Who doesn’t love stealth? Everybody loves stealth. It allows us to avoid boring people at parties, steal cookies from those who are distracted, and creep up to the window of the women’s changing room with a camera so that you can – well, I think you get my point.
But stealth in games doesn’t always work right. I was playing Hotline Miami yesterday, and whilst bashing skulls like they’re piñatas is definitely fun, there was one level in which you had to sneak around all your enemies, and being spotted instantly sent you to a game over.
Basically, the game’s design allowed well for insane gut-chopping action, but struggled when it came to creeping about. But why is this? Surely stealth is just regular movement, only out of the view of enemies, right?
Nope. If it were that easy everybody would do it. There are ways to do stealth well though, and here are my top tips.
1. BEING NOTICED SHOULD NEVER BE A GAME OVER
This was perhaps my greatest issue with the Hotline Miami stealth section, and probably my greatest bugbear with stealth games in general. Don’t tell me I’m dead just when I get spotted, because it’s absurd. It’s like being failed in a shooter because you missed the target once.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that being spotted shouldn’t be a problem for you. In a stealth-orientated game, going in quiet should always be the easiest and healthiest option. But you need to have a back-up plan of some sort. Dishonored and Thief allowed you to swordfight your way to safety, and even Alien: Isolation gave you a flamethrower to push back the Xenomorph when it finally noticed that a skinny girl in Reeboks had been giving it the slip for twenty minutes. But these options tended to be more dangerous, and that’s the best way of doing it. It allows for panicky moments of adrenaline, switching gears from “softly, softly,” to something more along the lines of “AAAAAGH!” Classic.
2. DON’T WIRE AN ENEMY’S EYEBALLS TO THE ALARM SYSTEM
Even if you’re letting us screw-up the stealth and still get to play, there are going to be times when we decide to make a mad sprint to choke out a guard. And then, as he turns around and sees a player character descending on him with murder in their eyes, he manages to get out a single meaningless noise, before being given the bear-hug of sleepytime that all video game protagonists learn on their first day.
But oh wait, that little squeak he managed to get out has echoed around the warehouse and to every human ear within, and now they’re all headed for my location with heavy ordinance. Yay.
Yes, being spotted should remain a problem, but there has to be a slight gap between visual contact and every alarm bell ringing like mad, because it gives the player time to react. The Batman: Arkham games get this, because whenever a goon sees you he has a moment of terrified flinching before remembering that he’s holding an assault rifle, and it gives us time to choke him out, or punch him in the jaw, or throw a bit of metal at his skull whilst we dive for cover. It’s not long, maybe a second or two, but it works. Developers, take note.
3. TELL ME WHEN I’M VISIBLE
This is probably the most common offender, because it’s so often symptomatic of games that don’t have stealth as a core mechanic but want to crowbar it in. Basically, you need to establish what rules we’re working with. Are we invisible if we’re just in shadow? How close do we need to be to an enemy? Is sound going to be an issue? If players don’t know, they’ll just err on the side of caution and be too tentative to get anything done, and they’ll just get pissed off when they do eventually get seen.
Mark Of The Ninja is a good example of demonstrating how you do visibility. When you bumble around in plain sight, you’re rendered in all the primary colours the animators had to offer as normal. But when you move to a point where bad guys won’t see you, like ducking into an alcove or pretending to be a charity worker on the street, you go completely black and white except for a few aesthetic choices. That’s good, that works. It also shows how far the sounds you make can be heard, which is a useful feature, and I remember This War Of Mine doing the same thing. It worked in both of those games, and it’ll work in others too.
4. DON’T MAKE THE ENEMIES BRAINLESS
This might seem surprising after I’ve spent the last three sections demanding changes in gameplay in the player’s benefit, but I actually don’t want gameplay that’s easy, only fair. For example, Dark Souls is hugely difficult, but it’s fair,rarely taking anything away from you permanently and rewarding effort when you finally win. Whereas enemy snipers in the easier game: Sniper Elite V2 (retch) are very unfair, because they’re impossible to notice until they’ve shot you at least once. How the hell am I supposed to react to something I’m not aware of, Sniper Elite V2? “Sorry, you’re breaking up,” it giggles, spawning another couple of snipers who immediately start to line up a kill.
Stealth is at its most intricate when the enemy knows what they’re doing, where they act like thinking creatures. The worst stealth has always had guards on short circular rounds, guards who forget about you once you’ve passed out of their sightline. It’s like I’m infiltrating a base guarded entirely by goldfish.
Again, Alien: Isolation is a good example of this, as the Xenomorph is actually intelligent, learning as you make mistakes and utilising the knowledge that its gained, not to mention taking large, unpredictable routes that can constantly surprise you, creating tension and jump scares through organic means. At one point the bastard saw me emerge from inside a locker, and even though I managed to drive it off with the last of my flamethrower ammo, I later saw it tearing other lockers open to search for the tasty treat inside, like the caramel in a Creme Egg. Ugh, gives you chills, am I right?
5. WE HAVE TO MOVE FASTER THAN THE BAD GUYS
Admittedly, this doesn’t always apply, but there’s enough games that don’t take it into consideration that it needs mentioning. If you’re going to let us sneak up and suffocate guards, make sure we have the speed to get to them without alerting anybody. There’s something surreal and absurd about approaching an enemy from behind, only for him to stroll nonchalantly off at a pace I can’t match, at least not without making a racket he’ll notice. It’s like dancing the conga with somebody who doesn’t know you’re there.
It doesn’t have to be running, or even that uncomfortable crouching walk that all protagonists like, (which is actually a lot more awkward on the knees than you’d think). Dishonored made the smart move of adding a short-range teleport, that allowed you to bamf around like Nightcrawler on a sugar high. Stuff like that is not only useful, it’s fun to use, so get creative. As we’ve said before in the super-sandbox article, individuality and personality can be the lifeblood of a game.
So those are the five steps in how not to be seen. The first three are the biggest offenders, but they’re all valuable points when it comes to the ancient art of pixel sneaking. Maybe one day we’ll finally manage to get these points hammered home as an industry. Though judging by how unwilling developers seem to learn them, it will probably be around the time that the consoles on which we play these games have attained citizenships.