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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.
At the start of based on William Gibson's genre-defining cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, you wake up face down in a plate of spaghetti. Well, it's synth-spaghetti because this is the future, but that doesn't make it any more comfortable. Like the book's protagonist Case you're a down-and-out former console cowboy who has lost the ability to hack, though in your case it's not due to traumatic surgery but simple poverty. You can't afford a new computer. Hell, you can't even afford to pay for the spaghetti.
Author Bruce Sterling summed up the cyberpunk genre as a combination of “low-life and high-tech,” and that's a perfect description of both versions of Neuromancer. Later in the game you have the option to sell your internal organs for cash, and hack a computer at Cheap Hotel—its actual name—to pay the rent. Your life is about as low as they get.
In 1993 Syndicate went in the opposite direction, casting you as the CEO in charge of a corporation bent on global domination. In Syndicate you're the villain at the top of the dystopian food chain.
While most of the games in the genre that followed explored spaces somewhere in between those two extremes, there's been a tendency for them to focus on the high-tech and not the low-life. They get the cyber, but not the punk.
Take the heroes of the Deus Ex series. JC Denton is an augmented agent who works for a UN anti-terrorist organization. Alex D is an augmented agent-in-training at the Tarsus Academy with a bright future in the WTO, and Adam Jensen is the augmented chief of security for a biotech corporation. All of these characters go through learning experiences that show their employers are untrustworthy and their world is more complex than they thought it was, but they all start on the privileged side of the fence.
When low-life characters do show up, they're pushed to the periphery. Adam Jensen walks past some punks gathered around a bin-fire in the streets of Detroit so he can overhear a conversation about getting a dog cybernetically enhanced to take part in a pitfight.
In the Lower Seattle of Deus Ex: Invisible War, Alex D also meets two people huddled around a burning bin, one of whom is Lo-town Lucy—a pierced punk who provides some basic info on the area while reprimanding you for being an Upper Seattle tourist. She points out how out of your element you are in the poor part of town, but in doing so makes it clear you're out of place in the genre as well.
That's not to say that there are no cyborg badasses who learn the law isn't always right in cyberpunk outside of games. Robocop and Ghost in the Shell are both classic examples of this kind of story, but in video games characters like Murphy and Kusanagi aren't rarities. They're the norm.
The heroes of Crusader: No Remorse, Hard Reset, Final Fantasy VII, Binary Domain—all are tough guys who learn the rebels and terrorists have a point. They're Armitage from Neuromancer, rather than that story's actual main characters: Case and Molly, the misfits.
Influential as it is, Neuromancer's not the only flavor of cyberpunk. Blade Runner gave us the archetype of the futuristic investigator forced to see a bigger, more troubling world beyond the next case. Since then, whether detectives like in Psycho-Pass or crusading journalists like in Max Headroom, plenty of cyberpunk stories have been about characters who attempt to solve crimes but stumble into more philosophical questions. Games like the Tex Murphy series, Technobabylon, Anachranox, Westwood's Blade Runner, and more recently Read Only Memories all fit into this category.
But even here, with shabby heroes who live in cramped apartments the order of the day, the low-lifes often get a raw deal. In Read Only Memories you see two punks named Starfucker and Olli and immediately accuse them of an unrelated act of vandalism and chase them down, after which you're given the option to call the police like some kind of tool of The Man.
If you don’t you get to know them better and learn they’re not bad guys, but then they transition to comedy sidekicks—those two wacky guys!—instead. They feel like a token inclusion, cast aside by the climax, when they deserve to be central.
In the end it turns out Starfucker and Olli are guilty of the vandalism you accuse them of. But still, it's rough to see the characters with mohawks and shades treated so roughly in a game that's all about evoking the classic retro cyberpunk feel. Like so many games Read Only Memories borrows visuals from Akira, but in Akira the biker gang are the heroes.
