The problem with stealth

The problem with stealth

 Stealth games have always been a little bit of an anomaly when put up against larger, more successful genres.  Even since games like the original Metal Gear on the MSX, it's always been a bit of a risky proposition to build a game where the player's greatest asset isn't a gun, but hiding and moving slowly.  Especially when put next to fast-moving arcade titles of the day, Metal Gear's emphasis on sneaking seemed almost counter-intuitive.  Common thinking states that players like to feel empowered when they play games, that they enjoy being able to do things that they'd have no hope of in the real world; most developers interpret this as the distinctly masculine act of performing excessive acts of violence against others, or in placing first in a competition.  Stealth, by nature, is somewhat contrary to what most developers think players want.

The suggestion made by stealth games over the years is that basic sneaking just isn't enough to keep a game interesting.  The Thief series was able to gain a niche interest by providing tools the player could use to stay safe and escape from danger (water arrows to turn off lights, climbing gloves to scale walls, rope arrows to grapple and swing), but when it came to directly dealing with threats, the player was often at a severe handicap.  It was only as of the third Thief game, Deadly Shadows, that players were reasonably equipped to deal with their enemies head-on.

The same trend followed in the rise of so-called "stealth action" titles, including Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, games which attempted to buck the conception that stealth was all about moving slowly, hiding, and generally keeping out of harm's way.  Their protagonists embodied masculine power: Sam Fisher, a whiskey-drinking war veteran worth a thousand men, and Solid Snake, a cloned super-soldier who was a master of using his environment to outwit enemies.  While both still relied upon stealth, they were also both capable in direct confrontations, so much so that their respective games could be nearly played as straight-up shooters, if it wasn't for the occasional mission which forced non-lethal measures.  Interestingly, both of these games departed from the steampunk-medieval theme of the Thief games, using the advanced technology of the modern era to justify the extreme abilities of their protagonists.

                               

                                                                        This isn't the stealth I thought I knew...


Now, with the recent release of Splinter Cell: Conviction, stealth action has taken a very bold step in the direction of action.  While Ubisoft's latest game does allow for the use of stealth, but amidst the chaotic gunfights and action movie venues, the game certainly tries its best to encourage players to play less like a ninja and more like a commando, a one-person fighting force who only relies upon stealth and deception until his or her enemies are riddled with bullets.  The question that remains in the wake of Conviction is, "where can we go from here?"

The cynical approach...

It's very easy to take a look at Conviction and echo those tired old words: Ubisoft sold out.  After all, the latest Splinter Cell seems to have more in common with Epic's Gears of War than any other game, and the supposedly "too old for this" Sam Fisher is now more agile and capable than he was ten years ago.  In fact, the stealth in Conviction nearly mirrors similar gameplay mechanics in the Gears of War series - sneaking is only a tool that the player uses to approach enemies from unexpected angles before attacking them.  Splinter Cell, of course, takes greater advantage of stealth, but the focus of the game has shifted radically: no longer is the goal of the game to sneak through and complete objectives, with weapons only as a last resort, but rather, it's to take out all opposition in the way.

Given the relatively slow evolution of the stealth genre, the transition may seem a bit more gradual and the differences a little superficial, but it's clear precisely which mode of thinking informed the design decisions surrounding Conviction.  The player's new ability, Mark and Execute, for instance, is geared entirely towards killing enemies quickly, and many portions of the game are designed in such a way that sneaking around is extremely difficult or even impossible.  Where it used to be perfectly possible in previous Splinter Cell games to finish entire missions or even the whole game without alerting, killing, or even laying a finger on enemies, in Conviction, that seems like a near impossible task.

Of course, Splinter Cell isn't the only game series to move in this direction.  Metal Gear Solid 4 also shifted towards action in a big way by offering control options and scenarios which mirrored successful Western third-person shooters.  While stealth is still a component of the gameplay, and much of the game can be completed in such a fashion, there are also vehicle chase sequences and hectic gunfights where subtlety is clearly thrown to the wind.  Once again, the cynical eye would examine Metal Gear Solid 4 and argue that this was done in order to appeal to a greater market segment, and this may be true to some degree given the recent popularity of the third-person cover-based shooter.  However, I'd like to propose an alternate analysis of the situation...

How do we make stealth exciting?

