Mass Effect

Literature’s had a pretty good run, much of it without any fancy graphics and animations and particle effects to bolster the words. Games love text too. Text is cheap. You can paint a picture of galactic chaos or epic history in about the same time it takes to type ‘and then something cool happened’, without having to spend the next week designing armour and creating 3D characters to act it out. Yet despite centuries of practice, most games still haven’t worked out how to present all this (which let’s face it, is often there more for the writers’ satisfaction than our actual enjoyment) in a punchy, satisfying way. What works? What doesn’t? Let’s take a quick look at some of the ways games have handled books, letters, codexes and more. 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Even when you don’t affect a world that much, it’s nice when it pretends. News stories are one of the best and cheapest ways to both highlight your achievements, and reframe them in interesting ways, from acts of heroism to outright terrorism. Human Revolution wrapped them in one of the sleekest packages for this—the Picus Daily Standard. At once a chance to see what was taking place out of your sphere, and see the effect of your adventures on the world. While even a few years later, the futuristic look feels distinctly retro compared to iPad news apps, to say nothing of whatever direct-brain interfaces we’ll likely have by the time of Deus Ex’s dark not-too-distant-future, Picus keeps it pretty, keeps it punchy, and above all, keeps it brief. 

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Ah, but when it comes to eBooks, things aren’t so smooth. Look at this. Even the original Kindle would wince at these datapad layouts, complete with non-slidable panels, slow refresh rate, poor quality fonts and typography, and non-consistent use of glows. Sure, it’s readable, but it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to, even before factoring in that in the wasteful future of Deus Ex you apparently need a new device for every Wikipedia entry. The crappy quality of this design only stands out more amongst Mankind Divided’s otherwise superbly rendered future, where everything you encounter seems to have emerged fully formed from the brain of a maverick product genius. This, meanwhile, feels like a first attempt at customising Twine. 

Fallout 4

In the not-too-distant future, who needs books? We’ll have computers! Specifically, ghastly green teletype machines that would be tolerable for simple acts like opening doors, but could be much more of a nightmare if the cast of Five Nights At Freddy’s occasionally popped up for a jump-scare. The horrible font. The clackering of the text. The endless pages that try their best  to tell stories of post-apocalyptic horror, despite being locked in an interface that would make even a hardened wasteland explorer decide that whatever happened probably doesn’t matter that much. Even accounting for the 50s vibe of the rest of the game, these are hideous technological throwbacks that knife their own storytelling in the back. The closest they come to being appropriate to the setting is that in using them, the living definitely envy the dead. 

Skyrim / Ultima

What’s an RPG shelf without a few strangely short books that probably don’t need hundreds of pages and a stiff leather jacket? While RPGs have always been wise enough to realise that most players will accept this deviation from reality, it’s still interesting to look at the differences between these two great franchises. Skyrim for instance clearly assumes that all of Tamriel’s readers are half-blind—or possibly playing on a television screen—leading to very slow-paced tales on glorified flashcards. Ultima meanwhile wanted you to squint. But at least Ultima had the advantage that unless a book was specifically screaming ‘crucial plot element’, it was most likely to be flavour, sparing you tediously flicking through shelves in the hope of finding a boost to one of your skills. At least both franchises keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks, whether it’s The Elder Scrolls’ obsession with the Lusty Argonian Mage, or Ultima’s fine line of joke books, occasional explosive booby-trap pranks, and the revelation that wise Lord British, founder of Britannia’s favourite story is “Hubert the Lion”. Can’t sleep without it, apparently... 

Mass Effect

A controversial one here, perhaps, but Mass Effect is one of the games where the built-in Codex arguably makes the world less enjoyable. The game does a fantastic job of introducing everything that’s actually important without relying on it as a crutch, with the dry writing and endless unlockable pages of SF guff coming across as homework rather than a gripping read. Do we really need to know, for example, the origins of every last whiffle-bolt supplier on the Citadel? No. It’s just not that important. Save it for the design bible and tie-in books.

While there are a few interesting flourishes, including Codex entries based on what the universe thinks rather than necessarily the actual truth, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy it is not. And ironically, it shows the difference itself, in the form of Mass Effect 2’s fantastic Shadow Broker DLC and the unlockable files within, which actually do give you a chance to peer at your party’s dirty little secrets. Jack’s secret love of poetry. Miranda’s online dating life. Tali’s repeated installation of a suit tool called ‘Nerve Stim Pro’. Oh, the blackmail opportunities...

Dishonored 2

Dishonored is a great example of how just a little thing can really annoy. Its text isn’t difficult to read, the font is pretty well chosen, if not exactly conveying the sense of a written document in the same way as many other games with this level of texture and detail, but does it really have to sway back and forth while you’re reading? There’s a time for ambient animation to breathe life into a scene, and a time to make the player feel slightly sea-sick. No. Scratch that. True for the first, not so much for the second. Swish… swish… it’s an effect applied to all the menus and other data screens and really contributes to making reading the lore an unpleasant experience. A shame, because that lore is actually interesting. Dunwall and Karnaca are two of gaming’s best cities, and their depth and backstory is fascinating. If you can stand to actually read it.

The Longest Journey and Life Is Strange

I'm bundling these together because they do the same basic concept—the primary text in the game is our main character’s diary. This serves several purposes, including offering a potted version of the story if you dip away for a while and forget things, but most importantly giving us a direct look inside their head. It’s a technique that only works if you actually like the main character, but fortunately that’s not a problem for either series and its charismatic leading ladies. In particular, it’s a way of bridging the gap between our perception of the game, as an untouchable god-figure, and theirs, as someone for whom all these moral decisions are actual life-changing events. Simply seeing the game from that perspective is enough to make everything carry that much more weight, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re fun reads too.

The Witcher 3

What separates The Witcher from most in-game codexes is its sense of character, with everything being described from the perspective of in-game poet, lover and occasional sidekick Dandelion. The nature of the game also rewarded taking the time to dip into the Codex, given that for a travelling monster-slayer, knowledge is power, and never took away from the fact that while us as players might not know our drowners from our necrophages, Geralt himself was always able to be a reliable source of information and provide the condensed version.

Realms of the Haunting

Here’s a retro classic, sadly not helped by the low-resolutions of the mid-90s. Nothing damages the mood of an otherwise well-made document like peering at it through a letter-box and finding it more poorly compressed than an old JPEG from a lost Geocities page. It’s not quite as bad blown up to full screen though, and even with its technical problems, it demonstrated how to write documents that actually fit the world and contributed to the lore without feeling like extracts from the design bible. Most took the form of letters between the characters, their identities not always immediately obvious, and turning the relatively simple battle between good and evil at the heart of the story into an epic tale of Faustian deals, ancient cults, doomed love, and a deep mythology stretching between multiple worlds. The visual look certainly didn’t hurt, with everything presented as aged pages, hand-drawn maps and messily scrawled journals. And if you didn’t like them, you got to burn several of them as part of a puzzle. Splendid.

The Neverhood

Of course, if you really, really want to make sure nobody misses your game’s lore, there’s always the Hall of Records—aka The Place Where Basically All The Game’s Backstory Is, as carved onto the walls of a corridor that takes about five minutes to trudge through even if you ignore all of the words. Oh, and when you get to the other end? You have to walk back, obviously. You know it’s good stuff when even a game’s own wiki states, and we quote, “it is suggested by most not to read all of it.” Truly great literature. Who could ask for anything less?

But of course, these are just a few cases. Which games have convinced you to pause saving the world to flick through a good book, and when has that background just been so much blah? It’s fun to get lost in backstory, just as long as the writers aren’t too obsessed with their own lore.

PC Gamer

A look at some our recent Game of the Year winners—Spelunky, Metal Gear Solid V, Dishonored 2—suggests that baked-in narratives are less important to us than personal stories plotted by physics and AI. That's broadly true, but not to the total exclusion of videogame storytelling, of characters and dialogue and, to give an overarching definition of what we mean by 'story' in this case, 'sequences of events which may be influenced by the player but are not authored by them.' The setting, the conflict, the reasons characters act (through us) and the consequences for those characters. You know, stories

Some say games are bad vehicles for this kind of storytelling, full stop. Others argue that while the stories in games are often bad, it's the fault of the storytellers, not the medium. And yet another camp argues that games are the greatest storytelling medium of all time. In listing our favorite stories, we will resolve exactly zero of these contradictory views. Unconcerned with theory for the moment, we just want to celebrate the stories that stuck with us, and recommend a few games for those who love to be told a good tale. Here are our favorites, as picked by regular PC Gamer writers Samuel Horti and Richard Cobbett, as well as the whole team:

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice 

Hellblade is an important game, not just because of the subject matter it tackles—a young woman’s struggle with psychosis—but also because it proves that modern-day audiences are willing to listen to developers that want to tackle difficult themes.

Pict warrior Senua is on a journey to retrieve her lover’s soul from the depths of the Norse underworld of Helheim, and she’s prepared to go up against the gods to do it. Her battles with towering, undead Vikings mirror her struggles against her inner demons, and through sparse writing and long, lingering close-ups of Senua’s face you really feel her pain. She bares her soul to the player, and it’s utterly moving.

The inner struggle is the one the game wants you to focus on, but there’s still subtlety on the surface, too: you can look back at the end of it and think about how Senua’s outward journey reflected her inner torment, making connections that weren’t obvious at the time. 

The Thief trilogy 

The first Thief game tells a neat noir story complete with dry narration from a cynical protagonist and a femme fatale who hires him for a dangerous job. The end result of its tangled plot has him stealing from a god of chaos and changing the world. Thief grows from a simple mash-up of hard-boiled fiction and steampunk into something much more complex. Over the course of the next two games it explores the religious consequences of a god's death and the Mechanists who rise in his absence, and by the third game follows those explorations of chaos and order by focusing on corruption within the Keepers, the group dedicated to balance Garrett left behind at the start of that first game.

There's a neatly cyclical quality to the three Thief games, which end where they began—not just with the Keepers, but with a scene of a child being caught pickpocketing. Only where once Garrett was the kid, now he's the adult deciding the fate of that child. So many videogame heroes get dragged back again and again, long after their story is done, so Garrett having such a complete arc is a pleasant rarity. The reboot's Garrett could never live up to it.

What Remains of Edith Finch

The overarching tale of the Finch family is full of intrigue, but it’s the individual stories of each family member that stand out. Returning to the family home as the titular Edith, you poke around the abandoned house, slipping in and out of the memories of the various characters as you gradually piece together a moving tragedy.

Each is told as an inventive mini-game. You transform into a shark, chop fish on a production line and listen to poetry while flying a kite. The simple mechanics provide the perfect window to learn about the personalities of each family member. These vignettes are moving, and deceptively layered and rich, changing your perception of what you’ve heard before while also advancing the overarching plot. The game offers a masterclass in environmental storytelling, too, with each object in the house giving you a new insight into the family.

Quite simply, it’s the pinnacle of the first-person narrative game genre, and toppling it will take some doing.

Mafia and Mafia 2 

The first two Mafia games each contain their own compelling stories, built from familiar cinematic influences—but the first is my favourite, telling a more sympathetic tale of cab driver Tommy Angelo being drawn into the criminal underworld, before finally trying to escape it. The cutscenes look like they're being acted out by Gerry Anderson puppets by today's standards, but it felt like careful attention was paid to the writing, cinematography and use of music in Mafia's story—plus the smoke effects are still nice. The shock ending, which we won't ruin here, ties into Mafia 2 in an utterly dazzling way. 

