The Later Early Edition: Invisible, Inc,

An irregular series in which I revisit Early Access games a few months on from when I first tried them. Have they come along much? Does a finished game seem a realistic prospect? This time – Klei’s turn-based cyberpunk stealth title Invisible, Inc [official site], which I last played in September.

I’ve been quietly worrying for a while about how the slew of otherwise inventive roguelikes and XCOMlikes which increasingly characterise the Steam charts are based as much around maintaining hunger for rewards as they are on whatever great ideas are layered over that. In Darkest Dungeon or Hand of Fate, for recent instance, I start a new quest primarily because I want the goodies at the end of it, and I’m often impatient for the ‘game’ element to end and give me my prize. Go all the way back to FTL or XCOM and it’s the same scenario.

I don’t know whether this trend is down to a generation of developers who’ve taken note of what Diablo and Farmville do to get and keep people playing, or if it’s down to relatively limited budgets meaning procedural generation of environments and challenges can’t go far enough to be more than short loops. They just don’t have enough different parts to keep on surprising, so the reason to play again becomes the unlock at the end rather than to see what happens.

Invisible, Inc (say it aloud) contains all the familiar components of a Skinner box – proc gen maps, levelling up characters, laying hands on new weapons and skills, barely any kind of story, only the vaguest hints of personality to its characters. It looks, for all the world, like another system built to obtain a procession of short-term rewards with. Yet the results are completely, beautifully different.

In Invisible, Inc, I’m so relieved to find that my interest is in each level itself. I’m rarely thinking of whatever the rewards may be, which is partly because the game’s not exactly generous with loot and partly because it creates these moment-to-moment dilemmas. I have this overall objective of grabbing whatever it is I was sent into this high security facility for then reaching the exit unscathed, but within that is a slow torrent of tense, exciting encounters and dangers. I’m playing Invisible, Inc for those, not for their outcomes, but it could so easily have gone the other way.

Even in XCOM, which this owes a minor debt to, missions tend to have the same essential flow, and my mind tends to be less on what’s going to happen and more on whatever bits of alien carcass or tech I bring home and whether my soldiers will level up. Here, I’m often reluctant to leave a level once I’ve ushered my guys to the elevator; little dramas left unfinished, the sense there’s more to be done, even a faint sense of anti-climax that I’m leaving alive, and leaving all my enemies alive.

Invisible Inc is rarely about shooting, I suppose, and even when you do fire a gun it’s a liability. Every violent action raises awareness that you’re in this facility somewhere, so staying unseen is the primary goal at all times. My mind is preoccupied with the essential yet fast-changing puzzle of it all, of how to get an agent from A to B when enemies are watching from all angles. Ingenuity flares as new bits of kit enter play – a vest which turns you invisible for four squares, a defibrillator which can bring a downed agent back into play if you can get over to their guarded body, hacking a security drone and having it close the door that otherwise means you’ll be in a guard’s eyeline next turn…

These are one shot items or items on 10-turn timers which you can’t afford to squander. Acquiring something new is a big deal and often unexpected, rather than something routine, and figuring out how to best use it takes some time. It’s a world away from getting a bigger sword or stronger sandals – a new item can change how you can play. Items exist to expand the possibilities of the game, rather than simply to encourage playing again and again.

To play Invisible Inc is to be presented with challenges which look impossible – so many guards, so many cameras – then figure out a way to achieve ‘em any way. Turn-based is a perfect fit for this. Every turn, the landscape changes a little, as guards move to new places or the building’s alarm reaches a new level, activating new cameras or making terminals and safes harder to hack. Every turn you’re faced with a slightly new situation. I rub my hands together with glee and set to the task of working out what the hell I’m going to do.

In a funny sort of way, Invisible Inc hasn’t come on enormously in the seven or so months since I last played, but that’s probably down to how fully-formed it was when it first took to Early Access. There are more gadgets, more enemy types and devices to hack, the structure makes a little more sense, this and that has been balanced, there’s a much-needed ‘rewind’ system which lets you undo a bad turn once per mission, and generally it feels more fleshed out. It’s a little easier, which is going to be a relief for some, but for me the main thing is that the the variety’s up, and that makes it feel essentially ready for prime time.

