On Stealth Video Games

The stealth genre by nature is brimming with opportunity for great player engagement, primed to evoke an experience characterized largely by tension, the genre benefitting greatly from its oftentimes slower, more plodding pace relative to other popular genres, like the FPS genre or third-person shooters. Those games mostly embrace the bombastic; stealth games have the tendency to reject the bombastic, lending to the creation of a wholly distinct, valuable identity. In many of these games, the player is underpowered, vulnerable, and this is most applicable to the horror subgenre, where stealth is a dire necessity; upon detection, the only option for continued protagonist existence is flight, as is observable in the Amnesia series, the Outlast series, the player characters in those titles being fragile individuals. This fragility has the tendency to evoke frustration, and indeed many “pure” stealth experiences are abounding in frustrating attributes, frustrating design decisions, meaning these titles adopt a more niche status, attracting the hardcore player, though repelling the average player, those of relative impatience, staunchly opposed to player puniness. As illustration of this excessive helplessness, the AA title Styx: Master of Shadows instantly springs to mind. Detection in that title often equates to death; a simplistic combat system is in place, centered largely around a parrying mechanic, though these mechanics collapse whenever engaged with more than one opponent; death is assured. But while Styx is heavily punishing, and is thus linked to Outlast or Amnesia, almost inexplicably an imbalance of enjoyment is in place; all of these titles are punishing, yet those latter two experiences manage to transcend their punishing qualities. Styx, with inklings of player empowerment as is evinced by the various tools and abilities at the player’s disposal, tools which grow in number as the campaign progresses, is simply bogged down in failure, a flawed title which points towards the stealth genres potentials for inconsistency, which are abundant. But potentials for greatness abound, too, principally observable when considering the sort of hybrid genres which now dominate the landscape, typical stealth genre mechanics seized upon by other game genres, and cleverly – though sometimes awkwardly – implemented. In a moment where player choice and player freedom are valued above almost all things, this implementation is indeed very welcome; the trend today, then, seeks to endow the player with gameplay flexibilities, rather than clinging to rigidities. Stealth is at the heart of these new flexibilities.

Most emblematic of this turn towards flexibility is of course the Dishonored series, the games of that series boasting manifold different gameplay systems all wedded together seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly by the developers; foundationally, the series is a strong one. In so many games, particularly games which cross genre, overreaching is a tangible possibility. Arkane, whatever are their ambitions, manage the great feat of never overreaching, and in the process they have advanced the industry greatly. Two central gameplay pillars support that series: combat and stealth, each pillar, each approach, being completely viable; the player is never punished for embracing one approach and rejecting the other, though inevitably each individual player will likely rely upon both systems, sometimes in tandem; Dishonored fosters a sort of organic approach to gameplay. But Corvo Attano, protagonist in the first title, is impossibly far removed from any of the protagonists in Amnesia or Outlast, even further removed from puny Styx. In those titles, detection effectively means resetting. In Dishonored, however, such resetting is never a necessity, in that Corvo has ample killing and evasion tools at his disposal; an alerted foe can be dispatched by grenade or bullet, by tranquilizer dart or wind blast, while the particularly bold player may advance on the alerted guard, crossing blades with him, eventually ending him in spectacular, often gory fashion; it can be immensely satisfying, though the stealth mechanics proper evoke even greater sensations of satisfaction; ghosting through an area, never detected while never killing any NPC, offers amongst the most riveting experiences in the industry. Cleverly, too, opportunities for role-playing abound here; the player can adopt a stealthy, pacifist approach, or can spurn that approach outright, instantly leaping into violence; player flexibility, then, is immense, and this series’ advancements make almost antiquated the titles centered around vulnerable protagonists – they signal the death knell for titles like Styx, for better or worse. Ideally, though, such games will never be outright eradicated, and one hopes they will be preserved in the horror genre; even with their vulnerable protagonists, Amnesia and Outlast soar as experiences. Simultaneously, though, not every game need adopt stealth mechanics, even as that adoption is trending in the present moment; conventional FPS titles should absolutely be preserved, and this preservation is observable within the recent Doom titles, or a litany of other indie developed arena shooters; these purer genres should exist in tandem with these hybrid genres. But, again, the trend of implementation is thriving; Call of Duty and Battlefield, once strictly conventional FPS series, have begun the process of implementation, and while some of their efforts have been executed competently, in their quest for modernization and player flexibility these games have lost some of their original identities; the Call of Duty of today is vastly removed from the Call of Duty of 2007, that departure resting not exclusively within the realm of presentation, but resting in almost all aspects of game design; advancements have been made, but so have abandonments. And if a game is primarily a shooter at heart, it is easily advised that the developers do not shoehorn in a stealth sequence, even if such an inclusion serves the vital role of changing narrative and gameplay pacing; if almost all resources are allocated to developing the shooting mechanics, then inevitably the brief stealth sequence will be underdeveloped, and should thus be excluded.