Mafia 2, meanwhile, focuses on Vito Scaletta and his best friend Joe some years later. Vito gets into the mob to clear his family's debts, following a memorably boring sequence where you work at the docks, doing legitimate and repetitive work until you choose to walk away. The story ends somewhat abruptly, though some might argue that elevates its closing moments, but the friendship between the two main characters is what I remember loving about Mafia 2, as well as believing this story was actually taking place across two decades.

Her Story

You’d think that if you take a murder mystery, chop it into bits and deliver all those parts in the wrong order then the resultant story would be a mess. And in most cases you’d be right. But not in Her Story. You flick through a database of police interviews with a young woman, pulling up clips by searching for keywords and watching them on a battered CRT monitor. Each video reveals a piece of the jigsaw, and it’s your job to slot them all together in your mind.

The minimalist presentation wouldn’t work without astonishing acting and tight, punchy writing. Through a single screen the game depicts more drama than most blockbuster movies. Each clip you watch changes your mind about the case, and then the next clip makes you realise just how wrong you were again.

It’s a showcase of ambiguous storytelling done right. Even if you watch every single clip, and therefore know what every jigsaw piece looks like, the overall picture will still be blurred by your own interpretations and preconceptions. It means different things to different players, and you learn something new every time you play.

Bioshock 2 

While it’s the first game that gets all the attention for its fantastic concept, it’s Bioshock 2 that’s secretly the high point of the series. Under Jordan Thomas and his crew, a story once primarily about a city became a story of its people. The victims of Rapture. The next generation, emerging as butterflies from a cocoon of poverty and deprivation. It told real stories of people who followed a dream, only to realise that they were in service to someone else’s. And then of course there was Eleanor—Lamb of Rapture, and far superior as a character than Bioshock Infinite’s Lamb of Columbia. Through actions rather than words, you guided her nascent morality in a world where morality was routed in human concern rather than big plot twists, as the ‘dadification’ of gaming arguably reached its zenith. This wasn’t your story. It was your merely your privilege to begin hers.

To the Moon

An emotionally draining game that has caused many a tear to drop on our keyboards. To the Moon's premise seems overly complex at first: in the future, a company can travel into your mind and implant new memories in a way so that present time-you believes them to be true. But really, it’s a story about one man’s dying wish to visit the moon, hence the title.

The game take’s place inside the memories of that man, called John. You travel backwards through his mind step-by-step. So at the beginning of the story you pick up mysteries, and as you go back in time those mysteries unpack themselves piece by piece (wait until you know what that rabbit means—you’ll weep). It never hits you over the head with anything, which means you feel clever for picking up on its nuances.

But its intelligence is not what sticks with you. The memorable bit is the game’s exploration of love, loss and regret, all three wrapped together in something that’s a comedy one minute (it’s seriously funny in places) and a tragedy the next.

Realms of the Haunting

This obscure British gem has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late, and justifiably so. While the script is more than a little on-the-nose and the basic concept is a fairly stock haunted house setting giving way to a fairly stock battle between good and evil, it’s not really the plot itself that makes ROTH so special. It’s the details, some of which may actually contain the devil.

Few fantasy or horror games have presented such a wonderfully fleshed out world—the sense of stepping into something bigger than you could ever comprehend, with every scrap of it meticulously detailed and woven into a grand tapestry. Ignore the relatively primitive 3D engine. The joy of ROTH is in the descent to understanding, dealing with powers, and the moments of compassion that emerge from it, like being faced with a trial from a seemingly implacable god willing to bend the unbreakable rules of his domain because your situation is so dire as to have drawn his impossible pity. It was a world that dripped with fantastical history long before the likes of Dark Souls were a glint in their creators’ sadistic eyes, and remains a beautiful obscurity that badly deserved its sequel.

Grand Theft Auto IV

GTA IV dialled back the wacky, fun stuff of San Andreas—military jets, jetpacks, getting fat from eating burgers—in favour of a sober story set in a stunningly realistic interpretation of New York, Liberty City. This meant that, as an open world game, GTA had less moments of large-scale, thrilling chaos than we'd eventually see in GTA V, but the flipside of that was a more interesting story. GTA IV is a pretty sincere tale—and it has a few thematic links with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, which also has a protagonist who can't really escape his past life. 

Niko Bellic, an Eastern European veteran who comes to Liberty City to start again, soon finds himself dragged back into a life of killing. The tragedy of Niko is that you sense he knows it's the one thing he's best at. It's melodramatic but effective—a daring effort to bring GTA into the modern age with a more dramatic story.

The Yawhg

The Yawhg is coming, and it isn't going to be good, and that's all you know. This fantastic little game sends up to four players around town to prepare for that coming disaster, and each simple decision—teach the king your seductive techniques or let him flounder?—can lead to terrible things at the end of the brief adventure (or rarely, something good). The writing is concise, unembellished, and biting; simple fantasy tales that may end with stolid brutality or newfound wisdom, whether you spend a week drinking in the tavern or meditating in the garden.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc 

Danganronpa stands out from other visual novels because, rather than a game about making decisions, it's a game about making deductions. You play as one of 15 students trapped in an elite school where the only way to graduate (read: escape) is to kill a classmate and get away with it by lying and framing your way through a murder trial. If anyone pulls it off, the remaining students will also be killed, so everyone has a stake in every trial—doubly so if you've grown attached to the victim or the prime suspect. 

The process of collecting, considering and presenting evidence makes for a far more interactive experience than merely navigating dialogue, and the trials work because Danganronpa has colorful and interesting characters you won't want to see die. They look like one-note caricatures at first glance, but you start to see different sides of everyone as antagonist Monokuma ratchets up the stakes with unique twists. It becomes clearer and clearer that everyone has something to hide, and the dread of suddenly losing a favorite character, or accusing one of murder, should not be underestimated.

A Mind Forever Voyaging

When did games get so political, people demand. Well, try 1985, with one of the most beloved text adventures not to involve hitchhiking around the galaxy or exploring an underground kingdom. A Mind Forever Voyaging is interactive fiction doing something that no other medium could do—to put you into a world, and let exploration tell its story. Yes, in many ways, this was the first walking simulator—its setting, a Matrix style recreation of a small American town, and you a sentient computer program charged with stepping into progressive simulations of the future under a popular senator’s Plan For Renewed National Purpose. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. Over the course of the game you experience America’s collapse around you, complete with now familiar sites collapsing into decay and your own family becoming victims of an oppressive theocratic regime. Can you stop it, despite your only presence in the real world being as a scrap of data on a computer?  

Mass Effect 2

A solid space romp from start to finish. A lot of RPGs struggle to sustain forward momentum for more than a few hours at a time, but Mass Effect 2 does it for 30, constantly nudging you from one point in the galaxy to the next by presenting you with a series of interesting missions, each containing its own short story. It gets the balance just right between exposition and action, with enough big set pieces to keep you on your toes.

The characters are the glue holding it together. The series has some of the best personalities you’ll find in games (and Garrus might just be the best NPC of all time). Walking around the Normandy after a mission to hear the quips of each crew member in turn is a joy, and you can dig even deeper into their personalities in the companion missions, which provide some of the best moments in the entire series. Learning more about them, and forming these personal ties, lends more weight to the overall plot. Even though you might not care about the Geth or the Reapers or the fate of humanity, you care about your crew, and whether they make it out of the game’s bombastic ending alive.

It also has the benefit of being able to incorporate the decisions you made in the first game, which makes for a richer, more personal tale. It’s an excellent space opera that Bioware struggled to better in both Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda, and a game against which all their future titles will rightly be measured.

The Witcher 3 

What can we say about The Witcher 3 that hasn’t already been shouted from the rooftops? The Bloody Baron quest alone warrants its place on our list. To focus just on that would be a mistake though, as barely a moment goes by without a reminder that CD Projekt are playing in a different league to almost every other RPG studio out there. It’s in the plots, which effortlessly merge myth and fairy tale and fantasy. It’s in the humour that underlines everything. It’s in the cheeky imagination of a studio as happy to have you chase after a missing stone phallus as your long-lost adopted daughter. But mostly, it’s about seeing this wonderful world through the practiced neutrality of Geralt himself—a man who can’t stop his compassion and sympathy bleeding out through his stoic front, no matter how much it might make his life easier. What many games demand long cutscenes to tell, this one often handles with nothing more than a subtle eye animation, or an obvious opinion held back. The Witcher 3 tells great stories, but it’s how they all weave together and filter through their star and his unique perspective that really makes them special. 

Analogue: A Hate Story 

Investigating an abandoned spacecraft inhabited by untrustworthy AI is a videogame staple, and it's been done well (most recently in Prey). Analogue: A Hate Story is different. For starters it's a visual novel rather than an immersive sim, and also it's an exploration of the societal pressures on women in Joseon-period Korea.

The spaceship Mugunghwa (named after South Korea's national flower) is a multi-generational slower-than-light colony ship whose inhabitants, over the centuries, regressed to a feudal society that somehow collapsed 600 years before your investigation begins. In other games like this you might read emails about changing the passwords on the armory—in Analogue the logs tell the story of competing dynasties in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (but do so anyway). It's historical fiction wrapped in sci-fi trappings that bounces the two off each other, you and your new AI companions examining and reacting to the text as you go. It's about how the past isn't as far behind us as we like to think, and has a thematic richness that honestly puts a lot of other games to shame.

Oxenfree 

Here are the ingredients: a spooky deserted island; a group of quirky teens who are better at banter than any of us; a mystery involving radio frequencies. Saying any more than that about Oxenfree's story is tricky, because it's a twisty one. Fortunately it's not just a great story because it will surprise you, but because of how it's told, which is in naturalistic dialogue any Kevin Williamson movie would be proud of. Characters talk over each other freely and you can interrupt them as well—when you make a dialogue choice you're never sure if Alex, the protagonist, will save it for the next gap in conversation or blurt it out immediately. 

So many games have a scene where somebody interrupts someone else, but what actually happens is that character A stops abruptly, there's a significant pause, and then character B jumps in with a line obviously recorded in a different session, possibly in a different country. Oxenfree doesn't do that. Its dialogue has a flow that you can get caught up in, so you're already engaged even before its plot uncurls and rears up in your face.

Soma

What does it mean to be alive? Sci-fi stories have grappled with the thought for decades, largely telling the same sad story over and over again. Who would’ve thought that the developers of the classic Amnesia: The Dark Descent would follow up with one of the most gripping, mind-bending, horrifying takes of all in Soma? Maybe it just took inhabiting the body of a character inhabiting a dead body to give the premise the punch it’s been needing. Its optimistic ending is the biggest surprise, given that you’re repeatedly confronted with puzzles that risk the lives of junkpile robots also harboring a human consciousness inside them. They might look like rusting mounds of metal plates and bolts, but they’ll also tell you they’re happy and don’t want to die. What if a human with their guts hanging out told you the same thing? Renegade and Paragon alignments won’t help you. 

Deranged monsters roam the halls (and you can turn them off now), but they too are confused, semi-conscious beings in unfamiliar bodies. They’re mostly a sideshow to the main attraction, the underwater research station built to harbor the remnants of humanity after a comet devastated the surface. In order to discover who you really are and save whatever you can of humanity on a glorified USB stick, you’ll need to descend to places without light or life in some of the most oppressive, uncomfortable underwater environments this side of Bioshock. But for every plot twist Rapture holds, Soma has two, and they’re all going to make you feel like shit. 

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

This article was originally published in two parts across PC Gamer issue 313 and 314. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.  

