Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

For 17 years, Deus Ex fans have speculated that the 'JC' in JC Denton, Deus Ex's cyborg protagonist, stood for Jesus Christ. Others suggested it might mean Just Another Codename. The ambiguous nickname made enough of an impression that the question still lingers. At Warren Spector's post-mortem at GDC today, a fan asked flat-out what the 'JC' stood for. And the answer? It really was Jesus Christ.

"But there's more to the story than that," Spector said, as the crowd started clapping at the revelation. "One of my best friends is a wonderful writer named Bradley Denton, who you should all go read" he continued. "And if you want to know about me and my friends, he wrote a book called Lunatics that you should go read, and you can try to guess who I am. Anyway, he is one of the nicest humans on the planet. If you ever need help with anything, he's always there for you. He's so helpful it gets annoying sometimes, so back then I would often find myself saying 'Jesus Christ, Denton. Jesus Christ, Denton, don't be so helpful. So when it came time to name the charcater it was JC Denton.

That line is actually hinted at in the game on a couple ocassions, when characters react to your actions with "Jesus Christ, Denton!" and "Jesus Christ, JC!"

There's always been plenty of ammunition to support the theory that JC stood for Jesus Christ. Religious symbolism. JC's brother Paul. The name 'Deus Ex.' But nobody knew 'Jesus Christ, Denton' was a regular Warren Spector quote.

Years later, prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution's hero being named Adam kept the theme alive.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brendan Caldwell)

Your mate Adam Jensen is telling a story to his psychologist in the latest DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] a flashback episode, if you will. He s telling her all about the time he went undercover in a maximum security prison for augmented people and how that made him feel. But this being Adam, the paranoid wreck with conspiracy theories coming out of his robot orifices, he s likely exaggerated for the shrink s sake. He probably just got sent to the drunk tank for wandering into a clothes shop and smashing all the mirrors again. … [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

At the start of the 1988 adventure game 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.

Cyberpunk games are rarely about cool losers. They're usually about cool cops.

Hero complex

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.

Over time these tropes have been distilled into the core of the genre: all the imagery, with none of the messages.

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.

Rock & roll, desperate and dangerous

One game where the malcontents and outsiders get to star is Shadowrun: Dragonfall. 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! 

Shadowrun: Dragonfall gets the heart of cyberpunk right. Quality punks.

Cyberpunk-adjacent games like this weirdly seem more likely to feature the most cyberpunk protagonists. Sci-fi horror games Bloodnet and Magrunner: Dark Pulse are perfect examples, even though they add vampires and the Cthulhu Mythos. The hacker heroes of Watch Dogs 2, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and Else Heart.Break() 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 Cyberpunk 2077, 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 Marc Laidlaw's '400 Boys' 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 a promotional video for Cyberpunk 2077, 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.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

A new unofficial patch has arrived for Deus Ex: Invisible War, bringing widescreen support and a few fixes to the game that I still think would be remembered quite fondly if it weren’t named ‘Deus Ex’. I found Invisible War technically fiddly and sloppy when I replayed it a few years back, and it sounds like the Visible Upgrade patch by ‘snobel’ fixes most of my gripes. It supports modern aspect ratios, including for folks who tape a dozen screens together, has an adjustable field of view, and fixes a few bugs. Oh, and it includes an optional high-res texture pack. Good stuff! … [visit site to read more]

PC Gamer

In the earliest Deus Ex design document, written three years before the game was released in 2000, Ion Storm established the philosophy of their ambitious cyberpunk RPG. “The key to role-playing is giving players the freedom to act as they see fit,” it reads. “And a deep world simulation that allows them to solve problems in a variety of ways is the best way to do this.” 

And that’s the core of what makes Deus Ex a PC classic. The sheer breadth of its systems and the complexity of its level design is unmatched, even today. A lot of things were cut from that document—including a level set on a space station—but Warren Spector and his team’s original vision of a deep, rewarding RPG set in a rich, simulated world remained intact throughout development. 

When Deus Ex was being developed, The X-Files was deep into its fourth season. And Chris Carter’s cult show is an obvious influence on the game, with its government conspiracies, shadowy secret organisations, men in black, and bug-eyed aliens. The design document confirms this, describing the story as “leavened by its dark, mysterious, conspiratorial tone” and any tinfoil hat conspiracy theory you can think of, from Area 51 to the Bilderberg Group, factors into the story in some way. It’s a world where paranoia about ancient secret societies pulling the strings of government is entirely justified. 

In the ‘high concept’ section of the design document, Ion Storm asks: “Is it better to live free in a world of chaos or live safely in an ordered world of someone else’s design?” And that’s one of the major themes in the sprawling, labyrinthine story. You play as JC Denton, a government agent enhanced with augmentations that grant him superhuman powers. 

