Now that our are out of the way, we can get to the serious stuff: ventilation shafts. They’re a pillar of modern game design, shunting players from one level to the next, telling spy wannabes that a square aluminum tunnel is all espionage requires, and giving the hunted a temporary haven from their mouth-breathing pursuers. The most iconic protagonists in PC gaming depend on inexplicably designed air convection systems to save the world time and time again.
I'm going to revisit a few of the most recognizable vents from PC gaming history and evaluate them based on rules I’m making up as I go. One lucky duct will win the coveted PC Gamer Gust of Approval for best vent.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The original Deus Ex invented the concept of ventilation shafts, and as a result is exempt from competing. Unfortunately, further iterations of ventilation shafts from the new handlers at Square Enix didn’t do much to blend them into the environments or make them feel like genuine air ducts. Instead, they serve as well-lit (somehow), long graves where you hide your dead. How many bodies can you fit in an impossible space? Deus Ex: Human Revolution steps beyond the veil.
Even worse, the vents aren’t in compliance with the ASHRAE standards for acceptable air quality. According to section 5.1.1 of the guidelines, “Where interior spaces without direct openings to the outdoors are ventilated through adjoining rooms, the opening between rooms shall be permanently unobstructed.” These dead bodies are breaking the law.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
They are deeper, wider, and more Jensen-sized. Seriously, they’re massive. And they’re always hiding behind vending machines and small crates, leading directly to and fro with plenty of slats along the way just in case you need to see where all the guards are hanging. Subtlety doesn’t circulate in the near future, I suppose. Air isn’t getting through those suckers in a sensible way. It’s a fact: these vents blow.
Watch Dogs 2
Pitiful, but so pitiful, I can’t help but love it. There’s been no effort made to hide that this vent in a multi-billion dollar tech company building was built specifically for drone passage. (Just a heads up, this is how you get raccoons.) Watch Dogs 2 makes little effort to mask its videogame vents as anything but transparent chunks of level design. It’s one of the bigger problems I had with the game, that it promises options for infiltration, but vent layouts are so arbitrary and assured to lead directly between points of interest that they start to feel like a big billboard, stating ‘Sneak here!’
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes
OK, so it’s more of a drainage system, but it might also push some air around. Note the more rectangular design gives the impression that they’re a tighter fit than most videogame vents, which makes for a more immersive ventilation shaft experience. Were I in a crime film, I’d consider using such a discreet, small passage as a good place to hide the murder weapon. Were I in a videogame, I’d glitch through the floor and fire my weapon with reckless abandon. In conclusion, I love the compress of MGS5’s passages, but otherwise, they rarely make sense. Often, they’ll just lead from a hole outside a building in a direct line inside. You’re going to get raccoons, damnit.
So very, very dark. Like a damn vent should be! If I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief that these big metallic crawlspaces are mean for air circulation and not hiding headcrabs, I want them to at least distract me with tension. The vents are otherwise featureless, vanilla shafts. Four walls, grey, nothing particularly special about them. At least they acknowledge you’re going to get critters with such impractical vents, even if they’re interdimensional face suckers.
Talk about sequelitis! No innovation. Expect more flat, boxy aluminum textures, more headcrabs popping out to say hello, and most grievous, of course, are the impractical air convection layouts. The thought makes me shiver, not because it’s abhorrent, but because damn, it’s cold in here, Gordon!
Batman: Arkham Series
Gotham’s vents are comically large. Bruce Wayne isn’t a small man, especially with an extra few inches thanks to bat ears. And crouching isn’t easy in all that armor—it’s going to bunch up, Bruce. I’m sorry but your tummy is getting pinched beneath those plates. God forbid you drop a quarter. To accommodate all that batmass, the vents essentially serve as a venue for badguy shadow puppets and an echochamber for the Joker’s prolonged loudspeaker monologues. They’re a nice place to hide in if you’ve been spotted, but their design won’t win any awards from us. Often they serve as a comically short passage between two rooms, ensuring the only air they’re circulating is Wayne’s big ego.
WINNER — Alien: Isolation
We Alien's production design during release, and Creative Assembly's extraordinary attention to environment detail extends to the design of its vents. The aperture entrance to each vent is accompanied by a slick cylindrical animation and shrill soundbite that sounds like a sword being pulled from its sheath. Foreboding, a bit, considering there’s probably a hungry alien in there.
Isolation’s detailed lighting and shadows give the impression that Sevastopol is a hulking, intricate tangle of retro-futurist industrial design. As you crawl through every vent and maintenance shaft, you’ll get small glimpses into the guts of the station, a smoky mess of pipes and dim lights and scattered tools. The result is a space station that feels so vast and cobbled together that its tiny passages and maintenance systems feel plausible. Vents that don’t make sense, make sense on Sevastopol.
To the team at Creative Assembly, you’ve creatively assembled good passages behind the walls for players to bonk around in that don’t feel like a mad maintenance man’s pet project. Your congratulatory PC Gamer Gust of Approval should make it your way soon.