Jake Hughes was working as a model designer on Starship Troopers when he received a call from Peter Marquardt. Marquardt was an actor—he played the bad guy in Robert Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi—but he also had a passion for games. The pair originally met on the set of Wing Commander IV, where Marquardt was shooting for the game’s cutscenes. 

“He calls me up and he says, ‘Hey, John Romero is making a company and they’re looking for associate producers, come on out,’” Hughes says. “Peter was working on Daikatana, and Tom Hall was needing an associate producer. So I came out and I met Tom, and we connected instantly … because they all knew about Starship Troopers.” 

A week later, Hughes was offered the job as associate producer of Anachronox, the third game by Ion Storm Dallas. He was one of around 80 individuals invited to join the company at that time. Most were men, nearly all were under 30 years old and their backgrounds ranged from model designers to members of bands such as Information Society. Few of them had worked much in the games industry before. “Tom was actually the only person who had the experience [on Anachronox],” Hughes remembers. “This is, of course, Ion Storm, right? Where ego is a thing.” 

In March 1997, Hughes made the drive from Los Angeles to Dallas to join Ion Storm. Its lavish office in the penthouse of Dallas’s Chase Tower wasn’t ready yet, so the team used a smaller office in the interim. Hughes’s office cubicle was connected to Romero’s. “I actually got to hear him play deathmatch every night,” he remembers. 

For Hughes and everyone else involved, Ion Storm Dallas was videogaming nirvana, a company with huge talent, huge investment and huge ambitions, dreamed up by arguably the most famous man in the industry at the time. The honeymoon wouldn’t last, though. Within a year the studio would be plagued by turbulent office politics, a slew of public image crises and a host of development problems from which its reputation would never fully recover.

Dream design

Ion Storm Dallas was founded on 15 November 1996. Its four founding partners were John Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty. Hall and Romero had previously founded id Software along with John Carmack and Adrian Carmack (no relation), while Porter and O’Flaherty had cofounded a company together which they sold to the publisher 7th Level. 

“In January 1996 I decided to leave id Software after shipping Quake,” says John Romero. “I contacted Tom Hall while he was at 3D Realms/Apogee and asked him if he’d be interested in starting another game company later in the year after Quake shipped.” At the time, Tom Hall was working on Prey, a first-person shooter that was struggling to find direction, and which ultimately wouldn’t ship for another ten years. “Romero called me one day and asked, ‘What if there was a company where you could design the game you want?’” Hall says. “I replied, ‘That would be a dream.’” 

The four men came together to begin planning their outline for the company. “We all agreed that we should name the company something that represented the new vision: multiple game genres developed simultaneously,” Romero says. The initial proposal was ‘Dream Design’, but there were several other companies using that name. “I made up a bunch of names and logos, and Romero really liked ‘Ion’,” says Tom Hall. “But that was also similar to others, so we looked at various words to combine with it.” Romero states that the ‘Storm’ part of the name came from his lead coder Kee Kimbrell.

John Romero in his office in the Chase Tower.

Ion Storm’s slogan, meanwhile, was ‘Design is Law’. It stemmed from the frustration Hall and Romero experienced at id, where they were forced to wait for John Carmack’s latest 3D engine iteration before they could make a game. The pair believed that game design should come first and the technology should facilitate it. In 1996, this was a radical idea. Romeo and Hall planned to achieve it by licensing the technology from other companies, bypassing the need to build it themselves. “Ion Storm was to be a creative release,” Hall says. 

The founders would each be in charge of their own team. Hall, Porter and Romero would design a game each, while O’Flaherty would oversee the art team assisting the other three. Meanwhile, they needed someone to run the day-to-day business, so they turned to another disillusioned id Software employee.

A wild west

Mike Wilson was id’s head of marketing, and had previously been VP of development for DWANGO, an early online gaming service that provided the matchmaking for Doom’s multiplayer. After several years waiting on Quake, Wilson was bored. “They were gonna keep on doing what they were doing, which wasn’t very exciting for me at age 26,” he says. “What John was up to seemed greener pastures at the time.”

The publishers were lining up to throw money at a game design on a cocktail napkin.

Mike Wilson

Wilson was hired as CEO of Ion Storm, primarily to ‘big-up’ the company in marketing. But he had bigger plans for Ion Storm as a business. id had rocked the industry with its 3D shooters. It had made huge money and spawned a legion of similarly lucrative imitators from Duke Nukem to Rise of the Triad. Publishers were desperate to get a slice of the pie, particularly from anyone associated with Doom. 

“The publishers were lining up to throw money at a game design on a cocktail napkin,” Wilson says. “If you were part of that Dallas mafia you could get a $2 million or $3 million deal.” Before Doom, developers would usually get single-digit royalty percentages from their publisher. After Quake, Wilson struck a deal for 40% royalties with Activision for Quake’s first level pack. “It was just a Wild West,” he says. 

Between August and December 1996, Romero and Hall started talking to publishers with Porter and O’Flaherty joining the negotiations in October. “Eidos became a strong contender because they were on the rise and had the cash to fund several games at once,” Romero says. Ion Storm negotiated with Eidos for $3 million for each of its three games, plus 45% royalties.

Wilson’s plan for Ion Storm was bigger still. Back at id, Wilson had wanted the company to publish its own games and reap all the money from its products. But John Carmack was interested mainly in pioneering technology and didn’t want to turn id into a games publisher. Consequently, Wilson brought this plan over to Ion Storm. “The plan was for Ion to be part of what would later become GodGames—Gathering of Developers—and so we were gonna knock out these three games from Eidos, one from each partner, and I was to be working on the self-publishing plan in the background.” 

Wilson states he was on holiday when the deal was officially signed. When he got back, it had changed dramatically. Ion Storm was now into Eidos for not three games, but six. “[Eidos] really wanted to lock these guys up, because they were investing in what would help start the company,” he says. 

The other founders told Wilson not to worry. They could halve the workload by creating a second studio to make three of the six games (what would ultimately become Ion Storm Austin). Besides, the whole point of Ion Storm was ‘Design is Law’. The issues that had plagued id during Quake’s three-year development wouldn’t be a factor as Ion Storm would use tried-andtested tech. The games would be built in no time.

Assholes like us

Everything about Ion Storm’s early days was larger than life. A few months in, the studio moved into Dallas’s Chase Tower. To get to their office, the designers had to change elevators on the floor which hosted the Petroleum Club. “Which is exactly what it sounds like, a bunch of oil money barons sitting on leather and mahogany smoking cigars [and drinking] scotch,” says Wilson. “And here comes all these young long-haired dudes in shorts and combat boots, going up to the penthouse which those guys absolutely fucking hated. It was really meant for assholes in the oil industry, but suddenly there are these new guys with Ferraris who could afford that place.” 

The penthouse office (completed in 1998) was 22,000 square feet of real-estate that had never been occupied. Its interior was designed specifically for Ion Storm. Facilities included a theatre, an arcade, a dormitory and a shower room. “Nobody used the shower. But sometimes at night we would bring in LaserDiscs and watch movies,” says Jake Hughes. “We would get food delivered sometimes and we would hang out. We’d play deathmatch.” 

The internal culture of Ion Storm has been the subject of much fascination. Ion Storm Dallas is frequently cited as being the industry’s first ‘rockstar’ developer. It was a word that conjures an image of wealth-fuelled extravagance and excess, the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Everyone I spoke to who worked at Ion Storm Dallas refutes this image. Hughes describes it as “malarkey”, while Richard Gaubert, the writer on Anachronox, explains the atmosphere was “less like a rockstar environment and more like a dorm”. After work, the designers would play Quake, and later Quake II, deathmatch until late at night, an activity that was punctuated by swearing, smack talking and the occasional breaking of keyboards and computers. Gaubert cites an example of some of the studio antics: “I remember one day, sitting on the floor of the hallway outside my office, trying to get some writing done,” he begins. “Sometimes a change of scenery helps with writer’s block. And nearby, to my left, some engineers were wrestling on the floor, and to my right, my boss was drawing a picture on the whiteboard of himself sodomising a religious figure. I remember drinking in that moment and thinking, ‘man, I work in a weird, weird, wonderful place.’”

This fraternity-like atmosphere wasn’t exclusive to Ion Storm. In fact, it had been carried over from the glory days at id, when the founders lived together in a lake house in Shreveport, Louisiana—ordering in pizza and playing D&D while making Commander Keen, and later smashing keyboards and throwing CDs at the wall of their Mesquite office while making Wolfenstein and Doom.

John was the perfect personality for [the press] because he had the crazy long black hair and he would say whatever. He was driving the yellow hummer and the Ferrari, and had the big McMansion in north Dallas. He was just exactly what they wanted.

Mike Wilson

Ion Storm was partly Romero’s attempt to bring back those fun and carefree days, only with the creature comforts Ion Storm’s wealth afforded them. “We wanted the environment to be fun, because we believed that if you’re not having fun making a game, it will show in the final product,” Romero explains. “Our developers were gifted, driven modders who had a passion for making fun stuff.” The approach was successful to a certain extent. “I loved every minute at Ion Storm,” says Hughes. 

Whatever the reality of Ion Storm’s culture, the press was more than happy to view Ion Storm through the rockstar lens. “John was the perfect personality for them because he had the crazy long black hair and he would say whatever,” Wilson says. “He was driving the yellow hummer and the Ferrari, and had the big McMansion in north Dallas. He was just exactly what they wanted.” 

Moreover, Romero’s seemingly abrupt departure from id to start his own, more ambitious company was the ideal story for the media. “A desire for the out with the old, in with the new, because id’s boring now. John Romero’s not even there,” Wilson says. “They created this rivalry between the two companies that would not have existed otherwise, and that led to friction with the technology.”

Wilson was happy to give the press what they wanted, presenting Ion Storm as this bold, ambitious, in-your-face new developer. But nobody factored in the gap between the studio’s boisterous internal culture with the outside image of the company as gaming’s new North Star. “While marketing’s goal was to convey how excited the company was for its products and its future, it had the opposite effect—it came across as egotistical,” Romero says. “Needless to say, the Daikatana ad was a thick layer of icing on that cake.”

Tom Hall and John Romero.

Romero refers to the infamous “John Romero is about to make you his bitch” advertisement, which appeared in magazines in the spring of 1997. Wilson explains the ad was created by an agency belonging to the Richards Group in Dallas, specifically the work of the artist who also designed Daikatana’s cover art. Wilson thought it was hilarious, epitomising the in-your-face attitude at the core of the company. “I remember very clearly presenting that ad to John in his cubicle,” he says. “He also thought it was hilarious, and was like, ‘Fuck yes.’ And then he sorta started to think twice about an hour later. He was like, ‘I dunno man,’ and I think my words to him were, ‘John, don’t be a pussy.’ And that was it. He signed off on it.” 

Neither the press nor the public got the joke, and from that moment the relationship between Ion Storm and the outside world began to sour. “We let that happen, let ourselves get talked into it, and it was too early and the wrong way to go,” Tom Hall says. “We should have shut up and made awesome games.” From this moment the press would begin to build a new, far less pleasant narrative about Ion Storm, and events within the company would only serve to reaffirm the suspicions of those on the outside looking in.

Corners of power

Arguably the biggest mistake Ion Storm made was failing to establish a clear hierarchy within the studio from the start. Romero was Ion’s figurehead, but he never intended to run the business personally. id got rich by making great games and getting other people to sell them, and Romero planned to do the same at Ion Storm. Hall, similarly, was there to make Anachronox. Todd Porter and Jerry O’Flaherty were more business oriented, in theory, but they also had their own teams to run. Wilson, meanwhile, was technically CEO, but had no real executive power. “Myself and the other business guy [COO Bob Wright] owned a combined 5% of the company,” says Wilson. “Those guys owned the rest.” 

