Friday, March 06, 2009

Breaking Stealth

Solid Snake has only two natural enemies: Metal Gear, and Solid Badger.Stealth gameplay is broken.

It sucks. It always sucks. Stealth is the game element most likely to ruin any game that includes it.

Metal Gear Solid is a huge success. Splinter Cell and Thief and Tenchu have all done more or less okay. They have not succeeded because of their stealth gameplay; they have succeeded in spite of it.

The reason is this: stealth gameplay is broken. It is inherently bad gameplay.

Stealth avoids conflict

Avoiding conflict is not fun. More importantly, it is bad drama. The key to drama is conflict born out of the natual drive of the narrative; good story happens as a result of how that conflict changes those who participate in it.

You could say that the conflict in stealth is the player's desire to not get caught versus the desire of guards to catch the player; however, in most stealth gameplay the guards are not actively looking for the player, meaning they are not dynamic participants in the conflict. Neither protagonist or antagonist are changed by the activity.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth use stealth as a means to build tension, leading up to cathartic confrontations against boss characters or set-piece action scenes.

Stealth does not offer resolution

Stealth does not resolve problems. When you sneak past a guard, the guard is still there. The problem still exists, and may even complicate your further advancement. Your activity has made your situation more dangerous as a result of your activity, rather than increasing your mastery of the situation.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth use stealth as an element of assassination, rewarding your successful stealth activity with the elimination of the guard and a correspondingly less fraught game space.

Stealth removes the ability for the player to pace gameplay

Stealth gameplay proceeds at the pace of the guards. Your motions are dictated by the patrols of non-player characters. This disempowers the player and removes their ability to customise their game experience to their tastes. It creates periods of downtime in which the player can take no meaningful action without causing mission failure and thereby reduces the player to the position of an audience to their own story.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth offer alternative routes for navigating an environment, with each route offering a different pacing and a different level of risk. They also provide meaningful things that a player can do while waiting for guards, or offer a level of environmental detail that is inherently enjoyable to experience during enforced pauses.

Stealth mechanises NPCs

Stealth activity involves the player moving through the gaps in the enemy guard pattern. To successfully engage in this activity, the player requires three types of information: the location of the enemies, the cone of sight of the enemies, and the manner in which the enemies move. This is, obviously, a significantly higher level of information than the enemies have available.

In the most poorly designed games this information is not well revealed to the player; however, when it is available, it renders the guards no better than machines, bound to understood rules of behaviour and possessed of unfeasibily low levels of awareness and intelligence. It can be difficult to respect such enemies and take them seriously. Contemptible opposition isolates a player from the game world and inhibits their ability to become immersed and empathise with their avatar and other characters.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth take steps to equip their predictable NPCs with personality quirks, idle animations, a wide range of context-appropriate spoken dialogue, and patrol patterns that are believable and effective in relation to the environment. These games have NPCs who are inherently intelligent and effective, whose ability to spot the player is limited by the nature of the level design and the competencies of the player character rather than their own inadequacy.

Stealth is binary

You are seen, or you are not seen. You are alive, or you are dead. Where shooting games can include health metres and driving games include finishing times, there is no "almost stealthy". In a worst case scenario, being detected results in death, and you move back to the last checkpoint (or, worse, the start of the level). In a best case scenario, being detected sends guards into an "alert state", where they deviate from patrol routes and possibly even actively search for the player. The player must hide (which involves standing around in an isolated spot and doing nothing, a form of punishment itself.) If the guards find the player, though, we return to that problem - being found equals failure. Not "a bit of failure" or " a portion of failure" - just failure. If you're lucky the stealth game ends and you're now in a fighting game. If you're unlucky, it's back to the checkpoint.

Games that succeed in spite of stealth attempt to make failure non-binary by including multiple alert levels and allowing players to "fight their way free" of guards, effectively making their health meter a substitute "stealth failure" meter. They also make the process of hiding from alert guards a game in and of itself and minimise the "waiting for the all clear" downtime.


