I discovered something funny as 2015 drew to a close and everyone started talking about the best games of the year: I hadn’t played a single one of them. Oh, I’d been playing video games all right, but none of them had been 2015 releases. However, as I was rummaging around in my games folder, trying to figure out where all my time had gone and where the heck I’d saved that Undertale demo, I discovered that I actually had been playing a game from 2015—I just hadn’t realized it, because it had been released so quietly and received so little attention that I’d assumed it had come out a year or two ago and I’d simply missed it.
Released in the spring of 2015 from Klei Entertainment (developers of the acclaimed Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja), this new gem of a game has stealthily remained under the radar, despite acquiring a respectable little fandom and dedicated player base in online forums. Now, I’d like to try drawing it into the spotlight by introducing you to my nomination for Best Game You’ve Never Heard of From 2015: Invisible, Inc.
Invisible, Inc. (get it? get it?) is a turn-based roguelike stealth game in which you control a small team of agents in a dystopian, tech-riddled future. The entire world is now run by three or four sinister tech corporations, and your little team is one of the last bastions of freedom, struggling to survive from one job to the next as the collective corporate world tries to hunt them down and kill them all.
This game was a bit of a fresh start for me in terms of genre; my first encounter with roguelike games was actually with Klei’s other, more famous title, Don’t Starve, and if I learned anything from that game, it was that roguelike games were not for me. My stance on turn-based games was similar after a baffling and short-lived attempt at playing Final Fantasy VII, and I’m still a very new fan of stealth-based games. Fortunately, I had no idea the game involved all three of these genres when I first tried it on a free-to-play weekend, or I might never have downloaded it in the first place. But I’m so very glad I did.
Klei stated in a post shortly after the game’s release that it was “the hardest design challenge [they’ve] ever taken on,” but wow did they ever rise to the occasion. Invisible, Inc. is extremely sleek and versatile with beautiful level design and a gameplay system that is complex without being overly complicated. There’s a definite learning curve, but the tutorial level and the scalable difficulty options make it surprisingly quick to pick up. (If you’re on the fence about roguelikes but want to play this one, I recommend setting the number of Rewinds to 99; it takes a lot of the pressure off and makes the game much less frustrating when you inevitably make that one tiny mistake that could otherwise cost you weeks of progress.)
Gameplay is turn-based; when it’s your agents’ turn, you can move them around the map, hack computer terminals and security cameras, and utilize other specialized items from your arsenal; when it’s the enemy’s turn, you’d best hope you left your agents lurking somewhere with cover, because the guards are on patrol, and they’re armed.
Invisible, Inc. is much more about evasion than combat, but if you’re attempting to roleplay a strictly pacifist team, you will very quickly find yourself up against a wall with nowhere to run. (You can, however, be very successful as a non-lethal combat team). Each map has a specific objective (or two or three), but they’re all randomly generated, making each level and each playthrough a unique experience even before you start mixing and matching agents and play styles. The result is a slick, fun, highly addicting game experience. Sending my agents scuttling in and out of cover, pickpocketing guards from behind so I can spend their credits on weapon upgrades, and then turning around and Tasing them with the tech they just paid for—seriously, what’s not to love about this?
Ah, yes. Let me talk about the characters. There are a full fourteen agents available for play—ten with the base game (most of which you have to unlock) and an additional four with the “Contingency Plan” DLC. Although I’d love to gush about my personal go-to duo of Banks and Internationale and share my headcanons about their relationship, I’m instead going to talk about the woman who first piqued my interest in the game: Olivia Gladstone, codename “Central,” founder and director of the Invisible, Inc. team. Not only is Gladstone an entrepreneur, leader, and skilled agent in her own right, but she’s also a highly talented programmer who single-handedly coded the world’s most powerful AI from scratch. What’s more, she’s an older woman in a position of power, one who appears so threatening to a bunch of tech company CEOs that they have sent virtually the entire armed forces of the world to try and take her down—without success.
Gladstone is a woman with a mission: keep herself, her team, and her sentient AI Incognita alive for as long as possible in a world that wants them all dead. She remains coolly sarcastic and in control while her world crumbles around her, only occasionally losing her temper, and adopts a scathing attitude towards anyone who doesn’t live up to her expectations. She won’t hesitate to vent her anger at you if you stagger out of a mission with its objectives incomplete, but she’s also very emphatic in her praise when you pull off a difficult assignment. Although she mostly sticks to the shadows, directing and observing, it is possible to unlock a playable agent version of her (as well as a younger incarnation of her in the DLC).
As for the rest of the team … well, it’s a rare thing when a game lets you play as a woman. But a complete party of women? Rarer still, and Invisible, Inc. lets you do just that. Half of the fourteen available agents are women, each with their own unique talents and specialties—from lock-savvy thief Banks, to hacker-activist Internationale, to deadly bodyguard Nika. Although you start each game with only two agents, the game does occasionally offer optional missions that add a third agent to your team. Despite the fact that who you’re given is chosen at random, the gender ratio of the game is level enough that it’s decent odds you’ll gain a third lady agent.
I played a glorious two-week-long run in Endless Mode this fall with Banks, Internationale, and Prism (three women!) as my team. They were assisted, as always, by the AI Incognita (who’s coded as female), and overseen by Invisible, Inc. director Gladstone (a woman) and myself (a woman). That’s a six-woman team right there. I’ve never experienced that in a game before—not even in a Bioware party—and it was one of the most amazing feelings ever. The entire world trying to take us down, and us tech-savvy ladies staying just a step ahead of them all the time and looking classy while we did it.
Given my adoration of the ladies of Invisible, Inc., and of Olivia Gladstone in particular, I find it interesting that the game’s alpha version (titled Incognita) still has art lingering online that doesn’t feature Gladstone at all. While a couple of the other agents are recognizable in the art (as well as a much more humanized and feminized version of Incognita), Gladstone’s front and center placement has been occupied instead by a smarmy looking gentleman in a suit and tie. I’m not sure whether Gladstone was originally written as a man, or if she simply didn’t exist in the alpha version, but I’m so glad Klei added her. Gladstone being a woman is terribly important to me. I’m not sure if it’s the online harassment parallels that can be drawn from the story (the entire male-coded tech world desperately fighting to destroy one or two powerful women they see as a threat to their status quo), or if it’s the fact that she’s an abrasive, talented, non-sexualized woman in a position of power, but Invisible, Inc. would have an utterly different tone and message without her.
If any of the above features sound appealing, yes. It isn’t as gorgeous and emotional as Transistor (which is what everyone is going to think you’re playing), nor is it as casual and fun as The Marvellous Miss Take, my other favorite lady-led stealth game. But there’s something casually brilliant about Invisible, Inc. It’s engaging, it’s astoundingly well-designed, and it deserves a heck of a lot more recognition than it’s gotten so far. Gladstone and her team are definitely worth checking out, and I’d love to hear what other players make of the other agents and their respective personalities and backstories. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I left my team skulking behind a computer terminal somewhere. The corporate dictatorship isn’t going to destroy itself.