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From Out Of The Shadows
by Justin Keverne on 01/08/10 04:34:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It’s not uncommon for games with a well defined core mechanic, specifically action games, to include sections with different mechanics to break up the pacing and provide variety. When it comes to these “palette cleanser” sections it seems the stealth section is on a par with the turret section as the favourite choice of developers. If a new action game doesn’t feature one it will almost certainly feature the other, if not both. With very few exceptions stealth sections in games that haven’t been designed specifically around stealth mechanics are poorly executed. Think of any recent game with a stealth section; it was likely passable at best, if not outright unpleasant.

The obvious argument is that simple resource management means any mechanic used only for a single section of a game is going to receive less attention than a mechanic around which the game is focused.  I’m sure this is true and has an affect on the implementation of stealth sections, however I believe there is a specific problem with the mechanics of such sections; they are based not simply on poorly implemented stealth mechanics, but on bad stealth mechanics.

Stealth games are about power and the relationship of power to physical location. Good stealth games make the player a powerful agent in a world designed for them to exercise that power, bad stealth games make the player a weak agent in a world designed to reinforce that weakness. Bad stealth games, and by extension bad stealth sections, confuse being stealthy with hiding. It’s a fine distinction but an important one.

Consider Garrett, protagonist of the Thief series. Outside his cynicism his defining attribute is that he becomes invisible when in a dark area. It might never be explicitly stated but when the Light Gem is completely black Garrett is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Darkness is a safe zone for Garrett and he has a variety of tools at his disposal with which he can alter the environment to increase the size of that safe zone.

This basic concept, the manipulation of the environment in your favour, is also present in the Splinter Cell series. Sam Fisher shares Garrett’s curious ability to become invisible in the dark, but the nature of the darkness as safe zone is taken further by the inclusion of alternative vision modes that allow him to see as well in darkness as light.

Both Garrett and Sam Fisher operate in environments which are, the majority of the time, in darkness. Environments where they are the ones in positions of power. The various guards and other non-player characters in the world might be better armed and more numerous than either protagonist but they lack a lot of their abilities. To them the darkness is a hindrance, to Garrett and Sam Fisher it is home. With access to an enhanced move set and the ability to modify the world around you, playing as either protagonist you have the upper hand. You have the ability to plan your approach and the moment at which you act. Things don’t always go as planned and you often have to improvise to survive but the choice of where and when to initiate action is yours.

Compare this mentality to that manner in which stealth sections in action games are presented. The core mechanics of such games provide the player with the most power when they are heavily armed and operating in open well lit environments. The available verbs are those that make the most of that environment.  When such games enter a stealth section the rules are changed, the previously available verbs, are either entirely removed or drastically curtailed. Non-player characters are now the ones operating from the position of power. Darkness for Garrett provides the ability for concealed movement and safety, for the standard action game protagonist it represents a diminished vocabulary and restricted move set.

This use of a diminished vocabulary in order to encourage stealth gameplay can be seen clearly in the two stealth sections of Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy). Both sections are a variation on the same theme, with the teenage Lucas trying to gain access to a restricted hanger on the airbase on which he lives. Stripped of the ability to interact with anything beyond that which is required for forward progression there is no choice of where and when to initiate action, the player must react to the game world and respond correctly or fail and be forced to restart the section.

Good stealth mechanics revolve around making the player powerful and giving them the means by which to exercise that power; bad stealth mechanics revolve around making the player weak and requiring them to work to mitigate that weakness.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Though I agree with the whole article and its purpose, the last sentence turned me off:

"bad stealth mechanics revolve around making the player weak and requiring them to work to mitigate that weakness."

Of course it's meant to be about games you have that power for the most part, and with that I agree. But I'd rather say: "Stealth mechanics are good, stealth 'sections' are bad". Also, not totally true.

My personal taste analisis Splinter Cell as a game where you're overpowered and given a lot of choices that are, in fact, choose which pre-made solution you're gonna use; It's like "look, here is the dark section this enemy stands for you to kill him, and there is a can you can climb to jump on him, now you find a creative way of choosing between these two..." Not too different than shooters with explosive barrels exactly where the enemies show up. There would not be too much difference on just having two buttons: "A = climb the can and jump over him; B = kill him standing in the dark section"; (C = shoot the barrel...)"

