If you’re a non-PC gamer who has expressed even vague interest in the medium, you’ve probably had a few dozen people beg you to play Deus Ex, the 2000 cyberpunk game in which all conspiracies are true and all rooms are connected by conveniently man-sized HVAC ducts. Deus Ex somehow managed to feel both perfectly self-contained and open — each level was a living environment and a carefully designed map that could be traversed in any number of (usually stealthy) ways. It’s since seen a sequel and multiple prequels, but the original game owes a lot to its crudeness. The more realistic it got, the more scripted it felt, like some kind of ludic uncanny valley effect.
I mention this because Neon Struct, a paranoia-inducing little stealth game, is the stripped-down Deus Ex I didn’t know I was waiting for. Instead of trying to fix the limitations of late-’90s sneaking games, it embraces them, paring away everything except the genre’s most basic tropes.
Neon Struct places you in the shoes of a spy named Jillian Cleary, who works for the kind of covert agency that puts a giant glowing eye in the lobby of its headquarters. She sneaks into compounds where guards walk in perfectly straight, never-changing paths, always carry keycards in their back pockets, and can be knocked into deep, peaceful sleep with a blow to the back of the head. After Jillian inevitably discovers a global surveillance program, there’s one of those ubiquitous prison levels where all her equipment gets confiscated and she has to find the random crate that holds it before escaping. If she’s nice to pedestrians, one of them will invariably point her to the local black-market spy gear dealer. There’s even a dramatic synth score that sounds an awful lot like Deus Ex’s.
It’s all potently nostalgic (and a little predictable), but it’s also creating a distinct language and aesthetic. The low-poly graphics, simple enemy behavior, and boxy levels turn the game into a series of stylized, satisfying puzzles. There’s no map, so you’ll rely solely on your own sense of direction, keeping track of the secret entrances and enemy patterns. There’s a hacking minigame, a mainstay of the genre, but it’s literally a quick round of Breakout. There are only a few items and options, including temporary invisibility or footstep-silencing "stims," so you’ll spend most of your time exploiting light switches, hidden ladders, and security system hacks.
Neon Struct isn't usually hard, but it favors perfectionism
Neon Struct isn’t usually hard, but it favors perfectionism by grading your performance — whether you set off alarms, whether you had to incapacitate any foes — after each section. There are little Easter eggs scattered throughout the game, but it’s not about exploration as much as mastery — once you’ve figured a level out, you want to jump back in and do everything better. There are only so many ways to navigate its simple environments, but that simplicity makes them feel more like walkable architectural models than a series of predetermined paths.
Even the fiction is built on this mechanical straightforwardness. The low-poly design turns every character into a faceless cipher; in a game about trust and anonymity, this means that almost all the people around you are effectively wearing the same mask, whether they’re a random guard or one of the mysterious black-clad strangers that appear in dark corners. Between missions, it winkingly offers another gaming cliche: the mundane good deeds that your highly trained secret agent protagonist will helpfully perform for random passersby. Characters in Neon Struct will ask you to buy them food. They will ask you to find the hotel keycard they lost in plain sight. They will sit 10 feet away from another character and ask you to set them up on a date.
The missions are so ridiculously trivial that you start performing them almost by reflex, until a chance interaction reminds you that you’re a wanted criminal wandering around talking to everyone you see. It’s not just self-aware commentary, it’s a metaphor for the million innocuous interactions that can be harvested for personal information in the real world. As the game progresses, you start wondering whether throwaway choices, like walking into a bar or pilfering a hard drive, will have long-term repercussions. I don’t think they do, but there’s still a nagging sense of uncertainty.
What does a conspiracy game look like when the conspiracies are real?
The game pulls its politics straight from real-life whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. You can pick Jillian’s path to a point, but there’s a clear division between good and evil, transparency and surveillance, fictionalized WikiLeaks and fictionalized Stratfor. The X-Files-inspired Deus Ex is a morally ambiguous ‘90s-conservative fantasy where even the most improbable fears are justified, from a UN takeover to Area 51 aliens. Humans can only really free themselves by rejecting modern technology altogether. Neon Struct’s fairly optimistic story is much more comforting to technophiles, but it’s also just what stories look like when the real-world conspiracies do turn out to be true.
We don’t have to wonder whether an intelligence agency is tracking our phone calls, or whether the CIA hacked into Senate staffers’ computers while they conducted a torture investigation. Knowing about something isn’t the same as understanding or changing it, but in some ways, it makes for a simpler narrative. Neon Struct isn’t about reworking a futuristic society, it’s about reform, about living under the system we have now.
And about ducts.
Conveniently woman-sized ducts.