“The stealth genre”

A post in which we analyse and explore the stealth genre in video games.

This is the first in a series of posts regarding stealth specific games, and covers some concepts I think that stealth genre has to address in order to grow.


Take note : This post criticizes the stealth game genre and not the games specifically that you are thinking of when I say that.


The games that fill up the highest number of hours I have spent lost and completely in love with a game (and it's universe) are games with stealth mechanics.

I love the power trip, the subverting, outsmarting, outthinking - the sheer pleasure of voyeurism knowing that you are in control of the situation. I am right under your nose, and you don't even know it.

What I think separated stealth games into their own genre were the surprising offerings from Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid and Thief. These all contained a higher level of simulation and interactivity, they were environmental games about situational awareness. There was also a focus on subverting the action in favour of stealth.

The best stealth run is one in which nobody even knew you existed. No traces.

This is the basis of the stealth genre as we know it.

Or is it?

Thief4 2013/2014 Source: videogamer.com

Pure stealth?

“Pure stealth” to me is about the sneaking and secrecy, analysis of your surroundings and the situational awareness to respond and handle any obstacle.

It's about skilled infiltration and subversion, being the unseen powerful force leaving no traces. An undetectable, unstoppable ghost.

Not exclusively of course, but the things that stand out for me.

I asked Dan Hindes and he said :

“Pure stealth for me is when there is no way to permanently eliminate (kill or knock-out) the threat (the reason for being stealthy) - in a way that allows non-stealthy behavior to be adopted”

This sounds fitting to me. My good friend Rob Storm says :

“Stealth as an act, is merely having more information than your opponents - simultaneously gathering information about your opponents while avoiding them gaining information about you.

To do any action in a way where someone/your obstacles do not know that you are doing it, or the extent to which you are, it's a war over information.”

So good

Here are more descriptive things that make great stealth games, in my opinion :

  • tactics
  • strategy
  • camouflage
  • hiding
  • waiting
  • secrecy
  • deception
  • distraction
  • voyeurism
  • subversion
  • outsmarting
  • outmaneuvering
  • darkness / shadows
  • planning / execution

In a discussion with Rob (who is making an excellent multiplayer stealth experience by the way) he brought up points regarding AI; that they try to behave more like humans would in stealth games. A higher level of interactivity in the surroundings, being tricked or tricking the AI.

Another good thing people praise in the greatest stealth games is the ability to have multiple choices. Multiple paths to the same goal.

All of the above are things I believe make stealth such a fanstastic type of game to play.

But

There is something on top of these qualities that almost every single stealth game in existence carries along with it - action mechanics.

This is a vague term I know but think of it this way:

The first “founding father” stealth games were action games with stealth mechanics. And subsequently, nearly every single stealth game in existence ever since has been as well.

PC Gamer, Deus Ex Human Revolution Source: PC Gamer

In my opinion,

There are almost no stealth genre games, but there are many many action genre games with stealth mechanics.

I see a difference here, between mechanics and genre. Even though the mechanics often determine the genre; it simply means grouping things together by commonality. (And especially since genre is a weird word and people love semantics - this is not that discussion).

This is an analysis of stealth games and their habitual creation as a sub genre of action games.

Action is ok

This is not a “no violence” post or an “action games suck” article - it is about the somewhat shallow and unexplored territory for stealth games; and more specifically - stealth as a standalone genre.

Stealth games were born in action, from which they grow - and still remain.

This is important - I am a huge fan of almost every stealth game to date. Even the ones where the general consensus is that it was not that great - I enjoyed the time spent in them anyway for the reasons in the first segment. I felt a lot of these were criticized for their bad action mechanics, getting in the way of the stealth (or vice versa).

Just don't?

I know that these games are telling me that the action is optional, the stealth is the best part (that's what I said!). And I know that many of them the stealth is way more rewarding, way more challenging and sometimes (very rarely) the more optimal play route.

Unfortunately, it's almost (if not) ALWAYS more optimal to remove an enemy from watching you than it is to sneak around them. Objectively, mechanically; it is easier and far less trouble. It is less intensive to just remove this threat - except for the stealth fans who actually will delight in the threat and the thrill of avoiding it.

The troubling part for me is that this “remove” alternative mechanic is almost always inevitably a kill or take down - it is an action mechanic fallback. The choices presented (something stealth values highly) are narrow, they are tired, they are constantly the same old.

That isn't to suggest that “remove” as a mechanic has not been done in more interesting ways (like traps, obscuring vision, distractions, deception and so on) - it is just that all these juicy, interesting and more interactive choices of stealth are undercut by the very existence of an easier, cop out alternative. The outcomes become hinged on your accuracy and aiming, instead of your execution and planning or any of the number of excellent alternatives from the above list.

Where is the exploration of cerebral, intellectual options that require thinking? These options are sometimes there, sometimes better, but still often shadowed by the inclusion of action mechanic fallbacks.

Target audience

I KNOW you can choose not to use them. The problem is there are few (if any) games that don't have a dominant strategy of action mechanics fallback in place (even if it is less enjoyable down that path).

This is a target audience problem, if you ask me.

