hall and Romero called him and O’Flaherty to meet with them at a Mexican restaurant to discuss the matter. “It was John and Tom who wanted Mike out, not me or Jerry. They had serious problems with him, not us. After much investigation, Jerry and I agreed with them and all of us were present at the final meeting with Mike.”
However it went down, Wilson was out. But this would prove only to be a stay of execution for both Porter and O’Flaherty, who would depart the company under a different cloud around 18 months later. Romero is reluctant to comment on the specific nature of Wilson and Porter’s relationship, stating, “I view them as I would any employee, and I don’t feel comfortable disclosing interactions they may have had.” Meanwhile, Tom Hall explains that the reason Romero and himself didn’t intervene earlier was because they were occupied with their own projects. “We were focused on making games,” Hall says. “We became aware of people causing chaos and people taking advantage of the situation. We just wanted to make games.”
Romero’s vision for Ion Storm was of a game developer that did not have to compromise, and that extended to Daikatana. The game would feature 24 levels that took the player on an epic journey through time and space. Players would travel from Ancient Greece to 25th-century cyberpunk Japan. In a first for the genre, story would play a central role, including advanced AI sidekicks who would accompany the player on their adventure. It’s a premise that still sounds tantalising today.
As Romero puts it, the story of Daikatana has “taken on a life of its own”. Its problematic development has acquired legendary status. Because of this, it’s worth setting aside the familiar narrative for a moment to ask what went right on the project. “The team was composed of modders who loved FPS games and believed in a vision of making something that was incredible,” Romero says. “We introduced complex sidekick AI, tons of content and really fun deathmatch, and, perhaps most importantly, we shipped a game under incredibly trying conditions.”
These conditions began with the engine. Despite the ambitious scope, Romero estimated that by licensing the Quake engine, his team could have the project turned around in six months. But in early 1997, Romero and Hall saw Quake II in action. They were blown away by its engine, which included among its features coloured lighting and support for hardware acceleration. Their games were already behind schedule, but they figured it was worth the time investment to incorporate the Quake II source code in order to keep their games visually up to date.
John Carmack was a superb coder, but id’s third-party support was rudimentary at best. “Carmack really didn’t want to be bothered with phone calls from anybody. I think it was in the original contract, you got two hours of talk with him,” Wilson remarks. There had been other successful third-party id Tech games, namely Raven Software’s Hexen and Heretic, but support for them came mainly from Romero, who assisted the development of both titles while still at id.
Consequently, the Daikatana team was left to fathom how to incorporate the code by itself. At this time, 3D graphics rendering technology was improving at an exponential rate, and the complexity was compounding with it. As a result, the code base for the Quake II engine was radically different. Ion Storm received the Quake II source code in November 1997, but it would take until March 1999 to fully implement it into Daikatana.
Ion Storm wasn’t the only company to struggle keeping up with the times. Duke 3D, Unreal, and Jedi Knight had all taken over 30 months to develop, while 3D Realms’ Prey and Duke Nukem Forever were both delayed far longer than Daikatana on account of multiple engine changes. Interestingly, one company that decided not to play technological catch-up was Valve Software. “They had the same thing, where they had the Quake source code and they chose not to incorporate the Quake II source code,” says Jake Hughes. “They bought themselves like four months of development time.” The game in question was Half-Life, which launched in November 1998. In many ways it stole Daikatana’s thunder with its narrative-led shooting and advanced AI.
The whole reason for founding Ion Storm was to get away from id’s technology-driven design, and yet, in a tragic irony, Romero once again found his design frustrated by John Carmack’s technology. But this wasn’t the only issue. Daikatana’s development was also hindered by team upheavals and morale issues, and there are lingering questions over Romero’s approach to leadership.
The story goes that for large chunks of time, Romero was out of the office on press trips and being the public face of the company. “There were a lot of times where somebody wanted to ask him something and he wasn’t there,” Loconto says. “But then a lot of times he was there and people would complain because they were trying to work and he’s deathmatching or whatever.”
Loconto doesn’t hold this against Romero. Instead he believes it came as a consequence of his wanting Ion Storm’s atmosphere to be like that of id. “I don’t think that’s what he signed up for really. I think he signed up for, ‘we’re gonna make a cool game. I’m gonna get a kickass team and all these guys are gonna do what they’re supposed to do.’” But that casual approach couldn’t function in a studio as large as Ion Storm. “You can’t translate that camaraderie that was at id when they had a small team into even a 20-to-30-person team,” Loconto adds. “You can’t count on every single person to carry their weight unless they’re being managed.”
Romero disagrees entirely with the sentiment that he wasn’t present with the team, stating that he “was at the office most of the time” and that the deathmatching was part of the work. “Playing was necessary to know where we were in terms of hitting the mark. It was the same process for Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II, Quake and so on. If you don’t want to play your own games, who else will?” Meanwhile, any recreational deathmatching “only happened after 6pm some days”.
The combination of repeated delays and managerial disorganisation, along with long working hours and increasing hostility from both press and public, led to a high staff turnover, particularly on the Daikatana project. “Daikatana went through significant team changes and had, as an example, five lead programmers by the time it launched,” Romero says. Loconto was involved in perhaps the most notable of these staff departures. In November 1998, eight Ion Storm employees walked out of the studio to join a developer associated with Mike Wilson’s new publishing venture, Gathering of Developers, which he’d formed with 3D Realms and Terminal Reality after being fired from Ion Storm.
“He needed a team to do the KISS Psycho Circus game, and basically it’s a hard thing to say no when somebody says, ‘We will give you $2 million to start your company if you come do this.’ And we got $2 million to build that game,” Loconto says. It was Loconto who told Romero they were leaving. “[It was] one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “I would say that he felt personally betrayed.”
Daikatana’s problems came to a head during E3 1999. Hughes worked on Daikatana for several months to help prepare a demo for the show. “Everybody worked very hard on it, and then like a week before, Romero wanted all of these changes made and it was kinda like, ‘Dude, these haven’t been in here for like a month. Why did we wait until now to address this stuff?’”
The demo ended up running at five frames-persecond, and was another PR disaster for Ion Storm. But the story is more complex than Hughes recalls. According to Romero, he had already departed for E3 before this event took place. “While I was gone, a cofounder told the team to make a bunch of changes to Daikatana and told them I wanted those changes made, which was a huge lie. The team made the changes and we got an update which basically broke the E3 demo of the game.”
Romero doesn’t specify who the cofounder was, but the same story is told in David Kushner’s 2003 book, Masters of Doom, and in that case the founder in question is named as Todd Porter. We went back to Hughes with the Romero’s account, and he responds that, “It’s possible those notes came from Todd. The sentiment from the team was that the notes were from John.”