Very central to the modern stealth experience is an increase in locomotive freedom, such freedom perhaps first observable in the original Assassin’s Creed title, released in 2007. While a title characterized by much repetition, it was characterized also by considerable innovation, the free-running mechanics altering the genre and the industry in oftentimes profound ways, while later games in the series have, expectantly, refined and perfected these systems: consider Assassin’s Creed Unity, greatly empowering the player and featuring impossibly graceful and compelling animation quality, gracefulness also serving a gameplay function; verticality and maneuverability are everything in this series, and these features have, fortunately, seen wide adoption within the industry. Owing to this, it has gradually grown difficult to play a stealth title devoid of these systems, stealth titles which are painfully grounded in nature. To again return to flawed Styx, the developers certainly realized these locomotive expectations, and accordingly implemented many options for verticality, maneuverability, with grabbable ledges and fixtures on the walls which enable ascension at a fairly rapid rate. But even realizing this, mistakes were made, the game suffering also from shoddy and inconsistent controls, almost pointing towards the incompetency of the developers; here is no Assassin’s Creed, but here instead are lazy attempts at implementing certain of its mechanics. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, certainly, but this imitation prevents Styx from ever achieving its own distinct identity, player freedom and maneuverability be damned. Locomotion and elevation, then, are crucial, and such systems are perfectly executed in another stealth game, this one adopting the first-person perspective and thus being superficially similar to Amnesia or Outlast – the Thief reboot of 2014. Here, the movement is empowering, exhilarating, and graceful, though still sharply grounded in reality, as the protagonist, the master thief Garret, boasts a grappling device which permits him to scale certain predetermined surfaces with ease, and while a dedicated jump button is lacking, still he can be manipulated to cross small gaps, while the inclusion of rope arrows also enhances locomotion and verticality. The inclusion of these objects directly improves the stealth systems in place; the high ground is everything; give up the high ground, and detection becomes far more likely. And while Garret is a thief – and is thusly more of an avoider than a combatant – he is not outright powerless, being armed with a bow and various shootable arrows, which can kill guards outright, though the ammunition of these more damaging arrows must be monitored with great and constant care. Thief, while a divisive title, is certainly abounding in potentials for enjoyability, taking protagonist vulnerability, taking enhanced movement, and altering in them in minor ways, though ways which still have a drastic impact upon the overall experience.           

Just as locomotion is central to the overall modern stealth experience, so too is consistent AI, NPC programming. While the genre is certainly excelling in implementing locomotive freedom, considerable missteps are still being committed with regards to AI, certain NPCs being unfairly preceptive, other NPCs being painfully, almost laughably oblivious. For better or worse – mostly worse – it is that former class of programming which is dominant, and highly perceptive enemies oftentimes lead to ample frustration, disappointment. As case study, return again to Ubisoft Montreal, developers of the masterful Assassin’s Creed series. In addition to this flagship IP, most central to the expansive studio is perhaps the Far Cry series, which they began developing for with the release of Far Cry 2 in 2008, and now numbering six main installments. Far Cry 2, whatever were its strengths of immersion and world-building, its competent gunplay, is defined by very poor AI, a failing which has been preserved throughout the entire series, though seeing some improvement, albeit a more scattershot improvement. Stealth mechanics were, seemingly, implemented in that first title, the player armed with a machete which can be used to dispatch very close opponents; actually getting within range for this takedown, though, is nigh impossible, owing to enemy perception. Even silenced weapons are scarce, the most useful being a dart rife of sorts, though its ammunition is similarly scarce. A purchaseable upgrade, supposedly increases concealment, but its effects are minimal, almost completely unobservable, a frustrating admission. In addition to the dearth of flexibility, the cheap AI further destroys any potential enjoyment which might otherwise be attached to the stealth mechanics.