Recycling is an essential part of cyberpunk fiction, its cities full of repurposed junk given new life. The initial wave that followed iconic works like Neuromancer, Blade Runner, and Akira recycled too, using their conceits and visuals in new ways. Over time these tropes have been distilled into the core of the genre: all the imagery, with none of the messages.
One game where the malcontents and outsiders get to star is . The Shadowrun series is an unlikely mash-up of fantasy and cyberpunk that exaggerates the cliches of each, where the dragon who demands tribute and the TV personality admired by millions are one and the same, Smaug cast as Max Headroom. Perhaps it's that exaggeration of the basic tropes that makes Shadowrun feel true to cyberpunk fiction, in spite of the elves.
Shadowrunners are hackers and spies who can be hired online, like Uber but for corporate espionage, and in Dragonfall your band of runners have a secret base under a market in the anarchist free state of Berlin. It's as much about protecting the societal dregs who are your neighbours, drug addicts and shifty coffee dealers, as it is about making money. Also, one of the party members is an actual punk, the former lead singer of a band with the wonderful name MESSERKAMPF!
Cyberpunk-adjacent games like this weirdly seem more likely to feature the most cyberpunk protagonists. Sci-fi horror games and are perfect examples, even though they add vampires and the Cthulhu Mythos. The hacker heroes of Watch Dogs 2, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and would all feel at home in glowing near-future cities even though their games are set in the modern day, the 1980s, and a fictional town in Sweden respectively.
As in movies like Sneakers, Hackers, and Inception, they're telling cyberpunk stories about how information wants to be free and unchecked power is real bad, just without the chromed-up settings.
Right now CD Projekt Red is working on , a game that promises to be so chromed-up we'll be able to see our reflections in it. Like Shadowrun it's based on a tabletop RPG, but this time one with a more purist vision—Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020, in which players are cast as anti-corporate Edgerunners and where getting too many implants can cause “cyberpsychosis”.
The trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 features a member of MAX-TAC—cops who hunt those cyberpsychos—arresting and recruiting a cyborg killer. But while the tabletop game has cops among its playable roles, it also features Netrunners, biker Nomads, and Rockerboys and Rockergirls who use the power of music to spread their political messages. It lets players emulate the gang members of or the rockstars of Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes as well as Judge Dredd.
There's reason to hope the video game adaptation will follow suit and in doing so, get closer to the under-represented elements of the genre. In , Pondsmith—who is working with CD Projekt Red on adapting his game—talks about what he considers to be important in cyberpunk. “It's not the technology,” he says, “it's the feel. It's getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock & roll, lost, desperate-and-dangerous quality.”
Pondsmith goes on to quote one of Gibson's famous lines from the short story Burning Chrome: “the street finds its own uses for things.” Cyberpunk isn't just about the alienation that comes with future shock, or the questions about humanity raised by cybernetic enhancement and artificial intelligence. It's also about the way powerless people find strength and solace by repurposing the future for their own ends.
Gibson wrote that the street finds its own uses for things, not “people who work for security agencies find their own uses for things.”
The streets and their inhabitants are central to cyberpunk. It's the powerless who suffer most in the kind of authoritarian regimes cyberpunk fiction depicts, and games could do with getting back to the idea that the rebels, misfits, vandals, and people who can't afford a plate of spaghetti matter.
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.
If you've tuned into Deus Ex: Human Revolution's entertaining and insightful director's commentary you'll have a sense of Jean-Francois Dugas and Jonathan Jacques-Belletete's ability to laugh about their own project. Now you can experience that in video form with this 42-minute let's play, featuring canny observations about Jensen ("his shoulders were so damn wide") and cut environmental details ("this is where we used to have George Bush's face"). It's good fun.
There's a Mankind Divided tease hiding in there too, relating to your VTOL pilot, Malik.
"Speaking of Malik, a lot of people are so bummed that we're not bringing her back in the stuff that we've shown yet of Mankind Divided. How come she's not your new pilot?"
"Time will tell."
"Time will tell, yeah."