That said, missions all look the same, which is good for maintaining Invisible, Inc’s Rockwell-does-Netrunner aesthetic but does mean one level doesn’t feel distinct from the last. It is there, in the little details that really matter – too many guards in that room, a wealth of safes to hack at the expense of your precious hacking PWR resource in that one, the phalanx of turrets or cameras here – but a little visual remixing would go a long way.

Even so, Invisible Inc seems to me like the game which has picked up the XCOM ball and run furthest with it. It feels like its own game, and a strong statement that turned-based stealth can be as tense and thrilling as real-time stealth. Don’t hesitate, even if you’re an Early Accessphobe: Invisible Inc is a fine game in fine shape, and it has its priorities right.

19 Comments

  1. Synesthesia says:

    Ooh, i’ve been eyeing this one for a while. When is it due?

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    • Banks says:

      Klei said that it would leave early-access before summer.

      Anyway, this article sums up perfectly how I feel about the game. Invisible Inc. could have easily gone wrong but it’s so meticulously well crafted, so organic and so cruel that every turn and every move feels critical.

    • Traipse says:

      It’s already a fully-playable game that’s a tremendous amount of fun, so the line between “not done” and “done” is pretty arbitrary at this point. Go for it!

  2. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    In Darkest Dungeon or Hand of Fate, for recent instance, I start a new quest primarily because I want the goodies at the end of it, and I’m often impatient for the ‘game’ element to end and give me my prize. Go all the way back to FTL or XCOM and it’s the same scenario.

    I don’t dispute your argument that there is a strong “get the shinies” motivation behind all of these games, but I think that the narrative drive is produced by how much you can emotionally invest your characters. The player has to use some imagination to flesh out the events and create a compelling reason to dive into the next generated dungeon. Minecraft is just a huge sandbox, but the value you get from it depends on what you put into it.

    • raiders5000 says:

      I’d have to agree with the “emotionally invest your characters” premise. I realize these are two different games but Invisible Inc. and Shadowrun look too similar. The only difference to me is one is blasting foes while the other sneaks around them. However, it’s the character involvement that moves these games more than just shiny loot.

      I will say this. I agree with your “much-needed ‘rewind’ system” suggestion. That would more than likely make me get this game. Let’s say the ‘try before you buy’ formula that Frozen Cortex uses was incorporated in Invisible Inc. You wouldn’t want a rewind system so much. You could live with your choices and learn from your mistakes.

      At this rate, I see you getting bored of this game at the 10th hour, if not sooner, despite character investment. Let’s hope they vary the playing scenarios a bit more.

  3. ulix says:

    Klei is one of my favorite developers. On top of that they’re one of the few that do Early Access right.

  4. Pazguato says:

    REALLY love the art!

  5. ersetzen says:

    I am pretty partial to rouge lites but Invisible Inc is with Catacomb Kids one of the two that actually keep me coming back over and over. Never realized that neither was as progression driven as many others.

    I don’t think that is their main differentiation, though. Maybe more that both actually allow you to be creative with your solution so that it feels incredibly awesome when you come up with that super clever solution that you never saw before. I feel like many rouge lites kinda lack that creative freedom or whatever you want to call it. When you make that daring escape or manage that cool combo because you had that one key idea which you lacked before. And beautiful things happen… youtube.com/watch?v=v8XGWxDHmLk&t=18

  6. wwarnick says:

    I’ve owned this game for a while now. Klei has done better than most with early access. Unlike many, they had a solid (while incomplete), fun game to play when they first released it. They had a clear vision for where it would go, and they have taken community feedback to heart to make the game the best that it could possibly be.

    I always hated turn-based games, but I decided to try this one out because I’m a big fan of stealth games and I loved Mark of the Ninja (Klei’s first stealth game). I’m glad I did. This is one of the rare games that would still be fun and exciting if you removed all the art and story because it’s so well designed. This line says it all: “To play Invisible Inc is to be presented with challenges which look impossible – so many guards, so many cameras – then figure out a way to achieve ‘em any way.” And when you pull it off, you feel awesome.

