Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#26: Stealth in Games and the Recent Shift it has Undergone

 Out of all the various styles of gameplay there are in video games, few are more likely to excite and delight me more than stealth. Whenever I play a game like Oblivion and Skyrim, I always play as a thief/assassin character. In both of the Deus Ex games, (because Invisible War, very fortunately, never saw release no matter how many times I am told it exists) I always try to sneak around all of my enemies completely undetected, silently picking them off one at a time. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than being able to accomplish my objective with discretion. Recently, stealth as a gameplay mechanic has seen a bit of resurgence. However, this resurgence is not in dedicated stealth games like Splinter Cell. Rather, lately we have seen games where stealth is an option among a choice of different playstyles. Some people have criticized this, saying that dedicated stealth games are much better, but I disagree. I believe that regulating stealth to being another tool in the player's repertoire is a good idea in the modern gaming climate for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that a game dedicated to purely stealth simply would not sell as well. This is because compared to other gameplay types, stealth has a much greater demand on the player than just fighting it out with swords, gunplay, or magic. In order to be successful at sneaking around, the player needs to have a great deal of patience. The player has to take cover and stay out of line of sight. He/she has to take risks by popping out of cover every once and awhile to watch the guards and figure out their patrol routes. He/she has to wait for the right time to move and when he/she does, he/she has to do so quickly and have the next move planned out for when the guards come back for the next sweep in their patrol. Most gamers have the skill necessary to pull this off because, for the most part, it is just waiting and planing. However, not all of them have the patience to go through and sneak across an area. Even amongst the ones that do, they are even fewer who find that a fun way to spend their freetime. This is perfectly fine. Games, at their core, are supposed to be entertainment and if people do not want to use stealth or play stealth games, the ones the do have no right to force them to. Making it another in a choice of routes to take adds to the potential audience. This allows the developer to make more money and make more games that allow players to use stealth. Furthermore, non-stealth players of the game may even be tempted to try a sneaky and silent approach and see if they like it, potentially adding to the pool of people who want stealth games, increasing demand for it and causing developers to want to make more stealth games. For fans of the genre, this can only be a good thing.

Another good reason for having stealth as an option is that it makes choosing to use stealth much more gratifying. It is more satisfying to voluntarily choose to sneak through without harming the guards (or, if the particular player is anything like me, silently pick them off one at a time) in a game full of options than it is to be forced to sneak through a level, getting a game over upon being detected. The former is a conscious, self-imposed choice that is a natural extension of the game world, the later is the narrative forcing the player into an uncomfortable and railroad-y situation that leaves them feeling more and more irritated with each time they get detected. Having a stealth option over forced stealth is preferable. The knowledge that if being sneaky fails, the player has several more options he/she can fall back on makes sneaking in much more satisfying because it is usually the route which takes more finesse than any other. Successfully beating a stealth sequence demonstrates a greater level of mastery over the games systems and leads to the player feeling more like a badass than if he/she just charged in guns-blazing. Furthermore, the knowledge that the player can fall back on other options like fighting his/her way in alleviates the frustration that playing a game as a stealth character tends to invoke. Being seen and having to reload a save several times is much easier to bear if the player made the choice to do it than if the game forces the player to sneak in and gives the player a Game Over after being detected. Since making stealth only an option turns it into a more interesting and less annoying way to complete missions and quests, it only makes sense to do it.

I can understand the frustration of stealth fans when they want games that focus primarily on sneaking around. However, it is important to look beyond that and see why its transition from the focus in certain games to an option in many others is a good thing overall for them. It is a very rewarding type of gameplay, yet it has a very narrow audience compared to other playstyles. Making it another possible path among many other paths allows it to prosper in a gaming climate where it would otherwise be snuffed out in a sea of bland shooters that begin to feel like the exact same after awhile. Plus, just because it is not the primary focus of a game does not necessarily mean that its quality will be diminished. Indeed, if Deus Ex: Human Revolution and what I have seen of Dishonored are anything to go by, developers have become much better at designing levels to allow for stealth. Developers are beginning to take note that fans of the less conspicuous means of acquiring wealth exist and they want to cater to us as well.

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