TIME WILL TELL. Human Revolution's dynamically lit, high-poly, slim-shouldered sequel is due out next year. You can watch 25 minutes of in-game footage right now.
In Face Off, PC Gamer writers go head to head over an issue affecting PC gaming. Today, Tom and Wes argue about boss fights, which have been around nearly as long as video games themselves, and whether they re an outdated concept.
Wes Fenlon, Hardware editor Wes wants modern boss fights to be a bit more original.
Tom Marks, Assistant editor Tom thinks boss fights are still a nice change of pace.
Wes: YES. I ve played many great boss fights in my day, but far too many big games shoehorn in boss fights when they don t need them. Boss fights once made perfect video game sense in linear, side-scrolling levels. Get to the end of the stage, fight the big bad in charge, and move on to the next. And that s still fun! But as games have evolved with open worlds and non-linear levels and forms of gameplay more nuanced than shoot slash punch bad guy, boss fights don t fit as well. Bioshock and the more recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution are two modern examples of boss fights gone really wrong. Bioshock needed an emotional climax, not one that involved shooting a roided-up bad guy. And Human Revolution betrayed the core of its gameplay by making you shoot it out with its bosses, which is something the new Deus Ex is thankfully addressing. Boss fights can still be done well, of course, but they re most definitely antiquated.
Tom M.: NO. Boss fights aren t always fun, but used correctly they can be vital to the pacing of a game. Boss fights don t just represent the end of a level, they are a change of pace after a long stretch of similar gameplay. You ve been running around shooting and beating up bad guys for a while, but how are you going to deal with this new enemy? That s when the concept of a boss fight really shines; when it s not just a bigger harder enemy, but instead challenges you in some interesting and different way. I completely agree that AAA games have recently misused the boss fight trope, treating it more like an expected practice than a place to shake up the game s design, but that doesn t mean boss fights as a whole are an outdated concept.
Wes: Sure—I d look like a big dumb idiot if I said all boss fights today are lame and crappy. There are still good ones! But I think there are two big problems with how boss fights are implemented. In big-budget games, they re often used to facilitate some dramatic cutscene or story moment, which means taking control away from the player or forcing you to play in a specific way. That sucks. And in general, I think too many games use boss fights because they re expected. Boss fights are part of the language of video games, but they re a very old word. And I d like to see more games creating new words instead of falling back on the Middle English that is the boss fight.
Tom: I actually don t mind boss fights being more rigid or scripted than the rest of a game. Making open world experiences where the player has lots of choice is a very difficult thing to do, and too much freedom can sometimes make for a crummy story. Boss fights are the perfect moment for a developer to bring the story back under their control a little bit to let them reliably tell the story they want to. Of course, the boss fight shouldn t take certain options or playstyles away from the player that the rest of a game has made them accustomed to, like in Deus Ex for example. Those fights should be climactic and should represent a shift in the story. Even if they re expected, they can play a vital role in the rhythm of a game.
Wes: Ah, so idealistic! Time and again, boss fights in big-budget games do change up the play style you ve been taught just to show you something cool. Even the Batman games, which have fantastic combat, lose their lustre when they put you in an arena to slug it out with a boss. Think of the end of Asylum, when the Joker gets all beefy and slugs it out with Batman. It s a great game, but that s a cookie cutter boss fight that relies on antiquated video game language. How do we make a big, climactic battle? Hm, how about lots of punching? But the Joker would never do that! He d do something clever. A smart, modern take on the boss fight there wouldn t end with a punching match. I d like to see more games have confidence in what they do best. To use a pretty traditional 2D game as an example: I don t even remember the final boss of Rayman Origins, but I do remember the incredibly challenging and rewarding final platforming sequence leads up to it. Surviving that level is the true boss of the game.