“I was so mad when I found out what happened,” Romero says. Indeed, in Kushner’s account, it’s this event which led to the departure of Porter and O’Flaherty from Ion Storm in July 1999. Romero doesn’t comment on their leaving in any detail, but on the subject of Ion Storm’s atmosphere, he mentions that, “After Todd and Jerry left Ion Storm in the middle of 1999, the entire atmosphere changed and the company felt just great. Everyone was in high spirits and working hard to finish our games.”
Romero says that the final year of Daikatana’s development was “nose to the proverbial grindstone”, and that “everything changed and went well up to launch”. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save Daikatana from reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing when it launched on May 24, 2000. “It could never live up to the hype generated in the early days,” Romero laments.
Tom Hall’s Anachronox was even more ambitious project than Daikatana: a vast, sprawling sci-fi comedy modelled in the JPRG style, and inspired by everything from Ender’s Game to the animations of Chuck Jones—all developed by a team of just 15 people. The idea for Anachronox came to Hall in the bathroom. “Then I had to figure out what it meant.” It seemed to be a combination of ‘anachronism’ (something out of its correct time period) and ‘nox’ from noxious (poisonous, harmful). So that twisted into meaning ‘poison from the past’.
The main inspiration for Anachronox, however, was Chrono Trigger. “Chrono Trigger is my jam,” says Hall. “Many RPGs have the base of exploring a game world/ story and growing over time and decisions affecting the world. But this one one-upped that with a set of interesting characters with wildly different stories having their own take on events and unique ways to play.”
Like Daikatana, Anachronox used the Quake and later Quake II engines. But the game had the additional problem of being an RPG that used a shooter engine. This meant a lot of the development time was spent trying to figure out how to do things that hadn’t been done with the engine before. In one example, for the first in-game area—a giant, slum-like space station, known as the Bricks—the team wanted to create something it had dubbed “N-Directional Gravity”.
“[Hall] wanted it so that the gravity could come from anywhere so that people were walking on walls,” says Hughes. “But we just couldn’t figure it out.” In the end, the team faked the effect by essentially playing animations of characters walking up walls during cutscenes. “Honestly, we spent more time trying to figure out how to do N-Directional Gravity and then abandoning it than it took to incorporate the Quake II source code.”
The main problem, however, was the size of the game. Hall and Hughes spent the first year of development writing a massive, 400-page design document. It became so big that Hall had to hire a writer to write the story that he wanted to tell, at which point Gaubert came aboard. “I took the outline that Tom and Jake wrote, and fleshed out the plot, and tried to integrate gameplay elements. I would look at the levels and figure out what moment-tomoment non-combat gameplay could happen in them,” Gaubert recalls.
Even with Gaubert writing every line of dialogue for a 60-hour RPG, the game was still, far, far too big for the 15-man team to make. Eventually, the decision was made to cut the story in half. The cut content would be held back for the planned sequel. “Jake and Richie came into my office one day saying the epic plot I’d laid down would take too long to make, so I looked at it and there was only one clear place to cut it,” Hall remembers. “Roughly in half. Sorry folks!”
Anachronox suffered from technical issues and delays just like Daikatana and Dominion, but it wasn’t as troubled by upheavals within the team. The team was smaller and more intimate than the others, suffered less from departures during the project, and Hall, Hughes and Gaubert all got on well together. “It was like, just a great creative meld between the three of us,” Hughes says.
Anachronox launched on June 27, 2001. Critically it was received very well, but commercially it sold poorly, a factor that Hall puts down to poor marketing. “I give Eidos amazing credit for supporting us through shipping. They were awesome. But we spent millions on development, and $50,000 on advertising. Five ads in magazines and that was it.” According to Gaubert, however, the reason Eidos spent so little on advertising Anachronox was because the game missed its original marketing window due to delays. “They had timed their marketing towards our original release date, but we missed it! I think we had blown through all the marketing money before we had actually finished the project, so we shipped with little fanfare.”
Two weeks after the launch of Anachronox, Eidos informed Ion Storm Dallas that it was closing the studio. Although it wasn’t getting paid, the Anachronox team stayed on to finish a patch it was working on. I asked Hughes what he took away from his time at Ion Storm. “Hubris,” he says. “That’s the story of Ion Storm, it’s amazing how it happens time and time again. All eyes on a certain company, and you can make some bad decisions and you can also make something great.”
The story of Ion Storm Dallas is often viewed as a cautionary tale, one that has been told before and will probably be told again. Two decades on, it’s a story that’s still clouded and contentious in parts, with very different perspectives from some of the industry’s strongest personalities. But not everything that came out of the studio was bad. Hughes and Gaubert became fast friends, and the Anachronox team still meet up once a year at GDC. Loconto, too, looks back on that time with fondness. “I’m glad to have been a part of it,” he says. Even Wilson—who says he spent his time at Ion Storm “so stressed out… I literally remember not being able to turn my head to talk to someone without turning my entire body”—felt like he learned a lot from the experience. “I think it took me down a notch as well, as far as thinking I was invincible at the time,” he says.
As for Romero, he describes his time at Ion storm as a “tremendous learning experience”. He says, “It was far from perfect, but ultimately, making games isn’t always about having crazy success. Sometimes, games and companies don’t turn out to be what you hope they will be, and you do the best you can.”
And even if we adopt the dimmest view of Ion Storm Dallas, if we focus on all the mistakes and believe every internet rumour, there is one thing that John Romero got right. “He wanted to help me make a game and was willing to do whatever it took for me to make whatever game I wanted to make,” says Warren Spector. “He made some big promises to me, and lived up to every one of them.”
The game in question was Deus Ex, created by Ion Storm’s second studio, Ion Storm Austin.
Jordan Thomas was working as a script doctor at Psygnosis when he heard that Ion Storm Austin was hiring. The studio had just released Deus Ex, and was expanding from one development team to two. “They were hiring a cabal of the very best game designers in the world,” Thomas says. He wanted to be one of them.
There was one problem: Thomas had little game design experience. So he created an Unreal Engine level, designed to resemble a mission from Thief, and sent it to Ion Storm. The studio was impressed and granted him an interview, but didn’t give him a job. “I think they wisely realised that my confidence did not match my physical experience,” Thomas says. He was told to get some.
Thomas got a job working for Aspyr on the PC videogame tie-in for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, remaining there for seven months. When that project shipped in late 2001, he applied to Ion Storm Austin again and was granted another interview. The process commenced with a series of phone interviews that included studio head Warren Spector and the design lead of Thief: Deadly Shadows, Randy Smith.
“I had placed massive flash cards on the wall with all of these terms which I had looked up and dissected with interviews from all of them, trying to understand the specific Looking Glass language that they were all so steeped in,” Thomas says. “So this very spartan apartment that I was in at the time was covered in reference as large as I could make it so that while walking around on the phone I could say like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, I have something smart to say about that random-ass word.’”
