The Problem with Modern Stealth Games

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There’s a sort of ritual I carry out every time I go for the holidays and spend much of term looking forward to. It is just the latest symptom in an ongoing obsession with a genre of videogames that began I-couldn’t-tell-you-when. At the risk of this sounding like an advertisement, too, I’ll say that all this ritual involves is playing five-to-ten more hours of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V, which I consider to be one of the best instalments in the stealth genre. As I said, this ritual is just the latest episode in my violently passionate affair with stealth games in general: previous seasons have seen me finish the first Dishonored at breakneck-pace in 20 hours only to complain about its short length, or (even more to my friends’ horror) restarting entire levels in the older Splinter Cell games because I’d been spotted by the enemy while stalking around. I’m sure the latter could warrant a screening for OCD or another manic disorder, but I personally find it more shameful that this is where my habit of ‘save-scumming’, or compulsively reloading saved games once things go wrong, appeared (driven home, in my defense, by years of CTRL+S’ing while editing video on very unstable software). Despite all the mental duress it has put me through (or, as with all the best relationships, because of it), my love for the stealth genre is something I’ve a hard time growing out of.

I’m more tempted to call it a relationship than an affair: in my opinion affairs only ever go wrong once – at the end – and they are generally a maladaptive behaviour. More than that, I’d say relationships take more work than affairs – and work has been needed at times between stealth games and me. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship (case in point, mental health concerns above). One of those hitches we keep running into manifests itself as a frustrating design choice that is pervasive to almost every title in the genre, and which in my opinion raises a number of interesting questions on the relationship between these games and their players. There isn’t any specific name for this design element, so description is all we’ll have – though I suspect people who’ve played any of the abovementioned will catch on faster with what I mean than others.

The vast majority of videogames that involve ‘sneaking around’ – i.e. moving through levels undetected by computer-controlled enemies – will give the players a range of tools to aid them in traversing these levels silently. It is very rare (though not unheard of) for the player character to go into the fray ‘naked’, forced to scavenge for items while staying unseen. The reason for this is fairly obvious: on the practical side, these tools make traversal (and, therefore, level design) much simpler. Intense attention to detail is put into the position and spacing of platforms in games like Rayman Origins, where the player’s timing is key to make it across the level. Once the player can teleport, however, as in Dishonored, you can cut corners here and there (though, of course, teleporting and flying entail their own challenges to map design too). On the more romantic side, these tools are simply diverse toys in the toybox – the more varied the better, with their appeal probably residing in the exotic glamour and ingenuity of spy gadgets seen in the James Bond and (more creatively, in my opinion) Mission: Impossible franchises. These tools, after all, are part of the escapism and power fantasy that these games confer: there’s a perverse excitement in possessing tools no other character has and being able to outsmart everyone with them.

These tools, of course, factor into both parts of the gameplay loop typical to most stealth games: the first is silent traversal and remaining undetected, while the second is escaping the enemy once you’ve been detected. The concept of stealth itself presupposes that greater effort will be put in terms of game design into the first part of the loop, to give the player more varied means of staying unseen. It generally isn’t practical to give the player the upper hand over his enemies in the second part of the loop: if he can easily defeat the computer head-on after being detected, staying hidden becomes pointless. This is particularly evident, for example, in the Assassin’s Creed series where the designers resort to selective ‘enforced stealth’ (i.e. resetting the mission once the player is spotted by the computer, such as in the absolutely abysmal tailing missions from Black Flag) to compensate for the main characters’ inordinate combat abilities. This is also why most games in the genre tend to have almost-threadbare or extremely specific combat mechanics, particularly when compared to full-blown action games like Call of Duty. In the case of Assassin’s Creed, curiously, the solution to the stealth-action imbalance seems to have been a deepening of the combat system in Origins to make it much more nuanced and punishing, making the silent approach all the more attractive.

Ever since the first Metal Gear released in 1987, this loop has been the bread and butter of the stealth genre. Sneak around, undetected; and once you’re found, run until they lose sight of you. One boss fight sums this up very nicely eleven years later, in Metal Gear Solid: “you should crawl on the ground, like the snake you are!”. As technology progresses, however, game designers have been able to give the players enlarged and more colourful arsenals to complete the game with. Even more importantly, the ways in which the tools in these arsenals can be combined and used ‘outside the box’ often turn games into cocktail-shakers of death and mayhem. Most of these tools, of course, were designed to support the first part of the gameplay loop – silent transversal. The first Splinter Cell games were a noteworthy showcase of this, again harkening back to the Bond-ish appeal of gadgetry, with items like sticky cameras or optic fibre to explore your surroundings without being seen. Their use wasn’t limited to their ‘on the lid’ description, however: sticky cameras could be used to knock enemies out if thrown at them, for example. The Metal Gear Solid offer even more unorthodox uses for the player’s items, such as using canned rations to distract enemy guards, ketchup as fake blood to play dead, cigarette smoke to mark security laser grids or a cigar in dimly-lit spaces as a low-tech substitute for night-vision goggles.

Along with the extended capability to arm the player to the teeth, however, what I suspect attracted publishers and developers alike was the possibility to make both sides of the gameplay loop less asymmetrical and open up the experience to players more used to full-blown action games. In the vernacular, most would probably call this the ‘casualization’ of stealth games, though I don’t particularly agree with this ‘gatekeeping’ attitude: there’s nothing wrong in opening the niche up to the general public, as long as it doesn’t lose its identity in the process. Beyond the economic reasons for doing so, this theoretical levelling of the asymmetry between hiding and running opens the door for much more varied and repeatable, though only relatively stealthy, ways of completing the game. A rather clumsy example of this is the sixth Splinter Cell game, Blacklist, which outright sets fixed playstyles for the player to adopt: ‘Ghost’ (rewards avoiding detection entirely), ‘Panther’ (promotes a lethal, but silent, approach to stealth) and ‘Assault’ (ignores the stealth element entirely). There are more elegant cases, however. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example, it is completely viable to finish the game without alerting a single enemy to your presence, and in the end you are rewarded for doing so with a somewhat exclusive trophy to show off to other players. ‘Ghosting it’ is my preferred way to play stealth games, completing missions without leaving a single trace I was there: the feeling of having outsmarted the enemy is all the greater when you do it without the superior gear. A sort of pretentious, tactical one-armed boxing. In the very earliest games of the genre, such as Metal Gear, the comparative austerity in terms of equipment made this frugal approach a necessity. In Human Revolution’s case, however, it precludes using almost all of the game’s arsenal. This is not, mind you, the step backwards it sounds like: the difference between the two is that in the original Metal Gear, ghosting it was the only viable way to play the game. Human Revolution on the other hand allows multiple play-throughs with different styles, for each player to find the one he likes best or experiment with all that are offered.


This article continues in the next print issue of SCAN, and soon online!

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