Stealth games, as I mentioned above, have always faced the challenge of providing excitement to the player, while at the same time attempting to maintain that they are thoroughly about sneaking and hiding from danger.  To say that these are contrary goals isn't quite accurate, but given the settings that recent stealth games have employed (i.e. modern military), there are only a handful of ways to spice up hiding from danger.  The easiest way to do this?  By adopting shooter elements.  Solid Snake and Sam Fisher both have guns, after all, so why shouldn't they use them more often if their missions are so critical?

The game flow seen most commonly in the stealth genre goes something like this:

  1. The player enters a level/environment/room/etc.
  2. The player performs reconaissance and assesses potential goals, threats and opportunities
  3. The player plans a method of approach to that goal
  4. The player executes this plan, attempting to avoid obstacles along the way
  5. The player, if impeded, deals with the obstacle using the appropriate mechanic
  6. The player reaches the goal, and continues on to step 1 again

While good environment design and story can help to drive the player along, the optional step in this sequence, step 5, is where the majority of tension in a stealth game comes from.  While planning and executing a sequence flawlessly is enjoyable for the player, there's no real threat, and thus no tension, if the player does not risk or encounter some sort of obstacle.  In most stealth games, these will be enemies, though the obstacles can also be of an environmental nature (locked door, electrified fence, snowstorm, etc.).  This is the proverbial "wrinkle" in the plan where 90% of game's fun really comes from.

As said, the modern military setting of current stealth games has been rather limiting.  A quick brainstorming session will likely reveal that, if a developer stays within what are conidered to be "realistic" boundaries, the potential problems the player can face are actually quite limited in scope; avoiding repetition within the existing setting is already difficult enough as players continue to tire of the same old "brown and grey" military themes, but when the number of potential obstacles is also highly limited, coming up with unique, plausible and fun challenges is quite the task.

                                                                            Barrels? Check. Crates? Check. Originality? Hm...


I believe that the gradual shift towards more and more action isn't simply a result of market demands and executives dictating that stealth games have "more action", although I'm sure there is some truth to that, whether the efforts are explicit or more emergent trends after the same developers have grown tired of making the same types of games over the last decade.  Rather, the shift that has occurred is a result of increasingly overcompensating for the lack of problems designers can reasonably present to the player.  Put simply, if you've already done the bank robbery, the "no alarms" mission, the "no fatalities" level, the "outdoor" mission, et al., where can you go from there?  The set pieces have to get bigger, the stakes have to get higher, and the action has to get more intense.  Players aren't willing to tolerate the same old ideas; those ideas need to be supercharged, electrified and intensified.

The solution is setting

In light of this assessment, there's really only one option I can see to truly invigorate the stealth genre, and that is to ditch the modern military theme, or at the very least, to let loose and stop being so concerned with maintaining illusions of reality.  Videogames are all about creativity and excitement, and when something ceases to be both creative and exiciting within its existing framework, it takes a shake-up to bring in new ideas.  Mind, I'm not suggesting that the next major stealth franchise take place in a sci-fi environment, or that it takes a page from Tolkien, but a change in setting is exactly what the stealth genre needs in order to become relevant and exciting again, a genre that feels more like its own and less like a subset of the shooter.  Looking to the future, I'm hoping that the new Thief and Deus Ex games on the horizon will be the kick in the pants that stealth needs to get on its feet again.
 
Originally posted at Critical Miss

10 Comments
10 Comments
Edited by sear

The problem with stealth

 Stealth games have always been a little bit of an anomaly when put up against larger, more successful genres.  Even since games like the original Metal Gear on the MSX, it's always been a bit of a risky proposition to build a game where the player's greatest asset isn't a gun, but hiding and moving slowly.  Especially when put next to fast-moving arcade titles of the day, Metal Gear's emphasis on sneaking seemed almost counter-intuitive.  Common thinking states that players like to feel empowered when they play games, that they enjoy being able to do things that they'd have no hope of in the real world; most developers interpret this as the distinctly masculine act of performing excessive acts of violence against others, or in placing first in a competition.  Stealth, by nature, is somewhat contrary to what most developers think players want.

The suggestion made by stealth games over the years is that basic sneaking just isn't enough to keep a game interesting.  The Thief series was able to gain a niche interest by providing tools the player could use to stay safe and escape from danger (water arrows to turn off lights, climbing gloves to scale walls, rope arrows to grapple and swing), but when it came to directly dealing with threats, the player was often at a severe handicap.  It was only as of the third Thief game, Deadly Shadows, that players were reasonably equipped to deal with their enemies head-on.