The phone interviews were followed by a written test, in which Thomas had to provide a design document for a level. Thomas pitched a level set in a spooky asylum, and Ion Storm liked it. The company flew Thomas out for another interview, where he was assessed again by Spector and Randy Smith. Following this were several design tests, from sketching out a level blueprint on a whiteboard, to designing a system for a game that wasn’t to Thomas’s tastes, such as “a system for a game that is based on doing taxes for a person who has never done them before”.
This was what it took to become employed at Ion Storm Austin. “I never felt so tested in my life,” Thomas says. He got the job, and was assigned to work on Thief: Deadly Shadows—the third and final game from what was widely considered the best development studio in the world at the time. Internally, however, Ion Storm Austin had always been a house of cards, where wild ambition and high-minded ideas battled against the harsh realities of game development. By the time Thomas joined the studio, the cards were already tumbling.
Had it not been for the intervention of John Romero, Deus Ex would have become a Command & Conquer game. In 1997, Warren Spector left Looking Glass “when I realised the continued existence of the Austin Studio was going to jeopardise the existence of Looking Glass overall”. Despite creating Thief and System Shock, Looking Glass was struggling and could no longer sustain a second studio so far removed from its original office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I didn’t want to be responsible for that,” says Spector. “I told Paul Neurath, the founder of Looking Glass, that I’d be fine. I’ll find another deal.”
Spector took with him a design document he’d been toying with since his days at Origin Systems. The working title was ‘Troubleshooter’. “I wanted to make a game where players got to solve problems the way they wanted to. Fighting, sneaking, talking, doing whatever they wanted,” Spector says. “And so I dusted that off, and kind of adapted it to a Command & Conquer setting and was going to do the Command & Conquer RPG. I was close to signing a contract when I got a call from John Romero.”
Romero asked Spector to join Ion Storm as its fifth partner (the other four being Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty). “I really wanted him to join Ion Storm so he could make the game of his dreams. It didn’t matter to me what kind of game it was because it was going to be great—it’s Warren,” says Romero.
Spector replied, “It’s too late, I can’t, I’m working on this Command & Conquer thing.” Romero told him not to sign anything. He said he would make the 200-mile drive from Dallas to Austin and change Spector’s mind. This is exactly what he did. “I told him he could hire a team, make whatever he likes, have as much money as it took, and take as long as he needed,” Romero says.
It was an offer Spector couldn’t refuse. But he had a condition. He would join Ion Storm as the fifth partner, but he refused to work in Dallas. In fact, he refused to work anywhere but Austin. “In Texas there’s four major cities. There’s Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, and the only one I would ever consider living in is Austin,” Spector says. “When [Romero] came down that day to try to convince me, part of the deal was, I’m not moving, I’m not going to work in Dallas, and he was okay with that.”
With Romero’s support, Spector began building the Ion Storm Austin studio. The initial team comprised six members, all of whom Spector transferred from Looking Glass Austin. This included Chris Norden, who was lead programmer and eventually assistant director of Deus Ex. In the early days, even before taking on those two roles, he wore multiple hats at the studio.
“I guess, in today’s terms, I would’ve been the CTO,” says Norden. “I was also part-HR. We had to do hiring, I had to do reviews. I had to set up the IT infrastructure. I had to hire contractors, I had to do security. I mean, you name it and I did it.” Meanwhile, Spector was beginning to work on the paper document for Deus Ex.
Spector’s concept of a game where you can choose from fighting, stealth, hacking and talking to create solutions to problems is a well-told story. But what was the clarifying moment when the Troubleshooter design document turned into Deus Ex? “On all of my projects, I think about what questions do I want the game to ask?” Spector says. “And the first one that came to mind for me on what became Deus Ex was, ‘What would happen if you took James Bond, a guy who believes in right and wrong, and throw him into a world that’s all shades of grey, where nothing is good, nothing is evil, it’s all shades of grey.’ That was a critical moment.”
The concepting phase of Deus Ex lasted many months, all the while the studio was growing and taking shape. One of Spector’s key hires was the 30-year-old Harvey Smith, who Spector had previously worked with at Origin during the development of System Shock. “[Warren Spector] was like, ‘Well, we’re gonna try to do another one of those games, it’s gonna be set in the modern world, what do you think?’” says Smith. “And so I pitched mission documents back, and game system ideas, some of which never got used in the game, but still they were on target enough that Warren was really excited.” Spector made Smith one of two lead designers on Deus Ex.
Ion Storm Austin’s approach to game development was heavily influenced by Spector’s experience at Origin Systems, and the design philosophies of Looking Glass luminaries, like Doug Church, who would appear from time to time at Ion Storm Austin and ‘camp out’ in Spector’s office. “They were all hugely influenced by Doug Church’s paper ‘Formal Abstract Design Tools’,” says Jordan Thomas, “which was a high-minded idea about teaching designers to speak the same way so that they could plug into any team, and stop using slang which is useful only to a particular bubble of culture.” Harvey Smith, who worked with Church at Origin, describes talking to him as being “like drinking from a firehose”.
In a similar fashion, Ion Storm Austin produced not only design documents for its games, but manifestos for how Spector and co. believed games should be designed as a whole. “We had our giant gameplay bible. Bazillions of pages that we tried to kind of follow, but they were living documents and they changed,” says Norden. “It was like, design is important, engineering is important, art is important, audio design is extremely important. But the player ultimately needs to be doing what they want to do. They need to be having fun. They need to be in control.”
When the concept phase was over, Spector stepped back into a supervisory role. “I am not an implementation guy,” he says. “Once we get past the concept phase and we know what game we want to make, I leave implementation to other people.” Implementing Deus Ex would prove to be far more complicated than anybody anticipated, constantly teetering on the brink of disaster.
Ion Storm’s slogan—‘Design is Law’—stipulated that game design should come above technical innovation. It was conjured by Romero during the founding of the company, but Ion Storm Austin took it to heart, perhaps a little too much. At the outset Spector created two separate design teams for Deus Ex, and he had those teams compete with each other. Harvey Smith was lead designer of what Spector thought of as the Looking Glass design team, while another designer named Bob White led what Spector termed the Ultima roleplaying team.
“So I had this immersive simulation group and this traditional roleplaying group,” Spector says, “and I was standing in the middle thinking, ‘I can not just mediate, I can actually exploit the tension between those two to come up with something completely new.’ Something that wasn’t pure Looking Glass-style immersive simulation, but wasn’t pure roleplaying game in the Origin sense.” Yet rather than resulting in a merging of ideas, the structure caused confusion about what the game was supposed to be about. “They were each in charge of different parts of the world and they had their own ideas about how they wanted the gameplay to work,” Norden explains. “So sometimes they’d come to us with conflicting requests.”
