Alien: Isolation

Warning! Spoilers ahead for Alien: Covenant.

Since the release of Alien: Covenant I’ve seen a few people ranking the famously inconsistent series from best to worst. Resurrection reliably festers at the bottom of most people’s lists, and for many Covenant isn’t that far off. But I also noticed a lot of people including Alien: Isolation in their list, and often rubbing shoulders with the acclaimed first two films. This is a testament to the quality and authenticity of the game, but also suggests that people are getting something out of it that the latest film failed to provide.

Covenant was marketed and described in preview coverage as a return to Alien’s horror roots. But anyone expecting a slasher flick in space with none of the earnest philosophical melodrama that weighed Prometheus down will have been disappointed. Covenant is Prometheus 2: Prometheus Harder, book-ended by a retread of the original film minus any the mystery or suspense. People complained about the absence of facehuggers and xenomorphs in Prometheus, and this is the result. Proof that you should never listen to people.

I have a lot of issues with Alien: Covenant. I had (perhaps blinkered) faith in Ridley Scott, convinced he had one more great Alien movie in him, but I left the cinema feeling much the same as I did when I emerged blinking and bewildered from Prometheus in 2012. But one of its biggest problems is showing you far too much of the alien. The original film hid the creature in the shadows, giving you only brief, close-up glimpses of it. This was because Bolaji Badejo’s rubber suit would have looked unconvincing under the glare of a bright light—a limitation that ultimately made the movie scarier.

The alien is just as scary and, arguably, sometimes scarier when you can't see it at all

In Covenant, however, Scott had no such limitations. And thanks to the ‘magic’ of computer animation, the last quarter of the film is heaving with brightly-lit shots of the alien scuttling about. Not only does the CG feel weightless and unconvincing, but it turns the enigmatic creature that terrorised the crew of the Nostromo so effectively into just another movie monster. It simply isn’t scary anymore, and the frustrating thing is, Scott knew it. “Fans wanted to see more of the original monster,” he said in an interview. “I thought it was cooked, but I was wrong.” See what I mean about never listening to people?

But the blame doesn’t lie with the xenomorph itself. It’s how it’s used. One of Isolation’s greatest strengths is that it understands that the creature is just as scary—and, arguably, sometimes scarier—when you can’t see it at all. Just hearing the distant thud of its footsteps or it clanging through a vent is enough to make your heart race. And it makes those rare moments when it finally does reveal itself, slithering out of the shadows, even more powerful. And I think this is at the core of why many consider the game to be a more effective, genuine Alien experience than anything in the last two films. Because it reminds us that the xenomorph still has the innate power to terrify.

Not to mention the fact that there’s no ponderous, long-winded section in the middle of Isolation where one Working Joe teaches another how to play the flute. The scenes in the Engineer temple in Covenant are Scott at his most indulgent and pseudo-philosophical. It grinds the film to a halt and fills your head with tedious exposition. It answers questions that didn’t need to be answered, hammering the final rusty nails into the coffin of any beguiling mystery this series once had. Knowing David created the xenomorphs adds nothing and takes everything away from them.

When the Nostromo lands on LV-426 and the crew discovers the derelict ship, the fear of the unknown is palpable. Giger’s ship is utterly alien and inscrutable, which makes the descent into its bio-mechanical depths simmer with suspense. The same scene is repeated in Covenant on the Engineer planet, but the near-identical shot of the crashed ship has no impact whatsoever. You immediately know that it must have once belonged to some blue guys, and that it’s probably filled with facehugger eggs or vials of black goo.

On the other hand, Isolation keeps the mystery intact. It tells a small story about one character in one space station and is all the better for it. There’s a lot more to it than the first Alien, of course, with acres of backstory about Sevastopol to devour. But it’s still positively parochial compared to the bloated, sprawling mythology set up in Prometheus. The story is the weakest part of Isolation, but it’s really just an excuse to lock you in a confined space with an alien—and that’s all it needs to be. The really interesting stories in Isolation are the ones you create yourself when you’re evading and outsmarting the alien.

Scott has more Alien sequels planned, and with each one I feel like it’ll sail deeper into the pack ice. When he made the first film he was a bold, untested young director with an uncompromising vision and a remarkable eye for detail. And I feel like that’s what the next film needs. An emerging talent who can come at it from a fresh, contemporary perspective and make it vital again. But until then, unless the next film really is a return to its horror roots, Isolation is the closest thing we have to that original masterpiece.

Alien: Isolation

The Humble Store Spring Sale is in full swing, and all the developers and publishers seem to be getting in on the party. Today, the SEGA Spring Sale begins, and lasts until Friday, May 19. 

In this deal you'll find the likes of Total War: Warhammer, Company of Heroes 2, the Alien: Isolation Collection, and much more for far cheaper than you'd normally find them.

