Stealth Games: Why Josh Is Right

After reading about why my esteemed colleague dislikes stealth games, I have been thinking. A lot, in fact. He argues that the reason he can’t really enjoy a stealth game is that there are no payouts for being stealthy (aside from being able to continue the game, making it rather a boring and unrewarding cycle). Having insufficient experience in the stealth game world, I took a look at the Assassin’s Creed series to come up with some more detail. While some would argue against them being stealth games, I think they’re a great representative of the stealth genre, exhibiting both its strengths and weaknesses. They are games that wants you to use stealth, and have a handful of ways to reinforce that behavior (psych style!). There are three main cases, and I think that right now the weighting of the cases tends to dissuade people like Josh; all it would take to make stealth games more appealing is to shift priorities a bit.

Case 1: Positive Reinforcement

The quieter you are, the more you hear or learn. Sometimes this is target- or mission-related intel, but often it’s just plot-relevant flavour text. To be fair, I can’t think of a time when you’re rewarded tangibly for being stealthy in the AC series, although Assassin’s Creed 3 often gives you stealthy sub-objectives that give you points. However, aside from artificial goals and achievements, it does definitely give you more in-game knowledge.

Case 2A: Negative Reinforcement

At one point in the original Assassin’s Creed, you’re supposed to kill a doctor. Your mission is to sneak into the hospital, wait until the doctor isolates himself from his guards, then take him out. This mission does not require stealth – there’s nowhere for the doctor to run, so you can take your time with his guards before getting to him. However, there are a ton of guards. That’s why it’s best to sneak around, hiding in the rafters, waiting until your chance. In that situation, stealth isn’t rewarded explicitly, but being particularly un-stealthy means you have to fight through a horde of guards: your stealthy failure is being punished by guards with swords.

Case 2B: Negative-r Reinforcement

In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, you need to recapture locations by finding the Templar captain and killing him (effectively cutting the head off the snake, so the rest of the Templars scatter). In some cases, you can just charge in and kill him – but other times, if you are detected while in this danger zone, he’ll run and hide. If that happens, you have to wait and try again later. You technically don’t fail or have to start over, you just cannot complete the mission (and probably have to fight your way out anyway). Again, your lack of stealth is being punished by being told that if you can’t do it “right,” you can’t do it at all (now go sit in a corner and think about what you’ve done).

In all of the previous cases, there is a clear response to you using (or not using) stealth – a clear reaction to your (in)action. I think these make up a lot of situations in the stealth games, but there is another case.

Case 3: Game over, man.

Here, you have to be stealthy. If you are detected, the mission fails and you try again. And again. And again, until you get it right. While this makes sense from a plot standpoint, it’s often really difficult to deal with. Last night I had to play through one mission maybe five times; the first couple of times I failed because I didn’t know where all the guards were, then I lost a couple of times because I did something wrong so my guy jumped off a roof (and was subsequently detected), and then I finally gave up on stealth, killed everyone, and completed the mission.

This is the problem with stealth games (and is probably the sort of situation to which Joshua was referring). Once one of these missions is done, you don’t feel any reward or payoff, because the “reward” was being able to continue the game. I understand that this is often required for plot reasons, but it’s unbelievably frustrating – and I don’t see a solution. Some missions require stealth or else the plot cannot progress logically, and the only way to enforce it is to make the player restart.

So to some extent, I agree with Josh – situations that lack payoff that can make stealth games unenjoyable. I can also see why the other cases don’t give enough payout. Given this, I think the ideal stealth game should eliminate the game-restarting cases, and stick with negative and positive reinforcement. Ideally, they would also give you more tangible rewards for stealth, balancing the positive with the negative more effectively.

Like anything, stealth games can be done well or they can be done poorly. I don’t think stealth games are all poorly done now, but I think we have a little ways to go before they can reach their full potential.

  • http://twitter.com/MoracExMachina Morac

    I recommend taking a look at Mark of the Ninja – that game nails stealth on a number of fronts.