The same trend followed in the rise of so-called "stealth action" titles, including Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, games which attempted to buck the conception that stealth was all about moving slowly, hiding, and generally keeping out of harm's way.  Their protagonists embodied masculine power: Sam Fisher, a whiskey-drinking war veteran worth a thousand men, and Solid Snake, a cloned super-soldier who was a master of using his environment to outwit enemies.  While both still relied upon stealth, they were also both capable in direct confrontations, so much so that their respective games could be nearly played as straight-up shooters, if it wasn't for the occasional mission which forced non-lethal measures.  Interestingly, both of these games departed from the steampunk-medieval theme of the Thief games, using the advanced technology of the modern era to justify the extreme abilities of their protagonists.

                               

                                                                        This isn't the stealth I thought I knew...


Now, with the recent release of Splinter Cell: Conviction, stealth action has taken a very bold step in the direction of action.  While Ubisoft's latest game does allow for the use of stealth, but amidst the chaotic gunfights and action movie venues, the game certainly tries its best to encourage players to play less like a ninja and more like a commando, a one-person fighting force who only relies upon stealth and deception until his or her enemies are riddled with bullets.  The question that remains in the wake of Conviction is, "where can we go from here?"

The cynical approach...

It's very easy to take a look at Conviction and echo those tired old words: Ubisoft sold out.  After all, the latest Splinter Cell seems to have more in common with Epic's Gears of War than any other game, and the supposedly "too old for this" Sam Fisher is now more agile and capable than he was ten years ago.  In fact, the stealth in Conviction nearly mirrors similar gameplay mechanics in the Gears of War series - sneaking is only a tool that the player uses to approach enemies from unexpected angles before attacking them.  Splinter Cell, of course, takes greater advantage of stealth, but the focus of the game has shifted radically: no longer is the goal of the game to sneak through and complete objectives, with weapons only as a last resort, but rather, it's to take out all opposition in the way.

Given the relatively slow evolution of the stealth genre, the transition may seem a bit more gradual and the differences a little superficial, but it's clear precisely which mode of thinking informed the design decisions surrounding Conviction.  The player's new ability, Mark and Execute, for instance, is geared entirely towards killing enemies quickly, and many portions of the game are designed in such a way that sneaking around is extremely difficult or even impossible.  Where it used to be perfectly possible in previous Splinter Cell games to finish entire missions or even the whole game without alerting, killing, or even laying a finger on enemies, in Conviction, that seems like a near impossible task.

Of course, Splinter Cell isn't the only game series to move in this direction.  Metal Gear Solid 4 also shifted towards action in a big way by offering control options and scenarios which mirrored successful Western third-person shooters.  While stealth is still a component of the gameplay, and much of the game can be completed in such a fashion, there are also vehicle chase sequences and hectic gunfights where subtlety is clearly thrown to the wind.  Once again, the cynical eye would examine Metal Gear Solid 4 and argue that this was done in order to appeal to a greater market segment, and this may be true to some degree given the recent popularity of the third-person cover-based shooter.  However, I'd like to propose an alternate analysis of the situation...

How do we make stealth exciting?

Stealth games, as I mentioned above, have always faced the challenge of providing excitement to the player, while at the same time attempting to maintain that they are thoroughly about sneaking and hiding from danger.  To say that these are contrary goals isn't quite accurate, but given the settings that recent stealth games have employed (i.e. modern military), there are only a handful of ways to spice up hiding from danger.  The easiest way to do this?  By adopting shooter elements.  Solid Snake and Sam Fisher both have guns, after all, so why shouldn't they use them more often if their missions are so critical?

The game flow seen most commonly in the stealth genre goes something like this:

  1. The player enters a level/environment/room/etc.
  2. The player performs reconaissance and assesses potential goals, threats and opportunities
  3. The player plans a method of approach to that goal
  4. The player executes this plan, attempting to avoid obstacles along the way
  5. The player, if impeded, deals with the obstacle using the appropriate mechanic
  6. The player reaches the goal, and continues on to step 1 again

While good environment design and story can help to drive the player along, the optional step in this sequence, step 5, is where the majority of tension in a stealth game comes from.  While planning and executing a sequence flawlessly is enjoyable for the player, there's no real threat, and thus no tension, if the player does not risk or encounter some sort of obstacle.  In most stealth games, these will be enemies, though the obstacles can also be of an environmental nature (locked door, electrified fence, snowstorm, etc.).  This is the proverbial "wrinkle" in the plan where 90% of game's fun really comes from.

