I may have mentioned in the past (repeatedly) that I have no intention of streaming myself playing games because I would be all kinds of boring. I am patient, thorough, I double back, take very precaution, and repeat myself over and over until I feel like I’ve done something right. It makes the collection of RPGs I play considerably slower paced, strategy games tend to be drawn out advances and heavily fortified positions, and for stealth games it makes me… well, equally dull to watch, but it also means I do fairly well.
Before discussing stealth games, first take a look at this Extra Credits video that delves into what makes Mark of the Ninja delivers stealth mechanics that make for an engaging game and what it is that makes stealth games engaging in themselves.
Also note the comment about living the fantasy of a badass ninja, I’ll be revisiting that point.
I have been playing a lot of Dishonored 2 lately, Bethesda’s Thief-like stealth game that perfectly captures the essence of the Thief games while weaving in spectral powers of a dark god. The forces that operate against you have challenges and means to counteract your incredible abilities, technology capable of killing you with a single arc of electricity, strolling automatons that cannot be so easily felled, and powers counter to your own. These make you less of an indomitable assassin, a knife in the dark, and make you a more fragile predator, meaning every confrontation risks death.
But the pleasure comes in the patience. The same excessive attention to detail trains you to enjoy sitting on a lamppost for half an hour watching the city guardsmen wandering to and from, lounging against walls and the attending civilians, memorising their movements, and preparing a plan to isolate and kill each and every one of them, so that you can walk free and uninterrupted. Or… whatever, I suppose you could just go around them and leave them alive, but why take the risk? Some of them have money, some of them can’t be avoided if you want a particular piece of equipment, might as well carve and slice your way around.
In many ways a stealth game has a lot more in common with a puzzle solver like Myst, being almost meditative in their demand for care, attention, a willingness to take multiple attempts at the same problem until that moment where you feel as though you have got it right. The key difference is that stealth has a varying scale of “right”.
“Could I have done that better?”
“I took damage, let me try that again.”
“Someone saw me, I don’t like that.”
Most, if not all games of the genre reinforce some of these thought processes by noting how often you’re noticed, your kill-count, how much of the potential loot you found, but there is so much that we self impose. We can always heal ourselves (at least most of the time) we can always recover resources, but I for one like to lose none of the above. Expended ammunition is a sword swing not taken, and perhaps the arrow was easier, but now it’s gone. Blood spilled is a misstep, or a hit you should never have taken.
The act of escaping discovery can be a giddy thrill if you can escape, but often the act of fleeing the scene of your crimes can lead you into a worse situation, so plotting your escape routes becomes part of the joy of the hunt, while you wait patiently for your pursuers to give up the chase and come to the conclusion that you’ve fled, so that you can resume the process.
I found myself recently playing Dishonored, and reliving the same moment repeatedly so that I could get it exactly right:
In behind the guard and kill him, put the maid to sleep, start stealing everything from the room- wait, is that machine dormant or will that switch on if I get too close… oh!
Ok, kill the guard and- dammit she’s seen me.
Ok, kill the guard, whoops, oh gods, now the machine’s awake…
From the bookshelf this time, the chandelier is doing nothing for me. Kill the guard, knock out the maid, start work on the machi- ahh dammit!
Ok, all done, break open the container to get what’s inside and… oh dammit, you people heard that?
This became a game of “ring the dinner bell”, the room I was in offered advantages and the potential to set traps, lie in wait, and be exactly where I needed to be at every available opportunity, so smashing open that cabinet became an invitation, goading people to join me. I must have occupied the same room for an hour, wholly unsatisfied until everything was in my pockets and everyone anywhere close was dead, unconscious or dismantled.
Considering your own thought processes while playing a game can help you to become a better writer and designer. Consider what motivates you to take certain actions. What outcome do you deem a failure? What kind of options do you want to open up to your players, and what are they likely to pursue? Does possession of an expendable item give you a desire to use the item or to save it for the proverbial “rainy day” that never comes? I’ve been considering ways and means to implement stealth as a central mechanism to my own games, how the games that I run use stealth, and what I can do to make the process as engaging and involved as Dishonored, Thief, Mark of the Ninja, or even the Batman-Arkham series.
Next time you play a game consider the thought processes, what’s a victory, what’s a failure, and how you measure your own success. I can’t stop thinking like this any more, and I refuse to be alone in my inability to play a game without considering design elements!