Everything the designers dreamed up had to be implemented by Norden and his programming team, and Spector, Smith and White all had a lot of ideas. “Warren had this massive [idea]… he’s like, ‘I want the player to be able to do anything they want, and solve any puzzle in any way,’” says Norden. “And we’re like, ‘Uh, yeah, that’s not really possible. We can do a lot, we can give the player a lot of choice. But infinite choice? No.’” Nevertheless, Norden and his team endeavoured to ensure that Deus Ex was as emergent as they could make it. “We tried to create the emergent behaviour by creating a ton of interactable objects in the world, and all the objects had to have interactable properties, and all the properties were linked to the real world,” he says. “Everything had weight, everything had friction, all the surfaces had different properties associated with them. So we wanted you to be able to, at least, pick things up, move them around, destroy them, maybe stack them, maybe climb them.”
The advantage of this was it meant players could do things that were unique to their game; a phenomenon that would happen even during testing. “Someone would come in and say, ‘Hey I was doing this cool thing on my playthrough and this thing happened, what the hell, how did you make that happen?’ And I was like, ‘Well I didn’t, it was just a random lucky thing.’”
Every game Ion Storm made was beleaguered by engine problems, and Deus Ex was no different. The nature of those problems, however, wasn’t exactly the same. In a break with Ion Storm tradition, Austin moved away from id’s Quake technology and licensed Tim Sweeney’s Unreal Engine. There were several reasons for this, including a better toolset, less restrictive geometry rendering and more personal support. “id’s engine licensing at the time was really simple. They basically gave you a CD with the source on it and that was it,” Norden says. “They didn’t really do support or anything. So I went up and met with Tim, and talked to him, and talked to the guys there, and they were just really cool.”
The problem, however, was that Norden and his team were taking an engine and trying to make it do things it wasn’t designed to. “ Deus Ex was a very dialogue-heavy game,” Norden states. “And Unreal was a shooter, right? So those things don’t mix. Theirs was no dialogue. There was no talking in shooters. So we had to create basically an entire conversation system and the tools that go with it.” Even seemingly simple things, like being able to carry more than one pistol, had to be manually coded because the engine wasn’t designed for it. “I might be carrying five pistols in my inventory because I put all my points into pistols,” says Harvey Smith. “I’ll have one for silenced play, and I have one for rapid fire, and I have one for fighting robots—just as an example, that’s three different pistols. Unreal didn’t have the concept of that, it only had the concept of, ‘Do you have the pistol, yes or no?’”
Another problem was the game’s core systems were coded in UnrealScript, which was slow to compile. Every time Norden made a change to the script it had to be recompiled, which in a game as complicated as Deus Ex is a constant process. “I wrote very rude comments in the code like, ‘Why the eff is this so slow? Dammit Tim,’ says Norden. “And we stupidly didn’t strip the script code out before we shipped. So people just decompiled it and our comments were on display for everybody. So I feel really bad about that to this day.” Luckily for Norden, Tim Sweeney saw the funny side of it.
Deus Ex was in development for almost four years, and for three-and-a-half of those years it seemed like it would never come together. Spector’s vision for the game’s story was enormous, to the point where he had to be tackled on it. “Harvey and one of the designers who I’ve worked with for many years, guy named Steve Powers, came to me and said, ‘We can’t tell this story, there’s no way we’re gonna do the Russo-Mexican alliance sending an Army across the Texas border and invading. We’re not gonna do that, we’re not gonna have thousands of prisoners in a FEMA camp in the Southwest getting freed by our hero.’”
Meanwhile, the external feedback Austin received was not good. Looking Glass developers, like Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc and Rob Fermier, all came to Austin to playtest the game. “They came in and they would tell us, ‘Man, this sucks. This skill system is terrible, what are you thinking?’” Spector says. The game’s publisher, Eidos, were still supportive of Austin, but also confused by what the game was supposed to be. “Lots of people at Eidos, over the years that we were in development, said, ‘Why don’t you just make a shooter?”’
Eidos had good reason to be concerned. After three years and millions of dollars of investment, so far Ion Storm had put out one game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, which both sold and reviewed terribly. Meanwhile, its other three projects were severely behind. In addition, due to a combination of those delays and misguided marketing from Ion Storm Dallas, by 2000 the public opinion of Ion Storm had turned from enthusiastic to openly hostile. Even though they were sheltered in Austin, the Deus Ex team felt the heat of this ire.
“It was interesting and tough to be part of the ‘John Romero is going to make you his bitch’ company’,” says Spector. “And the Dallas office, they were spending money in ways that I would not have spent money, and the projects were all running late or they were projects we shouldn’t have started at all.” Indeed, there were worries that Deus Ex would flop purely on account of the widespread eagerness to see the hubris of Ion Storm blow up in its face. “We were like, ‘Oh crap, we’ve got brand image issues now,’” says Norden. “‘Are we gonna be doomed to failure because of this logo on our box?’”
At the same time, not everyone at the Dallas studio was happy with how things were panning out at Austin. Jerry O’Flaherty, who was the art director for Ion Storm as a whole, had sent several artists down to Austin to work on Deus Ex. “These artists would report back to Jerry about various goings-on within the studio,” says Romero. O’Flaherty was close friends with another of Ion Storm’s founders, Todd Porter, and according to Romero, Porter didn’t like what he heard about how things were progressing at Ion Storm Austin. “This led Todd to call for the cancellation of the game, or him wanting to go down to straighten things out.”
Romero, however, acted as a buffer between Austin and the more sceptical voices within Dallas. “I told Todd to leave them be, and we would not be cancelling the game, ever,” Romero says. “I had to put my foot down several times during the Deus Ex timeline. I had the utmost confidence in Warren and Harvey.”
Meanwhile, although some individuals within Eidos had their doubts, the publisher never stepped in to take control of the situation. In fact, when Deus Ex hit Alpha in August 1999, Eidos gave Austin six extra months to finish the game. It made all the difference. Harvey Smith’s redesigned skill system significantly improved the game, while the rest of that time was spent “tuning and tweaking and finding the fun”, as Spector puts it.
In the end, Deus Ex released on 17 June 2000, just three weeks after Eidos published Daikatana. For Ion Storm Austin, it was a strange time. Internet journalism was still in its infancy, so the developers had to wait a month or so for the reviews to come in. Spector was nervous. “There was a day when we were nearing the end where I put my head down on my desk and I just said out loud, ‘If people compare our combat to Half-Life, we’re dead. If they compare our stealth to Thief, we’re dead. If they compare our roleplaying elements to Neverwinter Nights (which was the big RPG at that time), we’re dead. But if they get to decide how much fighting or sneaking or RPG-ing they get to do, we’re gonna rule the world.’”
