The City By The Bay

Examining the stealth genre’s depictions of society and culture, as seen through the stark, shadowy lens of The Maltese Falcon.

[one_third]Examining the stealth genre’s depictions of society and culture, as seen through the stark, shadowy lens of The Maltese Falcon.[/one_third]

What do you think of when you think of the stealth genre? Which corridors do you picture yourself sneaking down? Some might be the forces of law and order infiltrating a rogue state, but for many they will be the corridors of power, or money, or influence, and they will be a thief or an assassin.

Many stealth protagonists are criminals. Thief’s Garrett and Hitman’s Agent 47 are the most well-known, but the popularity of Trilby, from Yahtzee’s The Art of Theft, or the buzz surrounding upcoming indie heist game Monaco, should tell us something. It’s fun to be the sneaky, thieving anti-hero.

You get to break rules. Entering via the skylight or poisoning a bottle of wine are thrilling because nobody else thought of doing that – in the fictional game-world, at least. As players, we feel accomplished and intelligent for thinking our way around the problem and doing something out of the ordinary to achieve our ends. More often than not, succeeding in a stealth game means breaking the assumptions and rules of the society you find yourself sneaking through. This applies whether you’re trespassing in a private facility, assassinating somebody you oughtn’t (ie. anyone), or breaking the assumption that people will enter through the door rather than the window.

Stealth games showcase this ability more than any other genre. With their focus on the manipulation of the environment and the control of game-space, they encourage players to master the world they are dropped into. And since your goals are everything – the worst that can happen is reloading a save, so imprisonment or punishment need never enter into it, as they would if you were an actual trespasser – the player is encouraged to master the space by fair means or foul. With no threat of censure, entering by the door is much the same as entering by the skylight, which would be unthinkable in our everyday lives. And since guards assume the skylight is off-limits, it’s probably the better option.

That’s not to say that all stealth heroes are criminals. Solid Snake and Sam Fisher are excellent examples. These men fight against criminal outfits. Rather than infiltrating government-sanctioned buildings to illicitly make off with their loot, exploiting the system like Garrett, these protagonists are avatars of their government as well as the player. Sent into rebellious outposts like Shadow Moses, their goal is to snuff out the criminals and restore law and order.

Yet the same stealthy principles apply to Solid Snake as to Garrett – even though these principles rely on breaking rules and assumptions that would remain unbroken by less-resourceful individuals. Both characters can distract their enemies with sounds, both can move around the environment in ways regular guards cannot (Snake by crawling, wall-hugging and, in later instalments, hanging over railings; Garrett by mantling and climbing ropes), and both can incapacitate or kill enemies, necessitating the hiding of evidence lest the alarm is raised. While Snake is a law-abiding citizen and Garrett is decidedly not, the same techniques apply to both, though one is a lawbreaker and the other a law enforcer.

Why is this possible? While stealth protagonists can live by any kind of moral code, they are all intruders. When Garrett breaks into a mansion, he is intruding upon a small society of guards and servants who share a similar moral code: thieves are bad, the master of the house should be protected, and guards should not be killed. Similarly, when Snake infiltrates Shadow Moses, he too is entering a society held together by a common code. Here, the guards believe that their leaders are in the right and the U.S. government is in the wrong, and that any government agents found sneaking around should be shot on sight.

A setting infiltrated during a stealth game therefore constitutes its own subculture, which may be similar to the culture at large (Thief’s mansions) or radically opposed to it (Metal Gear Solid’s Shadow Moses). It is by exploiting the assumptions of that culture that stealth players make progress. Since they’re outnumbered and underpowered, players only succeed by making the most of the cracks in the system.

Before we get into what this means for stealth games as a whole, we’re taking a detour into cinema. There is one film (or perhaps even one genre of film) that seems to bear upon the stealth genre by doing something similar in another medium.

The film is 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, and the genre film noir. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), a cunning and resourceful private detective, has heard about a magnificent jewelled falcon statue made by the Knights Templar in the sixteenth century, but lost soon after its creation. This treasure is so incredibly valuable that it will apparently fetch a million 1940s dollars. The sum seems extreme for a statuette only a foot high – even a four-hundred-year-old jewelled one – but verisimilitude isn’t the point, of course. The point is: the falcon is so incredibly valuable that anybody would do anything to get it.