Total War: Warhammer is one of our favorite strategy games of the last few years, and it's down to £20 / $30 in the sale. Check out our review if you want to know more about it.

Company of Heroes 2 is down to £7 / $5 for the rest of the week. It's several years old now, but it's got a fairly lengthy single player campaign and great multiplayer if you can find other people playing.

Alien: Isolation is, according to our review, the game the Alien series has always deserved. Grab it for £3.74 / $10 if you're looking for some horror this week.

Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info. 

Alien: Isolation

We loved Alien: Isolation when it came out back in 2014. Andy's review says it's "the game the Alien series has always deserved. A deep, fun stealth game set in an evocatively realized sci-fi world." If spooky games are your thing, or if you love the Alien universe and haven't tried out Isolation yet, then it's your lucky day. You can grab the Alien: Isolation Collection on Bundle Stars for 82 percent off for the next 24 hours, taking the price down to £6.29 or $8.89.

For the whopping discount you get the base game plus a whole bunch of DLC. You're essentially getting the Season Pass and everything that's been added on in the past couple of years. You'll get The Trigger, Lost Contact, Safe Haven, Last Survivor, Crew Expendable, Corporate Lockdown, and Trauma add-ons. These bring new maps for the various game modes, and new characters to play as. 

As for the main game itself, you play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, and it's set 15 years after the original film. You search space station Sevastopol for clues to your mother's whereabouts, but it's clear there's something seriously wrong on the station when you arrive.

Bundle Stars' deal is an even better price than on Steam, where it's a mere 75 percent off right now. You don't have long to take advantage of the sale though, so grab it before 5pm BST / 9am PT tomorrow, May 13. 

Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info. 

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I really don’t want to die. Someday I will, though, and it will probably suck. I worry about drowning, being burned alive, bears having me for dinner (it happens where I’m from), or tripping and bashing my head open on a gumball machine—and most popular horror games are good at turning those fears, other than the gumball one, into palpable threats. But in focusing so much on depicting the act of dying, they ignore why I’m scared of dying. 

Games are good at delivering terror. They specialize in the apprehension that precedes an awful revelation. But once you’ve died, which is the horrific revelation part, suddenly there’s no longer anything to anticipate, and therefore nothing to be terrified of. Death becomes a certainty, and in traditional try-again games, it’s making the experience far less scary than it could be. 

In my review of Outlast 2, I said that its “commitment to building such a disorienting horror simulation is as admirable as it is annoying.” Most scenes take about five deaths to figure out. Five deaths is enough to see a monster, learn its simple AI routine, and memorize your escape route as well as your walk home from work. Since you know that finishing the game requires staying alive until the end, the overarching narrative tension also loses strength. And because you can die and restart at the last checkpoint, those spooky punches lose more of their sting with each attempt. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a grisly animation, and if getting your dick split in half over and over can sustain your interest here into oblivion, great. But even Resident Evil 7, which starts off with some of the best innovations in horror game history, falls into the same shoot or hide or die death trap over time. 

Popular horror games in the same style know how to tap into fleeting dick-splitting fears and often confront deeper psychological fears in their overarching themes, but the threat of death and repetition is still the dull captain steering the tension. It’s about time they stop trying so hard to kill us.  

Death to death

Death has always been games' most popular punishment. You can fail to perform a task and in the fiction of the world, die. Bummer! Back to the last checkpoint. Threatening the player with lost time through death is an easy way to build tension, but the tension is entirely detached from the fiction. There’s no time to focus on the monsters chasing us. 

During my second playthrough of Frictional Games' SOMA, I installed a mod called “Wuss Mode” that turns off predatory enemy AI. Instead of sneaking around the monsters, I got to know them—and yeah, I know what it sounds like. I watched them lumber around each environment like blind dogs. I didn’t feel physically threatened, but in observing the creatures, I started to sympathize with them. Like Frankenstein's monster, they were only dangerous in appearance, fearsome only in their most recognizable human qualities. What were they thinking? Why were they thinking? I had time to consider SOMA’s headier themes on what it means to be alive, to be a human. I was fine the first time I played it, but without obligatory videogame baddies shoving me through the experience, I soaked it in like a good novel, pausing on moving passages at will.

The Flesher isn't pleasant to look at, whether it's chasing you or not.

I still felt scared, not because I was being bludgeoned with a biomechanical arm, but because because I was confronted with some awful, scary truths about the nature of life. There’s terror in the build up towards a horrific revelation in finding out what the monsters represent, and uninterrupted time to reflect those ideas back onto myself. Consciousness, man. What even is that stuff? Hell if I know. And that’s scary enough. Some of the best horror games are built around the same idea, of producing horror without death as a system.

But some just want to be schlocky fun, a ride through some spooks and gore and dim hallways. That’s all good and wholesome, but the issue remains: death and repetition are still a tedious, emotional dead end. If they’re a necessary part of the experience, how can games sustain interest and scares five attempts in?  