Deus Ex was a resounding success both critically and commercially—the only game developed by Ion Storm that managed both. “We had one incredibly bad review. A guy named Tom Chick just, I dunno if he hated me, but he sure hated Deus Ex, wow!” Spector says. “But other than that, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.” The success also secured the future of Ion Storm Austin, which by this point was owned directly by Eidos. “It was never a question that we wouldn’t do a sequel. Eidos wanted it,” Spector says.
Meanwhile, shortly after the release of Thief II: The Metal Age, and on the same day that Daikatana released in North America, Looking Glass Studios closed its doors. “I got a call from someone at Eidos saying, ‘We have the rights to do a new Thief game, we’re going to do a new Thief game, and we’re going to let another developer do the next Thief game,’” Spector says. “I said, ‘Oh no you’re not. We’re doing that here at Ion Storm.’”
Spector hired many of Looking Glass’s staff, and the company began working on both Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows simultaneously. Because the company had effectively doubled in size, Spector decided to take on a more managerial role, and let other people oversee each game’s development. Harvey Smith was selected to direct the second Deus Ex, while Randy Smith (no-relation to Harvey) was hired to oversee Thief. Chris Norden left Ion Storm Austin almost immediately after Deus Ex was completed.
Spector decided that he would not interfere with the direction of either game, and let both designers make the decisions they wanted to make. It’s a decision that he now regrets. “I probably should have given those guys more direction, and not let them make some mistakes that I saw them making.”
For the sequel to Deus Ex, Smith wanted to retain the multifaceted approach that players could adopt in play, but ensure that the experience was uniform across the entire game. “Looking at the missions for Deus Ex, some of them were kinda just all over the place. Not all of them were like science fiction dystopia … and some of them were pretty far afield. Some of them were more RPG, some were less RPG,” Smith says.
As part of this plan, Smith designed the game with a much stronger, more vivid aesthetic, moving the game much farther in the future and imbuing it with a far more overt cyberpunk theme. This was one change that Spector saw as problematic, but decided not to bring up. “I wouldn’t have moved Invisible War so far in the future. I think part of Deus Ex is it’s a world that’s recognisable as our own,” he says. “I wouldn’t have put the player character in a purple jumpsuit. I mean, it’s a trivial point, but it just looked goofy.”
Another issue was that Smith wanted to expand upon the narrative choices from the original Deus Ex, letting players switch between factions at will and having no forced failure states. “What it meant was none of your choices actually had any real consequences. If you can always change your mind, your choices are really weakened,” Spector says.
The main problems for Invisible War (and, for that matter, Deadly Shadows) did not stem from design, but technology. Deus Ex was designed from the ground up as a PC game. Both Invisible War and Thief III were designed specifically for the Xbox, with the PC version approached as a port of the Xbox version. None of the Ion Storm team had much experience designing for console, and so they were disappointed to find the Xbox had a fraction of the power of a PC at the time. “The maps had to get so small a lot of our gameplay didn’t work,” Spector says. “It was kind of a surprise to us and there wasn’t much we could do about it.”
Although today Invisible War is viewed as a disappointment, at the time of its release it reviewed fairly well and to date has sold more copies than the original Deus Ex. Although the project was a difficult one, Smith believes there are still good things about the game. “The Antarctic mission that was kind of a call-out to The Thing, one of my favourite movies,” he says, as an example. “Starting off in an apartment, finding out it’s a lab is a very Philip K. Dick move that we wanted to make. The Black Market Augmentations and how they work, along with the other biomods, so you can put together a bunch of drones and stuff. There were lots of little things along the way that we liked.”
Perhaps because of the immediate comparison with Deus Ex, Invisible War is often viewed as the game that got away from Ion Storm Austin. But in terms of what the developers had planned, the game that came out most compromised from under Spector’s watch was Thief: Deadly Shadows.
As a lifelong Thief fan, hearing about elements of the game which never made it out of Ion Storm Austin is agonising. Originally, Deadly Shadows was meant to be twice as long. Every level designer was given two levels to design for the game, but early in development they were all asked to scrap one of those levels. Jordan Thomas’s two missions were the Cradle, which made it into the game, and the Grave, which didn’t. “The Grave was specifically a massive sort of death-processing facility owned by the Hammerite faction,” says Thomas. “And it was going to double down on the idea of religious notions of death and the cycle of the soul leaving the body, and sort of delve into some of the Victorian reuses of corpses.”
In addition, the freely explorable city Deadly Shadows introduced was intended to be many times larger than it appeared in the final game. Thomas states that Emil Pagliarulo, the designer who created Thief II’s famous ‘Life of the Party’ mission had “a legendary build-out of what the geometry of the docks might have been. And it was almost 100% scrapped by the time we finished”.
The reason behind this ruthless cutting down was partly to do with the console focus. But equally significant was that the studio went against its own mantra, and began designing its own technology. For both Invisible War and Deadly Shadows, Ion Storm Austin created a custom renderer that could project real-time shadows from every character and object.
“It was a combination of videogame technological sort-of one-upmanship early on, combined with an imagined notion that real-time shadows would lead to dynamism in gameplay scenarios that Thief II couldn’t deliver,” Thomas says. “The fantasy of what we would do when the shadow of a pillar would truly move, and you could stay inside that shadow as the guard with the torch crossed through a room with thick enough columns, it sounded really good on paper.”
But the combination of this advanced renderer (which beat Doom 3 for real-time shadows by about a year) and the limited power of the Xbox meant that huge swathes of the game had to be cut down to get it in. “It ended up being one of the decisions that most of the team felt was a massive mistake,” Thomas says. “The city sections, good gravy, we reduced those to almost nothing.”
Ion Storm Dallas may have been notorious for its arrogance, but there was more than sufficient hubris to go around at Ion Storm Austin too. It just emerged in a different form. From its Looking Glass genetics, Austin inherited the culture of the auteur, that blend of artiste and academic that dedicated itself heart, mind and soul to the idea they were chasing, and where the ends justified the means. “I’ve called it a culture of intellectual Darwinism,” says Thomas. “It was like a court case, an ongoing, months long court case in which everyone was the player’s advocate, and they were going to bring 100% of their rigour to bear on the argument, because the great god player deserved it.”
This design philosophy led to an atmosphere that could at times be exclusionary. “It led to quieter people, who are, if any degree of removal away from a heterosexual white male, to be less likely to say anything,” Thomas says. It was also an atmosphere of perfectionism. So when reviews of Invisible War and Deadly Shadows hovered in the low-80s, the effect on team morale was devastating. “We were groomed to believe that you were 90-plus on Metacritic or you are nothing,” he adds.