Tom: Lots of games have also tried doing boss sequences or boss levels instead of a straight up fight, and I love that. I think it s great when games don t adhere to the formula, but that s not the solution for every game. Assassin s Creed doesn t really have many boss fights, instead a particularly special baddy will get a mission all to himself. That s cool and different and doesn t shoehorn a stupid arena fight into an assassination game, but I also don t remember a single one of those missions. You know what I do remember? Every single boss I fought in Dark Souls 2. I still agree that developers will put cookie cutter boss fights unnecessarily into games that don t need them, but it s by no means a concept that s lost it s value. It s just more valuable in certain types of games.
Wes: I may not remember the characters of many Assassin s Creed targets, but I do remember some of my more epic assassinations—and I loved that those characters could be killed silently and instantly, if you planned the perfect stealth kill. That s a smart modern twist on the classic boss fight, too me--it elevates what s best about Assassin s Creed, instead of suddenly changing how you play the game. And hell, I love Dark Souls bosses too—I don t hate the traditional boss fight, I just think many games today could do something more interesting with them. It seems like we re mostly on the same page. So...what games are really doing creative boss fights right these days?
Tom: The first example that jumps to my mind is Titan Souls, a game made up of nothing but boss fights. It takes the kill the big monster in an arena concept to its extreme and cuts the fat off everywhere else. If you need to be convinced that compelling and exciting boss fights are still possible in modern games, Titan Souls will do that and then some. Terraria is another good example; each boss is difficult and unique, but also represents a tier of progression. The game has an open world with no fake constraints, but you can mostly only reach bosses in a certain order, each one giving you the means to fight the next. These games embrace the boss fight as the effective tool it is; a change of pace, a milestone in your progression, and a generator of wow moments.
Wes: I ve played my fair share of Terraria, but I ll be checking up on Titan Souls. If killing each boss doesn t make me feel a deep and intense sorrow in true Shadow of the Colossus fashion, though, I m going to hold you responsible for my irrational expectations.
Tom: Titan Souls was the first game that made me physically jump out of my chair when I killed a boss, and I did so for every single one. Consider your expectations rationally high.
Deus Ex is being augmented with another Deus Ex. After a nonsensical ARG and an entirely sensical leak, we now have official confirmation of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Once again, it'll feature Deus Ex: Human Revolution protagonist Adam Jensen, who this time says things like, "sometimes you just have to let go and embrace what you've become." From the sounds of it, he'll be going up against some shadowy organisation and, for some reason, an augmented version of the Heavy from TF2.
Here's the plot, straight outta the trailer's description:
"Deus Ex: Mankind Divided directly follows the aftermath of the Aug Incident, a day when mechanically augmented citizens all over the world were stripped of control over their minds and bodies, resulting in the deaths of millions of innocents. The year is now 2029, and the golden era of augmentations is over. Mechanically augmented humans have been deemed outcasts and segregated from the rest of society. Crime and acts of terror serve as a thin veil to cover up an overarching conspiracy aimed at controlling the future of mankind…"
A press release promises new augmentations, new locations, and a "cloak of conspiracies". That, I'd imagine, is a metaphorical cloak—otherwise the conspirators would be all too easy to identify. In addition, the PC version is confirmed to support DirectX 12 and AMD's TressFX technology. Expect some seriously augmented beard stubble.
Fluorescent tubes? Dark, yellowy palette? Derelict futurism? It's all looking a bit Deus Ex to me.
The screenshot isn't confirmed to be from a new Deus Ex game, but is an in-engine shot of the engine behind the new Deus Ex game. It's called the Dawn Engine, and it's a modified version of IO's Glacier 2—the engine powering Hitman: Absolution.
"In the past, we ve relied on existing engines for our games," writes Eidos's Sacha Ramtohul. "But in the end, we found that our creative vision was somehow limited. So we decided it was time for us to invest in creating an engine tailored for our needs."
"Keep in mind despite any hints you may pick up from this image, this screenshot was only taken in order to display the level of detail and artistic fidelity that is possible with the Dawn Engine."
Fine, fine, so it's definitely not new Deus Ex. But the upcoming Universe project is further detailed in the post.