When Ion Storm moved into the Chase Tower penthouse, the four partners moved from their temporary cubicles into their own offices. These became known as the ‘Four Corners of Power’, reflecting the theoretical structure of the studio. In reality, what emerged from this structure was a battle for supremacy between Mike Wilson and Todd Porter. 

Like Hall and Romero, Porter had worked his way up the ranks of game development, teaching himself to code on the Apple II before joining Origin. “Todd is very charming. He’s good looking. He’s very funny. And he’s got a way about him,” Hughes recalls. But Porter hadn’t enjoyed Hall and Romero’s level of success. “I would say that he probably didn’t deserve to be on the reputation level of John and Tom, as far as what they’d done,” says Will Loconto, Ion Storm’s audio director, who worked on both Daikatana and Todd Porter’s game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. “But he jumped right into it and I think he felt like he was right up there with them.” 

Indeed, it’s claimed that Porter’s newfound power had gone to his head. Wilson recalls that in a conversation with the other founders, Porter “asked them to all wear blazers to work so that new people would understand who were the bosses, and they would be respected”. In another instance, Porter asked one of Romero’s level designers, Sverre Kvernmo, to get him a coffee. “In his blazer, just like he was literally the guy from Office Space, like, ‘That’d be great, if you could just get me a coffee?’ It was like, ‘Do you know who that is?’

“He was cruel to people, and I feel bad saying all this because, look, we were all immature, egotistical assholes at that time, there was no question about it. And Todd was older, significantly older, and my guess is like most of us, he’s a completely different person than he was in 1997. But at that time he was fucking horrible,” Wilson continues. “I told him one time very publicly that he can’t talk to people like they’re construction workers. You’re not a foreman and these people are artists and programmers.” Wilson isn’t the only one who saw something off with Porter’s attitude. “He was never a jerk to me, but I saw him do it to other people” says Loconto.

Wilson was no milksop either. He was an uncompromising business negotiator, could be just as fiery as Porter, and incurred a scandal himself when he borrowed company money in order to pay for a new car after wrecking his own.

There are several given explanations for Porter’s alleged behaviour. At 36, Porter was one of the older staff members at Ion Storm—several years older than Romero and a decade older than Wilson, who was supposed to be CEO. This may have implied a natural superiority. In addition, to try to fast-track one of the company’s six game projects, Porter had brought over a half-finished strategy game from 7th Level named Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. He convinced the other founders he could have it out the door within three months. But in fact the project took a year to develop. When it did finally release, it bombed in reviews and sold a measly number of copies. “Everything was a distraction from the fact that he wasn’t actually making a game, and he had no idea how to make a game,” claims Wilson. Loconto cites an example from the project that Porter was developing before bringing Dominion over, a game called Doppelganger. “He hired these 3D artists that came in and made these 3D statues of all the monsters in the game, before there was a game.” 

Between them, Porter and O’Flaherty began encroaching upon other areas of the business. Porter began turning up to Daikatana team meetings, which baffled the designers, and the pair hatched a plan to create a comic book publishing wing of the business, which Eidos promptly shut down. These various schemes, alongside the troubled developments of first Doppelganger and then Dominion, began sucking money from the company. “[The founders] didn’t realise they were gonna be competing for resources too,” Loconto says. “When they’re telling Eidos they need to hire three more producers for Todd’s team, I’m not sure how well that went over with Tom and John.” 

Wilson was no milksop either. He was an uncompromising business negotiator, could be just as fiery as Porter, and incurred a scandal himself when he borrowed company money in order to pay for a new car after wrecking his own. The key difference, according to Wilson himself, was that he was liked by the other Ion Storm employees because he took their side whenever Porter went off on a power play. “I was 26 and full of piss and would just take it out of Todd at any chance I got, because I was just like, ‘somebody’s gotta fuckin’ call this dude out on being an asshole or this whole company is going to be an asshole,’” he says.

I contacted Porter about the statements made against him at Ion Storm, and his own recollection of events couldn’t be more different. “I liked Mike Wilson back in those days and like him still today. In fact, a couple of years ago we attended a good friend of ours’ memorial and had beers together.” Porter also disputes that there was a “mythic power struggle” between himself and Wilson. “That just didn’t exist. We disagreed, for sure, but you have to remember that Mike was the CEO, Bob Wright was the COO and they ran the business.” 

On the subject of the blazers and the coffee, Porter says, “I truly don’t remember doing those things,” and that he “would never intentionally be cruel to anyone.” He cites the long working hours and staying overnight at the office trying to get Dominion finished, and says, “It’s highly likely I lost my temper from exhaustion. But that doesn’t make me cruel—it makes me human.” 

As for why Porter brought Dominion over from 7th Level, he explains that, “I believed in the project and wanted to finish the game I’d started,” but also adds that at the time 7th Level was going bankrupt and he “didn’t want to see all those people I hired—who had become my friends—lose their jobs”. 

In the end, Wilson entreated Romero to fire Porter, stating, “We have to get rid of him.” Together they went to the office of Bob Wright, Ion Storm’s COO, to discuss how they would do this. But in the elevator Romero decided he wanted to give Porter another chance, and so the firing never happened. Not long after that, Wilson was called into a similar meeting, where he was told he was being let go. They cited the friction that Wilson was causing with Porter, alongside his unwillingness to let go of the GodGames plan. “You’re not ever gonna play nice with Eidos, you’re pissing them off, and we can’t do this [Gathering of Developers] plan while we still owe all these games. We need to just focus on making games,” Wilson says, recalling the gist of the conversation.

Wilson believes that Porter persuaded Hall and Romero to fire him. “He was having them over at his house on weekends and they had talks like, ‘Wouldn’t everything be great if Mike just wasn’t around and there wasn’t all this fighting?’” But Porter claims he had no knowledge of Wilson’s impending firing until Hall and Romero called him and O’Flaherty to meet with them at a Mexican restaurant to discuss the matter. “It was John and Tom who wanted Mike out, not me or Jerry. They had serious problems with him, not us. After much investigation, Jerry and I agreed with them and all of us were present at the final meeting with Mike.” 

However it went down, Wilson was out. But this would prove only to be a stay of execution for both Porter and O’Flaherty, who would depart the company under a different cloud around 18 months later. Romero is reluctant to comment on the specific nature of Wilson and Porter’s relationship, stating, “I view them as I would any employee, and I don’t feel comfortable disclosing interactions they may have had.” Meanwhile, Tom Hall explains that the reason Romero and himself didn’t intervene earlier was because they were occupied with their own projects. “We were focused on making games,” Hall says. “We became aware of people causing chaos and people taking advantage of the situation. We just wanted to make games.”

Live by the sword

Romero’s vision for Ion Storm was of a game developer that did not have to compromise, and that extended to Daikatana. The game would feature 24 levels that took the player on an epic journey through time and space. Players would travel from Ancient Greece to 25th-century cyberpunk Japan. In a first for the genre, story would play a central role, including advanced AI sidekicks who would accompany the player on their adventure. It’s a premise that still sounds tantalising today.

In early 1997, Romero and Hall saw Quake II in action. They were blown away by its engine, which included among its features coloured lighting and support for hardware acceleration.

As Romero puts it, the story of Daikatana has “taken on a life of its own”. Its problematic development has acquired legendary status. Because of this, it’s worth setting aside the familiar narrative for a moment to ask what went right on the project. “The team was composed of modders who loved FPS games and believed in a vision of making something that was incredible,” Romero says. “We introduced complex sidekick AI, tons of content and really fun deathmatch, and, perhaps most importantly, we shipped a game under incredibly trying conditions.” 

These conditions began with the engine. Despite the ambitious scope, Romero estimated that by licensing the Quake engine, his team could have the project turned around in six months. But in early 1997, Romero and Hall saw Quake II in action. They were blown away by its engine, which included among its features coloured lighting and support for hardware acceleration. Their games were already behind schedule, but they figured it was worth the time investment to incorporate the Quake II source code in order to keep their games visually up to date. 

John Carmack was a superb coder, but id’s third-party support was rudimentary at best. “Carmack really didn’t want to be bothered with phone calls from anybody. I think it was in the original contract, you got two hours of talk with him,” Wilson remarks. There had been other successful third-party id Tech games, namely Raven Software’s Hexen and Heretic, but support for them came mainly from Romero, who assisted the development of both titles while still at id.

Consequently, the Daikatana team was left to fathom how to incorporate the code by itself. At this time, 3D graphics rendering technology was improving at an exponential rate, and the complexity was compounding with it. As a result, the code base for the Quake II engine was radically different. Ion Storm received the Quake II source code in November 1997, but it would take until March 1999 to fully implement it into Daikatana. 

Ion Storm wasn’t the only company to struggle keeping up with the times. Duke 3D, Unreal, and Jedi Knight had all taken over 30 months to develop, while 3D Realms’ Prey and Duke Nukem Forever were both delayed far longer than Daikatana on account of multiple engine changes. Interestingly, one company that decided not to play technological catch-up was Valve Software. “They had the same thing, where they had the Quake source code and they chose not to incorporate the Quake II source code,” says Jake Hughes. “They bought themselves like four months of development time.” The game in question was Half-Life, which launched in November 1998. In many ways it stole Daikatana’s thunder with its narrative-led shooting and advanced AI.

The whole reason for founding Ion Storm was to get away from id’s technology-driven design, and yet, in a tragic irony, Romero once again found his design frustrated by John Carmack’s technology. But this wasn’t the only issue. Daikatana’s development was also hindered by team upheavals and morale issues, and there are lingering questions over Romero’s approach to leadership. 

The story goes that for large chunks of time, Romero was out of the office on press trips and being the public face of the company. “There were a lot of times where somebody wanted to ask him something and he wasn’t there,” Loconto says. “But then a lot of times he was there and people would complain because they were trying to work and he’s deathmatching or whatever.” 

Loconto doesn’t hold this against Romero. Instead he believes it came as a consequence of his wanting Ion Storm’s atmosphere to be like that of id. “I don’t think that’s what he signed up for really. I think he signed up for, ‘we’re gonna make a cool game. I’m gonna get a kickass team and all these guys are gonna do what they’re supposed to do.’” But that casual approach couldn’t function in a studio as large as Ion Storm. “You can’t translate that camaraderie that was at id when they had a small team into even a 20-to-30-person team,” Loconto adds. “You can’t count on every single person to carry their weight unless they’re being managed.” 

Romero disagrees entirely with the sentiment that he wasn’t present with the team, stating that he “was at the office most of the time” and that the deathmatching was part of the work. “Playing was necessary to know where we were in terms of hitting the mark. It was the same process for Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II, Quake and so on. If you don’t want to play your own games, who else will?” Meanwhile, any recreational deathmatching “only happened after 6pm some days”. 

The combination of repeated delays and managerial disorganisation, along with long working hours and increasing hostility from both press and public, led to a high staff turnover, particularly on the Daikatana project. “Daikatana went through significant team changes and had, as an example, five lead programmers by the time it launched,” Romero says. Loconto was involved in perhaps the most notable of these staff departures. In November 1998, eight Ion Storm employees walked out of the studio to join a developer associated with Mike Wilson’s new publishing venture, Gathering of Developers, which he’d formed with 3D Realms and Terminal Reality after being fired from Ion Storm. 