Shortly after the release of Deadly Shadows, Warren Spector left the company. He attributes this partly to the work equivalent of the seven-year itch—“I just get itchy, you know, to do something different”—and dissatisfaction at the kinds of games Eidos was publishing. “I remember going to E3 one year, right around the time I left, right before I left,” he says. “There were things like, ‘This time you get to kill with a meat hook, and here’s the game of kids killing cops, and here’s a racing game where the idea isn’t to win the race, it’s to create the biggest explosions.’ And, I just looked around, and I was showing Invisible War and Deadly Shadows, and I just said, ‘One of these things is not like the others.’”
Despite Spector’s departure, and the disappointment at the critical reception of Deadly Shadows and Invisible War, there was no sense that the studio’s life was nearing its end. The studio regrouped and formed designs teams for both Deus Ex 3 and Thief 4. In an echo of the company’s early years, there were two competing pitches for Deus Ex 3, one of which was Thomas’s own. “We built a crazy ambitious text only version of a narrative web, which you’ve seen in a lot of other games since, the notion of the procedural story,” he says. “It was ludicrous, but very inspiring at the time, and felt like the great dragon that everyone wanted to slay.”
Slowly, though, Ion Storm Austin began to bleed employees, leaking staff to other companies such as Midway Austin. Then, in 2005, Eidos announced a major layoff. “I was in the room where people, we had to decide how many, but which ones got the seats to stay,” says Thomas. “And it was just, it made you wonder why anyone ever assembles for any field of human endeavour.”
The remaining employees kept going, but by this point most of them were just “punching a clock”, as Thomas describes it. Then, about a year into pre-production on Deus Ex 3, the final layoff came, and Ion Storm shut its doors for good. Thomas, however, was kept on by Eidos for a few extra months, so he could finish the design document for his version of Deus Ex. “I’ve never known why they wanted that and I’ve no idea what they did with it, but I did so.” It was an ironic end for the studio. For years Ion Storm Austin had built a cult around the idea, and it took on such power that in the end Eidos perceived that was where all the value lay.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Ion Storm as a whole is how its studios were simultaneously so completely different and so very similar. Both companies were driven by sky-high ambitions, Dallas in your face and larger than life, Austin intellectual and innovative. Both companies held design as a talisman, and found themselves mired in technological problems. Dallas was demonised while Austin was evangelised, and yet both suffered from personality clashes, management foul-ups, and an inflated sense of self-worth.
Harvey Smith sums up these strange and shifting contrasts. “There were very volatile extroverts in Dallas, and Warren’s group tended to be very volatile introverts and nerds.” He recalls an example from one of Ion Storm’s release parties, where the company rented a boat on a lake. “We invited the people from Dallas down with us,” he says. “A lot of the Dallas guys just got drunk on the boat. And a lot of our people were on the inside of the boat because the sun was frying our pale skin. And we were—literally people broke out board games, and we were playing board games on this party boat.”
Are you feeling forlorn for the halcyon days of the Thief series? You may already be aware of The Dark Mod. It’s a fan-made standalone mod that recreates Thief, but isn’t set in the specific universe. With it, fans can create levels for others to enjoy. Having been out in the wild for years now, it’s amassed a huge library of missions.
If you’re new to The Dark Mod, I’m here to help you find the best the game has to offer. And if you’re a veteran taffer, I’ve picked out some of my favourite new missions as well. Fair warning to those eager to jump in, though, The Dark Mod can be a bit rough around the edges, with cringeworthy narration and more than a few bugs to interrupt your plans. It’s also worth downloading the tutorial mission. Whether you’re new to Thief or not, The Dark Mod does a lot of things in its own way, especially with regards to controls. If you’re able to get on board with that, you’re in for a good time.
Let’s start with The Tears of St Lucia by Springheel and jdude, which is still one of the mod’s most elegant creations. You’re tasked with infiltrating a slum’s well-guarded church to steal everything you can, but the robbery is just a cover. Your real task is to vandalise a local statue that’s been proclaimed as a miracle. A bit of theft and vandalism is all in a good night’s work. It’s quite simple but is nonetheless full of secret entrances, patrolling guards and a few hidden treasures. St Lucia may be among the more conventional missions available, but it works as a great showcase for what The Dark Mod can do.
Whilst I found Tears of St Lucia a bit straightforward, A Score to Settle (also by Springheel) is far larger and more complex. This sprawling level encompasses intertwining streets, tunnels and hideouts, with an objective to embarrass a notorious gang leader (you can’t say these fans aren’t inventive with their objectives). I was impressed with just how much of the map you can traverse, climbing over fences and ledges, which is handy not just for reaching goals, but for getting away from a pesky guard in pursuit. And once you’ve wrapped up all your objectives, you need to make a daring getaway across town. A perfect night out.
If you want to see The Dark Mod really flex its muscles, then look no further than Full Moon Fever by Spoonman. This is a classic, enticing Thief-style mission. A sprawling manor to rob, with the untimely death of its lord serving as a mystery at the heart of it all. The wonderful thing about the mission is how it starts out offering an elaborate mansion full of guards to navigate and overcome, but then you find out that’s not even half of what it has to show. Investigating the murder of the lord leads to the level flipping on its head, going from a classic robbery mission to a full on horror show. And there’s more! I almost burst out laughing as it just kept going and going, offering yet another exciting area or twist. It’s a true pleasure to play through, thanks to a fairly deft hand for environmental storytelling.
From the same creator comes another stellar mission, King of the Mountain. This one is much more straightforward: you’re a prisoner looking to escape a notorious prison. Simple. Of course, you have to do so without any equipment whatsoever, and you need to navigate this labyrinth without any map or clues. With plenty of guards around every corner, the odds feel decisively stacked against you, so prevailing feels all the more satisfying. Yet what lingers with me – as with Spoonman’s previous map—is the ability to tell a story through the sights you find around the level. A makeshift boxing ring in one corner of the prison tells you all you need to know about the kind of place that you’re escaping.
Speaking of such details, let me introduce Down by the Riverside by Dragofer, a fun and atmospheric mission that opens with you hidden aboard a boat to reach a remote and supposedly haunted mansion. This one’s a doozy, packed full of surprising turns as it tells the tale of a troubled family. It can also be unbearably tense at times—the manor’s creepy atmosphere is almost suffocating as you try to avoid looters and worry about what’s actually in the basement. If this mission owes a debt to anything from Thief, it’s Robbing the Cradle from Deadly Shadows. Being able to remind me of that horror classic speaks to this fan creation’s quality.
