There's just something special about games that make you sneak. The push, the pull, the contemplative pause... and the rush of action. We've been spending the last week playing one of the most enjoyable stealth games in recent memory, and so we thought we'd take a closer look at the genre. What makes sneaking so much fun? What do we look for in a game about stealth? Is Metal Gear Solid about the sneaking, or is it about everything else? Short version: Why do we love stealth games so much?
Check your sight-lines and muffle your heels... it's time to ask some Burning Questions.
Kirk: Hi, Jasonbro! I bet you didn't see me over here. Snuck right up on you, I did. I thought it would be in keeping with our topic for today: Stealth games, and why we love them.
Jason: You are such a nerd.
Kirk: You're just mad because I totally snuck up on you.
Jason: You know what else snuck up on me? Mark of the Ninja! I totally didn't expect that game to be as good as it is.
Kirk: Ha, I wonder how many writers have said that. "Mark of the Ninja sure snuck up on me!" It's also been quite stealthy on the Xbox games page — for some reason, Microsoft isn't promoting it very much. Which is a crime, because this game is fantastic. (Also, readers: Check out Patricia's official Kotaku review). I had a feeling it'd would be good — I've known the game's lead designer Nels Anderson for a while now, and he's a smart dude who really "gets it" when it comes to this kind of game. All the same, I too am surprised at just how good it is. It is darned good! But let's get specific. What do you, personally, like about it?
Jason: I like the way it feels in your hand. The way you can quickly shoot a grappling hook to swing across parapets at warp speed, only stopping to dangle down and slash an enemy soldier's throat from the shadows. The slight tactile resistance when you push the X button while standing behind an enemy. The quick execution you perform in order to perform an execution. Every button fits every action perfectly.
Kirk: Yes. The first thing I noticed about this game is that it feels really good to play. Sometimes in close-quarters I do the wrong thing — stick to a ledge when I wanted to hide, or grab a body when I wanted to creep — but overall, the locomotion feels really good. Which is kinda interesting, since stealth games have a history of making motion (and combat) clunky and difficult, rather than lithe and empowering. Sort of as a deterrent to being spotted? But as I've written before, I'll take "predatory stealth" every day. I want the thrill of the hunt, and Mark of the Ninja has that in spades.
Jason: It's like the total opposite of Metal Gear Solid, right? In those games you're usually the hunted more than the hunter. But more on that series later. For now: how awesome is the animation in Mark of the Ninja? It's so friggin' stylish I just want to call people and ask them to over and see how good everything in this game looks.
Kirk: Ha yes, we'll leave the Metal Gear lock unpicked for the moment. I have to admit, I never played either of the Shank games — they just didn't seem like something I wanted. I have enough action games, I guess. So it's really nice to see Klei's animation skills being turned on a genre I that's not so saturated. (It's also cool that they did the animated cutscenes from Torchlight II.) Mark of the Ninja is just so polished, which is my favourite quality in an Xbox Live Arcade game, for some reason. Like Bastion and Limbo, I love downloadable games that are polished within an inch of their life. I can't for the life of me figure out why Mark of the Ninja wasn't featured in Xbox Summer of Arcade, while the unpolished, un-fun Deadlight was. But that's a conversation for another day. Let's talk about MotN's stealth. It's kinda different than other stealth games, right? I almost think it's like, a mechanical "essay" about stealth games or something.
Jason: What do you mean?
Kirk: How all of the mechanics are laid out for you, how everything is visible and explicit. You see rings that indicate the reach of every sound you make, every enemy's line of sight is clearly demarcated. Your character is either dark if he's in the shadows or lit up if he's in the light. In most stealth games, the ability to see sound and line-of-sight is usually a late-game upgrade, you know? So, Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game where the mechanics are laid bare — which really, is such a smart way to make an arcade stealth game. It's accessible in a way that games like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear are not, without sacrificing complexity.
Jason: Right, it presents you with all the information you need. It doesn't try to trick or fool you. That's not to say it's not challenging — because it totally is — but it's challenging in a way that tests your speed and skills and ability, not your understanding of some arbitrary set of mechanics. Consequently, every new room or set of obstacles feels like a new puzzle to solve. You have all the tools at your disposal; you just have to figure out what to do with them. How to pick the locks, if you will.
Kirk: Right. And, fittingly, it doesn't get bogged down in low-level shit. For example, you just hold down a button to pick a lock.
Jason: Yeah: no minigames necessary! I wonder if that's a byproduct of the fact that this is a small, downloadable game made by a small team for not a whole ton of money. If Mark of the Ninja was a $US20 million AAA title made by 200 people, maybe you'd have to match coloured blocks every time you wanted to turn off a light switch.
Kirk: If Mark of the Ninja were a AAA game, it'd probably be a lot more like Ninja Gaiden 3. In other words: womp womp.
Kirk: Which kinda lets us segue to other stealth games. Mark of the Ninja feels somehow niche even among stealth games, maybe because it's so unabashedly a stealth game. So many games lately — Arkham City, Crysis 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution — have had stealth elements, but also feature other kinds of gameplay. We love stealth, but is it best when it's a main course, or a side-dish?