As said, the modern military setting of current stealth games has been rather limiting.  A quick brainstorming session will likely reveal that, if a developer stays within what are conidered to be "realistic" boundaries, the potential problems the player can face are actually quite limited in scope; avoiding repetition within the existing setting is already difficult enough as players continue to tire of the same old "brown and grey" military themes, but when the number of potential obstacles is also highly limited, coming up with unique, plausible and fun challenges is quite the task.

                                                                            Barrels? Check. Crates? Check. Originality? Hm...


I believe that the gradual shift towards more and more action isn't simply a result of market demands and executives dictating that stealth games have "more action", although I'm sure there is some truth to that, whether the efforts are explicit or more emergent trends after the same developers have grown tired of making the same types of games over the last decade.  Rather, the shift that has occurred is a result of increasingly overcompensating for the lack of problems designers can reasonably present to the player.  Put simply, if you've already done the bank robbery, the "no alarms" mission, the "no fatalities" level, the "outdoor" mission, et al., where can you go from there?  The set pieces have to get bigger, the stakes have to get higher, and the action has to get more intense.  Players aren't willing to tolerate the same old ideas; those ideas need to be supercharged, electrified and intensified.

The solution is setting

In light of this assessment, there's really only one option I can see to truly invigorate the stealth genre, and that is to ditch the modern military theme, or at the very least, to let loose and stop being so concerned with maintaining illusions of reality.  Videogames are all about creativity and excitement, and when something ceases to be both creative and exiciting within its existing framework, it takes a shake-up to bring in new ideas.  Mind, I'm not suggesting that the next major stealth franchise take place in a sci-fi environment, or that it takes a page from Tolkien, but a change in setting is exactly what the stealth genre needs in order to become relevant and exciting again, a genre that feels more like its own and less like a subset of the shooter.  Looking to the future, I'm hoping that the new Thief and Deus Ex games on the horizon will be the kick in the pants that stealth needs to get on its feet again.
 
Originally posted at Critical Miss

Posted by iam3green

stealth games are turning into action games. the things they do have changed into something different like kill those groups of people to get inside that building. find a crane to hit all of the guys. games change throughout time of being played. 
 
this was a good read.

Posted by Azteck

I really miss the stealth games that actually made you act in a stealthy way. If I play a game that lets me be stealthy in how I play, that is how I will play it as much as I can. When I first got through Alpha Protocol, I did everything I could to not kill any enemies and avoid them as often as possible.

Edited by sear

Thanks for the replies, I appreciate them.
 
On Alpha Protocol, I really appreciate how it tried to bring back "real" stealth, within an action-RPG context.  Where it failed was in situations where the designers just flat out didn't anticipate the player taking a stealthy approach.  Rather than choosing between your wits or brute force to deal with an opponent, it ended up turning into basically a farce.  Anyone who played as a stealthy character up to the Marburg or Brayko fights knows what I'm talking about.  :P

Posted by Undeadpool
@sear: I feel like Alpha Protocol just made stealth overpowered. You could literally vanish before guards' eyes with Evasion and you could murder/disable entire rooms with Shadow Operative (even as other guards watched you do it) without being caught. 
Arkham Asylum did a really good job with its stealth. Yes, the gargoyles get repetitive and YES the guards have weirdly limited sight if you're up on one of them, but, and this isn't my quote, but I can't remember where I first heard it, it's one of the only games to make stealth feel powerful. Most games make you feel weak when you use stealth correctly, but with Arkham Asylum, you feel like a freaking GOD. EXCEPT that Batman is still extremely vulnerable, even on Normal difficulty and ESPECIALLY on Hard to gunfire, so you actually have to use your stealth rather than just brute-forcing through.
Posted by HandsomeDead

The thing with stealth, is that to do it right, you need to change the power dynamic of the game. It works in MGS because if you get caught, you're fucked but, more importantly, it sets a context for that. In games that force stealth sections, you're used to being a renegade badass so it seems weird, and kind of boring, to go to sneaking in the shadows. That being said, not even Hideo Kojima can stick to that and he's the guy who practically invented the genre so maybe there are limitations to how stealth can be used.