Last but by no means least is Briarwood Manor by Chris ‘Neonstyle’ Kilgariff. This is a lavishly presented mission, that even comes with its own introductory FMV cutscene. It all takes place in a manor shrouded in fog, with a complex interior that oozes atmosphere. I found the whole place a little unhinged, with its flickering lanterns, upset horses and the steward, who finds the place cold and unwelcoming despite having stayed there for months. There’s more to it than just the presentation, though. With no map, no blackjack and limited water arrows, this is a real test of your skills. I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion. All in all, it’s one of the finest missions The Dark Mod has to offer.
These are some of my favourite single missions, but there’s plenty more available—from short, quick robberies, to multimission stories like the William Steele trilogy. And, if the community is anything to go by, there’ll be plenty more classics for years to come.
For more Dark Mod missions check out the missions section of the Dark Mod site.
Welcome back to the PC Gamer Q&A. Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which game were you the best at? We all have those games we become obsessed with, until we reach some level of mastery. We'd love to read your suggestions in the comments, too.
I never get too attached to one game for very long. I think the most time I've spent playing any one game is Borderlands 2 with something like 300 hours clocked, and I don't even like it that much. But when I do love a game, it's a swift, dedicated, blinding attachment, usually the product of horrible depression or anxiety. So it's weird that I would play Super Hexagon during one of the most difficult months of my life, but I did, and it helped me calm down. Within a week I beat the hardest difficulty and managed to stretch nearly a minute beyond the 'win' time, though I can't remember my times exactly. When you see that game for the first time, it's almost not easy to parse what's going on. Between the rotating screen, flashing colors, and intense chiptune soundtrack, maneuvering that tiny triangle for even a few seconds was impossible at first. But then it wasn't impossible, just difficult. Then it wasn't difficult, it was second nature. It's a silly example, but I try to remember that when I don't feel capable. Super Hexagon is more potent than any quote from a dead philosopher.
Years ago, a friend and I spent a good week mastering the wonderful tower defense game PixelJunk Monsters on PS3, which had a rare co-op mode that let you run around the map together building and buffing towers. So when we happened upon another cute tower defense game on Steam with online co-op, we decided to give it a shot. And for a couple weeks we were utterly addicted to Tower Wars.
It's classic Tower Defense, really: you build mazes out of towers, upgrade them as you get more cash, and defeat hordes of enemies as they wind their way towards your base. But in online multiplayer, you had to manage building your own defenses and send waves of units crashing down on your opponents. We played the 2v2 mode and quickly developed a pretty effective strategy. Cheap towers to sketch out just enough of our maze to handle early waves, and then rush the right combination of fast units to send our opponents into a panic. We figured out some good unit combinations and managed to win against most of our opponents. It was a winning spree of only a few days, but man it felt good.
Only a few thousand people owned Tower Wars when it first came out, and I don't remember how many people were on the 2v2 leaderboard, but I do remember we got down below 100. Maybe 80? Maybe 40? We were definitely some of the best players in the world. Never mind that it was a very small pool. Wherever we peaked, we definitely started playing against opponents who could outlast our rush strategy and slowly wear us down with clearly superior maze building. Those matches would drag on for so long that Tower Wars' framerate would slow to a crawl as we delayed the inevitable. We knew we'd topped out. But for those couple of weeks, we were unstoppable.
I'm sad to say it's Half-Life 2: Deathmatch. Damn, I was good at that. Something about flinging around toilets and file cabinets with a gravity gun was second nature to me and it's pretty much the only multiplayer game where I'd routinely wind up with the most kills. And there's no better kill than a toilet kill, except possibly using the gravity gun to catch someone's pulse rifle orb and fling it back at them. I was good at that too.
Unfortunately, HL2 Deathmatch was about as popular as an antlion at a beach party and quickly fell by the wayside. Maybe everyone got tired of being killed by flying toilets. Or maybe it just wasn't a good multiplayer game. I guess I'll just wait for Half-Life 3: Deathmatch. Should be out soon, right?
This feels like a very deliberate attempt to trap me into answering Hearthstone again, which I will now step smoothly into. The one time I put the effort into grinding to legend rank remains the single hardest thing I've done in a game (even though I played Zoo for quite a bit of the way), and so seeing that card back reward pop when I made it is also one of my happiest moments. For the rest of the month I tooled around playing comedy decks with the pressure off, and one Sunday afternoon managed to find myself at about rank 400-and-something (blaze it) on the EU server with Yogg & Load Hunter. For about an hour or so, I was technically, sort of, the 400th-ish best player in Europe. Contract offers from pro teams should be directed to the usual address.
Most of my best games aren't on PC, so I was having a hard time choosing—until Tim answered Hearthstone. Which reminded me that, for a glorious hour, I was legend rank four (which, correct me if I'm wrong, is better and handsomer than 400-and-something) on the North American server. It was during Midrange Paladin's Goblins vs. Gnomes heyday. I built a list with two Equality, two Solemn Vigil, one Defender of Argus and only one Quartermaster, and climbed the ladder with a 67 percent win rate. It's still the only time I've actually recorded Hearthstone matches. That deck absolutely feasted on the Zoolocks and Handlocks in that meta. I hit legend at rank 13, and climbed to rank four before being beaten back by a wave of Rogues. Which was when I, too, started playing meme decks.
After finishing Thief on normal difficulty I went back and did it all again on expert, 100% loot. I was unemployed and living with my parents, which is the only reason I had time for it. Replaying it more recently I'm pretty average, and have forgotten where half the secrets are. But on the other hand I don't sleep on a mattress on the floor of my parents' spare room these days so it's hard to feel sad about my atrophied stealth skills.
I was an untouchable OG Doom machine. Ultimate, Master Levels, Lost Episodes, WAD CDs, you name it, I slapped 'em all around like they were a pistol zombie standing in the middle of a room full of barrels. Opportunities for multiplayer were far rarer than they are now—you could go one-on-one over a phone line, or put yourself through the hellish wringer of setting up an IPX network for some four-way fun—but I was a monster there, too. And strictly with the keyboard—it never occurred to me to play with the mouse at first, and mouseketeers couldn't keep up anyway so I never saw a point in changing. (This attitude would come back to bite me in the ass when I attempted to take on Quake.)
At one point I exchanged a few messages with American McGee on the Software Creations BBS in an attempt to shit-talk John Romero into taking me on. McGee politely but firmly told me to stop bugging him.
I'll never be Batman, but in Arkham City's challenge rooms I got pretty damned close—while still being able to maintain my diet of cheeses and red wine. The amount of tools you get deep into the second Batman game, like the ice bomb and the remote electrical charge, give you numerous ways to creatively deal with Gotham's thugs and send your score soaring. It's terrific to just practice that until you can perfect each room without breaking your combo or taking a hit. I never quite mastered Arkham Knight in the same way.
But what about you, reader? Let us know below.
Welcome back to the PCG Q&A. Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: what's your favourite game world or setting? We also welcome your answers in the comments.