As the series has progressed, however, stealth systems have grown more and more prominent, Far Cry 3 marking a major turning point for the IP, the protagonist, Jason Brody, equipped with a camera which permits the tracking of distant targets, even through walls or other structures, while a litany of takedown maneuvers are executable, and it is actually feasible now to close the distance and to actually implement those takedowns; seemingly, the stealth systems are dominated by progress. And then, there is the AI, which has seen little advancement, is perhaps characterized by certain regressions, in that the hostile NPCs are more perceptive than ever, that perceptiveness and inconsistency directly reducing opportunities for player freedom; a completely silent bow may be equipable, while even a silenced, long range sniper rifle can be equipped. But with AI inconsistency, it is never known beforehand whether a shot from that bow, that rifle, will alert surrounding NPCs, meaning there is a sharp overreliance upon conventional takedowns, which are at least characterized by ample consistency, rarely alerting the opposition assuming the player exercises caution, logic, and some patience. The AI is flawed, certainly, though the Far Cry series is also defined by its organic approach to gameplay; an FPS at heart, it follows that detection does not instantly correlate with death; Jason is an empowered protagonist, just as is Corvo, and upon detection he can rely upon grenade, pistol, assault rifle or any other objects of the expansive arsenal to dispatch the alerted foe. Still, the stealth systems – and the AI – are very flawed, reducing the enjoyability of the stealth. Far Cry 4, a satisfying experience with a beautiful gameplay of great verticality, is a neat replication of its immediate predecessor, and thus inherits many of its flaws, only occasionally righting them; AI was, unfortunately, one of the wrongs which was never righted. But progress has indeed been made, and the AI in Far Cry 5 is a major improvement, enemies being believable and fair in nature, rather than excessively cheap and punishing; Ubisoft realized their mistakes and compensated for them, and such compensation must be lauded, even as it was painfully slow in coming.

The stealth genre has seen a Renaissance in recent years, and that Renaissance has resulted in considerable industry progress; while the venerable Metal Gear series has existed for a considerable span of time now, more recent releases like those of the Assassin’s Creed series have served the sharp role of innovation, genre refinement, and such things together result not only in progress but also in greater enjoyability, stealth experiences being unique experiences, though gradually being distorted by ample genre hybridity; very scarce now are totally vulnerable protagonists, meaning those which do contain such characters mark a certain offshoot of the genre, a valuable offshoot, and Amnesia and Outlast absolutely have their place within the industry, offering unrivaled tension, which must be preserved; the stealth genre should not become exclusively a genre of hybridity; traditional shooters should remain intact; not every game needs stealth mechanics, uniquely exhilarating though they may be. And the stealth of the present moment is wonderfully diverse, with many first-person titles, third-person titles, and, reflecting even greater innovation and ambition, 2D titles like the masterful Mark of the Ninja, while even the aesthetically beautiful 2D platformer Inside sees the implementation of stealth mechanics, though here the execution is not quite as flawless; cracks show. And indeed, when a development studio strives to implement stealth sequences, they run the risk of destroying player engagement by failing to implement the sequences properly; instant fail mission parameters are justly despised, and games which lazily include stealth sequences, prioritizing them for a very short span of time, are often prone to this failure, no matter how large is the studio developing the title; the stealth genre is a fickle, tricky beast to develop for, but when the developers execute their vision properly, the stealth genre displays its inherent graces, its great potentialities. The term “Renaissance” of course means rebirth, a transforming of everything that came before. But inevitably, after a Renaissance there is a period of stagnation, a marked period of drop off. One hopes the stealth genre does not go into decline; one hopes developer ambition persists always, though as is always the case with game design, there are boundaries in place; the growth and progress of the genre has been immense, though painfully growth inevitably stops. But with experiences like the very recently released Deathloop – emblematic of the turn towards hybridity -hopefully that stagnation and drop off will not occur for some time; hopefully growth persists.

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