There are good stealth games; there are good stealth segments inside some games. But it's fighting an uphill battle. You're trying to bring fun to the player, instead of bring the player to the fun. Stealth is inherently broken; don't treat it as a gameplay staple, don't go there unless you know what you're doing, and for heaven's sake don't mix it into an otherwise un-broken product.


Nick Novitski said...

Can there really be no good games that revolve around these elements?
What about Pac-man? The eponymous hero avoiding his enemies (the ghosts) while trying to pursue orthogonal objectives (the collection of the dots). The ghosts are never permanently defeated, and remain in play constantly, punctuated only by the use of power pellets (and don't say that makes it not a stealth game, because such games almost always give you the resources to power through the occasional confrontation). Their constant movement according to the hero's position makes us play according to their pace and movement. And certainly, binary game-states (still playing or hit-once-and-therefore-dead) is one of the truisms of all old-school arcade games.

Maybe this is a case of insufficient terminology: good games utilizing Avoidance mechanics are clearly possible (Pacman is hardly the only example of this), but that plus whatever distinguishes the over-used "Stealth" design meme makes for the toxic stew that you have aptly skewered.

Greg Tannahill said...

In this post I'm really only talking about the modern stealth game as used in such example as Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu and so forth.

Pac-Man isn't a stealth game - as you say, it's an avoidance game, in the same way as a scrolling shooter. There's no option to stand still and wait, and the ghosts don't change their patterns based on whether they can see you.

There's a reason that we don't make games now like we made them in 1980, and it's not just technology. Old-school arcade games had two factors in their favour - the novelty of the medium, and the fact that people hadn't yet seen how to do it better. And while there are still some excellent new titles that use retro elements (Geometry Wars comes to mind) they balance them off against a lot of other things we've learned about game design in terms of operating reward schedules, introducing new gameplay elements, and pacing things generally.

Binary states work a lot better in abstracted games, incidentally. The worst place for a binary state fail condition is in a game that's looking to tell a story or realise a world, because failure breaks immersion.

Grant said...

I disagree with you completely - stealth gameplay isn't inherently broken, and provides a nice change from the run'n'gun gameplay of your average action game. It's a style of gameplay that's all about control - sure, you can run across the courtyard and hopefully kill the guard and all his buddies who turn up to help. Or you can wait, and carefully take the opportunity to sneak past unseen. You have to have patience.

And stealth games are no more or less binary than any other kind of game. If a car hits you in Frogger you're dead, after all.

Thief: Deadly Shadows was (and still is) one of my favourite Xbox games precisely *because* of the stealth elements, not in spite of them.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of binary states, I'm sick of failure in RPGs being binary. I want to be able to lose a fight, and lose access to an area or a person, or allow the enemy to gain ground. I want the penalty to not be time but something material. I want to let the enemy capture me, so I find their secret lair and can make a daring escape, not "You are captured. Resume from last save?"
I know, a bit off topic, but I've never played a Metal Gear (expect Acid) and I liked the stealth in Ocarina of Time and Beyond Good & Evil.
Off with my head!

Greg Tannahill said...

Grant: as mentioned in my reply to Nick, there are three things worth saying about Frogger. (1) it's not trying to build a story or environment, and death therefore doesn't break immersion; (2) Frogger has a very limited scope and death occurs in the context of trying to overcome a very discrete challenge; (3) Frogger sucks.

Binary failure is bad everywhere; it's worst when combined with "patience" gameplay as the delay between failure and the opportunity to rectify that failure is prolonged.

Also, not pressing a button isn't gameplay, it's the absence of gameplay. If you have to work "waiting" into a game, it should be waiting for an opportunity to excel as opposed to successful mediocrity; it shouldn't be waiting for an opportunity to merely not fail. See my point about player-controlled pacing.

mysty said...

I think the only place stealth gameplay works well is in an assassination situation. Assassin's Creed had some fun 'stealth' action in it, but part of what made it interesting was the different ways to disguise yourself in a crowd and sneak up on your unsuspecting victims. The mechanic to escape guards was often hilarious because the AI had such a short attention span - but at least it wasn't maddeningly infuriating.

