With the most recent rash of games in my game pile featuring such craft as Assassin’s Creed‘s later leavings, Deus Ex:Human Revolution and Fallout: New Vegas, games in which I universally selected the role of a player character so allergic to being looked at directly you’d think a traffic camera had killed my parents, stealth has been on my mind. Stealth in videogames is a family of mechanics we’ve seen become damn-near universal, and yet so few people do it really well, which is pretty weird when you think about it. Pointing a gun at someone and shooting it is a mechanic we’ve seen expressed in a host of games and it’s become so widespread that we even play with what it means, down to the proper arc of firing a gun.
Part of it is a tension that was brought to mind a few nights ago while discussing tabletop gaming with a friend. She relayed to me a series of anecdotes about tabletop games where she, through creative thinking, overcame what would have otherwise been major or challenging boss battles, battles meant to tax and challenge the whole party’s resources, turned into simple parlour tricks for her to overcome. That is: The more options a player has to overcome a challenge, the more likely the game itself will have some solutions that are less obviously satisfying than others.
There is effort in game design. When I create a monster for a tabletop experience, and write its dialogue, and plan out its method of attack, that’s effort spent. To have such a thing dismissed by a simple trick can feel anticlimactic for me as a storyteller, but also for everyone at the table that didn’t think of the trick. This is the same with stealth – magnified by a few thousand times, given the effort and time invested.
Think about Stealth in videogames you’ve played. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fine example, where a large amount of the stealth gameplay is spent either crawling around in vents or crouching by a water feature. I may have ragged on DXHR for a lot, but I cannot claim that its levels were lazily put together. Every building looks distinct to every other building, older areas in buildings show the signs of it, and a lot of attention was paid to the details in making the locations you moved through seem like realistic reflections of what they were. As a stealth player, you spend 99% of the time in that world examining a square foot of rock on a wall or the guts of a vent. The reason the bosses in DXHR weren’t defeatable by stealth is pretty much the same – developers don’t want you to stealth a boss encounter. They spent all that money setting up and creating a cinematic – just skipping past it would ruin all that effort.
That’s just one of the challenges around stealth gameplay tackled. Even in a singleplayer game, stealth avoids conflicts that were designed to not be avoided. Another part is that it’s hard to see what makes it fun from the outside.
In my most recent play through of FNV, I made my way north of Goodsprings to the locale where you’re told on no uncertain terms that there are Deathclaws and they will fuck your shit up if you try to fight them as a starting character (spoiler alert: they will). Determined to avoid the linear flow of the game around Nipton and only head into that town when I could casually murder every single Legion member I found (spoiler alert: I did), I crawled up to a ridge and started, in stealth mode, to make my way across the landscape, watching the [Hidden] shifting to [Caution]. Face in the dirt, crawl button held down, no gun in hand to maximise run speed, I spent the better part of an hour inching forwards and occasionally back, climbing a mountain and crawling back down it, little red dots clear on my horizon scanner. It was slow, it was tedious, and when I finally finished it, stepping out under the Gomorrah billboard, I felt exhilirated and proud.
Exhilirated? The hell?
The thrill of stealth games for me is not voyeuristic, it’s an expression of power. It’s driven by a sense of superiority. I think that’s part of what made Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood so damn slow for me, the way the game periodically told me ‘A good Assassin should be able to do this without being detected,’ which drove me to try again. In that alleyway of leatherclad lizard death, I was told ‘You can’t do this,’ whereupon I, with patience and will, proved I could. Another experience in FNV was approaching the Powder Gangers’ prison HQ. There’s quests there, I understand, but hell if I’ve ever done them – that place is shortly after I get my first hunting rifle, and .308 ammunition makes me spree-killy. I enjoyed myself climbing hills near the prison, staring down the iron sights at the blue spots contrasted against the grey-brown background. A moment, a tension… a crack, and a form falls prone. No time to savour it, though – rifle holstered, back down the hill, to circle around for another firing solution, as the gangers come to find their fallen comrade.
Now, that’s borderline psychotic behaviour, but the experience was both calming and thrilling. It had a certain bonsai feel to it, where I had to examine the shape of the whole thing, and see the shape I wanted it to take, then the changes necessary to achieve that end. I don’t imagine bonsai well-equips a person for serial murder, don’t quote me on that.
I learned in my youth that a real problem snipers face is a feeling of emotional detachment from their fellow men. Not because killing ruins something inside you, because even if it does, they’re detached from non-snipers. The snipers become charged with the feeling of power over life and death that comes with the task. Point. Click. Wait. Kill. This feeling involves almost no direct feedback and, if done well, very little immediate danger to self – something I fear that videogames express well, if accidentally. Many snipers come to see themselves as the hands of god – a messianic expression of power that derives from being unseen and yet, at the same time, capable of influencing the world in terrible ways.
During City of Heroes lifespan, I came to consider that being incredibly tough is the ultimate expression of heroic power. At the base of our souls, the power to stand in the way of something, to take the hit and to fail to care, is part of what we consider fundamental to power, and features in many stories, old stories. We naturally praise and recognise the prowess and danger of those who can be struck. What gets less attention – perhaps obviously – is the way that stealth changes the way you perceive the world, and therefore, as a game designer or storyteller, the way that the world you create has to change. This is something that Batman: Arkham Asylum did quite decently – while it was perhaps a little optimistically easy for Batman to lose his pursuers in the rafters, he nonetheless was rewarded for waiting for one to isolate himself, then drop a big black bat-painted fridge atop him.
Simply put, good stealth makes you feel powerful and clever. Bad stealth makes you feel weak and frail. There is a good middle ground, which I imagine should feed into a certain type of survival horror game, where you want to avoid every last one of the horrible things around you, and perhaps that 1980s Serial Killer idea I had could use that. The trick is to make sure that the stealth is either a core mechanic that the game rewards and where the levels are designed to create a feeling of sprawl. God help you if you play a linear experience where stealth is an afterthought – look at just how dreadfully World of Warcraft‘s stealth mechanics work with its team based mechanics. Stealth there is a short term buff you get rid of in combat because there’s no way to balance the experience around a player just avoiding things.
It’s not like parkour. Mirror’s Edge was a decent game which got much better when it just threw its inadequately serviced writing out the window and gave you a map pack full of fun, tricky, clever parkour puzzles to run through. Stealth is almost the exact opposite: shriven of its context, stealth is more puzzley and therefore, less creative feeling. When there’s a tiny little ledge to hide under in a stark white environment, it doesn’t feel the same to duck under it as if it were the countertop of a kitchen while the guard dog prowls around outside.