Making Stealth Work
Avoiding rage-quitting through great stealth design
There is perhaps no more contentious gameplay mechanic than stealth. On one hand you have people like me, for who Skyrim takes three times as long to complete because crouch-walking is my primary mode of transportation (I also jump at any well-implemented stealth section in otherwise non-stealth games). On the other hand, there are the gamers who regard stealth sections as frustrating breaks from fun; slow-mo traps governed by an arbitrary rule set that is all about preventing them from punching their way out of the situation.
Stealth design is like walking a tightrope. Great stealth has to balance gameplay, hiding spots, consequences for detection, immersion, and strategy. It’s a difficult line to walk, made even more so by player expectation. If in regular gameplay you can punch your way clean through most major enemies, forcing a player to arbitrarily hide from those same enemies will cause more frustration than fun.
So what makes great stealth stand out from the frustrating?
Immersion, immersion, immersion
Some of the most frequently-cited frustrations in stealth design — high stress, harsh punishments for failure, a small path to success, sometimes instant fails — are also present in the best stealth games, including Thief, Dishonored, and even Hitman (depending on how you play, of course). The reason is that, at its core, stealth design really doesn’t vary all that much from game to game; but we can still identify the “good” from the “bad” without much effort.
I’ve already written about my love of Alien: Isolation elsewhere, but the game really does do consistent high stakes stress the best I’ve ever seen. And yet some of the most controller-smashing complaints from gamers about supposed “bad” steal design are all there — right down to instant death, limited understanding of your waypoint, and even timed missions you don’t know are timed. So, what gives?
In a word, it all comes down to one thing: immersion.
The key to good stealth is, nine times out of ten, your suspension of disbelief. Alien: Isolation spends nearly all of its runtime building suspense, and for the first one-to-two hours of the game you don’t encounter much more than a whisper of the alien. There are mutilated bodies. Human shaped shadows running scared. NPCs in your face terrified of a mysterious killer, loose on the station. If you didn’t read the name on the game disc, you’d be forgiven for assuming that there’s just some kind of serial killer running around. You’re given a wrench, and attack some humans with it. There’s a stealth section where you sneak around another two groups of humans, but the second time you have a stun baton that blows through them like a silent takedown. Sure, there’s limited ammunition, but if you’re careful, you can take them. It’s not easy, but it’s not really all that hard either. The station, though, is eerie; you’re jumping at noises, certain there’s something stalking you.
That’s Alien: Isolation working to train you for the real stealth that the rest of the game is built on. The first time you encounter the xenomorph it just kind of plops down from the ceiling and it’s entirely on you to slowly start backing away. By the time that happens, you’re already conditioned to want to hide away and pick your moment to attack — but, all of a sudden, you can’t attack. You can only hide, and run. As a horror game, Alien: Isolation ratchets up the difficulty in a way that is analogous with the Dark Souls games, except that you’ll want to hide from the alien instead of engaging it. Alien: Isolation redefines what success in a video game looks like early on, and it’s the triumph in running away, in surviving to the next safe section, then the next, then the next.
Again, as a horror game where you’re meant to be absolutely scared out of your mind by the monster relentlessly pursuing you, Alien: Isolation gets a bit more wiggle room on the instant death frustration scale since the experience would fall apart the second you stop nursing a health-fear of the alien; here, the stealth is well realized, the mechanics logical, the items (when you can craft them) useful, and the stakes survivable if you’re smart. You believe your best option is to hide because it is. In no scenario are you going to go mano y mano fisticuffs with the alien and win. As a result, your definition of success changes from “defeat the alien” to “survive the alien” and most of that work is done via immersion in the game’s and the protagonist’s story. The sense of victory for “getting past” the alien (or at least avoiding it) is as high as destroying it, and that’s the power of the immersive stealth gameplay in full flight.
The bat-shaped elephant in the room
It’s not possible to talk about great stealth in video games and not mention the Batman Arkham series. While Arkham Asylum absolutely set the bar for every combo-chaining-beat-em-up that came after, the series also set the gold standard for fun takedown, enemy-hunting stealth. Crouched high atop a gargoyle or pressed tight under a conveniently bat-sized floor vent, Batman is an unstoppable instant quiet takedown master — but what exactly about the way Arkham handles stealth makes it so satisfying, even though actual combat (and outright defeating enemies) also feels great?