Jason: Wellllllllll do you really think it's just an element of Human Revolution? I played that game almost 100% stealthy. When I got caught, I'd get myself killed and try again. In fact, I felt like the non-stealth elements — like those awful boss fights — were the side dishes. I loved the stealth in that game.
Kirk: Well played — you actually said the thing that I was thinking as I wrote that. They say you can play Human Revolution as an action game, but it sucks to do it. I wonder if anyone actually just guns-blazing'd their way through that game? In that way it was actually closer to the original game than the folks at Eidos may have intended — combat was so clunky that everyone played stealth. Which was OK, because Human Revolution had very solid stealth. My favourite thing? The fact that you could do soft-cover with the left trigger and whip out to a third-person camera. First-person stealth can be very difficult, and I love the idea of hybrid 1st-third person for this kind of game. Rainbow Six Vegas did that very well, too. What, specifically, did you love about the stealth in Human Revolution?
Jason: That camera switch is pretty badass. But one of the really cool things about stealth in Human Revolution is how much it's tied to the environment. You can throw fire extinguishers to get peoples' attention, move vending machines out of the way so you can crawl through vents, hack into guards' computers for passwords... you really feel like a super-spy-cyborg. The world is your toy.
Kirk: "The world is your toy." OK so now we're getting at why I, personally, like stealth games. It's something that I actually thought Anderson articulated well in this interview over at Gamasutra — in stealth games, you "poke and perturb" the world. Stealth games sit still for you, and you get to experiment and get creative. They're more about outsmarting the AI, out-thinking the level designer, and generally out-doing the game. It's so much less about reflexes and more about thinking. I've been playing Arkham City on new game + for a while now, and I think that the stealth segments of that game get me into my more-or-less ultimate video game headspace. I'm absorbed but not hurried, moving deliberately but thinking about what I'm doing. It's such a rush.
Jason: I don't know that I agree with you about stealth games not involving reflexes. When I play Mark of the Ninja — something I've been doing quite a lot over the past few days — I often feel like it's challenging the quickness of my fingers. If I hit a button wrong and accidentally get a guard's attention instead of stabbing him in the back, he suddenly takes out his sniper rifle and BOOM YOU LOSE SUCK IT JASON. Point is: I think it's a combination of both smarts AND speeds.
Kirk: Sure — reflexes are always required. I guess what I mean is that you choose when to engage your reflexes. You still have to execute the move you've decided to do, but the pacing is so different — periods of contemplation punctuated by action. I like having control over the pace of the game, as opposed to an action game like Call of Duty or Bayonetta, where the pace is dictated to me. I've also realised I like the whole hub-world thing even better — like how in Deus Ex or Vampire: Bloodlines, how you alternate between stealth, action, and peaceful areas where you roleplay and get missions. Which makes me wonder — do I like stealth itself, or do I just like the pacing that it inspires?
Jason: Oh man, that hub world stuff reminds me: Dishonored comes out in just under a month. Also a mission-based game, also very focused on stealth. It's like Deus Ex on wizard crack. I can't wait to play that game. As for your question: there's pacing like that in other games, too. Have you played much of The Last Story yet? It follows a similar hub-based, mission-focused structure.
Kirk: Wait, that's two things. The Last Story! And Dishonored! First of all, yes, I've been playing some The Last Story and I like it so far — though I haven't played that much. But yeah, there is certainly a hub-world thing going on in a lot of RPGs — the thing I think that separates Deus Ex and Vampire for me is the way that the "sneaky/action" parts of the hub world are so organically tied to the "RPG/talky" parts. That Heng Sha hub in Human Revolution is one of the most purely enjoyable, effortlessly organic video game spaces I've inhabited in ages. You heard that Eidos had several more hubs that never made the final game, right? And we still haven't gotten 'em as DLC. At this point I hope they're saving those for the sequel. More hubs, baby!
But OK yes, Dishonored. I've been in sort of a media blackout (as much as that's possible in this job) on that game lately, since I know I'm just going to play the pants off of it when it comes out. Though I gotta say, I was kind of bummed when I heard there weren't hubs or particularly deep RPG elements. I finally played it at PAX (it was that Lady Boyle party mission) and yep: This game is totally my jam.
Jason: Wait, I thought there was a hub in Dishonored! Isn't there like a bar where you hang out and buy items and stuff?
Kirk: Oh is there? I thought I remembered them saying that there wasn't really a hub, or at least, not a Deus Ex-style hub where you roam around. See? This is what happens when you media-blackout yourself. I guess I'll just find out when the game comes out.
Jason: Yeah, it's definitely structured differently. You'd like the hub in The Last Story, though. There's one big city and it's super lively. Lots of quests, NPCs, fun things to see and do. You must play more!
Kirk: Clearly! I wonder if you've heard of this disease I've come down with. It's called Toomanygamesitis. I hear it's catching...
Jason: Sounds nasty. You should get that checked out.