At the risk of sounding masochistic, Sevastopol Station in Alien: Isolation is the space that springs immediately to mind. The most appealing part of that game (in stark contrast with the least appealing part: the alien) was the coldness of its environment, and how eerily it channeled the moods of both the films and others, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also appealed to my love of hard science fiction: the clinical, whitewashed futurism of imagined space outposts, the inherent weirdness of a life spent in the stars. Several games have attempted this in the past and at least one since, but none have prompted me to stand in a control room for minutes at a time, silently marveling at the colour palette and wondering what it's meant to mean. Equally, few have made me feel as lonely and isolated like this game has. I think this game may have scarred me.
I felt a similar sensation among the stars in Elite Dangerous. And I’d hoped to feel something similar in Prey, but that game felt too contemporary, with its imagined former citizens arranging Dungeon and Dragons sessions and chatting lightheartedly in emails. Sevastopol Station feels like it belongs to a wrong, parallel future, one that we imagined in the ‘80s, and you can see Creative Assembly channeling that in the VHS grain of their menu screens. I’ll occasionally boot this game up just to relish that mood, only to shut it down in a hurry once something wants to kill me.
I like that the setting of the original Thief games was only ever called "the City". I like that there's no exposition at the start so you discover things like the fact it has electricity by stumbling across humming streetlamps and power generators. I like that you almost always see it at night ('Break From Cragscleft Prison' takes place during the day, but you're outside the bounds of the City during that level). I like the Tudor houses and the washing lines strung between them and the sounds of people having fun that seep out tavern windows like the flickering light. I like that the City changes, that it moves into the Metal Age and becomes more high-tech without ending up with lame steampunk affectations like goggles on top hats. I like that there's an entire district walled off to keep the living dead in and a haunted madhouse that doubled as an orphanage and yet people still live near those places because what are you going to do, move to the country? Of course not. The City is great. I'd live there.
The island changes every time, but the feel of the world is constantly wonderful. I boot that game up sometimes to take a kind of desk-holiday from whatever is stressing me out. I can chase after rabbits or watch for owls. There are rain showers which pass overhead and blossom floating from trees. There are the grave stones and the little cabin and the ruins. Small crab-creatures pepper the shore line. There are mushrooms in the welcoming fug of autumn and a crystalline chill in the winter. I know the elements of the world by heart, but I'll always be taken by surprise by some new configuration or by something I've forgotten popping into view. Proteus, for me, is a mixture of comfort and delight—a little digital sanctuary sprinkled with blue chickens.
Every since I was old enough to read, I've had this strange fascination with nuclear weapons. So when Wasteland came out on my Commodore-64 in 1988, you can imagine how pleased I was. And the game didn't disappoint. Guns, robots, radioactive mutants, religious crazies, and more made it one of the formative experiences of my youth. The later Fallout games were a great spiritual successor, followed by an official sequel with Wasteland 2 several years ago. Not surprisingly, I backed that, as well as the more recent Fig campaign for Wasteland 3.
What is it that draws me to the wastes? I blame my love of the outdoors—there's nothing better than a campout in the mountains, roasting food over a fire and hanging out with friends. The wilderness survival instinct in me enjoys exploring the radioactive ruins of our modern world, and without any of the nasty bug bites, blisters, or death that I might have to deal with in the real world. If there's ever a real apocalypse—and I somehow manage to survive—you can expect to find me roaming the countryside, wearing a badge and trying to bring back some semblance of law and order. I've had a few decades of virtual practice now, so I'm ready.
I remember the first time I decided to stay out late in Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. I'd gained some familiarity with the Zone, and what I thought was a halfway-decent gun, so as the sky started to darken I didn't make my usual beeline back to camp. To my horror, I discovered that unlike most games, where nighttime simply means a different color palette in the sky, Stalker's evenings were dark. Really dark. Long story short, I made for a fire I saw in the distance, got jumped by a two-headed Carthaginian war elephant that breathed fire (although in hindsight, I'm pretty sure it was just a pseudodog), screamed like it was my first time on a roller coaster, and through it all, somehow, did not die. It was nothing but stupid luck and three half-drunk bozos around a campfire that kept me alive that night.
But it was also the moment that I first came to appreciate something else that was different about Stalker. The Zone doesn't care. It's not there to fuel and funnel your superhero fantasies about saving the world; it just is. If you forget that, it'll happily kick your ass and not even tell you why. There's something about that uncaring, unscaling indifference to the very fact of your existence that I adore. Sure, you'll eventually end up a tough guy, with big guns and great armor. But there are lots of other tough guys roaming around out there too, and they'll stick it to you without blinking if you give them half a chance. How do you not love that?
I get why everyone is kind of down on Fallout 4. The main story is a wash and it's a far weaker role-playing platform than Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 3, but it also nails Fallout's uniquely flavored apocalypse. It's overflowing with what are, to me, the two definitive Fallout characteristics: found shelters and '80s sci-fi.
From Diamond City's settlers to the Brotherhood of Steel's zeppelin to that pirate ship full of robots, the people of the Wasteland are more like hermit crabs than refugees. They hole up in whatever they happen upon and gradually build it up, so you wind up with these unorthodox, flavorful settlements and structures that feel handcrafted and genuinely lived-in. They might be surrounded by sprawling, generic shacks, but there's always something unique at their core that dictates how they sprawl. Which dovetails with my second point: Fallout 4 isn't just any future, it's the future envisioned by '80s scientists and filmmakers, all lasers and robot assistants and nukes beyond the dreams of avarice. It's this absurd, distinctive mix of the Jetsons, the Matrix and Mad Max, but it works because of the flexibility of the nuclear MacGuffin and because humanity is the through-line.
Clearly, GTA 5's Los Santos is the king of open world environments. I'm just saying this so you don't think I'm being a contrarian, because technically it's a way more impressive open world than the ageing Liberty City. And yet, the heart says GTA 4's open world is more evocative. Its golden skies and densely packed streets feel eerily close to real life, but it feels a little bit magical, too—like someone's half-remembered living in New York a decade ago, and captured the life of the place, if not exactly what it was like. It's still my favourite Rockstar environment. Well, while Red Dead Redemption isn't on PC, anyway.
But what about your choices? Let us know below.
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 —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?
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.
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!"
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 . The year after that Arkane teamed with Bethesda to bring out Dishonored, a game in the lineage of Thief which enjoyed "" 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.
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?
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 . 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."
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."
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."
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You may know Steven Spielberg for his hit films like E.T. and Jurassic Park, but did you know his name was once 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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' 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 , and give it a shot.
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 : “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.
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.
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 : “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 and it’s fairly simple to make them easier on the eyes and our modern design sensibilities.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 , “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 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 : “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.
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 , 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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.