Systems make great painkillers

What games like Outlast 2 and Amnesia get wrong is often cited as their boldest design choice: putting limitations on or completely removing combat. I don’t mean to say that I want to kill every enemy in those games, but restricting players to a tiny set of interactions is also a good way to stunt their creativity. If the enemies are on full alert and I’m stuck hiding, I only have two primary options: sneak or run. Chances are I’ll die doing both, and I’ll need to make several attempts to learn patrol routes or where to sprint next to trigger a checkpoint. 

I can’t pick up an errant plank and bash a cultist over the head with it or grab a torch and light an oil drum on fire as a distraction—there’s no incentive to being clever and terror only works if you don’t know where the boogeyman is hiding. But as opposed to one right way and one wrong way to navigate an area, taking a more systems-driven approach to horror game design can give you a dozen ways to get through with style, 10 ways to barely scrape by, and countless ways to screw up and die.

In Dishonored 2, if I’m backed into a corner, I can still improvise an escape plan. Maybe I toss a bucket to distract and then swan dive into my doppleganger from six stories up. Or possess a guard, hop to a rat, and scurry away. It’s not the perfect example because it turns the player into a clever god, but still makes me wonder what a horror version of such a system-focused game would look like.

Resident Evil 7 could feel like an unsanctioned Home Alone sequel where the burglars want to eat your face.

Imagine one that has the kind of player freedom that enables this astounding Dishonored 2 run, but instead of killing dozens of guards, you knock over a stack of books in the library to throw the monster off your tail. Then you sneak up and stab it with a broken broomstick, which permanently slows the monster down, giving you time to cover yourself in mud to hide your scent or build construct some combustible traps out of found objects in the workshop.  

With that kind of systemic variety, something like Resident Evil 7 could feel like an unsanctioned Home Alone sequel where the burglars want to eat your face. I’d love nothing more than to see Jack react to a barrage of swinging paint cans to the mug.

The more options a player has to evade a threat, then the more deaths can be justifiably blamed on the lack of player ingenuity rather than narrow level design or failing to do the prescribed sprint-and-stealth dance. To be clear, the kind of systems I’m suggesting should not make the player feel more powerful than their pursuer. They just need to provide more exit routes and the chance to think creatively in desperate moments. I just want to run through a few more options before going with ‘die and try again.’ I want to feel solely responsible for my survival and I want surviving to be a new process every time. 

Still, the problem of the horrific revelation remains. When the player dies and gets to try again, smart systems can make terror renewable, but what about the comedown after you see the monster? And what if it backs you into a corner, helpless? Should that be game over? If terror can be a renewable resource, then so can horror. 

Variety is the spice of death

While I don’t consider it to be the second coming of survival horror so many do, Resident Evil 7’s first few hours house some of the best ideas for dealing with death I’ve seen in popular horror games. All videogames have the death problem, convinced that as soon as a bad guy gets you, they’ll just kill you and call it a day. A villain that just murders as quickly and efficiently as possible is a boring one.

Jack Baker, the first monster you meet in Resident Evil 7, is a more complex, charismatic dude than a tag-‘em-and-bag-‘em killer looking to just clock out for the day. He’s the kind of guy who wants to take his time. He calls out your name like a schoolyard bully, compares you to a pig and summons you for dinner, grins and laughs and stares directly at you from across the room. And he never outright sprints for you, opting for a steady, brisk walk as if your end is already assured. 

When Jack does catch you, the majority of deaths end with a gruesome animation and a game over screen—the terror falls off and diminishes as we start again. But during a few specific instances, death is not the end.  

Early on, Jack can corner you in a room behind the kitchen and knock you to the floor after which he chops off your leg with a shovel. You can pick up your leg and add it to your inventory, which you’ll need to do if you want to survive. And that’s the surprise, that you can survive the whole ordeal. In any other game, I’d expect to just bleed out (and you can), but Jack crosses the room, crouches, and taunts you with a bottle of healing medicine.

If you manage to crawl over and grab the bottle, you can put your leg back in place, pour some magic medicine on it, and watch it fuse back together. You put your goddamn leg back on. And then Jack slams his shovel down, let’s you know daddy’s coming, and the chase is back on. 

These scenes, rare as they are, all teach the player that Jack is a true madman. They also inform you about the state of the world (and strange regenerative state of Ethan, the main character), as well as delivering a punchy horror scene. When I watched my leg fuse mend and then heard Jack coming for me again, I was terrified of him as a person and horrified of what he might be capable of. He was no longer strictly a walking game over state. 

Death, like horror tropes in film, can and should be subverted in order to maintain tension before and after scares take place. Players shouldn’t be able to predict what happens before or after they shake hands with a threat, be it a monster or a man or a bunny with vampire teeth. Horror games are best when they strive to stay unfamiliar, and in adopting a familiar die-and-try-again videogame death system, they’re knocking the wind out of their scares already before anyone presses start.  