When the game begins he’s employed by a branch of the United Nations created in response to the growing threat of international terrorism. But after learning that his bosses have ties to a sinister Illuminati plot, he joins his brother Paul in the resistance against them. “Deus Ex plugs into two popular fantasies,” reads the document. “The millennial madness that’s gripping the world, exemplified by The X-Files and a general fascination with conspiracy theories. And the desire to play with high-tech espionage toys.”

And it’s these toys, as well as Denton’s augmentations, that makes every playthrough of Deus Ex a wildly different experience. The first level, Liberty Island, showcases everything that’s great about the game’s open-ended design and how it rewards creative thinking. It’s smaller than other levels, and I’m still finding new ways to infiltrate it. The statue not only provides a useful navigation point, but her missing head, blown off by terrorists, is an evocative piece of world-building. A clue that maybe everything isn’t totally cool in this dystopian vision of the future.

Terrorists have taken over the island, and you have to deal with them. But how you go about this is truly up to you. There are dozens of entry points into the statue, some more dangerous than others. If you want to waltz in through the front door, you can. But you’ll have to find a key, hack a series of cameras, and deal with a security bot. Or you can stack crates to climb up to the statue and avoid the security systems altogether, but will have to deal with a group of terrorists in an open area without much cover. You learn these things through experimentation, and that’s part of what makes Deus Ex so compelling. You’re presented with these big, complex puzzles and the game leaves you to figure out how to solve them by yourself. And when you do, it’s hugely satisfying. 

Walk and talk 

But it’s not all espionage and infiltration. Outside of missions you’re free to explore, talk to NPCs, complete sidequests, and learn more about the state of the world through documents and news reports. Deus Ex is an enormous game, featuring three massive cities—New York, Hong Kong and Paris—and other locations including Area 51. You simply couldn’t make a game this big today with the visual fidelity expected of modern games. In New York you witness the devastating effects of the mysterious Grey Death virus, while in Hong Kong you team up with Tracer Tong and the Triads to investigate an Illuminati presence there. There are so many secrets hidden in these city hubs—and overwrought philosophical debates to be had with talkative NPCs – that a thorough playthrough of the game could easily take 50 hours. 

But while the levels are huge, they’re not big for the sake of it. This was another thing Ion Storm outlined in their design document as being important. “So many games simulate huge worlds and brag about it,” it reads. “Witness Daggerfall with its hundreds of generic towns, its shallow conversations, and its randomly generated quests. We feel there’s more to be gained by limiting the size of our simulation so we can increase the density of interaction.” 

And this density of interaction is another of Deus Ex’s many strengths. Its levels are filled with things to prod, poke, switch on, and mess with—from incidental details like flushing toilets to intricate security systems that can be manipulated to help you sneak through the level. “This gives the illusion that this is a real, vital It’s all gone a bit X-Files. His vision is augmented. place,” reads the design document. “It makes the levels feel like they have a life of their own, independent of player action.” 

And it has a sense of humour too, often as a result of this freedom and interactivity. If you stumble into the ladies’ bathroom in UNATCO’s Liberty Island HQ – which most players will as they hunt for secrets and hidden items—your boss Joseph Manderley (who recently appeared in Mankind Divided) will give you a stern talking to about it. Ion Storm knew players like to explore every nook and cranny of a level, and they made a joke in response to it. 

It’s a small detail, but one of countless tiny reactive moments that reinforce the idea you’re having an impact on this world, not just existing in it. And who could forget mechanically-augmented agent Gunther Hermann ranting about getting the wrong soda from a vending machine, convinced the maintenance man has a vendetta against him. The story deals with some heavy stuff—mass surveillance, corruption, conspiracies, viral epidemics—but it offsets it nicely with some dry humour.

The illuminati sends a squad of men in black to kill your brother.

A great example of the game’s reactivity can be found in the Hell’s Kitchen level. Denton’s brother Paul, who ends up being hunted by the Illuminati, is holed up in a grimy hotel. It’s called the ‘Ton by the locals, referring to the fact it was once a Hilton, but the ‘HIL’ on the sign has faded away. After completing a few missions in New York, Paul’s safehouse is compromised and the Illuminati sends a squad of ‘men in black’ agents to kill him. 

These guys are armed with heavy weapons and can take a ridiculous amount of damage. Paul tells you to run and escape through the bathroom window, which most players will do when faced with these seemingly impossible odds. If you escape, Paul dies and never appears in the game again. But if you stay and fight, and somehow manage to kill the men in black and the UNATCO troops who’ve invaded the hotel, Paul will appear in Hong Kong. It’s unlikely that players at this stage in the game, especially on their first run, will have the skill or augmentations to win this fight, but the fact you can is precisely why Deus Ex is such a special game. It has a response, even if it’s just a line of dialogue, for almost everything you do. 