"As you can imagine, the Dawn Engine will form the cornerstone for all Deus Ex Universe projects at Eidos-Montr al," Ramtohul writes. "Some of you have had concerns that 'Universe' meant 'MMO'. Rest assured, it does not.
"Deus Ex Universe is the name we are giving to the fictional world and the rich lore we are creating for it, which will of course include core games, as well as any other projects that will help bring the world of Deus Ex to life."
Personally, I don't really care for the transmedia fudge DE:Universe is hinting at. But "core games"? I'll take some core games, especially if they live up to the light-hell promise of the above screen.
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Tom can't stop falling off buildings, climbing up and falling off again.
Sometimes an ability feels so good it changes the way I play a game, and the Icarus Landing System from Deux Ex: Human Revolution feels amazing. It's a meagre tool compared to Jensen's arsenal of bionic gadgets. He can spray tiny warheads from his shoulders and brutalise guards with spring-action swords that pop out of his elbows. An ability that reduces falling damage ought not to compare, and yet it is Jensen's most graceful manoeuvre.
Film, comic and game characters who love showing off have been using the three point landing for years. It's visual shorthand that implies a high level of martial skill. It can be quite expressive when used well. Spider-Man slaps against walls in a lithe, springy motion. Pavements everywhere fear Iron Man's crunchy fist-first variation. In Ghost In The Shell Kusanagi's heavy three-point landing shows the surprising weight of her augmented body, reminding us that she's beyond human.
Like Kusanagi, Jensen's landing is obviously augmented, but the characterisation is different: more delicate and controlled. You can upgrade it to deliver a concussive blast with the downward thrust of a palm, but it's an upgrade I never take—the standard animation is too perfect. Ten feet from the floor Jensen summons a gold aura with outstretched hands. As the ground approaches he folds into a crouched pose and the electromagnetic field cushions his landing. His trenchcoat settles around him and he casually stands, as though dropping three storeys from a rooftop is perfectly natural.
It has become completely natural for him. He poise of that landing shows that he's mastered his synthetic body. At two Praxis points, it's a surprisingly expensive upgrade, the sort you're likely to take later in the game when the environments shift to multi-tiered complexes. By fortune or design, acquiring the Icarus Landing some way into the game completes Jensen's traumatic evolution from regular Joe to robo-Joe. It also riffs on Human Revolution's fondness of the Icarus myth, used as an analogy for the perils of transhuman progress. It's a punchline. The modern Icarus' wings can melt away and he'll still come back to earth in a halo of golden light and land unharmed.
For all that, I mainly love the Icarus Landing system as a piece of sensory design. It's a prime example of Human Revolution's vision of an ornate black-and-gold cyberpunk renaissance, complemented by the best noise in the game—a sonorous "fvvvwoooomph" that's both gentle and ominous. The overall effect is one of coiled power, which is fitting for a man who's had every inch of his being weaponised.
Outside of its opening hours, Human Revolution's plot isn't too concerned with issues surrounding human augmentation on an individual body-horror level, spiralling quickly into a tale of conspiracy and corporate espionage. Human Revolution lets you frame Jensen's reaction to his implants—using the famous "I didn't ask for this" line if you wish—and then moves away from the topic. But abilities like the Icarus landing and the Typhoon Explosive System do offer a stance, and the stance is: human augmentation is really fucking cool.
When you activate one of these abilities, the camera pops out of first-person to spin cinematically around Jensen's mo-capped animation. After the Icarus landing he pauses for a moment and looks up before standing—a touch of flair you'll see in any big-screen three-point landing. The artifice of the whole thing is compounded by the total lack of reaction from nearby pedestrians.
This carefully manufactured sense of cool is an essential prerequisite for the player character of a big-budget game, but in Human Revolution it comments directly on one of the central themes. Never mind the immunocompromised early adopters of bionic technology, or issues of identity concerning the replacement of natural limbs with superior robotic versions, look at this man who can shrug bombs and jump off buildings. Look at his retractable sunglasses. Look at his lovely coat.