“He needed a team to do the KISS Psycho Circus game, and basically it’s a hard thing to say no when somebody says, ‘We will give you $2 million to start your company if you come do this.’ And we got $2 million to build that game,” Loconto says. It was Loconto who told Romero they were leaving. “[It was] one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “I would say that he felt personally betrayed.”

Daikatana’s problems came to a head during E3 1999. Hughes worked on Daikatana for several months to help prepare a demo for the show. “Everybody worked very hard on it, and then like a week before, Romero wanted all of these changes made and it was kinda like, ‘Dude, these haven’t been in here for like a month. Why did we wait until now to address this stuff?’” 

The demo ended up running at five frames-persecond, and was another PR disaster for Ion Storm. But the story is more complex than Hughes recalls. According to Romero, he had already departed for E3 before this event took place. “While I was gone, a cofounder told the team to make a bunch of changes to Daikatana and told them I wanted those changes made, which was a huge lie. The team made the changes and we got an update which basically broke the E3 demo of the game.”

The demo ended up running at five frames-persecond, and was another PR disaster for Ion Storm.

Romero doesn’t specify who the cofounder was, but the same story is told in David Kushner’s 2003 book, Masters of Doom, and in that case the founder in question is named as Todd Porter. We went back to Hughes with the Romero’s account, and he responds that, “It’s possible those notes came from Todd. The sentiment from the team was that the notes were from John.” 

“I was so mad when I found out what happened,” Romero says. Indeed, in Kushner’s account, it’s this event which led to the departure of Porter and O’Flaherty from Ion Storm in July 1999. Romero doesn’t comment on their leaving in any detail, but on the subject of Ion Storm’s atmosphere, he mentions that, “After Todd and Jerry left Ion Storm in the middle of 1999, the entire atmosphere changed and the company felt just great. Everyone was in high spirits and working hard to finish our games.” 

Romero says that the final year of Daikatana’s development was “nose to the proverbial grindstone”, and that “everything changed and went well up to launch”. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save Daikatana from reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing when it launched on May 24, 2000. “It could never live up to the hype generated in the early days,” Romero laments.

Chronological endpoint

Tom Hall’s Anachronox was even more ambitious project than Daikatana: a vast, sprawling sci-fi comedy modelled in the JPRG style, and inspired by everything from Ender’s Game to the animations of Chuck Jones—all developed by a team of just 15 people. The idea for Anachronox came to Hall in the bathroom. “Then I had to figure out what it meant.” It seemed to be a combination of ‘anachronism’ (something out of its correct time period) and ‘nox’ from noxious (poisonous, harmful). So that twisted into meaning ‘poison from the past’. 

The main inspiration for Anachronox, however, was Chrono Trigger. “Chrono Trigger is my jam,” says Hall. “Many RPGs have the base of exploring a game world/ story and growing over time and decisions affecting the world. But this one one-upped that with a set of interesting characters with wildly different stories having their own take on events and unique ways to play.” 

Like Daikatana, Anachronox used the Quake and later Quake II engines. But the game had the additional problem of being an RPG that used a shooter engine. This meant a lot of the development time was spent trying to figure out how to do things that hadn’t been done with the engine before. In one example, for the first in-game area—a giant, slum-like space station, known as the Bricks—the team wanted to create something it had dubbed “N-Directional Gravity”. 

“[Hall] wanted it so that the gravity could come from anywhere so that people were walking on walls,” says Hughes. “But we just couldn’t figure it out.” In the end, the team faked the effect by essentially playing animations of characters walking up walls during cutscenes. “Honestly, we spent more time trying to figure out how to do N-Directional Gravity and then abandoning it than it took to incorporate the Quake II source code.”

The main problem, however, was the size of the game. Hall and Hughes spent the first year of development writing a massive, 400-page design document. It became so big that Hall had to hire a writer to write the story that he wanted to tell, at which point Gaubert came aboard. “I took the outline that Tom and Jake wrote, and fleshed out the plot, and tried to integrate gameplay elements. I would look at the levels and figure out what moment-tomoment non-combat gameplay could happen in them,” Gaubert recalls. 

Even with Gaubert writing every line of dialogue for a 60-hour RPG, the game was still, far, far too big for the 15-man team to make. Eventually, the decision was made to cut the story in half. The cut content would be held back for the planned sequel. “Jake and Richie came into my office one day saying the epic plot I’d laid down would take too long to make, so I looked at it and there was only one clear place to cut it,” Hall remembers. “Roughly in half. Sorry folks!” 

Anachronox suffered from technical issues and delays just like Daikatana and Dominion, but it wasn’t as troubled by upheavals within the team. The team was smaller and more intimate than the others, suffered less from departures during the project, and Hall, Hughes and Gaubert all got on well together. “It was like, just a great creative meld between the three of us,” Hughes says.

Anachronox launched on June 27, 2001. Critically it was received very well, but commercially it sold poorly, a factor that Hall puts down to poor marketing. “I give Eidos amazing credit for supporting us through shipping. They were awesome. But we spent millions on development, and $50,000 on advertising. Five ads in magazines and that was it.” According to Gaubert, however, the reason Eidos spent so little on advertising Anachronox was because the game missed its original marketing window due to delays. “They had timed their marketing towards our original release date, but we missed it! I think we had blown through all the marketing money before we had actually finished the project, so we shipped with little fanfare.”

Handover

Two weeks after the launch of Anachronox, Eidos informed Ion Storm Dallas that it was closing the studio. Although it wasn’t getting paid, the Anachronox team stayed on to finish a patch it was working on. I asked Hughes what he took away from his time at Ion Storm. “Hubris,” he says. “That’s the story of Ion Storm, it’s amazing how it happens time and time again. All eyes on a certain company, and you can make some bad decisions and you can also make something great.”

It was far from perfect, but ultimately, making games isn t always about having crazy success. Sometimes, games and companies don t turn out to be what you hope they will be, and you do the best you can.

John Romero

The story of Ion Storm Dallas is often viewed as a cautionary tale, one that has been told before and will probably be told again. Two decades on, it’s a story that’s still clouded and contentious in parts, with very different perspectives from some of the industry’s strongest personalities. But not everything that came out of the studio was bad. Hughes and Gaubert became fast friends, and the Anachronox team still meet up once a year at GDC. Loconto, too, looks back on that time with fondness. “I’m glad to have been a part of it,” he says. Even Wilson—who says he spent his time at Ion Storm “so stressed out… I literally remember not being able to turn my head to talk to someone without turning my entire body”—felt like he learned a lot from the experience. “I think it took me down a notch as well, as far as thinking I was invincible at the time,” he says. 

As for Romero, he describes his time at Ion storm as a “tremendous learning experience”. He says, “It was far from perfect, but ultimately, making games isn’t always about having crazy success. Sometimes, games and companies don’t turn out to be what you hope they will be, and you do the best you can.” 

And even if we adopt the dimmest view of Ion Storm Dallas, if we focus on all the mistakes and believe every internet rumour, there is one thing that John Romero got right. “He wanted to help me make a game and was willing to do whatever it took for me to make whatever game I wanted to make,” says Warren Spector. “He made some big promises to me, and lived up to every one of them.” 

The game in question was Deus Ex, created by Ion Storm’s second studio, Ion Storm Austin.

Jordan Thomas was working as a script doctor at Psygnosis when he heard that Ion Storm Austin was hiring. The studio had just released Deus Ex, and was expanding from one development team to two. “They were hiring a cabal of the very best game designers in the world,” Thomas says. He wanted to be one of them. 

There was one problem: Thomas had little game design experience. So he created an Unreal Engine level, designed to resemble a mission from Thief, and sent it to Ion Storm. The studio was impressed and granted him an interview, but didn’t give him a job. “I think they wisely realised that my confidence did not match my physical experience,” Thomas says. He was told to get some. 

Thomas got a job working for Aspyr on the PC videogame tie-in for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, remaining there for seven months. When that project shipped in late 2001, he applied to Ion Storm Austin again and was granted another interview. The process commenced with a series of phone interviews that included studio head Warren Spector and the design lead of Thief: Deadly Shadows, Randy Smith.

“I had placed massive flash cards on the wall with all of these terms which I had looked up and dissected with interviews from all of them, trying to understand the specific Looking Glass language that they were all so steeped in,” Thomas says. “So this very spartan apartment that I was in at the time was covered in reference as large as I could make it so that while walking around on the phone I could say like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, I have something smart to say about that random-ass word.’” 

The phone interviews were followed by a written test, in which Thomas had to provide a design document for a level. Thomas pitched a level set in a spooky asylum, and Ion Storm liked it. The company flew Thomas out for another interview, where he was assessed again by Spector and Randy Smith. Following this were several design tests, from sketching out a level blueprint on a whiteboard, to designing a system for a game that wasn’t to Thomas’s tastes, such as “a system for a game that is based on doing taxes for a person who has never done them before”. 

This was what it took to become employed at Ion Storm Austin. “I never felt so tested in my life,” Thomas says. He got the job, and was assigned to work on Thief: Deadly Shadows—the third and final game from what was widely considered the best development studio in the world at the time. Internally, however, Ion Storm Austin had always been a house of cards, where wild ambition and high-minded ideas battled against the harsh realities of game development. By the time Thomas joined the studio, the cards were already tumbling.

The fifth partner

Had it not been for the intervention of John Romero, Deus Ex would have become a Command & Conquer game. In 1997, Warren Spector left Looking Glass “when I realised the continued existence of the Austin Studio was going to jeopardise the existence of Looking Glass overall”. Despite creating Thief and System Shock, Looking Glass was struggling and could no longer sustain a second studio so far removed from its original office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I didn’t want to be responsible for that,” says Spector. “I told Paul Neurath, the founder of Looking Glass, that I’d be fine. I’ll find another deal.” 

Spector took with him a design document he’d been toying with since his days at Origin Systems. The working title was ‘Troubleshooter’. “I wanted to make a game where players got to solve problems the way they wanted to. Fighting, sneaking, talking, doing whatever they wanted,” Spector says. “And so I dusted that off, and kind of adapted it to a Command & Conquer setting and was going to do the Command & Conquer RPG. I was close to signing a contract when I got a call from John Romero.”

Warren Spector at E3 1999.

Romero asked Spector to join Ion Storm as its fifth partner (the other four being Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty). “I really wanted him to join Ion Storm so he could make the game of his dreams. It didn’t matter to me what kind of game it was because it was going to be great—it’s Warren,” says Romero. 

Spector replied, “It’s too late, I can’t, I’m working on this Command & Conquer thing.” Romero told him not to sign anything. He said he would make the 200-mile drive from Dallas to Austin and change Spector’s mind. This is exactly what he did. “I told him he could hire a team, make whatever he likes, have as much money as it took, and take as long as he needed,” Romero says. 

It was an offer Spector couldn’t refuse. But he had a condition. He would join Ion Storm as the fifth partner, but he refused to work in Dallas. In fact, he refused to work anywhere but Austin. “In Texas there’s four major cities. There’s Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, and the only one I would ever consider living in is Austin,” Spector says. “When [Romero] came down that day to try to convince me, part of the deal was, I’m not moving, I’m not going to work in Dallas, and he was okay with that.”

Gathering the storm

With Romero’s support, Spector began building the Ion Storm Austin studio. The initial team comprised six members, all of whom Spector transferred from Looking Glass Austin. This included Chris Norden, who was lead programmer and eventually assistant director of Deus Ex. In the early days, even before taking on those two roles, he wore multiple hats at the studio.