For more on horror, check out list of the best horror games on PC, our list of the horror game clichés that need to stop, and our hands-on impressions of Serious Metal Detecting, which isn't a horror game but playing it is like staring into a dark mirror and feeling nothing, forever and always. 

Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation was not only our favourite horror game of 2014, but also our favourite game of the entire year. It's a masterclass in gamified suspense, tension and stealth—and is the game the Alien series has always deserved, as Andy duly noted in his review

If you're yet to experience Ripley's horrifying adventure, Bundle Stars is putting its Alien: Isolation Collection on sale for 72 hours from today, with an 82 percent discount. For just £6.39/$8.99, this bundle nets you the base game plus its seven instalments of DLC—which would ordinarily set you back £34.99/$50.  

In celebration of this, not to mention the imminent arrival of the Alien: Covenant movie this May, Bundle Stars is also offering Alien aficionados the chance to win its one-off Alien Loot Bundle. Here's what could be yours:

  • Legendary Encounters Alien Deckbuilding Game
  • Legendary Encounters Alien Expansion
  • The Art of Alien: Isolation (Hardcover Book)
  • Prometheus to Alien: The Evolution Box Set (Blu Ray)
  • Alien 1979 Original Aliens Frame Ready Matted Movie 35mm Film Cells
  • Alien the Archive: The Ultimate Guide to the Classic Movies (Hardcover Book)
  • Aliens 30th Anniversary: The Original Comics Series (Hardcover Graphic Novel)
  • Ripley White Nostromo Spacesuit Figure
  • Alien Extreme Bobble Head
  • Aliens Bust Bank
  • Aliens vs Predator Collection (Steam key)

Ten runners up will also nab an Alien vs Predator Collection Steam key. For you chance to win, simply follow the instructions in the widget below. Good luck!

PC Gamer

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 301. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.  

More than any other artform, gaming is defined by antagonism. From the earliest arcade machines to the most extravagant FPS, pitching the player against an external threat has been one of the industry’s foundational elements. As gaming evolved beyond the quickfire pleasures of the arcade, so have the opponents the player faces. The barrel-lobbing, space-invading pixels of the ’80s have been replaced by evil fantasy overlords, megalomaniacal dictators and rogue AIs. Many of gaming’s most iconic characters are its villains, from Monkey Island’s ghost pirate LeChuck, to System Shock’s almighty SHODAN.

At their finest, villains can challenge the player not just on a physical level, but on a moral and ethical one, and gaming is uniquely equipped to portray these scheming, deceptive opponents. It can enable them to get inside the protagonist’s head—literally, in some cases—or allow the player to judge their twisted morality for themselves. Soon, gaming may even be able to present us with villains that adapt to the player’s behaviour. 

“Everyone likes villains,” says Tom Jubert, the writer behind Frictional’s Penumbra series, The Swapper, and the Talos Principle. “They’re just more fun... you can have them do some crazy, really far-out stuff. They’re super-interesting because they have to be conflicted, and they have to wind up doing these terrible things for plausible reasons. So everyone likes villains before you even start.”

Villains are particularly enticing because they allow us to explore thoughts and actions which are unacceptable in everyday life, embracing and exploiting power or anarchy without being burdened by feelings of guilt or shame that would normally accompany such behaviour. “Who isn’t a little bit moved by the anarchy of the Joker?” says Jubert. “There’s always something a little bit glamorous, a little bit attractive about their worldview. That’s what makes it really exciting.”

This idea of villains being more fun as characters is particularly relevant to games, where the player often fills the protagonist’s role. Much of Jubert’s work has been on projects where the game is first-person and the main character is mute. “That in itself means that the villain is going to take on a hell of a lot more of the character of the game than the central character is,” he points out.

It’s not surprising that this style of storytelling has produced some of the industry’s most memorable villains. System Shock’s SHODAN, BioShock’s Andrew Ryan, and Portal’s GlaDOS are frequently ranked among gaming’s best villains, and they all star in games where the player character is barely fleshed out at all. Devoid of a compellingly written protagonist, the antagonist must shoulder the burden of making the game spark with character. 

Jubert’s own villains are very much in this vein, although intriguingly, many of them don’t take physical form either. “There’s a weirdly high proportion of my villains who don’t even exist before the game starts,” he laughs. The most well-known of these is Clarence, the antagonist of Penumbra: Black Plague. Clarence emerges as the result of a strange virus that infects the protagonist early in the game. Initially part of the protagonist’s mind, Clarence gradually forms an identity of his own.

Jubert first conceived of Clarence as a computer virus with whom the player would interact in a branching narrative, but the Frictional team were uncertain about developing interactive dialogue, so he came up with something else. “I wanted to do something that took advantage of the few resources that we had. We knew we were never going to have an on-screen character,” he says. “So to put it inside the character’s head was a nice way of how to avoid another radio character going on.”