There are often two main camps :

  • Damn I wish this stealth game had more stealth and less action
  • Damn this stealth is the WORST part of this action game

Few games strike a delicate and effective balance between the two conflicting audience types, yet these are the ones applauded as the best stealth games ever.

This is a indicative of the inherent action mechanic co-existance, and this bothers me a little. These games are often incredibly well designed - but what does it say about stealth as a genre?

The best we can do as designers of the stealth genre are action games that do stealth pretty good as well.

The ”focal” facet of the genre suffers for the existence of the other.

Watch_Dogs


So what is my problem with this?

The action mechanic fallbacks are included when they don't have to be. Knowing that this fallback is the most boring option and “psh! Just don't” doesn't justify it. Knowing that it detracts from the simulation somewhat, knowing that it is the least fun for the pure stealth audience, and that it is possibly the game at it's worst and still keeping it anyway.

And conversely, the pure stealth can often distract from the action specific game to some degree if your audience is specifically after action.

It is ok to target both! - don't get me wrong.

But still there are many action focused games, polished, tweaked, balanced and perfected over years as a genre - building on decades of good and bad examples to bring the core audience something amazing.

Where are these polished, focused and targeted games for the stealth specific genre? Why the short straw, every time?

If you take another genre, and ask a good designer :

“I have a superflous mechanic that can (and often does) ruin the core game play vision and goes against the heart of the essence of base mechanics: Yay or Nay”.

The chances are, or at least not without much consideration - to cut it out.

Action in stealth, is ok

What I am not saying is that action games should have no stealth mechanics (please keep it, it's the only redeeming feature in the many action-fests we endure as stealth fans) or that stealth games must have no action to be any good.

No. Not at all, variety is what we need.

Stealth as a stand alone genre is shallow and unexplored

This is what I am saying.

Let's look at examples of games that are actually exploring outside of “shoot-a-guy with hiding” and "slit-a-throat, go seek":

A very short list for an entire “genre”?

I am honestly looking for more of these - if you have any please suggest them in comments or email me (bottom of page).

Stealth Bastard Deluxe suggested by onefifth, The novelist by Campster, VYDE by IndieStatik, Master Spy and Not The Robots by Chris.

So, as a fan of the stealth genre my choices are kind of limited right now. I can shoot a guy (or strangle, or take down, or cut in half whatever) but if I am interested in variety, I am out of luck.

I don't feel like the stealth genre even exists - it is but a subset of the action genre.

Monaco

Design considerations

Now, any stealth designer knows that there are challenges with stealth - such as lack of direct and indirect feedback when your point is to remain invisible to the simulation.

Thief designer and Deus Ex designer spoke a bit about this and how they made their games great with these challenges at hand in this "Warren Spector vs Doug Church" panel.

There are also many great discussions from great designers written in an excellent Rock, Paper, Shotgun series called The Stealth Letters that cover this a bit :

The Stealth Letters : Part one
The Stealth Letters : Part two

Again - I adore these games, and have sunk many hours into the franchises.

Still I have to wonder. When presented with a challenge in designing a game, this is the definition of our job as designer (part of it of course). Great designers solve these challenges in meaningful and intresting ways, by inventing and (hey!) designing solutions to problems.

Their solutions are often innovative and imaginative and very effective in these stealth games - very much so! But they were not a pure stealth game either, these are all still well designed action games with stealth.

The stealth really out-shone the action (especially from a stealth audience perspective).

There are problems with the “pure stealth game” concept, I hear you lament.

What are we doing about these problems?
What crutches are we using in place of real design solutions?

This is the definition of the designers job. Solving design challenges.

I must reiterate - this is not about “Those guys are bad designers!” or “these games are bad because ...” - this is a contemplative analysis about my favourite type of game, as a designer and to myself :

  • Why are there no apparent explorations outside of action?
  • Why is the fail state for "pure stealth" always fighting or action mechanics?
  • Where are the pure stealth games that get it wrong, that we can learn from, polish, build on?

I want to know what options this deep and interesting genre CAN hold - I am looking at it with a sad face because it mainly consists of a very narrow set of choices when it comes to the surrounding gameplay.

That is to say :

The stealth genre specific mechanics are being explored to a point, but only within a tomb of action games.

Everything outside of the action tomb (like what happens when you fail) we have the following :

  • “escape” : run / hide / wait (rinse / repeat)
  • “remove” : kill / incapacitate (action)
  • “fail” : instant fail (not always ideal)
  • ??

This feels shallow to me! In a genre about high choice or interactivity the choices for the player when not succeeding at the core mechanics are shoe-horned into the parent genre.

“Cohesion”

There seems to be a devolution here as soon as it comes to the Player vs World when the player fails to be stealthy.

Suddenly as the player I am forced into situations well outside of the zone of stealth game play like being a melee ninja or shooting a ranged weapon to remove the oppressive force (enemy, camera, lights etc).

Or conversely, being put into a more cowardly position where I am being forced to wait around and hope the AI isn't buggy and doesn't catch me (part of the thrill, but are there more mechanically interesting options than hide and wait?).