What would happen if you took James Bond, a guy who believes in right and wrong, and throw him into a world that s all shades of grey, where nothing is good, nothing is evil.

Warren Spector

“I guess, in today’s terms, I would’ve been the CTO,” says Norden. “I was also part-HR. We had to do hiring, I had to do reviews. I had to set up the IT infrastructure. I had to hire contractors, I had to do security. I mean, you name it and I did it.” Meanwhile, Spector was beginning to work on the paper document for Deus Ex. 

Spector’s concept of a game where you can choose from fighting, stealth, hacking and talking to create solutions to problems is a well-told story. But what was the clarifying moment when the Troubleshooter design document turned into Deus Ex? “On all of my projects, I think about what questions do I want the game to ask?” Spector says. “And the first one that came to mind for me on what became Deus Ex was, ‘What would happen if you took James Bond, a guy who believes in right and wrong, and throw him into a world that’s all shades of grey, where nothing is good, nothing is evil, it’s all shades of grey.’ That was a critical moment.” 

The concepting phase of Deus Ex lasted many months, all the while the studio was growing and taking shape. One of Spector’s key hires was the 30-year-old Harvey Smith, who Spector had previously worked with at Origin during the development of System Shock. “[Warren Spector] was like, ‘Well, we’re gonna try to do another one of those games, it’s gonna be set in the modern world, what do you think?’” says Smith. “And so I pitched mission documents back, and game system ideas, some of which never got used in the game, but still they were on target enough that Warren was really excited.” Spector made Smith one of two lead designers on Deus Ex.

Ion Storm Austin’s approach to game development was heavily influenced by Spector’s experience at Origin Systems, and the design philosophies of Looking Glass luminaries, like Doug Church, who would appear from time to time at Ion Storm Austin and ‘camp out’ in Spector’s office. “They were all hugely influenced by Doug Church’s paper ‘Formal Abstract Design Tools’,” says Jordan Thomas, “which was a high-minded idea about teaching designers to speak the same way so that they could plug into any team, and stop using slang which is useful only to a particular bubble of culture.” Harvey Smith, who worked with Church at Origin, describes talking to him as being “like drinking from a firehose”. 

In a similar fashion, Ion Storm Austin produced not only design documents for its games, but manifestos for how Spector and co. believed games should be designed as a whole. “We had our giant gameplay bible. Bazillions of pages that we tried to kind of follow, but they were living documents and they changed,” says Norden. “It was like, design is important, engineering is important, art is important, audio design is extremely important. But the player ultimately needs to be doing what they want to do. They need to be having fun. They need to be in control.” 

When the concept phase was over, Spector stepped back into a supervisory role. “I am not an implementation guy,” he says. “Once we get past the concept phase and we know what game we want to make, I leave implementation to other people.” Implementing Deus Ex would prove to be far more complicated than anybody anticipated, constantly teetering on the brink of disaster.

Infinite choice

Ion Storm’s slogan—‘Design is Law’—stipulated that game design should come above technical innovation. It was conjured by Romero during the founding of the company, but Ion Storm Austin took it to heart, perhaps a little too much. At the outset Spector created two separate design teams for Deus Ex, and he had those teams compete with each other. Harvey Smith was lead designer of what Spector thought of as the Looking Glass design team, while another designer named Bob White led what Spector termed the Ultima roleplaying team. 

“So I had this immersive simulation group and this traditional roleplaying group,” Spector says, “and I was standing in the middle thinking, ‘I can not just mediate, I can actually exploit the tension between those two to come up with something completely new.’ Something that wasn’t pure Looking Glass-style immersive simulation, but wasn’t pure roleplaying game in the Origin sense.” Yet rather than resulting in a merging of ideas, the structure caused confusion about what the game was supposed to be about. “They were each in charge of different parts of the world and they had their own ideas about how they wanted the gameplay to work,” Norden explains. “So sometimes they’d come to us with conflicting requests.”

Everything the designers dreamed up had to be implemented by Norden and his programming team, and Spector, Smith and White all had a lot of ideas. “Warren had this massive [idea]… he’s like, ‘I want the player to be able to do anything they want, and solve any puzzle in any way,’” says Norden. “And we’re like, ‘Uh, yeah, that’s not really possible. We can do a lot, we can give the player a lot of choice. But infinite choice? No.’” Nevertheless, Norden and his team endeavoured to ensure that Deus Ex was as emergent as they could make it. “We tried to create the emergent behaviour by creating a ton of interactable objects in the world, and all the objects had to have interactable properties, and all the properties were linked to the real world,” he says. “Everything had weight, everything had friction, all the surfaces had different properties associated with them. So we wanted you to be able to, at least, pick things up, move them around, destroy them, maybe stack them, maybe climb them.” 

The advantage of this was it meant players could do things that were unique to their game; a phenomenon that would happen even during testing. “Someone would come in and say, ‘Hey I was doing this cool thing on my playthrough and this thing happened, what the hell, how did you make that happen?’ And I was like, ‘Well I didn’t, it was just a random lucky thing.’”

Engine trouble

Every game Ion Storm made was beleaguered by engine problems, and Deus Ex was no different. The nature of those problems, however, wasn’t exactly the same. In a break with Ion Storm tradition, Austin moved away from id’s Quake technology and licensed Tim Sweeney’s Unreal Engine. There were several reasons for this, including a better toolset, less restrictive geometry rendering and more personal support. “id’s engine licensing at the time was really simple. They basically gave you a CD with the source on it and that was it,” Norden says. “They didn’t really do support or anything. So I went up and met with Tim, and talked to him, and talked to the guys there, and they were just really cool.”

The problem, however, was that Norden and his team were taking an engine and trying to make it do things it wasn’t designed to. “ Deus Ex was a very dialogue-heavy game,” Norden states. “And Unreal was a shooter, right? So those things don’t mix. Theirs was no dialogue. There was no talking in shooters. So we had to create basically an entire conversation system and the tools that go with it.” Even seemingly simple things, like being able to carry more than one pistol, had to be manually coded because the engine wasn’t designed for it. “I might be carrying five pistols in my inventory because I put all my points into pistols,” says Harvey Smith. “I’ll have one for silenced play, and I have one for rapid fire, and I have one for fighting robots—just as an example, that’s three different pistols. Unreal didn’t have the concept of that, it only had the concept of, ‘Do you have the pistol, yes or no?’” 

Another problem was the game’s core systems were coded in UnrealScript, which was slow to compile. Every time Norden made a change to the script it had to be recompiled, which in a game as complicated as Deus Ex is a constant process. “I wrote very rude comments in the code like, ‘Why the eff is this so slow? Dammit Tim,’ says Norden. “And we stupidly didn’t strip the script code out before we shipped. So people just decompiled it and our comments were on display for everybody. So I feel really bad about that to this day.” Luckily for Norden, Tim Sweeney saw the funny side of it.

"We're dead"

Deus Ex was in development for almost four years, and for three-and-a-half of those years it seemed like it would never come together. Spector’s vision for the game’s story was enormous, to the point where he had to be tackled on it. “Harvey and one of the designers who I’ve worked with for many years, guy named Steve Powers, came to me and said, ‘We can’t tell this story, there’s no way we’re gonna do the Russo-Mexican alliance sending an Army across the Texas border and invading. We’re not gonna do that, we’re not gonna have thousands of prisoners in a FEMA camp in the Southwest getting freed by our hero.’”

Eidos had good reason to be concerned. After three years and millions of dollars of investment, so far Ion Storm had put out one game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, which both sold and reviewed terribly.

Meanwhile, the external feedback Austin received was not good. Looking Glass developers, like Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc and Rob Fermier, all came to Austin to playtest the game. “They came in and they would tell us, ‘Man, this sucks. This skill system is terrible, what are you thinking?’” Spector says. The game’s publisher, Eidos, were still supportive of Austin, but also confused by what the game was supposed to be. “Lots of people at Eidos, over the years that we were in development, said, ‘Why don’t you just make a shooter?”’ 

Eidos had good reason to be concerned. After three years and millions of dollars of investment, so far Ion Storm had put out one game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, which both sold and reviewed terribly. Meanwhile, its other three projects were severely behind. In addition, due to a combination of those delays and misguided marketing from Ion Storm Dallas, by 2000 the public opinion of Ion Storm had turned from enthusiastic to openly hostile. Even though they were sheltered in Austin, the Deus Ex team felt the heat of this ire. 

“It was interesting and tough to be part of the ‘John Romero is going to make you his bitch’ company’,” says Spector. “And the Dallas office, they were spending money in ways that I would not have spent money, and the projects were all running late or they were projects we shouldn’t have started at all.” Indeed, there were worries that Deus Ex would flop purely on account of the widespread eagerness to see the hubris of Ion Storm blow up in its face. “We were like, ‘Oh crap, we’ve got brand image issues now,’” says Norden. “‘Are we gonna be doomed to failure because of this logo on our box?’”

At the same time, not everyone at the Dallas studio was happy with how things were panning out at Austin. Jerry O’Flaherty, who was the art director for Ion Storm as a whole, had sent several artists down to Austin to work on Deus Ex. “These artists would report back to Jerry about various goings-on within the studio,” says Romero. O’Flaherty was close friends with another of Ion Storm’s founders, Todd Porter, and according to Romero, Porter didn’t like what he heard about how things were progressing at Ion Storm Austin. “This led Todd to call for the cancellation of the game, or him wanting to go down to straighten things out.”

When Deus Ex hit Alpha in August 1999, Eidos gave Austin six extra months to finish the game. It made all the difference.

Romero, however, acted as a buffer between Austin and the more sceptical voices within Dallas. “I told Todd to leave them be, and we would not be cancelling the game, ever,” Romero says. “I had to put my foot down several times during the Deus Ex timeline. I had the utmost confidence in Warren and Harvey.” 

Meanwhile, although some individuals within Eidos had their doubts, the publisher never stepped in to take control of the situation. In fact, when Deus Ex hit Alpha in August 1999, Eidos gave Austin six extra months to finish the game. It made all the difference. Harvey Smith’s redesigned skill system significantly improved the game, while the rest of that time was spent “tuning and tweaking and finding the fun”, as Spector puts it. 

In the end, Deus Ex released on 17 June 2000, just three weeks after Eidos published Daikatana. For Ion Storm Austin, it was a strange time. Internet journalism was still in its infancy, so the developers had to wait a month or so for the reviews to come in. Spector was nervous. “There was a day when we were nearing the end where I put my head down on my desk and I just said out loud, ‘If people compare our combat to Half-Life, we’re dead. If they compare our stealth to Thief, we’re dead. If they compare our roleplaying elements to Neverwinter Nights (which was the big RPG at that time), we’re dead. But if they get to decide how much fighting or sneaking or RPG-ing they get to do, we’re gonna rule the world.’”

Expansion

Deus Ex was a resounding success both critically and commercially—the only game developed by Ion Storm that managed both. “We had one incredibly bad review. A guy named Tom Chick just, I dunno if he hated me, but he sure hated Deus Ex, wow!” Spector says. “But other than that, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.” The success also secured the future of Ion Storm Austin, which by this point was owned directly by Eidos. “It was never a question that we wouldn’t do a sequel. Eidos wanted it,” Spector says. 

Meanwhile, shortly after the release of Thief II: The Metal Age, and on the same day that Daikatana released in North America, Looking Glass Studios closed its doors. “I got a call from someone at Eidos saying, ‘We have the rights to do a new Thief game, we’re going to do a new Thief game, and we’re going to let another developer do the next Thief game,’” Spector says. “I said, ‘Oh no you’re not. We’re doing that here at Ion Storm.’”

