Hey fellow felons, this week I've been having fun directing the efforts of two fugitives as they fight towards noble goals and their own absolution. And by fight, I actually mean sneak around without getting spotted. Because both the games I played this week are very much of the stealthy sort, either by purposeful design or by player-led happenstance.
Which got me thinking: I don't like stealth games. At least, that's always been the stance I've taken with them. Yet I've enjoyed playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Dishonored this week and went so far as to put Deus Ex: Human Revolution high on my list of favorite games to come out in 2011. Has my position softened? Have I grown more patient and careful in my old age, aiding the deliberate gameplay that stealth games require? Have stealth games simply gotten better, as modern technology has lent all these attentive guards and shadowy environments a greater verisimilitude that makes it easier to ascertain whether or not I might be discovered? I don't suspect I'll be drawing any hard conclusions about how accurate any of these speculations might be, but I'm just going to wax poetic about some of the stealth games (or games with stealth elements, at any rate) I've played in the past regardless. Gotta write somethin'.
Rather than going game by game, because there's a few of them, I've put the ones I've played in three distinct categories. I suspect the way a game might approach stealth is a major part of how successful that stealth aspect turns out to be.
Stealth Sections include those games that will introduce an infrequent, often mercifully short sequence where the goal is to sneak past without raising any alarms. Usually, the rest of the game is decidedly not stealth-based, which makes the stealth sections all the more incongruous and awkward. These are, almost without exception, the worst application of stealth present in modern games.
Recall the sequence in Ocarina of Time when Link needs to sneak past Hyrule Castle's guardsmen in the gardens on his way to talk to Princess Zelda. It's a short sequence that's over relatively quickly, but really adds nothing but a persistent aggravating memory of loud whistles and Link's "urgh" noise as he lands outside the castle gates. It's busywork, pure and simple. A few other Zelda games have something similar too, such as Wind Waker's barrel-hiding shenanigans in the Forsaken Fortress or that sequence in Skyward Sword's volcano area where your gear is stolen and you need to sneak around to get it all back. Indigo Prophecy has a bit where there's a flashback to the protagonist Lucas as a child sneaking around an army base. Chrono Trigger has the whole bit onboard minor antagonist Dalton's flying ship. These are just recent examples I've played through (or in the case of Chrono Trigger, watched someone else deal with) but this sort of thing is unfortunately legion and is about as warmly received as an escort mission or a particularly long QTE sequence.
If these sorts of ordeals are the only regular exposure you get to stealth-based gameplay - as is often the case with me - then a strong hatred for that sort of experience is entirely explicable. It's really quite unfair on the type of game that will actually dedicate a bit of time and effort towards making their stealth sections click the right way, since it requires a deft hand from a developer that gives a shit that these throwaway "for fun" sequences don't generally receive.
So the Stealth Optional is for games like Deus Ex, and the many later games that take a leaf from its book, where there's always an option to sneak around enemies instead of engaging them if you've decided to spec your character as a sneaky pacifistic sort. These also include, to a lesser extent, Bethesda games such as Fallout 3 and Oblivion/Skyrim - where there's usually a few skills of that nature one can invest in - as well as other highly customizable RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights with their Rogue classes. Invariably, I find myself opting to try the stealthy approach every now and again just to shake things up a little and in the case of the party-based RPGs always ensuring I have at least one stealthy type to scope out a joint for traps and monster locations before barging through with the blundering warriors and all-too-vulnerable magic-users.
For the most part, the stealth aspects of these games range from adequately competent to quite fun. Allowing players to create stealthy characters means some amount of developer productivity had to go towards making such characters and that play style a viable option, which results in a game that can be stealthed through, even if that approach is not always the preferable one. I can't speak for the rest of you, but it always felt like I was crawling through the dungeons of Oblivion with a bow in my hand ghosting dudes before they figured out where I was. Though perhaps that says more about avoiding its mediocre hand-to-hand combat as much as humanly possible than anything else.