Good people are capable of terribly evil things.

David Gaider, Dragon Age: Origins

As a character, Clarence bears many similarities to Batman’s Joker. He is by turns comical and sinister, and likes to manipulate the player into dangerous situations and committing morally compromising acts. But what makes Clarence memorable is how he messes with the player’s perspective. Early in the game, Clarence discovers he can alter what the player sees. At first he uses this to play practical jokes on the player, making doors vanish and reappear. But as he grasps the extent of his power, his pranks become far more malicious. “I was really proud of those bits, because they cost nothing to do,” says Jubert. “It’s just teleporting the player around some cheap level design. But the impact combined with the writing can be, I think, quite powerful.” 

This technique is also used by Rocksteady’s Batman games, particularly in the Scarecrow sections of Arkham Asylum, and Batman’s projection of the Joker in Arkham Knight. It’s a simple but effective way of demonstrating the villain’s power over the player, while exploring the relative nature of the player’s perspective, inviting them to question the nature of their identity.

Incarnate

Games excel at portraying these kinds of villains, the post-human puppet-masters who pull the player’s strings. Rarely seen yet ever-present, they manipulate the player remotely, often forcing them to run a deadly maze while they await a fi nal confrontation in some distant ivory tower. Yet while the likes of Clarence and Arkham’s Joker are showstopper characters, always ready with a memorable one-liner or a brilliantly insane plan, they’re diffi cult to empathise with, to relate to on a human level.

The most terrifying villains are not all-powerful AIs or gleeful psychopaths, but people who you can see yourself in if you had just made different choices. These more human villains are considerably rarer in gaming, simply because creating convincing characters in a game world is one of the hardest things a developer can do. 

Nevertheless, there are some superb examples of human villains in gaming, and one of the best is Loghain Mac Tir, the main antagonist of BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins. Loghain commands the armies of king Cailan in the fi ght against the Darkspawn, but he abandons Cailan during a climactic early battle. Leaving the king to die, Loghain declares himself regent, seizes power for himself and declares any who might oppose him traitors to the crown.

David Gaider was lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins, and he explains that Loghain formed part of the game’s general shift toward a more morally ambiguous form of RPG. “A lot of Dragon Age was us at BioWare reacting to things we did or didn’t like about Dungeons & Dragons as a game system or a setting, so I’d say the effort to move to something more morally grey was intentional. Good people are capable of terribly evil things, and terrible people are capable of great good.”

The reasons behind Loghain’s betrayal of Cailan are deeply complex, stemming partly from a concern that Cailan plans to abandon queen Anora—Loghain’s daughter—in pursuit of a marriage alliance with another realm, and partly from his view that Cailan’s reliance on bravery and valour over a sound tactical advantage will prove poor weapons against the Darkspawn. Nevertheless, for Gaider, the core motivation behind Loghain’s decisions remained the same. “It was always that Loghain would be someone who perceived himself as the good guy,” he says. “I think those are the villains that intrigue me the most, the ones where you can put yourself in their shoes and imagine you’d make exactly the same decisions even if you opposed them.”

Any trickery would feel like the game was cheating.

This is a concept that’s been explored further in games such as The Walking Dead and The Witcher 3, where the line between good and evil is so blurred that at times it’s difficult to tell them apart. In Dragon Age the water isn’t quite so muddied. Many of Loghain’s actions are undoubtedly evil, but motivating them are visibly human emotions: fear, conviction, and love for his daughter, Anora. Where Dragon Age goes farther than most games is in how it allows the player to make a final judgement on Loghain. 

In a climactic encounter at a gathering known as the Landsmeet, the player can duel with Loghain and, if he is defeated, decide whether to kill him, spare him, or even recruit him into your party (at the cost of another party member, Alistair). “Part of making Loghain’s motives understandable is allowing for the possibility that a player might not hate him, and might picture him as simply misguided. It was intentional, and in many ways I myself viewed him more as a tragic figure,” says Gaider. “It made the decision to kill him more poignant, I think, in that there was also the option for redemption.”

This kind of flexibility in a villain’s character and how the player can respond to it is entirely unique to gaming. It isn’t just the remit of RPGs either, games like The Stanley Parable offer an antagonist whose relationship constantly alters toward you depending on the choices you make. 

That said, nearly all the games mentioned above rely heavily on the ability of the writer to create such memorable villains. Is it possible to construct a villain entirely through a game’s systems? Certainly, developers can create antagonists this way, a practice you can see anywhere from racing games to computerised chess. But a villain is more than a mere opponent. They are singular, with a clear identity and motivation. And they need to be cunning, capable of deceiving and manipulating the player.

