Anyone can run through a room with an overly complicated melee weapon or a high-powered shotgun and carve a bloody path of destruction leaving only quivering bloody messes in your wake. But to traverse a space without anyone being any the wiser to you presence, to be like that of a ghost, takes skill, patience and intelligence. At least, that’s what a stealth game enthusiast will tell you.
That really is why we love stealth based video games though, if done right it makes the player feel something more satisfying than a hack and slash provides, it makes the player feel smart, like they pulled the wool over the video game’s eyes and got away scott free. The problem comes when the player isn’t all too talented at it, or if the game itself isn’t brilliantly designed, then you’ll get minutes turning into hours of frustration. This is exactly the reason a lot of people really don’t like these types of games, perfect progress requires meticulous preparation, studying of guards patrol patterns and frustratingly slow progress through an area.
This may be the reason the pure stealth game has become something not seen all too often anymore. The triple A titles of today are a lot like the fast food industry, they want you in and out as soon as possible, so then they can focus on selling you side orders of DLC and multiplayer vanity content, the slow pace of a stealth game seems a rather undesirable prospect in the current market. If you think of the vast majority of stealth seen in games today, it’s most likely just a single option of many and rarely the sole focus of gameplay. Games like Far Cry 3 are defiantly action focused, but there are stealth mechanics build into it, and the game actually rewards players for choosing to do them over the louder alternative, but then you’re still going to mow down dozens of soldiers using a helicopter mounted machine gun in the very next scene.
So if nothing is stealth anymore, what defines it as being stealthy? What succeeds at the genre and what doesn’t?
There are a few things that go into a game to make it a satisfying sneaking experience. For example, does the game have a built in camouflage system and is there a way of knowing how visible you are to the enemy, if so is this something to share with the player or to keep hidden? Metal Gear Solid 3’s camo index visible at the top of the screen that gives the player a number out of 100 to represent how visible they are, it’s a very simple representation that let’s player’s know the effectiveness of their camo and their hiding spot. Another would be the light and sound meters from earlier Splinter Cell titles that gives the player much the same indication.
Not knowing how conspicuous you are can be frustrating, but it can also take the challenge out of the game. While I do love the first Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation, the inclusion of the radar on the top corner made avoiding guards near trivial once you realised they were blind outside of that little blue cone, and they were deaf as posts unless you started splashing around in puddles or started dancing on a grated floor. Conversely when the game got to the third in the series, the radar was gone, replaced with a number of other little gadgets that let you know where the sentries were, but no necessarily where they were looking. Knowing less about your adversary made for a much more tense experience, as well as a much more realistic one.
This goes hand in hand with another factor that goes towards a good stealth game; enemy AI. A stupid AI that walks a route like a robot until you happen walk into its field of vision is pretty easy to bypass, but an AI that makes decisions, diverges from the norm and investigates anything suspicious is one that has more worth in beating. Later games would have AI be aware to the sounds you made if you moved to quickly, or got too close to them for too long or leave any evidence of your presence. Recent games that use stealth elements like Far Cry 3 and Skyrim have used a staged alert system, transitioning between an unaware, a suspicious and an alert stage, giving players a chance to disappear if they’re in danger of getting found out.
And so what does happen when you’re found out? There is no tension in staying hidden if there are no consequences for being found out, more often than not, getting found out will cause the game to transition into a different state, becoming more action based. It’s rare that you’ll find a game today in which raising an alarm will constitute as an instant failure, more often than not you’ll have to just kill all the guards who are now bearing down upon you. Occasionally you’ll be paying a much larger price, facing more numerous enemies or a better equipped assault team which pose a more bigger threat. Enemies could enter a heightened state of a alert, making further progress all the more difficult. Being seen should be something more than an inconvenience, it really should be something you’ll want to avoid. You won’t be feeling your heart in your throat as a sentry walks by your hiding spot if there is no downside to simply taking him out.
It seems like there are next to no games anymore where you can ghost through the entire thing without killing anyone, or at least incapacitating them in some way, thus revealing your presence. While messing with the people you’re trying to avoid it always fun, not raising one iota of suspicion is the goal of all stealth aficionados. It’s a shame that most games today that do contain stealth elements want you to use it to take out every hostile, rather than avoid them completely, the Batman: Arkham series and Far Cry 3 come to mind.
So, in short, if you want to a nice and satisfying stealth experience you need mechanics dedicated to how visible you are, smart enemy AI that react like real humans would, real consequences for being caught and ideally some unique gameplay mechanics that work in aid of remaining hidden in creative ways. Like cardboard boxes for example, or that thing where you do the splits on the top of a corridor.
So I’ve talked about what makes a good stealth game, in the second part I’ll talk about the games themselves. What they do right, what they do wrong and I’ll touch on the most dreaded of all gameplay mechanics next to escort missions, the feared ‘forced stealth section’.