17 January 2011

The problem with stealth - by Eric Schwarz

      Posted 01/15/11 12:36:00 pm  

Stealth games have always been a little bit of an anomaly when put up against larger, more successful genres.  Even since games like the original Metal Gear on the MSX, it's always been a bit of a risky proposition to build a game where the player's greatest asset isn't a gun, but hiding and moving slowly.  Especially when put next to fast-moving arcade titles of the day, Metal Gear's emphasis on sneaking seemed almost counter-intuitive.  Common thinking states that players like to feel empowered when they play games, that they enjoy being able to do things that they'd have no hope of in the real world; most developers interpret this as the distinctly masculine act of performing excessive acts of violence against others, or in placing first in a competition.  Stealth, by nature, is somewhat contrary to what most developers think players want.

The suggestion made by stealth games over the years is that basic sneaking just isn't enough to keep a game interesting.  The Thief series was able to gain a niche interest by providing tools the player could use to stay safe and escape from danger (water arrows to turn off lights, climbing gloves to scale walls, rope arrows to grapple and swing), but when it came to directly dealing with threats, the player was often at a severe handicap.  It was only as of the third Thief game, Deadly Shadows, that players were reasonably equipped to deal with their enemies head-on.

The same trend followed in the rise of so-called "stealth action" titles, including Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, games which attempted to buck the conception that stealth was all about moving slowly, hiding, and generally keeping out of harm's way.  Their protagonists embodied masculine power: Sam Fisher, a whiskey-drinking war veteran worth a thousand men, and Solid Snake, a cloned super-soldier who was a master of using his environment to outwit enemies.  While both still relied upon stealth, they were also both capable in direct confrontations, so much so that their respective games could be nearly played as straight-up shooters, if it wasn't for the occasional mission which forced non-lethal measures.  Interestingly, both of these games departed from the steampunk-medieval theme of the Thief games, using the advanced technology of the modern era to justify the extreme abilities of their protagonists.

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