Edited by Azteck
@sear: Actually, Brayko wasn't so bad if you just got on good terms with Steven Heck and spiked his coke, as long as you stocked up on darts and abused the invisibility ability. It's what I did. I finished the game with 0 kills. The let-down for me was that the game just simply didn't recognize it. I went through one map not killing a single enemy and avoiding 1/3 of them and they still said that I had left "countless bodies". Then there was the scene where you walk out a room and there are bodies lying just everywhere, covered in blood even though I put them all to sleep and didn't shoot a single one. 
 
Marburg was super easy (the first round at least, never got to fight him the second time), I just went invisible, ran up right in front of him and then used the thing where you shoot like 5 bullets at once in his face. Dead in 5 seconds.
Posted by sear
@Azteck said:
" @sear: Actually, Brayko wasn't so bad if you just got on good terms with Steven Heck and spiked his coke, as long as you stocked up on darts and abused the invisibility ability. It's what I did. I finished the game with 0 kills. The let-down for me was that the game just simply didn't recognize it. I went through one map not killing a single enemy and avoiding 1/3 of them and they still said that I had left "countless bodies". Then there was the scene where you walk out a room and there are bodies lying just everywhere, covered in blood even though I put them all to sleep and didn't shoot a single one.   Marburg was super easy (the first round at least, never got to fight him the second time), I just went invisible, ran up right in front of him and then used the thing where you shoot like 5 bullets at once in his face. Dead in 5 seconds. "
I played my first game as a pure stealth character, which meant no skill in firearms and only a few extra points put into martial arts.  Suffice is to say, I had to rely on melee takedowns for everything, and, well, you can't do that on bosses... I started over, putting a whole bunch of points into pistols, and it made the game a lot more fun.  It's a shame the game doesn't really acknowledge your non-lethality except for one or two missions; I guess the designers expected everyone to use a gun of some sort.
Posted by Azteck
@sear said:
" @Azteck said:
" @sear: Actually, Brayko wasn't so bad if you just got on good terms with Steven Heck and spiked his coke, as long as you stocked up on darts and abused the invisibility ability. It's what I did. I finished the game with 0 kills. The let-down for me was that the game just simply didn't recognize it. I went through one map not killing a single enemy and avoiding 1/3 of them and they still said that I had left "countless bodies". Then there was the scene where you walk out a room and there are bodies lying just everywhere, covered in blood even though I put them all to sleep and didn't shoot a single one.   Marburg was super easy (the first round at least, never got to fight him the second time), I just went invisible, ran up right in front of him and then used the thing where you shoot like 5 bullets at once in his face. Dead in 5 seconds. "
I played my first game as a pure stealth character, which meant no skill in firearms and only a few extra points put into martial arts.  Suffice is to say, I had to rely on melee takedowns for everything, and, well, you can't do that on bosses... I started over, putting a whole bunch of points into pistols, and it made the game a lot more fun.  It's a shame the game doesn't really acknowledge your non-lethality except for one or two missions; I guess the designers expected everyone to use a gun of some sort. "
I think so too. It's a shame 'cause it kinda broke the immersion for me when it pretty much fed me false info. And yeah, I tried going melee a lot but it just didn't work. Especially against bosses that knew martial art to, like that guy in Japan. It was a little weird when you could melee the first boss to death if you got there without being seen but not have it as an option on the following ones.
 
That said, it's easily one of my favorite games of 2010, and I'll probably play it again at some point.
Posted by Tordah

The thing I hate most about stealth games is that when you get caught, you're pretty much screwed. There's no way out of the situation once the guards hit that alarm button, and it's always incredibly frustrating. I always feel like I'm being punished by the gameplay design when I get caught, not because I messed up. A lot of stealth games only have one very specific and "correct" way of sneaking past the guards and obstacles in the area. If you try do it in any other way, you're doing it wrong.  
 
This is the point where I stop playing said game entirely. It's happened with Thief, Splinter Cell and XIII (obligatory lame stealth mission). The only "stealth" game I find really fun is the Metal Gear Solid series, since you're pretty much always allowed to kill the guards, and most of the time you can survive the situation even if you get caught. Sure, the MGS gameplay is very arcade-y and unrealistic, but at least it's not frustrating.