Silent villain

One game that demonstrates many of these elements is Alien: Isolation, The Creative Assembly’s stealth horror game in which the player is stalked through Sevastopol station by the Alien. Because it is ultimately an animal, the Xenomorph has no dialogue and therefore no script through which it can be infused with personality. Instead, the Alien’s character is formed systemically, through how it dynamically hunts the player. Far from simple patrol paths, the creature is scripted to be unpredictable yet deliberate, to exhibit all the cunning and moment-to-moment decision-making of an apex predator. 

To achieve this, The Creative Assembly built a unique, multi-layered AI system. “Our basic premise for the AI was ‘not to cheat’,” says Clive Gratton, technical director on Alien: Isolation. “The level is pre-processed to find interesting places for the Alien to search. We then drop it in with a few parameters to say how fast to search, where and what size radius. If the Alien hasn’t spotted the player then it’ll do a leisurely search of a large area.” By comparison, if the Alien has spotted the player running into a room, then it will do a far more thorough search of that particular region. 

Part of this “honest” approach to AI design was to keep the Alien’s presence in the ship consistent with how the player perceives it, and this applies equally to when the Xenomorph is not on screen. “If you can hear the Alien in the vents close to you then there’s more chance that it can hear you and will come down. It is actually traversing through the vent network,” Gratton says. This approach is a fascinating inversion of how villains like Clarence and Loghain are designed, where deceiving the player with narrative tricks is a key part of making them “feel” villainous. Here, any trickery would simply make the player feel like the game was cheating and spoil the immersion.

We wanted the Alien big so that it had presence, and the environment small so that it was claustrophobic.

Clive Gratton, Alien: Isolation

Alongside its artificial intelligence, Isolation’s level design is almost as important in making the Alien’s character convincing. Not only do the environments aid the Xenomorph’s navigation, containing objects that “call out” to the Alien as locations it should search, but the overarching level design had to be extremely precise in size and layout to sustain the threatening atmosphere. 

“We wanted the Alien to be big so that it had presence.” Gratton says. “We wanted the environment small so that it was claustrophobic. This made animation, AI and locomotion difficult at times because the character had to negotiate the world very accurately so that it didn’t bump into doorways and look silly.”

This potential for slapstick and weirdness, a feature that is actively encouraged in open-world games and management sims, is what makes creating a systems-driven villain so difficult. Even for an enemy as fundamentally inhuman as the Xenomorph, creating a convincing effect requires a meticulous design. But Alien: Isolation has shown that it is possible to frame a horror game around a single character, and now other developers are looking to build on its template. Capcom’s Resident Evil 7, for example, has a similar structure to Isolation, but switches out the Xenomorph for a family of virus-infected hillbillies, attaching those deadly hide-and-seek behaviours to human adversaries. 

It’s also no great stretch to imagine Isolation’s design applied to a game like System Shock. Imagine a SHODAN who doesn’t just taunt you over the space station’s intercom, but can lock and open doors, switch off gravity or suck the oxygen out of a room at will, all through systemic decision making rather than scripted narrative. Gaming is becoming increasingly adept at engendering character through systems. This, I believe, is where the next big leap forward in virtual villainy lies.

PC Gamer

If you're playing a first-person game in 2017 your character probably has hands. Let's not take this for granted; in Half-Life 2 we picked up cups and threw them at combine soldiers using magic. Hands in first-person games are great. They can gesture, hesitate, declare intent, swear, punch—all the videogame things. They affect the world and communicate at the same time. I want to see Gordon Freeman's fat wiggling fingers wrap themselves tightly around the cup, and then splay outwards upon release, perhaps curling again to form a thumbs-up as the mug clatters off the soldier's stupid face.

Hands in games keep getting better. Last night I was playing Resident Evil 7, a game that repeatedly tries to murder your hands. They are stabbed, smashed, chopped up with such violence that it's a relief to watch Ethan pour soothing healing juice all over them. Resi 7 wants you to love those hands. When you go near a wall they go up and press up against the surface as if to say 'careful, dear player'. The block button sends them up in defensive claws. 'I've got this,' they say, 'we can catch that chainsaw for you.' Thanks hands, you're the best. 

Of course they never feel like my hands, but this is the other fascinating thing about hands in games. Sensibly, you don't generally get the chance to see other people's hands up close for extended periods. They're amazing, precise, fantastically articulate tools, and I love the way animators bring them to life. Resi 7's engine is really good at modeling the way light interacts with different surfaces. Ethan's hands seem luminous and alive when they pass through the torch light. Thin and pale, they show how hands can capture an entire game's aesthetic. Compare Resi's realism to Henry's big cartoon hands in Firewatch.