The first is immersion — a key component of which is the fact that you’re playing as Batman, a character who has a long-established biography, which has already done much of the heavy-lifting for the developers already. Another large part of it is that two of the biggest controller-smash-inducing frustrations — set linear paths and instant fails — are conspicuously absent except on rare occasion.
The whole point of the Arkham series is the freedom to plot your own Batman-ing (if I may coin the term); being presented with puzzles of varying complexity (including some actual detective work) and multiple ways to proceed through a room of armed guards. It’s plausible that Batman would be sneaking around, because it’s kind of Batman’s whole deal — sneaking up on people and scaring them before punching their lights out. He’s also a very squishy human being, and bullets kill him the same as anyone (super-kevlar bought on a billionaire’s budget notwithstanding).
And, if you’re caught, you’re still Batman. You can punch your way past a baddie or two, throw a gadget down, get away, and try again. Sometimes the enemies adopt a two-by-two formation in response. Sometimes they grow more panicked and therefore more erratic. But, unless you die, you get to continue trying on this run. Being detected can be the end of you, but it isn’t always, because you’re still Batman at the end of the day.
Compare this with another phenomenal superhero game: the recent (and slightly-less-stealthy) Spider-Man. Putting aside the Mary Jane sections where detection is instant death because of course it is, there are a few genuinely stealthy required sections in the game that demand Spider-Man come armed with all of his awesome spider-themed powers. The game then takes on more of the Arkham style hunt-and-takedown stealth, except Spider-Man doesn’t always allow you to punch your way out. Be it the existence of hostages or some other “gotcha!” in the game, the developers have decided that you are going to do stealth for this one mission and if you put a foot wrong you’ll need to do it again — and that breaks immersion. You can Batman to your heart’s content all day long (maybe you missed a stealth takedown and accidentally punched an enemy in the face instead; even if you successfully zip away into the night under a hail of bullets, you’re still going to need to start that hostage rescue attempt again and do it exactly the right way).
Stealth as a tool
Stealth is just another immersive storytelling tool in a game’s arsenal. Am I crouch-walking around Skyrim for my health? No, it’s because I’m terrified every time someone runs at me and I’m roleplaying a sneaky archer-mage who would prefer to snipe people before they get close enough to notice I’m not wearing armor. That is just as immersive for me as running in wielding an axe in both hands, and it speaks to the strength of the system in Skyrim that it allows multiple different kinds of rewarding experiences.
In this era of All Games Must Have All Things To Make Money, it is interesting that the first thing that action games seem to reach for is the mandatory sudden stealth section, often just plopped in as an afterthought. In reality, it’s a balancing act, and there’s no pleasing everyone. For example, I was absolutely thrilled and delightedly baffled to discover (several years later) that there was a timed, stealth boss fight at the end of Shadow of Mordor. Now, don’t get me wrong — this played more to my strengths than an outright sword fight — but it apparently caused quite a stir back in the day, simply because of the prevailing view that Talion could — nay, should — be stabbing said boss in the face, instead.
Like with a lot of things in video games, the line separating frustration from great design is how much attention is paid to the player. Paying attention to the player experience first and foremost and crafting an experience that goes hand-in-hand with the story pays dividends in the actual gameplay, rather than going down a checklist saying “yes, we need two more stealth missions and, hm, probably a timed one about now that they’ve become accustomed to these mechanics.”
In the end, it’s important for developers to consider the exact kind of experience they are trying to imbue in the player — and further, to understand why those experiences are so compelling. For example, is it the fear of a monster — or the addictive sensation of springing out for a surprise attack — that is going to motivate a player to stalk around in the shadows? As with all game mechanics, stealth requires a careful balance. But I’d argue that the extent to which stealth can be fun is driven largely by its believability and relevance in the game’s own universe. In both Alien: Isolation and the Arkham series, stealth works because it makes sense in-context as part of these games’ individual universes, but also because the developers have clearly understood the reasons why stealth mechanics are uniquely satisfying in both cases.