Arkane’s risky immersive sim is happy to take any shape the player wants
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer Arkane Studios Publisher Bethesda Softworks Format PC, PS4, Xbox One Origin US Release May 5
We’re feeling a little silly after just having opened fire on a bin. In our defence, it was rolling at us in a provocative manner as we crested a staircase, and to lend further context, many of the other waste-disposal containers we’ve come across prior to this moment have turned out to be mimics. These skittish, shapeshifting alien creatures can take on the form of any object, and tend to turn back into their smoky, arachnoid form and attack whenever you get too close. In this particular instance, however, our harasser really was just a bin.
It’s an amusing moment that highlights Arkane’s delight in toying with players’ expectations and wracking their nerves whenever possible, and the darkly anarchic sense of humour that runs through the game. Earlier in our play session, for example, we find ourselves doing a series of bizarre lab tests while a disinterested scientist takes notes on our performance. In one test we must find somewhere to hide in a glass-walled chamber that only contains a chair (“Is he… He is, he’s actually hiding behind that chair”). And in a multiple-choice quiz apparently designed to gauge our moral compass, we’re repeatedly presented with the option to push an overweight man onto a train track in order to save ourselves or others. It feels like a sequence from Portal, but somehow even more unhinged. What happens at the end of this appraisal – which is too good to spoil here – propels protagonist Morgan Yu into a nightmarish struggle for survival.
“We wanted to create a big surprise, and to make that surprise as shocking as possible,” creative director Raphael Colantonio tells us. “The beginning of the game is very bright, and very happy. You travel in a helicopter, there’s a nice vista of a city, it’s sunny, and there’s this music playing that’s very heroic and cool. But you get this sense that there’s something off. There are things that don’t quite make sense – you think [the tests are] a tutorial, but they don’t quite feel like one. And so there is this light tone to the beginning, and then we go in the absolute opposite direction to that.”
Colantonio also acknowledges that the game’s unusual enemy design is a risk. While players will encounter humanoid aggressors – though they won’t behave exactly as you expect – mimics in particular are far from traditional firstperson fodder. They leap quickly from floor to wall to ceiling while charging at you in groups; they’re small, and hard to hit with standard weapons; their smoky forms fizz and appear blurry and indistinct; and they’re rather partial to disguising themselves as office supplies before ambushing you. As a result, they possess an air of enigmatic disquietude that feels entirely fresh.
“When we started the game there were two things that we wanted to put emphasis on,” Colantonio says. “We knew the overall vibe had to be survival and an immersive sim, but if we were going to have aliens we also didn’t want them to be traditional aliens. We saw it as an opportunity to do something special. The easiest path would’ve been to go with one of the three archetypes: the lizard men with the laser guns, or the insectoids or whatever. Instead we wanted to go with something players hadn’t seen before. We didn’t know exactly what it would be; it’s hard because a lot of things have been done already. But we thought the paranormal, hard-to-grasp direction was interesting and allowed us to explore alien powers.”
While our unfortunate bin encounter is a scripted one, for the most part mimics’ changing forms are a result of AI decision making and the cascading systems of an immersive sim. These creatures will search for cover when under threat, and what’s available to them in any given situation will differ from game to game – not least because they can become any object that the player drops or dislodges. While this complex simulation sounds like a programmer’s nightmare, creating an assortment of strange alien powers wasn’t the problem – rather, it was in working out how those powers would be recontextualised when bestowed on players.
“The hard-to-grasp direction was interesting and allowed us to explore alien powers”
When development began there was no intention of making them part of the game’s available skillset, but after extensive enemy prototyping it became clear that letting players turn into, say, a pen or cup would open up a number of interesting new doors – or allow the player to bypass them entirely.
“We’ve had to work a lot on the physics, and also put some restrictions in place,” Colantonio explains. “If the object the player turns into is too tiny, then you can’t see yourself, you can get stuck in cracks, and so on. But there are some benefits to that, too. Falling through some of the cracks turned out to be a cool way to access an area that you couldn’t before, so that actually created another type of gameplay that we really liked. Once you have these ideas, it’s all about deciding what you want to do with them.”
Another potentially game-breaking addition is the multipurpose Gloo Cannon. This bulbous contraption fires off gobs of adhesive gel that can be used to slow or stop enemies (a good whack with a wrench after the sticky substance takes effect will shatter them), block up leaking gas vents, or even to build platforms and stairways that enable you to get around. But despite its appeal, it almost didn’t make it into the finished game.
“It’s a great tool, and a great idea, but it’s also been very hard to implement,” Colantonio says. “We were considering removing it because it was taking up a lot of development time. It was a challenging thing to do because it created a lot of conflicts with the physics systems. And it’s a bit of a disruptor, because you can use it to climb anywhere. We had to accept and embrace all of that, but I’m glad that we stuck with it because eventually it ended up great. We really like it, people notice it, and it has its own identity – I have to give credit to Ricardo [Bare, lead designer].”
It proves particularly useful while trying to get about in a towering office section of Talos-1, the space station on which is set. Due to the outbreak of alien creatures on board, the central elevators aren’t working and many of the doorways leading off from the staircases in this vertiginous space have been locked or barricaded by survivors trying to escape death. Sticking some blobs of glue to the wall next to a balcony allows us to reach a sweeping interior design flourish that’s suspended between floors, and from there we can get onto the next floor up. There are other ways to achieve the same goal, but this seems to be the most direct. It’s a convenient, timesaving option, but we wonder if offering the player such flexibility has proved a stern challenge for the design teams.
“Our level designers have created an environment that’s a space of possibilities – it doesn’t matter to them so much how the player gets somewhere,” Colantonio says. “The level designer will suggest a few things – maybe provide a ledge that you can mantle onto – but they also leave some space for other things that the systems allow to happen magically. Our level designers don’t rely on using the environment as a puzzle to block the player, so it doesn’t matter if the player finds some cool instant way to get somewhere – all the better for them! There’s a sandbox aspect to our level design, and this game is more about doing the best with what you have – and what’s available might vary from player to player.”
This reliance on, and trust in, a flexible yet complex weave of systems is a central tenet of the immersive-sim genre. But it’s also one Colantonio feels should be more widespread. “In a way, part of me wonders why every game isn’t an immersive sim,” he laughs. “What is an immersive sim? It’s really a mix of FPS and RPG, and the particular thing about them is that they rely on the simulation aspect. I would hope, as a player, this is the direction that every game is taking, because that’s what computers are for. The more simulated an environment or game, the more unique your experience is going to be. But unfortunately it’s not the case. I just hope that, little by little, things move in that direction, so that at some point we don’t even talk about immersive sims anymore – we just talk about games.”
“Falling through some of the cracks turned out to be a cool way to access an area”
The Gloo Cannon is effective at halting large groups of enemies by gluing them to the spot. Mimics can break free of the bonds if left for too long, however
The first section of Talos-1 that we explore is ornate but vast. A huge glass window looks out onto Earth and the moon
Talos-1’s collapsed scientific society, fancy architecture and fallen grandeur of course evokes Rapture. But the tone here’s very different