Greg Tannahill said...

I didn't play Assassin's Creed past the first half hour; not through any fault of the game, just that I wasn't in the mood.

But my impression of what was going on there is that they'd made stealth dynamic; the processes of both reaching your goal and evading pursuit were active, requiring constant decisions and evaluations of the situation above and beyond "move or don't move". I'd really have to play it myself to say whether it beats the stealth issue; some day I probably will.

Switch said...

Haha I completely agree.

The worst instance I ever saw of "breaking it when it ain't broken" with stealth was in the first Shenmue. A perfectly good game with NO need WHATSOEVER for a stealth minigame... had a stealth minigame. And it was almost enough to make me not want to ever replay the game - just because of that short 15 minute segment. Ugh.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm amazed; someone has said something bad about Shenmue. One of the signs of the coming apocalypse?

CrashTranslation said...

I have to ask if you've ever played Thief?

The stealth in Thief is not about avoiding conflict it is about a conflict between player and environment as much as player and NPCs. The environments are designed for the NPCs not the player and the conflict involves overcoming those environments either through knowledge or the use of tools to manipulate the environment to better suit your needs.

The resolution of the conflict comes as much from dealing with and changing the environment as it does in avoiding the NPCS. Using a Water arrow to dowse a torch or a Moss arrow to cover a noisy surface resolves the conflict between player and environment. Various other tools are available to distract or subdue NPCs whose bodies can then be moved to positions where they may not be found.

Those tools allow the player to take an active role in maintaining their ability to be stealthy at all times. Additionally the levels are designed to provide for multiple routes with differing levels of risk and the game includes a number of the features you described though never once do they step outside the core design metaphor of being a Thief; they are all still part of the stealth gameplay not additional to it.

Everything you describe regarding games that avoid mechanising the NPCs is valid for Thief, but again none of those things are additional to it being a stealth game they are at the heart of it being one. There are no vision cones and patrol routes have to be discovered as you go. Because you are restricted to a first person perspective you have to rely on audio and other cues in the world itself in order to understand the layout of a particular level and the routes guards take patrolling it. Because you are never looking at an abstract interface element to determine the positions of guards the game is able to immerse you into the world. You need to pay attention to what is happening otherwise you’ll fail.

Thief is not a binary game; on screen at all times is a Light Gem that shows your relative visibility. Only at the very extremes of either light or dark are you ever sure of your situation. The various shades of grey between those two extremes are where the majority of the game is spent. There is always feedback regarding how visible you are but whether that is too visible is dependent on context and player attitude. Some players will risk moving when the Light Gem is a certain colour others won't. Navigating that hostile territory between being visible and being invisible is where the pleasure of Thief lies. You can use your skill and tools to alter the odds of success in your favour but you are never certain of success and so you have to take that risk, there is tension and ultimately release.

Thief is a successful stealth game precisely because it fully embraces the mechanics and the philosophy of being stealthy. Each level is staged as a dramatic arc with a rising actions stage as you manipulate the environment and avoid NPCs in order to get to your objective and a falling action stage when you use your knowledge and the changes you made to the environment to escape.

Almost every system in the game is based on analogue simulations; things are rarely discrete, and never binary. Even failure is a cascading downward spiral which can be interrupted at various stages either through death, combat or through the use of player skill, tools or knowledge of the environment.

Compare that to a game like Metal Gear Solid where everything is geared towards explicitly informing you of your visibility status, there is no grey area, not sense of discovery and therefore the core gameplay devolves to a puzzle game with shadows. The first Splinter Cell was like this, it wasn’t until Chaos Theory that it started to learn the lessons of Thief.

Greg Tannahill said...

I have not, in fact, played Thief; I have seen it in play, but some considerable time ago, and the memory is hazy.

I will therefore take your word that it does all this and makes for an excellent stealth game.

Now think what sort of game they could have made if they'd spent all that time on effort on something that wasn't so inherently broken!