I don't find myself embodied in a 1:1 sense by hands in first-person games. I feel like a tourist, borrowing someone else's arms. There are drawbacks. The way Half-Life 2, Amnesia and pals give you telekinetic powers provides a more direct connection to the game world, and elaborate hand animations effectively put a little cutscene between you and the object you're trying to manipulate. Alien: Isolation strikes a good balance. The complicated locks and terminals of the  Sevastopol demand some small manual actions from you, so it feels like you're doing the work rather than someone reaching around to do it for you.

Hands are good at being silent actors too. Use the insect swarm plasmid in Bioshock and your shuddering, convulsing palm communicates the deep discomfort that only comes from having an arm full of angry bees. Think of the scene when Booker reaches out to catch Elizabeth as they tumble through the sky-city—a truly heroic hand moment. Let's put ours together, and applaud the artists and animators putting so much effort into digitising our hams. Also, check out our round-up of the loveliest hand animations in PC gaming, complete with gifs of course.

PC Gamer

Now that our game of the year awards are out of the way, we can get to the serious stuff: ventilation shafts. They’re a pillar of modern game design, shunting players from one level to the next, telling spy wannabes that a square aluminum tunnel is all espionage requires, and giving the hunted a temporary haven from their mouth-breathing pursuers. The most iconic protagonists in PC gaming depend on inexplicably designed air convection systems to save the world time and time again.I'm going to revisit a few of the most recognizable vents from PC gaming history and evaluate them based on rules I’m making up as I go. One lucky duct will win the coveted PC Gamer Gust of Approval for best vent.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution 

Gif sourceThe original Deus Ex invented the concept of ventilation shafts, and as a result is exempt from competing. Unfortunately, further iterations of ventilation shafts from the new handlers at Square Enix didn’t do much to blend them into the environments or make them feel like genuine air ducts. Instead, they serve as well-lit (somehow), long graves where you hide your dead. How many bodies can you fit in an impossible space? Deus Ex: Human Revolution steps beyond the veil.Even worse, the vents aren’t in compliance with the ASHRAE standards for acceptable air quality. According to section 5.1.1 of the guidelines, “Where interior spaces without direct openings to the outdoors are ventilated through adjoining rooms, the opening between rooms shall be permanently unobstructed.” These dead bodies are breaking the law.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

They are deeper, wider, and more Jensen-sized. Seriously, they’re massive. And they’re always hiding behind vending machines and small crates, leading directly to and fro with plenty of slats along the way just in case you need to see where all the guards are hanging. Subtlety doesn’t circulate in the near future, I suppose. Air isn’t getting through those suckers in a sensible way. It’s a fact: these vents blow.

Watch Dogs 2 

Pitiful, but so pitiful, I can’t help but love it. There’s been no effort made to hide that this vent in a multi-billion dollar tech company building was built specifically for drone passage. (Just a heads up, this is how you get raccoons.) Watch Dogs 2 makes little effort to mask its videogame vents as anything but transparent chunks of level design. It’s one of the bigger problems I had with the game, that it promises options for infiltration, but vent layouts are so arbitrary and assured to lead directly between points of interest that they start to feel like a big billboard, stating ‘Sneak here!’

Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes 

Gif sourceOK, so it’s more of a drainage system, but it might also push some air around. Note the more rectangular design gives the impression that they’re a tighter fit than most videogame vents, which makes for a more immersive ventilation shaft experience. Were I in a crime film, I’d consider using such a discreet, small passage as a good place to hide the murder weapon. Were I in a videogame, I’d glitch through the floor and fire my weapon with reckless abandon. In conclusion, I love the compress of MGS5’s passages, but otherwise, they rarely make sense. Often, they’ll just lead from a hole outside a building in a direct line inside. You’re going to get raccoons, damnit.

Half-Life

So very, very dark. Like a damn vent should be! If I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief that these big metallic crawlspaces are mean for air circulation and not hiding headcrabs, I want them to at least distract me with tension. The vents are otherwise featureless, vanilla shafts. Four walls, grey, nothing particularly special about them. At least they acknowledge you’re going to get critters with such impractical vents, even if they’re interdimensional face suckers.

Half-Life 2

Talk about sequelitis! No innovation. Expect more flat, boxy aluminum textures, more headcrabs popping out to say hello, and most grievous, of course, are the impractical air convection layouts. The thought makes me shiver, not because it’s abhorrent, but because damn, it’s cold in here, Gordon!

Batman: Arkham Series

Gif source

Gotham’s vents are comically large. Bruce Wayne isn’t a small man, especially with an extra few inches thanks to bat ears. And crouching isn’t easy in all that armor—it’s going to bunch up, Bruce. I’m sorry but your tummy is getting pinched beneath those plates. God forbid you drop a quarter. To accommodate all that batmass, the vents essentially serve as a venue for badguy shadow puppets and an echochamber for the Joker’s prolonged loudspeaker monologues. They’re a nice place to hide in if you’ve been spotted, but their design won’t win any awards from us. Often they serve as a comically short passage between two rooms, ensuring the only air they’re circulating is Wayne’s big ego.