Kirk: I think there's only one cure: Play lots and lots of video games.
Jason: Speaking of lots and lots of video games, we should really talk about a series with lots and lots of video games in it: Metal Gear Solid.
Kirk: I was hoping you'd transition to Metal Gear Solid. And as transitions go, that was a pretty artful one. So, OK, yes. Tell me your thoughts on MGS. Where does that series fit in the stealth-game pantheon?
Jason: I really dig the series, even though I like to make fun of it. While it does some things poorly — that control scheme, for example, is a total nightmare — it also takes you to some crazy places and makes you get through some really difficult stages. And few heroes are as badass as the legendary Mr. Snake.
Kirk: Right. I keep having this thing with Metal Gear that feels like cognitive dissonance. I have such fond memories of playing the games, playing MGS2 in college, burning through MGS4 right after I got a PS3... and yet when I go and actually play the games, it's such a roundly unpleasant experience. I mean, compare the genuine moment-to-moment pleasure of playing Mark of the Ninja with controlling Snake in MGS3.
Jason: Yeah - the camera angles in MGS3 were so hard to deal with that Konami revamped them in the re-release. (That's a thing with Metal Gear Solid: all the games get re-releases that improve their controls, add new features, and make them better games all around. Although I don't think #4 has gotten one yet, oddly enough.)
Kirk: Though it did get achievements! But OK, I feel like we're doing a disservice to Metal Gear here. Leigh Alexander will be very mad at us if we don't talk about it a little bit more. I mean... what is it about this series? Is the appeal more in the themes and the story than in the gameplay? Or is that something changed when Kojima started chasing Hollywood and added the "Solid" to the series? Is the stealth the heart of Metal Gear, or is it all about the sheer audacity of it all? Why do people love Metal Gear?
Jason: It's a very ambitious series, and the stealth is really interesting and enjoyable. There are so many different gadgets at your disposal — gadgets I often wind up hoarding and never actually using because I think I'll need them later — and so many types of weapons you can use as super-spy Solid Snake. You can snipe every soldier in the game. You can stick to tranquilizers and do your best not to kill a soul. You can sneak around corners and plant C4 and even throw pornographic magazines to distract guards from their patrol routes. Pornography! It's the greatest!
Kirk: Yeah, there really are an absurd amount of different tricks and traps in the game. And I do the same thing — I get gadget paralysis and never use any of them, because I'm saving them up. Which seems like a design flaw, no? I just wish it all worked better, that it was easier to use some of the stuff in the game — setting up a porno trap for a guard is such a laborious process, far harder than it would be in real life. I have to wonder if, come Metal Gear Ground Zeroes, Kojima will finally give us the ease of control that I, at least, have been craving. MGS4 certainly controlled closer to my comfort-zone than MGS3 did. And surely someone at Kojima is taking notes from Platinum on how they've made Raiden so fun to control in Reveangance. Everything about Ground Zeroes seems ambitious, but with so many great stealth games out there these days, it's actually going to take a lot for Kojima to win me back.
Jason: Here's a confession: I actually enjoy the stories in Metal Gear Solid games. They're just so silly and twisty and fun. (As long as you don't try to take them seriously.)
Kirk: Oh, I do too! Don't get me wrong — I think the stories, characters, and even the weird pacing of the MGS games are all lovely. I like the stories more than the games, really. I find the games so frustrating that I'd rarely say I'm having fun, or feeling satisfaction from playing them. They're loose when I want them to be tight, overly complex when I want them to be intuitive, and I constantly feel like I'm fighting them. But the stories, the picture they paint, the goofy language and hidden meanings and all of that — I really like that stuff. And the most powerful moments of a Metal Gear game rarely have anything to do with sneaking — hammering a button to crawl down an irradiated tube, or pulling a trigger, those are the most memorable moments of the game. As opposed to Arkham City, where my fondest memory is of swooping down behind an unsuspecting guard and taking him down, then watching his friend freak out.
Jason: Yeah, that's fair. That crawl through radiation in Metal Gear Solid 4 was certainly memorable, wasn't it? Not very stealthy. But memorable! In fact, thinking about that scene — and the desert, and that crazy army scene on the water, and all the other cool shit in MGS4 — is really making me want to go re-play it. If only I had more spare time!
Kirk: My friend, it sounds like you may have a case of Toomanygamesitis. Might want to get that checked out.
Jason: I do. I do. The only cure is Unemployment.
Kirk: Quick, say something mean about Stephen!
Jason: ummm... he has a stupid face.
Kirk: OH MAN YOU ARE SO GETTING FIRED
Jason: Stupid Stephen and his stupid face.
Kirk: OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU WENT THERE HE IS EXTRA SENSITIVE ABOUT HIS FACE
Jason: Well he should be. It's stupid.
Kirk: I hope you enjoy your coming unemployment. So OK, I guess that about wraps it up for stealth games. Though once again, I managed to go an entire stealth article without mentioning Thief. Sorry, everyone! I am aware that it is a blind spot, and have downloaded it. It's just... well, I have this sickness I may have mentioned...