[one_third]In today’s gaming climate, we need pure stealth games more than ever. Come with us to find out why as we see interesting places, meet interesting people, and think about robbing a casino.[/one_third]
There came a time last year when the beeping ECG beside the bed of the stealth genre seemed to flatline. Solid Snake and Sam Fisher had burst forth from the shadows, guns blazing, whilst stealth was only one part of Ezio Auditore’s parkour power fantasy. Relatives gathered round, holding their breaths; physicians uttered grim prognoses.
Now, with fans uncertain about the new Hitman, and bemused by the inventive but nonsensical ‘Thi4f’, it is worth looking at just why we need dedicated stealth games – not games with stealth options, or games with stealth elements, but games built from the bottom for sneaking and snooping.
Here are three reasons why, if they are to perish, we should all be in mourning.
See interesting places (like, really see)
I miss burglary. While not the best method of paying off my university debts, it was a great way to see other people’s houses. When you have to watch each stairway for creaking floorboards and scrutinise every shadow for danger, you learn to appreciate the finer points of architecture and interior décor. Just so, because they often demand patience and a slow pace, stealth games (ste4lth games?) tend to bring to the fore environmental and level design in a way unique to the medium.
Metal Gear Solid was praised on release for the atmosphere and beauty its lush maps squeezed from the ageing PlayStation processor. But this was only possible because each one was roughly the size of two tennis courts. It didn’t matter; the necessities of stealthy play forced a slow pace which masked their tiny size. Writ in the grammar of stealth games is a level of caution, both on the level of player verbs and of play objects. Slow modes of movement like crawling and creeping are essential to success, while common obstacles like guards, traps, cameras and noisy floors force you to pay careful attention to the environment. Avoidance tempts players to explore the world in search of secret routes, while observation demands they examine it carefully.
More than this, maps designed for stealth have a high ratio of significance to content. Very little of the environment can be safely dismissed as incidental: floors must be considered for their noise potential; doors and windows for their line-of-sight; torches or lights for the shadows they pool. Even games which dispense with these elements tend to put others in their place. The mansions and opera houses visited by 47 are invested with social significance and divided by overlapping spheres of authority, whilst a spy in Team Fortress 2 must be acutely aware of his enemy’s expectations about different areas of the map.
This combination of slow pace and ludic density creates an approach to space that demands and rewards environmental detail. Players of stealth games are given time to appreciate the world of the game and asked to wring maximum possible significance from its corners and gratings. It is the antithesis of, say, Bulletstorm, where you will catch more amazing sights in the corner of your eye than you even have time to look at on your hell-for-leather sprint through the guts of your enemies.
Meet interesting people (and outsmart them)
Sometimes ‘intelligence’ seems like the wrong word to describe the cognitive faculties of guards in stealth games. Hey, what’s that over there? Hmm, must’ve been a skunk. Walking on its hind legs. Wearing night vision goggles. But this artificial stupidity is nonetheless part of a coherent system of perception and response that pits the player against the capabilities of his enemies in a way that is becoming ever rarer. The fact that we notice it at all is an indication of its importance.
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How clever can a shooter’s mook be in the half-second before he accepts your bullet? While the FPS remains one of gaming’s pre-eminent genres, recent developments in its design have minimised the importance of AI. A trend towards realism means enemies are downed in a few shots before they have the chance to outsmart you; a convergence towards linear environments gives them little room to outflank you; the perfection of scripted sequences renders them bit-players in a cinematic shock-and-awe offensive that leaves them no scope to act.
By contrast, stealth – as opposed to the exquisite but ultimately simple Simon Says of Modern Warfare’s ghillie suit levels – simply does not work without good AI. Guards must react to their environment in ways beyond spotting and shooting you, and must be sensitive towards environmental cues or the status of their friends. Variable alert states and awareness of what’s ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ were the bread and butter of stealth even a decade ago, in the age of the first Thieves. Imagine what could be done now! By necessity, the player of a stealth game engages in a duel not against the tenacity of an infinite respawner, nor the accuracy of (inevitably) enemy fire as a probability calculation, but against a model of consciousness that resembles themselves – which makes it all the more satisfying when they win.
Perhaps this is an issue of visibility, and AI has been quietly advancing for years. But whether it’s the giant open world and super-powered bullet time of Red Dead Redemption, or the pedestrian gunfights of LA Noire, modern game design rarely gives it a chance to shine.
Be a predator (and then prey)
In a talk on stealth level design at the 2006 Game Developers’ Conference, Thief series veteran Randy Smith drew a line between the failure states of action games and stealth games. In the former, you’re typically shot repeatedly without dying, and further damage only gradually changes your situation. But in the latter, everything can go tits up in a single moment – and play depends on flirting with that moment over and over again.
One moment you’re a master of shadows stalking your oblivious prey, unseen but all-seeing; the next you’re desperately pulling your frail, pasty arse out of the fire as armed bastards surround you and chase you into hiding. Good stealth games keep the player balanced on a slim stiletto’s edge between hunter and hunted, threatening at any moment to flip from one to the other. It is the satisfaction of being on top of them, coupled with the risk of reversal, that gives them their unique exhilaration.
Just so, the best moments of any stealth game are those where you are required to move ever closer to this edge. Whether it’s going for the top loot in Thief, or holding up a guard in Metal Gear Solid 3, these are moments of proximity in which your vulnerability is balanced equally against your power. Since most stealth games do not stop at failure, allowing the player to run and hide and wait and return, this unstable point forms the centre of a flowing cat-and-mouse game in which predator and prey repeatedly swap places. Instead of death, you get an emergent underdog tale: how the oppressed hero returns to revenge himself on his oppressors long after they have forgotten him. Those sections where getting spotted means instant failure tend to attracts the most ire from players precisely because they deprive you of this flow.
Are they just faking it?
Mourning clothes are a convenient shade of black, and there are indications that this year could be a good one. Either way, it is assuredly worth preserving. Stealth has not reached a dead end: it could expand into open worlds, try complex simulation of crowds, or model movie-style casino heists (as well as George Clooney’s face, right down to the pores) and sprawling security systems.
Rather like the adventure game form of the ’90s, stealth can also be a platform for themes and concepts not well-served by the prodigious body counts of action genres. Regardless, stealth games retain qualities which are beautiful and a likely, if not inevitable, consequence of their design. The medium would be poorer without them.