I’ve never been particularly into stealth games, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Over my years as a gamer, I’ve attempted to play plenty of games with some sort of sneaky element, and indeed some which were entirely built around the ol’ sneakeroo. The original Thief, for example, I gave a try and managed to do reeeeeasonably well on; more recently, the Metal Gear Solid games involve a measure of not-being-seen, among others. In most cases, when I’ve tried to play a game about sneaking, I’ve managed to remain hidden up until juuuust about the point that I would really have preferred not to have been revealed: generally, this is the moment that I’m surrounded by a ton of dudes who, once they’ve noticed me, can destroy me in five seconds flat.
I’m not totally sure why this should be. I mean, I don’t think I’m bad at video games. I understand how to apply games’ systems to the challenges they present in order to succeed, if I may say so, and yet this seems to be the one style of play that I’m just not very good at dealing with. I do like the recent trend of games that are primarily RPGs but which implement this in such a way as to allow different playstyles; things like Elder Scrolls are perhaps the best example I can think of. Weirdly, in Skyrim, I almost always try to make my character able to sneak, perhaps because the bonuses for stealth kills are pretty darn sweet, yet I almost never end up sneaking past more than one or two enemies (and I usually alert someone and end up having to kill them all anyway). A similar sort of thing happened in Far Cry 3, in which remaining undetected was a viable option which I tried to make use of, but things would inevitably devolve into all-out gunfighting.
Now, I’m not too upset about that. I like having the option to play in either a sneaky way or a totally balls-out I’MMA OPENLY FIGHT EVERYONE sort of style, and I like the ability to switch from one to the other should things go wrong. I think the reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is because I’ve been playing Dishonored 2, a game I’m really enjoying, but one which I think would like me to be very stealthy. It’s not going to tell me off if I do get caught; it’ll just let me play out the scenario and fight everyone face-to-face, but it’ll remind me at the end of each level how many times I was seen, which gives the impression that it would sort of prefer me to be much less… detectable than I tend to be. Detection doesn’t count towards the level of chaos (the game operates a sort-of morality system in the form of low or high chaos) – only killing does, so I can non-lethally fight as many guards as I want without affecting that particular mechanic – but I really wish that I were the sort of person who was actually capable of going through an entire level without even being spotted. Ghosting, they call it. Like I say, Dishonored isn’t going to give me a game over for being seen, and neither will most stealth-esque games these days, but maybe I sort of wish it would, in a slightly masochistic sort of way. I feel as if I might actually learn how to not be seen if there were a more concrete punishment, but I can quite merrily get away with being spotted left, right and centre as it is, which means that I might put a little bit of effort into sneaking but I’m always aware that I can just turn and fight if I’m spotted – or sprint away. Sometimes I just turn and run. Seems to work.
I’ve actually found that I can do stealth a lot better in 2D. I’m thinking of doing Mark of the Ninja for my next Let’s Play; it’s a 2D stealth game that I haven’t played yet, but I remember playing a lot of stealth platformers on Miniclip and Kongregate and other Flash/ browser-based gaming sites back in the day. The thing about stealth, I suppose, is that it’s dependent on being very aware of one’s surroundings, which is far easier when there are only two dimensions to be keeping an eye on – and those two dimensions are often more immediately visible, as opposed to first-person 3D games which require the player to actively turn around if they want a full view of the area. In neurological/ psychological terms, I doubt I’ve worked the neural connections relating to three-dimensional awareness and opportunity-spotting enough to be able to figure out the best way of sneaking past somebody; my sneaking technique tends to just be ‘crouch in a corner and hope I don’t get spotted’, whereas there’s probably much more of a trick to moving around with precise timing and in the right angles than I’m currently able to pull off.
I wonder whether the reason I’m suddenly bitter about not being very good at stealth games has anything to do with the fact that a lot of games these days seem to sort of expect me to be able to be a bit sneaky. Even Zelda has the occasional stealth mission, although they’re not usually half as hard as a game that’s actually focused on sneakery. Still, it feels as if I might be missing out on a whole world of opportunity, a whole different style of play, and a particularly exciting one at that; after all, gaming is about overcoming obstacles, and what could be a more satisfying way of doing so than working through a level without any of your enemies ever even knowing you’re there? It just sounds so sexy. I used to be alright at the first Splinter Cell game, so I do have some sense of how powerful and competent a player can feel when they’re so in control that they can even prevent guards from becoming aware of their presence; good stealth, I think, ought to be about more than just hiding and waiting for people to look away. Splinter Cell made me feel like I was using my ingenuity to work out solutions to the problems I was faced with, and I don’t know whether it’s just a sign of the times and the advancement of technology that I no longer seem to be quite as able to do that.
I wonder, then, what exactly I’m advocating for here. I don’t think I’m suggesting that games should stop offering stealth as a viable way of playing, because I like to give it a go even if I suck at it. Perhaps I’m just wondering whether those sorts of games ought to make their stealth gameplay a bit easier, or perhaps I’m just grumpy about not being as good at it as I feel I ought to be. I’m curious as to whether anyone else finds stealth really difficult to execute, particularly people who’ve been gaming for a while but haven’t focused on sneaking and now find themselves almost having to try it with most modern games. I don’t want games to dumb themselves down on my account; I think I just want there to be as many options as possible. Take Dishonored 2, since that’s what I’m playing at the moment: I don’t want stealth not to be an option, but I think I’d like there to be more than ‘a) don’t get seen, b) open warfare’. Again, I’m not sure what that third option might be; I’d like it to be some sort of not-quite-puzzle system that allowed the player to come up with alternative solutions. Some of the missions do actually offer this, with the non-lethal solutions for some targets being quite complex, so maybe I’m sort of wishing that this style of half-MacGyvering, half-puzzling just showed up throughout the whole game rather than only in specific situations. It’d be hard as heck to implement, but it would certainly be a satisfying way of playing.
To conclude, then: I am not very good at stealth games, but I really would rather like to be. Since I’m not, though, I’d really like to be able to overcome obstacles however I wanted, but I’m aware that not every game can implement every possible playstyle. I mean, I can’t expect that Dishonored would build in the mechanics for me to be able to parkour through levels Mirror’s Edge-style, or wrestle people to death or hit them with Tetris blocks or something. Thinking about it, though, maybe I’d be happy if I could initiate a Guitar Hero battle with guards rather than just fight them. Or talk to them. Heck, I’d be over the moon if I could get Corvo to read a book on hypnosis and then just walk through the city leaving hordes of guards who suddenly believe themselves to be chickens in his wake, but… yeah, that probably isn’t going to happen. Shame.