This establishes a situation similar to the stealth genre. The stakes are so high, and the risks so completely worth it, that the characters have little to lose and everything to gain by exploiting their surroundings and breaking the rules. Lying, cheating and double-crossing are excellent forms of manipulation, and are employed frequently in the film’s depiction of 1940s San Francisco.

This setting becomes a deadly arena for its characters, and much depends on their ability to use it to their advantage. Spade is a thoroughly modern man, fluent in all methods of modern communication, travel, and exchange. He moves around the city with ease using taxi cabs. He frequently communicates with his secretary and other characters via phone booths, organising his and their tasks and travel arrangements to maximise his chances of obtaining the falcon. When he finally gets his hands on it, he stashes it in a baggage claim terminal, and rather than keeping the ticket on his person he posts it to a remote mailbox that he has access to.

These actions, which are always performed with poise and fluency, point towards Spade’s intimate knowledge of these modern systems. By contrast, his rivals hold him at gunpoint and at one point spike his drink: effective methods of control, but they don’t really make use of the hustle and bustle of San Francisco city life. Threats, violence and poison are hardly innovative, after all.

It is through his thorough understanding of San Francisco’s systems of modernity that Spade is able to outwit his rivals, retain the falcon and come out on top. This fluency with the technology and infrastructure that makes up everyday city life renders Spade a thoroughly modern man – by which we mean not just a tech-savvy member of society, but the ideal modernist man.

A defining aspect of modernism is the rise in the use of technology and a complex way of living. These technologies and this lifestyle were made almost omnipresent due to the development of mass production, which placed affordable goods in the majority of homes, as well as improvements to infrastructure such as the telephone, motorcar and aeroplane. Many modernist writers and artists viewed this technology optimistically: mass-produced motorcars made consumers freer and more independent, for example. At the same time, however, living in a city permeated with new technology alienated some people, who felt a nostalgia for the past.

Sam Spade does not hold such views. His complete familiarity with modern ways of living, modern communications, modern travel and, in short, the entire system of a modernist American city, sets him apart as the perfect modernist figure. He successfully navigates the labyrinth of San Francisco – a complex, interconnected place – and is not only unfazed by the systems he is forced to interact with, but makes them an extension of his own abilities and exploits them to his advantage. Perhaps one reason why this film is so popular is that it assuages our anxieties about living in such an interconnected age by showing us the ideal interconnected individual.

Fast forward sixty years or so to Metal Gear Solid. We are no longer living in a modernist age, so the parameters are somewhat different. Most of the optimism about technology, present in modernism, is now gone: instead we worry about technology going wrong on a vast scale, such as the Grey Goo hypothesis or fears about GM crops, or worry that it might compromise our freedoms, with hackers and governments snooping on our online activities. The rise of cyberpunk exemplifies this: megacorporations, malevolent artificial intelligences and oppressive governments that control the lives of ordinary people are genre staples. There is often a conspiracy going on behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, the mechanics of stealth games resemble The Maltese Falcon in significant ways. Snake, Garrett and Agent 47 are capable characters, using their environments to their advantage. The guards and civilians who populate these games blindly wander around or follow patrol routes; it never occurs to them that a bust could become a weapon, that a torch went out for a reason, or that a loud knock on the wall could be a distraction. But these ideas all occur to these stealth protagonists, and are necessary if the player is to progress. Like Sam Spade, they are completely fluent with the world they occupy, and must master it to succeed – unlike their less-capable opponents, who may have brute force on their side but cannot match the hero’s cunning.

The postmodern worlds created by these games are more complex and inscrutable than Spade’s San Francisco. It is telling that the majority of stealth games – Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, Splinter Cell, Syphon Filter – are set in the present day, or the very near future. It is also telling that a relatively high number – Metal Gear Solid again, Assassin’s Creed, and, to some extent, Thief – depict conspiracies involving powerful and mysterious figures.

It is as if the culture’s concerns about the confusing and mysterious networks of money, influence, power and information manifest in these games in a loose but persistent way. By playing through these games, players not only become masters of each small game-space, evading and knocking out guards by intimately and intuitively understanding the environment. They also work towards the greater goal of unravelling the grand conspiracy, of returning order to a chaotic and unpredictable world (as in Metal Gear Solid) or, at the opposite end of the scale, fighting for independence and freedom against an oppressive tyranny (Thief, Assassin’s Creed).