I wouldn't have it any other way in this instance. Heroes are designed to be aspirational figures, and achieve that in problematic ways in some cases, but I've fallen for Adam Jensen. It's not because of the coat, or the shades, or the beard that could double as a can opener in moments of need. I want to jump off a building and land in a haze of electromagnetic energy, and go "fvvvwoooomph". It's the only reason I bother to navigate the fiddly rooftop walkways of Human Revolution's city environments, climbing up and jumping off repeatedly to the impassive stares of passing citizens. Bring on our augmented future. My body is ready.
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, stealthing around ships. We don't know why all the best stealth levels are set on boats, but they are.
Due to the popularity of military shooters, the ship level has become clich . It's the genre's lava level. Inevitably, it has a TV Tropes page.
I don't care. I love them. Specifically, I love them in stealth games, where they act as a setting, rather than a set piece. That bit where you're running through a semi-cinematic disaster movie, an invisible trigger sending the next wave of flooding water crashing through a door? I'm not a fan, thanks Tomb Raider. Scripting robs the setting of that sense of separation from the outside world; the idea of a small, confined, claustrophobic space with no escape and no backup. Not just for me, but for them—the guards.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Missing Link DLC opens on a ship, and it's one my favourite sections of the game. There is a very functional design philosophy to a big floating boat that sits at odds with the game's stylised futurism. In the open cities and sprawling office complexes, Deus Ex could lace its environments with high-tech design. The ship is just a ship. The scale is different—narrower, more linear. It's filled with plain, metallic walls. The doors are bulky slabs of mass. It feels solid. Real.
See also: the original Deus Ex, or Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. These levels stand apart as standalone vignettes contained with the overall flow of their respective campaigns.
It's pure coincidence that I'm writing this on the week of Alien: Isolation's release, but it's fitting. That is, to all intents and purposes, a stealth game set on a ship. But it occupies a different mental space than what I'm talking about here. In many ways it's the opposite. The film Alien is about a crew trapped in an inescapable place with a unstoppable killer. It is a film about being hunted. But take the opening Tanker chapter of Metal Gear Solid 2—it flips the concept. Your enemies are the ones trapped in an inescapable space, and you are the unstoppable killer.
I was about 17 when the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo came out. It was around the same time I was discovering horror films. The demo—containing the first section of the Tanker prologue—felt like a powerful, cathartic inversion to the stories I was watching. It manifested as a fascination with toying with the guards. First, I'd shoot out their radio, disabling communication with the ship at large. Then, I'd move. Give them a glimpse that something is out there. Finally I'd strike.
I should probably point out that I'm not a psychopathic monster. Games can, to the outsider, be horrifying. My repeated MGS2 playthroughs probably looked like sadistic torture sessions—another young mind corrupted by violence and giant seafaring transport vehicles. That's not the case—if anything, the experience felt more like I was directing a movie. None of it was real, so what story can I tell? How about a story where the monster wins.
In Hitman: Blood Money, the monster is even more insidious. He hides in plain sight.
In Hitman: Blood Money, the monster is even more insidious. He hides in plain sight. Here, 47 is essentially the Thing—another film based on horror in a remote environment. In the Death on the Mississippi level you discover members of different social strata scattered throughout compartments of the ship including workers, revelers, and, of course, your intended victims. With care, you can move through them all, a powerful subversive presence that, if you're playing as intended, passes unseen. I always play stealth games as perfectly as possible, often reloading if the fantasy of hunting through these spaces is broken.
The ultimate example is Coloratura, the winner of last year's Interactive Fiction competition. In it, you're a literal monster—pulled from the deep and tasked with finding your way home. The monster's actions are initially obfuscated by its alien thought patterns, but eventually, as you work out what you're doing, you'll realise the effect that you're having on the ship's human inhabitants. And then you'll keep doing it anyway.
To an extent you can pull this off in any remote setting. But there's something about the sea that makes the concept so irresistible. In every direction is a vast and inhospitable ocean, and I'm the most deadly thing on it.