The common thread is that you ARE a melee ninja (action) or that you ARE a covert agent (action) with epic skill so it's kinda cohesive at times (but not necessarily in line with the stealth genre core essence and mechanics).

What choices outside of “bad ass action person” are there to play as? Out of how many games with stealth, how many options do we really have?

We have “cool cyber hacker” as one on the list? Hmm.

Simulation vs You

The thing I think that makes stealth games out-shine straight up action games is the simulation aspect.

Enemies hear and respond to you, they communicate with each other. We have seen unprecedented strides in complexity within the stealth core mechanics and THIS is why I love Dishonoured, Mark of the Ninja, even some of Splinter Cell, Deus Ex Human Revolution and I have yet to play the new Thi4f (ThiFOURf?) but I hear it's quite a good action game with some neat simulation!

I like to think about situations in stealth games while I am playing them and what would happen if the simulation was actually trying to be more of a simulation, what options would it offer me as the player?

Simulation doesn't mean infinite possibility, or hyper realism, there can be hand waving and approximations and simplistic modellings and still be a whole lot better than the existing limited choices.

Intruder as linked above shines in the area of details, with many many routes to the same location, multiple places to enter, leave, misdirect and more against humans with a myriad of tools and gadgets it makes the simulation aspect of sneaking into a building very deep (but I must note it is also an action game). Here is an example of the first level in the game from an overview/tactics perspective :

Click for full detailed view:
Intuder map

Aim high(er)

Imagine you were tasked with sneaking into an office building, and stealing a file from a computer with a flash drive.

Let's set this in futurism fantasy, like DE:HR.

Deus Ex by Isais Sandoval Source: donglu-littlefish

Multiple paths, windows, vents, passages, cameras to hack to watch out for people, super fun stealthness! Gadgets galore, all the options! I am fired up, there is the threat of being caught and it's a huge thrill.

Consider: Are the average office workers most likely to catch you carrying guns/tasers/crossbows? No.

Remove the action fallback crutch for a moment, for the sake of exploration.

Someone walks in and catches me (my bad, should have locked the door using the door lock simulation!), what are the possible outcomes?

  • Deceive / Lie your way out of it
  • Run past them / shove them out the way
  • Camouflage / disguise
  • Walk out silently
  • Escape / Hide
  • Negotiate
  • Distract

This is being conservative, with regards to existing (or even really old) capabilities of simulations.

In stealth games we aren't often presented choices from the heart of the genre.

In the heat of the moment the fallback is no longer about stealth any more. No longer cerebral and smart, there is no thinking on your feet necessary. It may be possible, even better, but still optional.

Now imagine they call security on the phone (you have no action mechanics to just remove this as a threat! (because that's a bit lazy)) so what are your choices?

Wait for security and comply? Where do they take you? What if they take you where you need to go, where you can eavesdrop? What about using their capture as a way to subvert much stronger more dangerous security to get inside?

What if the security arrived and called the police - giving you a new threat, a time limit. Let's make the police a fail state in this fictional example...

How about :

  • Hand cuff the security guard when he tries to cuff you?
  • Grapple into the above air vent (ah, thinking ahead, smart!)?
  • Toss something at him so he drops the hand cuffs?
  • Dive out the window?

All of your options should fall back on what you know about the world, awareness of your situation, understanding of the simulation, possibility space mechanically (things you can do) and as a GREAT design - all of these things should be cohesive with the heart of the stealth game.

By removing the action mechanics temporarily, to me, this situation presents itself as an infinitely deeper and more engaging. A chance for a more interesting simulation - where the core mechanics, essence and vision of the stealth genre can be expressed by the player.

sidenote : Most spy/covert fiction in movies and books inevitably have the infiltrator captured to their own benefit.

But it's hard ...

These are design challenges. There are technical challenges. Input mechanic challenges. Feedback challenges. All these difficult things to solve! WHO WILL SAVE US O-

OH. You're the game designer; this is your job.


Nobody said innovating was easy. I hope that we can aim higher, fight harder and create more interesting stealth games that don't rely so heavily or include action mechanics at all just because it's easier, more convenient, more “accepted”, ”wider audience” or what every one has done before.

I believe if you wanted pure stealth games to be a genre not crippled by history and flourishing in the things that make it so fantastic, we have to target the actual stealth audience anyway.

Maybe then, we can say we have stealth games with action mechanics, instead of the other way around.

Watch_dogs promise

Source: This tumblr

Recap

Do I mean :

Action games with stealth aren't cool? No.
Action stealth has less value? No.
No more action stealth games? No.
Explore more than JUST action? Yes!
Explore the possibility space of stealth? Yes!

Explore more in terms of stealth as a genre not a sub genre of action? Heck Yes.

Attempt to solve the design issues like possible lack of feedback, what happens in fail states, “real threat” and challenges associated - without crutches, fallbacks and things that can possibly devalue the core target audience's experience?

Please. Yes.

Let's make some stealth games.


Additional Links and notes

Comments and discussion welcome!

I am honored that this post has been edited and shared over on Sneaky Bastards as the 2014 Manifesto.

There are some hilarious simulation related discussions on tvtropes (many stem from stealth games) :

Conspicuously Selective Perception
The Guards Must Be Crazy