WINNER — Alien: Isolation

We praised Alien's production design during release, and Creative Assembly's extraordinary attention to environment detail extends to the design of its vents. The aperture entrance to each vent is accompanied by a slick cylindrical animation and shrill soundbite that sounds like a sword being pulled from its sheath. Foreboding, a bit, considering there’s probably a hungry alien in there.Isolation’s detailed lighting and shadows give the impression that Sevastopol is a hulking, intricate tangle of retro-futurist industrial design. As you crawl through every vent and maintenance shaft, you’ll get small glimpses into the guts of the station, a smoky mess of pipes and dim lights and scattered tools. The result is a space station that feels so vast and cobbled together that its tiny passages and maintenance systems feel plausible. Vents that don’t make sense, make sense on Sevastopol.To the team at Creative Assembly, you’ve creatively assembled good passages behind the walls for players to bonk around in that don’t feel like a mad maintenance man’s pet project. Your congratulatory PC Gamer Gust of Approval should make it your way soon.

PC Gamer

 A lot of 1970s science fiction has aged badly, but Alien hasn’t. This is down to several factors, including director Ridley Scott’s insistence on realism over flashy effects, and the practical, industrial designs of concept artist Ron Cobb. In the Alien universe, space travel is not glamorous or exciting; it’s completely matter-of-fact. The crew of the Nostromo aren’t in awe of the fact that they’re travelling between the stars. They just want to get paid and get home. And this is reflected in the stark, functional design of the Nostromo, which is more like an oil rig or a submarine than the fantastical ships we’re used to seeing in sci-fi cinema. 

In Alien: Isolation, The Creative Assembly used Scott’s 1979 film as the basis for the game’s bold art design. Fox gave the developers access to a colossal 3TB archive of production material, including unreleased photos of the sets, and from this they created their own world using the same utilitarian design philosophy. The result is a setting that doesn’t just look like Alien, but feels like an authentic part of its universe. Sevastopol, like the Nostromo, is the product of a society where all the wonder and adventure of space travel has been replaced by business. I’ve always loved that about the Alien series. Much sci-fi is optimistic, dreaming of a brighter future, but in this universe, space is just another way to turn a profit.

It’s remarkable that, even with the presence of chunky IBM-style keyboards, flickering CRT monitors, and reel-to-reel tape players, Isolation’s setting doesn’t feel like an archaic throwback to the 1970s. You completely buy into its retrofuturistic design, a result of how artfully understated everything is. You get the sense that this technology is a natural part of the setting, rather than something included to evoke a particular time period or aesthetic. It’s an attention to detail and a dedication to believable worldbuilding that sets both Alien and Alien: Isolation apart in their respective genres. 

In an interview in Paul Scanlon’s Book of Alien, Ron Cobb says: “I resent films that are so shallow they rely entirely on their visual effects. I’ve always felt that a lot of effort should be made to render each environment as convincingly as possible, but always in the background.” And that’s what Isolation, and the film, do so well. They invite you to credible sci-fi worlds that don’t rely on far-fetched technology and fancy special effects to convince you that you’re in the future. You believe you are because it seems real. The more grounded a setting is, even if it’s fantasy or science fiction, the easier it is to relate to it. That’s why something like prequel Prometheus, with its showy holographic computer interfaces, isn’t as convincing as Alien, despite major advances in effects technology.

Alien: Isolation also takes deeper inspiration from the film’s design. The cold claustrophobia of the Nostromo is a big part of Alien’s power as as horror film, but the lo-fitechnology plays a part here too. In a lot of sci-fi there’s some magical device or weapon that saves the day, but all the crew of the Nostromo have to fight the alien is a cattle prod, a primitive motion tracker, and some rusty old flamethrowers. This establishes that, even in this advanced spacefaring future, technology won’t save you; you have to rely on your wits. And the game echoes this brilliantly. The crude technology actually adds to the horror, because you never feel like there’s a miraculous technological solution to your problems. 

Alien: Isolation is proof that, when it comes to science fiction, less can be more. Videogame sci-fi is often shiny and ostentatious, as artists strive to show you just how incredibly futuristic they can make their worlds look. But Sevastopol is more convincing than any of them, because it keeps it in the background. Granted, the artists at The Creative Assembly had some incredible source material to work with. But rather than just recreate the film’s sets, they used that enormous archive of reference material as a starting point to craft their own distinctive extension of the film. Alien: Isolation is a passionate, faithful homage to the film, but it’s also a worthy addition to the universe and mythology in its own right.

PC Gamer

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

Deus Ex

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

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

Hitman

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

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

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

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

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

Thief 2

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

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

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

Mark of the Ninja

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

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

Dishonored 2

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

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

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

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

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

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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

Alien: Isolation

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

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

Invisible, Inc

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

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

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

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