All mod cons

One part of Deus Ex that’s really showing its age though, is the visuals. It’s a hideous game, with blocky environments, blurry textures and ugly character models. But luckily there are mods that will sort most of these problems out, including the incredible Revision. This overhaul is free on Steam for anyone who owns the GOTY edition, and as well as fixing bugs and remixing several maps, it makes it look slightly nicer to modern eyes. But it does change quite a few fundamental things, so if you want to play the game as Ion Storm intended it’s probably best to stick to the original version. 

Then there’s Shifter, a mod that adds further depth to an already deep game and exists to, in its creator’s words, “remove the suck” from the the illuminati sends a squad of men in black to kill your brother base game. It introduces a skill point system that rewards you for feats the vanilla game would ignore, like taking out a room full of men in black. It makes enemies smarter and tougher. And it gives weapons alternate fire modes, including launching napalm bombs with the flamethrower. Again, installing this will seriously alter the game, so think carefully before trying it—especially if it’s your first playthrough. Some people don’t like Shifter or Revision at all, but that’s exactly what PC gaming, and Deus Ex, are all about: choice. 

The game is still totally playable without any mods, of course. But you might have to dig through some forums to find out how to get it running at modern resolutions. The Game of the Year edition (whatever that means) is often on sale for a tiny amount of money on Steam, so if you’ve never played it before, there’s really no excuse. 

There’s a long-running internet joke that whenever Deus Ex is mentioned on a forum, someone will reinstall it. And it’s something you should consider. Because 16 years later, even if the visuals don’t hold up, the game definitely still does. 

PC Gamer

Elon Musk isn't just the wealthy super-genius behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, he's also a man who knows something about videogames. It's not immediately evident, as he initially appears to stumble over a game recommendation request at the end of a Y Combinator interview—the only title that seems to cross his mind is Overwatch. His kids play a lot of Hearthstone, he eventually adds, which is the sort of thing a person says when he's awkwardly grasping at straws. But then someone mentions The Last of Us, which leads to talk about the importance of story in videogames, and suddenly Musk is off to the races.    

"I think [storytelling in games] is really neglected. That's the criticism I heard of the latest Deus Ex, that the storytelling is kind of lame. Whereas the prior Deus Ex, and the original Deus Ex, the storytelling was amazing," Musk says. "Some of the older games, the graphics and sound were terrible, so they had to rely on storytelling." It's important to note here that Musk didn't just cite Deus Ex and Human Revolution, but that he also utterly refused to acknowledge even the existence of Invisible War. That's the sign of a man who really knows his stuff. 

Thanks, Glixel

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

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

Deus Ex

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

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

Hitman

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

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

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

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

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

Thief 2

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

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

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

Mark of the Ninja

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

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

Dishonored 2

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

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

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

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

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

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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

Alien: Isolation

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

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

Invisible, Inc

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

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

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

PC Gamer

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 297. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

Deus Ex opens on Liberty Island pier. Under the nighttime glow of New York s skyline, JC Denton gets to work, first making his way across the island, then infiltrating the statue and taking out the NSF terrorists inside. As an intro, it s indicative of the game to come: large, open and potentially alienating. No concessions are made. Deus Ex throws you straight into the deep end and challenges you to swim.

By comparison, the opening of Deus Ex: Invisible War is a paddling pool. Alex D gets to work, walking through a blue-grey corridor not yet trusted with the tools that would allow her (or him) to break into the rooms of her fellow Tarsus recruits. She enters an elevator, triggering a loading screen. Playing now, on Windows 10, that loading screen forces a quit to desktop. Moments later, Invisible War lurches back to life, and the loading bar completes.

It s bizarre, and it happens on many occasions. Invisible War has many loading screens. Like Liberty Island, the intro is indicative of the game to come: condensed and constrained. Invisible War is not a bad game would Kieron Gillen have given a bad game 92% in his PC Gamer review? but it s not a good sequel. It takes Deus Ex s wide open spaces and reduces them to a console-friendly size. Normally I wouldn t blame consoles for dumbing down a PC game.

In this case, however, it s impossible not to see the compromises created by its Xbox release. Deus Ex is able to use its large spaces to create a sense of realism through sparse but effective environmental detail. The streets of Hell s Kitchen are wide, and littered with barrels, crates and garbage bags. In Invisible War, the locations feel cramped and chunky. Seattle the first hub feels more like a mall than anything else. What should be a major US city is instead an underwhelming series of cramped corridors and staircases. The first time I played, I didn t realise I was outdoors. It s about as underwhelming a cyberpunk dystopia as I ve ever experienced.