Perhaps stealth games, above all, provide a fantasy of correction, giving players the agency to fix the complex and intertwined faults of the world they live in.

13 thoughts on “The City By The Bay

  1. Excellent read, a world that allows itself to be more closely inspected feels infinitely more alive than one that prioritizes scope first–something that the stealth genre excels in apparently.

    I found something curious though, given the title of the article, the peppered mentions of \’conspiracies\’ and cyberpunk and of course the very nature of the game genre you dissect, why leave out mentioning the Deus Ex games? Have you played them? If not, I wholeheartedly recommend the first game and last year\’s revival \’Human Revolution\’…!

  2. As a long time Hammett and Bogart fan, I love the Maltese Falcon as a comparison.

    You could definitely talk about that same embracing of technology in the context of Deus Ex. Especially with the newest iteration encouraging that concept of \”exploit anything and everything\” in an environment. In a scenario and tone that is often very similar to Metal Gear Solid (you should see the first time you sneak around a mech. Feels torn straight from Shadow Moses) the hero of Deus Ex is more-than-human because of how he has literally bonded with the technology around him.

    Like Hitman, Deus Ex does begrudgingly offer an action alternative, but really the stealth gameplay is the more rewarding and where the flexibility of your character shines.

  3. I hadn\’t thought that way about the hardboiled detectives before. I just thought the books/films had neat tricks in them.

    You\’ve also nailed some of the stuff that makes stealthing cool, including having a bigger bag of tricks than those around you. I also dig the voyeur element — eavesdropping on conversations, being in forbidden places, tampering with stuff.

    All up, a lovely article.

  4. Jason and Edward: that\’s a very good point about Deus Ex. I guess the reason I didn\’t bring it in was that I completed DX1 quite a few years ago now, so I couldn\’t be sure my memory was accurate. That and the fact that, while it can be played *as* a stealth game, I wasn\’t sure if it *counted* as one since it\’s much freer in its toolset than something like Thief or MGS, and can be played as an action game if you really want.

    But you\’re totally right: all the conspiracy stuff, and the idea of moving seamlessly through and manipulating the environment would fit right in with this essay. And the fact JC and Jensen are both products of this postmodern hyper-technologised world, but seek to bring it down – and that these characters are *your viewpoint* into the fictional world – is interesting to say the least. To be honest, I had some ideas about this which I actually gave as a presentation to my literature study group (I bent all plausibility by calling DX a \”text\”, but hey, I enjoyed it). So I think I held back on the DX stuff because it feels to me like it belongs in another essay: about paranoia, the purpose of technology and the role technology plays in our everyday lives. It\’d cover a lot of the same things as this essay, but the slant would be very different. Once my finals are over, maybe I\’ll get round to writing it up.

    Felix: I know what you mean! Sometimes I worry that my work is too speculative and abstract, and that people will just say \”The Maltese Falcon is just a great film, stop bringing weird critical stuff to it!\” But I like thinking about these things in terms of their cultural context, because it can sometimes show us why we like the things we like, or show them to us in a totally different light.

    And you\’re right on the money with the joys of stealth gaming. There\’s this feeling of \”beating the system\”, which is probably a private fantasy for almost everyone in technological society.

    Thanks for reading everyone!

    1. I also feel like JC wasn\’t explicitly out to bring the world down – at least, not until the final moments, if he chose to follow Tracer Tong\’s advice.

    2. Taking the subject as \”mastery of the environment\” is interesting when you think about the Helios ending. In many ways JC actually becomes the environment, with control of all cameras and computer systems worldwide.

  5. The whole \”mastery of environment\” thing makes me think of the first Die Hard film and how it always seemed to me that it, or a similar scenario, would make a great stealth game. As he\’s completely out-numbered and out-gunned, John McClane has to use the environment – in this case the Nakatomi Tower – to his advantage. Consequentially, he spends most of the film using air vents, elevator shafts, unoccupied floors, ceiling space to scope out, eavesdrop on and eventually engage his foes. There are shoot-outs but they are more often used as a cover for retreat. I suppose I shouldn\’t be surprised that none of the Die Hard games capitalized on all this potential as the subsequent sequels to the film also managed to forget about it too.

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