Taekwan Kim
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Hmm... I am wondering if you had other examples in mind besides Fahrenheit concerning the idea that making the player weaker in order to encourage stealth is a bad idea?

I'm not sure that Fahrenheit is a useful example for this consideration, given that the express purpose of the game, and the game's developer, is to develop unconventional experiences of narrative interaction in which the player is not really the storyteller or primary agential force (to the point where now, the developer's next game, "Heavy Rain," is being labeled by the studio as no longer a game, with players forced into situations of excruciating powerlessness).

One could argue about the sections in Fahrenheit that such a removal of player agency is actually the intention. It's *supposed* to be frustrating and the player is *supposed* to be extremely powerless. And this goes beyond just the limitations in the player character's abilities in that the removal of power is reinforced through severe restrictions in camera controls and time limits. It's not so much a "palate cleanser" as it is a narrative/experiential device--the player is, after all, reliving a memory, and the idea is that you can't change the past. It's a further development of themes about agency restriction brought up earlier in the game (recall the archives event where the player needs to navigate the moving shelves).

I agree with the sentiment that artificially restricting the player's abilities can be extremely frustrating, but not all cases where the player's abilities are restricted are experienced as artificial. Many games, for instance, feature similar situations of "making the player weak" in which the player is captured and his equipment removed. When well done, these events strip the player's capabilities to just the basics in order that the player can realize and fully appreciate just how far he has come in developing his abilities during the course of the game. Another function is to allow the player to exercise auxiliary attributes or skills which the player has been investing in, thus helping to legitimize the expenditures taken in order to invest in them.

I think the problem mainly arises when the player is suddenly forced to ignore all the skills he has been investing in the game just to fulfill the whims of the designer--when his skillset suddenly becomes utterly irrelevant. In this sense, saddling the player with no other option than stealth is probably a bad plan, especially if stealth skills have no precedent within the game (and, again with the example of Fahrenheit, there *is* an introductory precedent to the mechanics of the sequences you mention--one could even say that these are really just highly restrictive elaborations of the same type of navigational skill challenges scattered throughout the game). But this is not necessarily the same as making the player weaker in order that he can rightfully restore that lost agency.

Justin Keverne
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@Taekwan Kim: Your point about the narrative potential of making the player weak is well made, I can think of one very specific example of a game level that does that very effectively. The "Robbing the Cradle" level in Thief: Deadly Shadows dramatically reduces the range of possibly actions the player can take reinforcing the sense of powerlessness and isolation from the rest of the world.

In this article I was specifically concerned with stealth sections, in games and how they are often poorly designed because they break the rules of what make good stealth gameplay, as shown in games like Thief: The Dark Project, or Metal Gear Solid. This approach of “stealth through removal of all other options” can be seen in among others: Beyond Good & Evil, Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. During the mid nineties it seemed every action game released had a similar stealth section. What they all have in common is that their stealth systems are based around the removal of character skills and the imposition of explicit restrictions and failure states.

Taking the stealth mechanics out of Fahrenheit or Beyond Good & Evil and trying to make a full stealth game out of them would create something almost unplayable; or at the very best something that was far more of a puzzle game that a stealth game.

Jesse Tucker
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I'm not sure that the issue is so black and white as saying that bad stealth is making the player weak. Given the proper puzzle elements and gameplay rewards, a scenario where the player has only the ability to be sneaky and manipulate the environment could potentially be very fun.

As for the argument that injecting stealth gameplay into action games very often fails to be fun, I totally agree. However, this often happens when trying to replicate a core gameplay element from one game into a one-off gameplay element in another game. You could just as easily replace stealth gameplay with driving, rpg elements, puzzle elements or any other number of gameplay features.

Joshua Sterns
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"The obvious argument is that simple resource management means any mechanic used only for a single section of a game is going to receive less attention than a mechanic around which the game is focused." I instantly thought of Dead Space and the part where you have to shot down asteroids. In this type of scenario I'm often left thinking, "Why is this feature in the game?"

Does anyone remember the stealth abilities in Return to Castle Wolfenstein for the old schoolish Xbox? If you do, then congratulations. You (like me) have an excellent memory for useless game features.

I did, however, enjoy the stealth missions in both Modern Warfares. So there is hope for a better future where all game features are actually fun.