    They’re finished with the incremental updates and are on their last stretch before the final release. I can’t recall when they said would be completed, but I imagine in the next couple months. If you’re wary about early access, this one is 100% safe to try. It’s been solid since last year. In fact, it feels like a completed game. They’re just adding some last big surprises and polish for the final release.

    • Underwhelmed says:

      Klei has become one of my favorite developers in the last couple years, and it is largely because they handle early access so well. Invisible Inc. has really changed a lot from its original inception. The earliest versions of this game were good, and it has only gotten better as they have completely changed a lot of the fundamental rules.

  7. Frank says:

    “I’m often impatient for the ‘game’ element to end and give me my prize. Go all the way back to FTL or XCOM and it’s the same scenario.”

    I’m sorry, what? No. What? I play those games entirely for the tactical battles.

    The same goes for the Banner Saga, where the battles are light years better than the “prize” that is the choose-your-own-adventure (with only one correct choice) story.

    • icarussc says:

      Logged in to agree! More power to Alec if he plays this way, but I definitely don’t. In fact, once a mission starts, I can’t remember who needs to level up or what the objective was … I’m there for the tense, moment-by-moment tactics.

      That said, I LOVE Banner Saga’s story, so I suppose we’re all unique snowflakes in our preferences, aren’t we? :-)

    • Josh W says:

      I was thinking about this before with a different game, I reckon that there are a lot of layers in games like this, in old X-COM there was a tactical map and a strategic map, and the newer XCOM subtly shifted that upper layer into a different kind of mechanic, but regardless, there’s the moment to moment of a map-based fight, and then if you encapsulate that as a node on a graph, there’s the interest of moving from mission to mission, choosing a mix of risk and reward.

      Essentially, there’s a gambling layer, and above that a story/find out about the aliens layer, and you can play the game at multiple different timescales.

      And that means that when designing a game like this, it’s not enough to go “yes we did it, it’s actually fun!”, because you can end up creating a game that works primarily because of how it utilises that layer of gambling, and even because of how it uses intermittent rewards and difficulty to keep people playing, rather than how it uses randomness to create a varied strategic landscape.

      I think that the farmvilles of the world have done us a great service in a way, in that it’s possible to see what intentional incompleteness and randomised reward feels like in a game, so you can look at old classic games in different terms, see what ways they were, unfortunately, similar, and what ways they did better things:

      Orthogonal enemy design, upgrades that alter your affordances substantially, randomised elements leading to a variety of outcomes and efforts to compensate rather than immediate failure, readable cues and small elements of predictability, game breaking synergies only occasionally or temporarily available, etc. etc.

      This is stuff that invisible inc. seems to do well, possibly because of the strong overlap between these things and things in the stealth genre, but there’s other things old procedural games do well that don’t fit in this list, like creating enough variety to create unique senses of place on different runs, creating a sense of depth and journey, surprising variations in pace, and other stuff more in keeping with minecraft or proteus, or chaotic and surreal histories like dwarf fortress. That stuff that is less about challenge and more about experience.

      I’m sure there’s more too!

  8. Colwolf77 says:

    This looks like a game with a distinct character and solid game design behind it. It looks pretty damn awesome and right up my alley.

  9. alms says:

    I don’t know whether this trend is down to a generation of developers who’ve taken note of what Diablo and Farmville do to get and keep people playing

    You might want to look further back, classic Roguelikes all had relatively small levels (especially the games more faithful to the original Rogue-like formula like netHack = one 80×25 screenful), and kept the player in with the promise of powerful items just around the corner, one more level. E.g. in Angband, Ringil or the Boots of Feanor were once (been out of the loop for too long) regarded as game-changers and tools to win the game.

  10. Kitsunin says:

    Oh man does the ability to go back one turn help. Earlier on I was driven off by the fact that accidentally a single mistake would lead to one of my two agents dying, and the game isn’t fun with only one agent. Being able to reverse that mistake (and I usually make one per mission) allows those tricky situations which lead to frustration instead blossom into a beautiful feat of clever tactics.

  11. macaddct says:

    I never would have noticed that…