Other locations, Cairo and Trier, Germany, are more recognisably urban, but still just narrow streets for NPCs to stand in. When I replay Deus Ex, I still feel immersed by the environment. That s not the case in Invisible War. Despite the graphics looking better than in Deus Ex, it s aged worse. The problem is compounded by the number of NPCs able to exist in each environment. Seattle s Club Vox seemingly one of only two businesses operating in the upper city limits has more staff than patrons.

Nevertheless, Seattle is an enjoyable slice of intrigue and backstabbing. Ion Storm makes effective use of limited space by offering a nested stack of sidequests each contact simultaneously someone else s target. It starts when a WTO employee tells me to infiltrate Club Vox and find proof of the owner s tax evasion. While there, the owner asks me to assassinate a lawyer in the nearby Emerald Suites. Tracking down the lawyer, I impersonate an arms dealer, swindling him out of a few hundred credits before killing him.

For completing the job, I m given access to the VIP area. Inside, I meet an Omar trader who asks me to break into the cellar to scan some alien DNA. (What? Your local nightclub doesn t have a cryogenically frozen alien corpse?) As a final twist of the knife, I have the option to reveal the Omar s presence to NG Resonance the club s AI hologram, and a surveillance tool for the WTO. This last act proves a backstab too far for my morally flexible Alex. The latex-encased hive-minded traders appear throughout the game, and the discount I ve earned is far too useful to squander.

Decisions, decisions

For all of Deus Ex: Invisible War s failings, it s still fun to explore its possibility space reduced though it is. Do you enter a locked room by using bio-augmented legs to jump into a vent? Do you disguise your thermal signature to sneak past a robot? Do you bribe the custodian into giving you the master key? At its heart, Invisible War is a game about these decisions, and how they re informed by your specific build. Invisible War jettisons skills, meaning you can t accidentally waste your points on swimming. Instead, augs handle both active and passive bonuses. You can pick from three per body part two legal, one requiring a special black market canister and the selection is varied enough to enable a diverse set of playstyles. This time, I went for a more lethal build, and got a morbid kick out of using a vampiric black market perk to absorb corpses for health.

In terms of gunplay, Invisible Warmanages to outperform its predecessor. It s a testament to how good the best parts of Deus Ex are that it s still lauded, despite the fact that shooting accurately requires you to stand completely still while the crosshair fixes into place. This is a terrible system, and Invisible War was totally justified to do away with it. It s not a great shooter, but lethality feels more viable. It s harder to justify the other systemic changes, however small.

Where Deus Ex hides story in emails, Invisible War has none. Where Deus Ex gives you the tactile pleasure of typing a password or door code, Invisible War automates everything. Where Deus Ex forces meaningful inventory management, Invisible War thinks a health pack is as big as a sniper rifle. Ultimately I think this hurts it more than the size of the environments. Deus Ex s small, seemingly inconsequential details add to the sense of immersion making the world feel more believable.

By foregoing these tricks, Invisible Warseems sterile. At least Ion Storm attempted something different with the story, although, in true Invisible War style, it doesn t quite work. Throughout, Alex can choose to change her allegiance. But, whatever the choice, there s never any consequence to the point that the two initial factions are both puppets of the Illuminati. It s a twist that s mirrored within an excellent chain of sidequests about warring coffee shops. Both are, in fact, owned by the same corporation. A fitting end for a series in love with conspiracy, but such narrative nihilism ultimately renders your corporate espionage meaningless (albeit enjoyable).

Eventually, the real players are revealed The Templars, Illuminati and ApostleCorp, led by Paul and JC Denton. It s a reprise of Deus Ex s ending, but fleshed out. The consequences are darker, and every option feels like a compromise. It s to Invisible War s credit that, despite all of its problems, it does manage to expand upon the story beats of Deus Ex in some thoughtful ways.

Invisible War also deserves recognition for setting the template for Eidos Montreal s more successful sequels. Deus Ex is a singular game, one that excels despite (and, some might argue, because of) its idiosyncrasies. Invisible War is the first, failed attempt at taming the formula and in the process making it much more accessible and mainstream. But Ion Storm was ahead of its time, and the technology of 2003 wasn t up to the task.

Luckily for Deus Ex fans, the technology of 2011 was. Human Revolution was able to build upon Invisible War s structure and refinements, while restoring some of the size, freedom and complexity of the original Deus Ex. Maybe that doesn t excuse Invisible War, but it does, I think, justify its existence.

PC Gamer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subtle as a thief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foreboding Shalebridge Cradle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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