Spector hired many of Looking Glass’s staff, and the company began working on both Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows simultaneously. Because the company had effectively doubled in size, Spector decided to take on a more managerial role, and let other people oversee each game’s development. Harvey Smith was selected to direct the second Deus Ex, while Randy Smith (no-relation to Harvey) was hired to oversee Thief. Chris Norden left Ion Storm Austin almost immediately after Deus Ex was completed. 

Spector decided that he would not interfere with the direction of either game, and let both designers make the decisions they wanted to make. It’s a decision that he now regrets. “I probably should have given those guys more direction, and not let them make some mistakes that I saw them making.”

Choices and consequences

For the sequel to Deus Ex, Smith wanted to retain the multifaceted approach that players could adopt in play, but ensure that the experience was uniform across the entire game. “Looking at the missions for Deus Ex, some of them were kinda just all over the place. Not all of them were like science fiction dystopia … and some of them were pretty far afield. Some of them were more RPG, some were less RPG,” Smith says. 

As part of this plan, Smith designed the game with a much stronger, more vivid aesthetic, moving the game much farther in the future and imbuing it with a far more overt cyberpunk theme. This was one change that Spector saw as problematic, but decided not to bring up. “I wouldn’t have moved Invisible War so far in the future. I think part of Deus Ex is it’s a world that’s recognisable as our own,” he says. “I wouldn’t have put the player character in a purple jumpsuit. I mean, it’s a trivial point, but it just looked goofy.” 

Another issue was that Smith wanted to expand upon the narrative choices from the original Deus Ex, letting players switch between factions at will and having no forced failure states. “What it meant was none of your choices actually had any real consequences. If you can always change your mind, your choices are really weakened,” Spector says.

The main problems for Invisible War (and, for that matter, Deadly Shadows) did not stem from design, but technology. Deus Ex was designed from the ground up as a PC game. Both Invisible War and Thief III were designed specifically for the Xbox, with the PC version approached as a port of the Xbox version. None of the Ion Storm team had much experience designing for console, and so they were disappointed to find the Xbox had a fraction of the power of a PC at the time. “The maps had to get so small a lot of our gameplay didn’t work,” Spector says. “It was kind of a surprise to us and there wasn’t much we could do about it.” 

Although today Invisible War is viewed as a disappointment, at the time of its release it reviewed fairly well and to date has sold more copies than the original Deus Ex. Although the project was a difficult one, Smith believes there are still good things about the game. “The Antarctic mission that was kind of a call-out to The Thing, one of my favourite movies,” he says, as an example. “Starting off in an apartment, finding out it’s a lab is a very Philip K. Dick move that we wanted to make. The Black Market Augmentations and how they work, along with the other biomods, so you can put together a bunch of drones and stuff. There were lots of little things along the way that we liked.”

Cradle to grave

Perhaps because of the immediate comparison with Deus Ex, Invisible War is often viewed as the game that got away from Ion Storm Austin. But in terms of what the developers had planned, the game that came out most compromised from under Spector’s watch was Thief: Deadly Shadows.

Deadly Shadows was meant to be twice as long. Every level designer was given two levels to design for the game, but early in development they were all asked to scrap one of those levels.

As a lifelong Thief fan, hearing about elements of the game which never made it out of Ion Storm Austin is agonising. Originally, Deadly Shadows was meant to be twice as long. Every level designer was given two levels to design for the game, but early in development they were all asked to scrap one of those levels. Jordan Thomas’s two missions were the Cradle, which made it into the game, and the Grave, which didn’t. “The Grave was specifically a massive sort of death-processing facility owned by the Hammerite faction,” says Thomas. “And it was going to double down on the idea of religious notions of death and the cycle of the soul leaving the body, and sort of delve into some of the Victorian reuses of corpses.” 

In addition, the freely explorable city Deadly Shadows introduced was intended to be many times larger than it appeared in the final game. Thomas states that Emil Pagliarulo, the designer who created Thief II’s famous ‘Life of the Party’ mission had “a legendary build-out of what the geometry of the docks might have been. And it was almost 100% scrapped by the time we finished”.

The reason behind this ruthless cutting down was partly to do with the console focus. But equally significant was that the studio went against its own mantra, and began designing its own technology. For both Invisible War and Deadly Shadows, Ion Storm Austin created a custom renderer that could project real-time shadows from every character and object. 

“It was a combination of videogame technological sort-of one-upmanship early on, combined with an imagined notion that real-time shadows would lead to dynamism in gameplay scenarios that Thief II couldn’t deliver,” Thomas says. “The fantasy of what we would do when the shadow of a pillar would truly move, and you could stay inside that shadow as the guard with the torch crossed through a room with thick enough columns, it sounded really good on paper.” 

But the combination of this advanced renderer (which beat Doom 3 for real-time shadows by about a year) and the limited power of the Xbox meant that huge swathes of the game had to be cut down to get it in. “It ended up being one of the decisions that most of the team felt was a massive mistake,” Thomas says. “The city sections, good gravy, we reduced those to almost nothing.”

The great god player

Ion Storm Dallas may have been notorious for its arrogance, but there was more than sufficient hubris to go around at Ion Storm Austin too. It just emerged in a different form. From its Looking Glass genetics, Austin inherited the culture of the auteur, that blend of artiste and academic that dedicated itself heart, mind and soul to the idea they were chasing, and where the ends justified the means. “I’ve called it a culture of intellectual Darwinism,” says Thomas. “It was like a court case, an ongoing, months long court case in which everyone was the player’s advocate, and they were going to bring 100% of their rigour to bear on the argument, because the great god player deserved it.” 

This design philosophy led to an atmosphere that could at times be exclusionary. “It led to quieter people, who are, if any degree of removal away from a heterosexual white male, to be less likely to say anything,” Thomas says. It was also an atmosphere of perfectionism. So when reviews of Invisible War and Deadly Shadows hovered in the low-80s, the effect on team morale was devastating. “We were groomed to believe that you were 90-plus on Metacritic or you are nothing,” he adds. 

It was an atmosphere of perfectionism. So when reviews of Invisible War and Deadly Shadows hovered in the low-80s, the effect on team morale was devastating.

Shortly after the release of Deadly Shadows, Warren Spector left the company. He attributes this partly to the work equivalent of the seven-year itch—“I just get itchy, you know, to do something different”—and dissatisfaction at the kinds of games Eidos was publishing. “I remember going to E3 one year, right around the time I left, right before I left,” he says. “There were things like, ‘This time you get to kill with a meat hook, and here’s the game of kids killing cops, and here’s a racing game where the idea isn’t to win the race, it’s to create the biggest explosions.’ And, I just looked around, and I was showing Invisible War and Deadly Shadows, and I just said, ‘One of these things is not like the others.’” 

Despite Spector’s departure, and the disappointment at the critical reception of Deadly Shadows and Invisible War, there was no sense that the studio’s life was nearing its end. The studio regrouped and formed designs teams for both Deus Ex 3 and Thief 4. In an echo of the company’s early years, there were two competing pitches for Deus Ex 3, one of which was Thomas’s own. “We built a crazy ambitious text only version of a narrative web, which you’ve seen in a lot of other games since, the notion of the procedural story,” he says. “It was ludicrous, but very inspiring at the time, and felt like the great dragon that everyone wanted to slay.” 

Slowly, though, Ion Storm Austin began to bleed employees, leaking staff to other companies such as Midway Austin. Then, in 2005, Eidos announced a major layoff. “I was in the room where people, we had to decide how many, but which ones got the seats to stay,” says Thomas. “And it was just, it made you wonder why anyone ever assembles for any field of human endeavour.”

The remaining employees kept going, but by this point most of them were just “punching a clock”, as Thomas describes it. Then, about a year into pre-production on Deus Ex 3, the final layoff came, and Ion Storm shut its doors for good. Thomas, however, was kept on by Eidos for a few extra months, so he could finish the design document for his version of Deus Ex. “I’ve never known why they wanted that and I’ve no idea what they did with it, but I did so.” It was an ironic end for the studio. For years Ion Storm Austin had built a cult around the idea, and it took on such power that in the end Eidos perceived that was where all the value lay. 

Perhaps the strangest thing about Ion Storm as a whole is how its studios were simultaneously so completely different and so very similar. Both companies were driven by sky-high ambitions, Dallas in your face and larger than life, Austin intellectual and innovative. Both companies held design as a talisman, and found themselves mired in technological problems. Dallas was demonised while Austin was evangelised, and yet both suffered from personality clashes, management foul-ups, and an inflated sense of self-worth. 

Harvey Smith sums up these strange and shifting contrasts. “There were very volatile extroverts in Dallas, and Warren’s group tended to be very volatile introverts and nerds.” He recalls an example from one of Ion Storm’s release parties, where the company rented a boat on a lake. “We invited the people from Dallas down with us,” he says. “A lot of the Dallas guys just got drunk on the boat. And a lot of our people were on the inside of the boat because the sun was frying our pale skin. And we were—literally people broke out board games, and we were playing board games on this party boat.”

Sleeping Dogs

Martial arts master and Star Wars Rogue One star Donnie Yen has confirmed a movie adaptation of Sleeping Dogs is in development.

Yen posted about the project yesterday on his various social media accounts.

"Sometimes great things take a bit of time," he wrote on his Instagram. "Sleeping Dog is motion, you guys ready for this? #donnieyen #action #sleepingdog #kickass #martialarts"

Read more…

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (RPS)

podcast-remakes-1

Welcome to the freshly relaunched RPS podcast, the Electronic Wireless Show! You might think this is episode 31, but actually it s episode 1 again. We re rebooting it, even though we just did that last year. We ve started by making it more accessible. Instead of three of us chatting about videogames between snippets of jaunty music, there s just a sad man saying Sonic the Hedgehog over and over. We re confident you ll like it. (more…)

PC Gamer

One of the most distinctive things about the Deus Ex series is its music: Hearing the opening notes of the original Deus Ex theme in the midst of the very first Deus Ex 3 teaser took my breath away, and it still leaves me all a-tingle when it plays. So when Elias Toufexis, the voice of Adam Jensen, retweeted something about "Icarus," "Embrace What You Have Become," and @LeMetropolitain, I was naturally intrigued. 

The video is a performance of the two tracks, one from Human Revolution and the other from Mankind Divided, by the Montreal-based Orchestre Métropolitain

It's all very serious and somber, as befits a proper orchestral concert, but lest there be any doubt about the videogame connection, footage from various Deus Ex teasers plays on a large screen suspended above the musicians, complete with Nano-Ceramic Blade murders and—perhaps a little awkwardly—a message inviting people to preorder the game ahead of its launch in early 2011. (There's no indication as to when the video was recorded, but Eidos Montreal just posted it today.)

It's a very cool translation of some great game music, even if nobody in the chorus takes the initiative to sing, "I never asked for this." The full video is below, and you can listen to Michael McCann's originals on YouTube: Icarus here, and Embrace What You Have Become here.   

Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Tom Francis)

Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider

What Works And Why is a new monthly column where Gunpoint and Heat Signature designer Tom Francis digs into the design of a game and analyses what makes it good.>

I love Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and Dishonored 2, and the name for these games is dumb: they’re ‘immersive sims’. If you asked me what I liked about them, my answer would be a phrase almost as dumb: ’emergent gameplay!’

