I’ve always loved games like Splinter Cell and Dishonored but I could never pin down the reason why. Why is hiding in the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, or slip past the enemy unnoticed, more enjoyable than taking the loud and violent ‘yippee-ki-yay’ approach?
The answer is slightly different depending on which game your playing and what purpose is served by staying hidden. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, for instance, encourages you to keep fights as brief as possible by taking advantage of camouflage and the element of surprise to eliminate most, if not all threats before they can pull their trousers up and take cover.
Alien: Isolation on the other hand, encourages you to hide in cupboards and lockers and hope that the drooling monstrosity on the other side of the door won’t smell you when you soil yourself out of fear.
Stealth then, can be either your sword or your shield, and games are tailored accordingly, but what could possibly be fun about a game in which you spend most of your time cowering under a table, sucking your thumb and waiting for the monster to go away?
It’s the same nervous tension that makes hide-and-seek fun when we’re children (and possibly when we’re adults, I’ve not tried it lately): hiding under the bed and holding your breath as the seeker draws closer, only it’s less “tee-hee, you’ll never find me!”, and more “tee-hee, you’ll nevOHCRAPITSAWMERUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!”
This hide-and-seek style of gameplay lends itself perfectly to horror games, where creating a sense of vulnerability and helplessness is crucial, but while Alien: Isolation is an excellent example of how games about being a wuss can be fun, things get a lot more cathartic when the roles are reversed.
If games like Outlast, Amnesia and Alien:Isolation are about hiding from the monster, then games like Arkham Asylum and Splinter Cell are about being the monster, waiting in the shadows for one of your unsuspecting victims to stray from the group, before creeping up behind him, giving him a wedgie, and dragging him back into the shadows before he can call for help.
It’s tense, challenging, and a lot more subtle than loading a machine gun, kicking the door down, and making a dreadful mess.
Of course, many of these games offer you the gentleman’s choice of sneaking past your enemies entirely. While it is satisfying to ghost through a level without the guards catching so much as a whiff of your aftershave, it’s not nearly it sometimes leaves you feeling as if you’ve cheated yourself out of the fun.
The popularity of stealth-focused games has led to a lot of more mainstream action titles incorporating stealth elements into their game mechanics or having a token stealth level or two. Like when music producers realized rap was popular, so every pop song must now include a token rap verse to appeal to the hip-hop crowd.
This can be a great way of giving players more freedom in how they approach their objectives or varying the game’s pace, but only when the game’s AI and controls can properly accommodate stealth mechanics.
Far Cry 2, for example, gave players the option of getting things done ninja style but forgot to adjust the AI’s detection capabilities accordingly. Being able to choose suppressed weapons did players no good when the enemy could spot them from 200m away, at night, through foliage and heavy fog, whilst wearing an eye-patch and someone else’s contact lenses.
Assassin’s Creed games have made the same mistake in the past. They often tasked you with tailing someone or reaching an objective without being seen, but it was only with Assassin’s Creed: Unity that the developers thought to add a crouch button. I can only assume that crouching behind things wasn’t invented until the late 18th century, and so this was done in the name of historical accuracy.
It’s strange that for a demonstration of how to do it right we have to turn to Call of Duty of all series. For all its intense firefights and action set-pieces, if you ask long-time fans what their favourite Call of Duty level is, the most common answer will be ‘All Ghillied Up’ from Call of Duty 4, in which you don a camouflage suit and crawl across the irradiated ruins of Pripyat, Ukraine.
It’s a perfectly paced level that empowers you one moment and has you holding your breath the next, as you crawl through the long grass, desperately trying not to be run over or spotted by tanks and soldiers coming in the opposite direction, like a snail trying to cross the road in Pamplona during the running of the bulls, only the bulls have automatic weapons and really hate snails.
That’s what a good stealth game is about. No large-scale firefight or James Bond style car chase can match the thrill of being the monster in the dark, or hiding from certain death when it’s so close it’s in danger of literally treading on you.