Taking one of my two games as an example: Dishonored is a game that will require a lot of hiding and being quiet, as part and parcel of its clever assassination set-ups. Setting off alarms and drawing the ire of every guard nearby is hardly conducive to a successful mission. However, the game gives you a lot of leeway in this regard, as it (rightfully) assumes that you'd rather cut your way through to the target with the array of magical powers and upgradeable weapons at your disposal. Though the game fully expects you to draw your sword and fight your way out of being discovered by the guards, there's more than a few achievements that task you with getting through the game without getting spotted or killing anyone. There's even one for skipping out on the magical powers as well. I've decided to take all three challenges on simultaneously. Madness, perhaps, but I did something similar with Deus Ex: Human Revolution when I played that and the added challenge really added to the experience. There's no denying the amount of frustration that comes with having to reload because a guard appeared out of nowhere or some unlucky sod slipped off their guardtower after getting sleep darted, but if you roll with the punches you can really get a deeper appreciation for finding alternate paths through each stage and exploiting blindspots to remain undetected.
On a more general level, Dishonored is a game I'm definitely having fun with, in spite of this hardline and occasionally overbearingly strict set of rules to which I've elected to adhere. Graphically and tonally, the game's closest relative is BioShock, especially with all the cartoonishly-proportioned NPCs occasionally at odds with its gritty, visually-busy environments full of telltale signs of the city's continuing dilapidation and its fascistic propaganda. Though whereas BioShock was Ayn Rand with bathyspheres, Dishonored is more Herman Melville with magical assassins. It's an interesting premise, not least of which because it means we finally get some more Thief-style steampunk going on. Given how close some of the weaponry resembles that of the recent Assassin's Creed games as well, I wonder if "Steampunk Stealth" isn't going to be a new sub-genre template we'll be seeing more of as these games succeed. I mean, that fourth Thief game is supposed to be on the way and it being in the hands of the Deus Ex: HR guys would suggest that it'll end up being pretty good. Serviceable remakes of decade-old PC franchises appears to be a forte of theirs, after all.
Finally, and perhaps most integrally, we have those games that are entirely dependent on their stealth aspect. Dishonored might fall into this camp, given how much stealthing you need to do even on a "kill everything" path, but with these games it's really a case of not being able to survive discovery that keeps you glued to the shadows. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as these games are absolutely focused on making the aspects that make up stealth games - predictable guard patrols, player's visibility, player's sound level, lines of sight, escaping notice and all that jazz - work as intended. I mean, the game's quality depends on ensuring the impeccable functionality of all those elements.
These would include your Thiefs, your Metal Gear Solids, your Splinter Cells and Hitmans. Hitmen. Whatever. These are franchises I've always been a little apprehensive in trying, because generally speaking I don't go for the stealthy approach. Except I totally and demonstrably do. So why don't they appeal? Maybe because there's always that option of just leaping out of concealment and throwing caution to the wind with the direct approach with the previous category of games, which is usually ill-advised or simply out of the question for pure stealth games like the above. The other game I played this week is very much of the latter.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, perhaps the greatest western-made horror survival game in recent memory, puts the player in control of the titularly-impaired protagonist constantly chased by a nightmarish presence that only seems to make itself known through hallucinations and wibbly insanity effects. Despite this, the presence isn't so much the chief concern as the servants working for the villain of the piece, who are - unlike most of the horrors the player encounters - very real and quite deadly once they've determined your location. As Patrick recently discovered in a recent Spookin' With Scoops (I still say they should've gone with "Tricky or Treat") with SNES classic Clock Tower, the horror survival games that insist on a "no-engagement" policy are always more effective with their scares, though its the process of having to hide in a corner until the faceless horrors finally move on and hoping they don't discover you that is the deeper cut. I don't mind admitting I was scared out of my wits almost the entire time - it wouldn't be as memorable an experience otherwise.
Talking of things that are terrifying to behold, it's time for some...
Amnesia: The Dark Descent