I always used to think of these as virtually the same thing, but of course they’re not. Immersive sims usually have a whole list of traits, things like: (more…)

Thief: Deadly Shadows

Are you feeling forlorn for the halcyon days of the Thief series? You may already be aware of The Dark Mod. It’s a fan-made standalone mod that recreates Thief, but isn’t set in the specific universe. With it, fans can create levels for others to enjoy. Having been out in the wild for years now, it’s amassed a huge library of missions. 

If you’re new to The Dark Mod, I’m here to help you find the best the game has to offer. And if you’re a veteran taffer, I’ve picked out some of my favourite new missions as well. Fair warning to those eager to jump in, though, The Dark Mod can be a bit rough around the edges, with cringeworthy narration and more than a few bugs to interrupt your plans. It’s also worth downloading the tutorial mission. Whether you’re new to Thief or not, The Dark Mod does a lot of things in its own way, especially with regards to controls. If you’re able to get on board with that, you’re in for a good time. 

Let’s start with The Tears of St Lucia by Springheel and jdude, which is still one of the mod’s most elegant creations. You’re tasked with infiltrating a slum’s well-guarded church to steal everything you can, but the robbery is just a cover. Your real task is to vandalise a local statue that’s been proclaimed as a miracle. A bit of theft and vandalism is all in a good night’s work. It’s quite simple but is nonetheless full of secret entrances, patrolling guards and a few hidden treasures. St Lucia may be among the more conventional missions available, but it works as a great showcase for what The Dark Mod can do.

Whilst I found Tears of St Lucia a bit straightforward, A Score to Settle (also by Springheel) is far larger and more complex. This sprawling level encompasses intertwining streets, tunnels and hideouts, with an objective to embarrass a notorious gang leader (you can’t say these fans aren’t inventive with their objectives). I was impressed with just how much of the map you can traverse, climbing over fences and ledges, which is handy not just for reaching goals, but for getting away from a pesky guard in pursuit. And once you’ve wrapped up all your objectives, you need to make a daring getaway across town. A perfect night out.

You need to navigate this labyrinth without any map or clues. With plenty of guards around every corner, the odds feel decisively stacked against you.

If you want to see The Dark Mod really flex its muscles, then look no further than Full Moon Fever by Spoonman. This is a classic, enticing Thief-style mission. A sprawling manor to rob, with the untimely death of its lord serving as a mystery at the heart of it all. The wonderful thing about the mission is how it starts out offering an elaborate mansion full of guards to navigate and overcome, but then you find out that’s not even half of what it has to show. Investigating the murder of the lord leads to the level flipping on its head, going from a classic robbery mission to a full on horror show. And there’s more! I almost burst out laughing as it just kept going and going, offering yet another exciting area or twist. It’s a true pleasure to play through, thanks to a fairly deft hand for environmental storytelling. 

From the same creator comes another stellar mission, King of the Mountain. This one is much more straightforward: you’re a prisoner looking to escape a notorious prison. Simple. Of course, you have to do so without any equipment whatsoever, and you need to navigate this labyrinth without any map or clues. With plenty of guards around every corner, the odds feel decisively stacked against you, so prevailing feels all the more satisfying. Yet what lingers with me – as with Spoonman’s previous map—is the ability to tell a story through the sights you find around the level. A makeshift boxing ring in one corner of the prison tells you all you need to know about the kind of place that you’re escaping. 

Speaking of such details, let me introduce Down by the Riverside by Dragofer, a fun and atmospheric mission that opens with you hidden aboard a boat to reach a remote and supposedly haunted mansion. This one’s a doozy, packed full of surprising turns as it tells the tale of a troubled family. It can also be unbearably tense at times—the manor’s creepy atmosphere is almost suffocating as you try to avoid looters and worry about what’s actually in the basement. If this mission owes a debt to anything from Thief, it’s Robbing the Cradle from Deadly Shadows. Being able to remind me of that horror classic speaks to this fan creation’s quality.

Last but by no means least is Briarwood Manor by Chris ‘Neonstyle’ Kilgariff. This is a lavishly presented mission, that even comes with its own introductory FMV cutscene. It all takes place in a manor shrouded in fog, with a complex interior that oozes atmosphere. I found the whole place a little unhinged, with its flickering lanterns, upset horses and the steward, who finds the place cold and unwelcoming despite having stayed there for months. There’s more to it than just the presentation, though. With no map, no blackjack and limited water arrows, this is a real test of your skills. I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion. All in all, it’s one of the finest missions The Dark Mod has to offer. 

These are some of my favourite single missions, but there’s plenty more available—from short, quick robberies, to multimission stories like the William Steele trilogy. And, if the community is anything to go by, there’ll be plenty more classics for years to come.

For more Dark Mod missions check out the missions section of the Dark Mod site.

Borderlands 2

Welcome back to the PC Gamer Q&A. Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which game were you the best at? We all have those games we become obsessed with, until we reach some level of mastery. We'd love to read your suggestions in the comments, too.

James Davenport: Super Hexagon

I never get too attached to one game for very long. I think the most time I've spent playing any one game is Borderlands 2 with something like 300 hours clocked, and I don't even like it that much. But when I do love a game, it's a swift, dedicated, blinding attachment, usually the product of horrible depression or anxiety. So it's weird that I would play Super Hexagon during one of the most difficult months of my life, but I did, and it helped me calm down. Within a week I beat the hardest difficulty and managed to stretch nearly a minute beyond the 'win' time, though I can't remember my times exactly. When you see that game for the first time, it's almost not easy to parse what's going on. Between the rotating screen, flashing colors, and intense chiptune soundtrack, maneuvering that tiny triangle for even a few seconds was impossible at first. But then it wasn't impossible, just difficult. Then it wasn't difficult, it was second nature. It's a silly example, but I try to remember that when I don't feel capable. Super Hexagon is more potent than any quote from a dead philosopher. 

Wes Fenlon: Tower Wars

Years ago, a friend and I spent a good week mastering the wonderful tower defense game PixelJunk Monsters on PS3, which had a rare co-op mode that let you run around the map together building and buffing towers. So when we happened upon another cute tower defense game on Steam with online co-op, we decided to give it a shot. And for a couple weeks we were utterly addicted to Tower Wars.

It's classic Tower Defense, really: you build mazes out of towers, upgrade them as you get more cash, and defeat hordes of enemies as they wind their way towards your base. But in online multiplayer, you had to manage building your own defenses and send waves of units crashing down on your opponents. We played the 2v2 mode and quickly developed a pretty effective strategy. Cheap towers to sketch out just enough of our maze to handle early waves, and then rush the right combination of fast units to send our opponents into a panic. We figured out some good unit combinations and managed to win against most of our opponents. It was a winning spree of only a few days, but man it felt good.

Only a few thousand people owned Tower Wars when it first came out, and I don't remember how many people were on the 2v2 leaderboard, but I do remember we got down below 100. Maybe 80? Maybe 40? We were definitely some of the best players in the world. Never mind that it was a very small pool. Wherever we peaked, we definitely started playing against opponents who could outlast our rush strategy and slowly wear us down with clearly superior maze building. Those matches would drag on for so long that Tower Wars' framerate would slow to a crawl as we delayed the inevitable. We knew we'd topped out. But for those couple of weeks, we were unstoppable. 

Chris Livingston: Half-Life 2: Deathmatch

I'm sad to say it's Half-Life 2: Deathmatch. Damn, I was good at that. Something about flinging around toilets and file cabinets with a gravity gun was second nature to me and it's pretty much the only multiplayer game where I'd routinely wind up with the most kills. And there's no better kill than a toilet kill, except possibly using the gravity gun to catch someone's pulse rifle orb and fling it back at them. I was good at that too.

Unfortunately, HL2 Deathmatch was about as popular as an antlion at a beach party and quickly fell by the wayside. Maybe everyone got tired of being killed by flying toilets. Or maybe it just wasn't a good multiplayer game. I guess I'll just wait for Half-Life 3: Deathmatch. Should be out soon, right?

Tim Clark: Hearthstone (obviously)

This feels like a very deliberate attempt to trap me into answering Hearthstone again, which I will now step smoothly into. The one time I put the effort into grinding to legend rank remains the single hardest thing I've done in a game (even though I played Zoo for quite a bit of the way), and so seeing that card back reward pop when I made it is also one of my happiest moments. For the rest of the month I tooled around playing comedy decks with the pressure off, and one Sunday afternoon managed to find myself at about rank 400-and-something (blaze it) on the EU server with Yogg & Load Hunter. For about an hour or so, I was technically, sort of, the 400th-ish best player in Europe. Contract offers from pro teams should be directed to the usual address. 

Austin Wood: Hearthstone

Most of my best games aren't on PC, so I was having a hard time choosing—until Tim answered Hearthstone. Which reminded me that, for a glorious hour, I was legend rank four (which, correct me if I'm wrong, is better and handsomer than 400-and-something) on the North American server. It was during Midrange Paladin's Goblins vs. Gnomes heyday. I built a list with two Equality, two Solemn Vigil, one Defender of Argus and only one Quartermaster, and climbed the ladder with a 67 percent win rate. It's still the only time I've actually recorded Hearthstone matches. That deck absolutely feasted on the Zoolocks and Handlocks in that meta. I hit legend at rank 13, and climbed to rank four before being beaten back by a wave of Rogues. Which was when I, too, started playing meme decks.  

Jody Macgregor: Thief Gold

After finishing Thief on normal difficulty I went back and did it all again on expert, 100% loot. I was unemployed and living with my parents, which is the only reason I had time for it. Replaying it more recently I'm pretty average, and have forgotten where half the secrets are. But on the other hand I don't sleep on a mattress on the floor of my parents' spare room these days so it's hard to feel sad about my atrophied stealth skills. 

Andy Chalk: Doom

I was an untouchable OG Doom machine. Ultimate, Master Levels, Lost Episodes, WAD CDs, you name it, I slapped 'em all around like they were a pistol zombie standing in the middle of a room full of barrels. Opportunities for multiplayer were far rarer than they are now—you could go one-on-one over a phone line, or put yourself through the hellish wringer of setting up an IPX network for some four-way fun—but I was a monster there, too. And strictly with the keyboard—it never occurred to me to play with the mouse at first, and mouseketeers couldn't keep up anyway so I never saw a point in changing. (This attitude would come back to bite me in the ass when I attempted to take on Quake.)

At one point I exchanged a few messages with American McGee on the Software Creations BBS in an attempt to shit-talk John Romero into taking me on. McGee politely but firmly told me to stop bugging him. 

Samuel Roberts: Batman: Arkham City

I'll never be Batman, but in Arkham City's challenge rooms I got pretty damned close—while still being able to maintain my diet of cheeses and red wine. The amount of tools you get deep into the second Batman game, like the ice bomb and the remote electrical charge, give you numerous ways to creatively deal with Gotham's thugs and send your score soaring. It's terrific to just practice that until you can perfect each room without breaking your combo or taking a hit. I never quite mastered Arkham Knight in the same way. 

But what about you, reader? Let us know below.

Thief: Deadly Shadows - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Rick Lane)

thiefheader

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.>

I always feel a bit sad when I think about Deadly Shadows. Ion Storm Austin’s spin on Looking Glass’ landmark stealth series is an embodiment of frustrated ambitions. The developers had basically planned for Deadly Shadows to be an open-world stealth game, a sort of medieval Grand Theft Carriage. But the prioritising of the original Xbox combined with lofty technological ambitions meant that, like a man trying to fit an elephant into a fridge, Ion Storm had to mercilessly cut down the scope of its project. Even then, they could only include the important bits, like the trunk and a couple of the feet. (more…)

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