Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ramblings: From The Shadows

On why stealth games are empowering
I first played Splinter Cell when I was eleven. I started the tutorial, couldn't pick the first lock, returned the rental the next day.

It wasn't until I played Hitman Blood Money that I appreciated the stealth genre. Maybe it helped that I was older as well. But Hitman Blood Money was my first real introduction to stealth and Splinter Cell Chaos Theory instilled a love for the genre.Since then I've sought other games in the genre and saw the emergence of more action-oriented stealth. But as much as I enjoy Splnter Cell Conviction's and the Arkham series's more aggressive stealth, in many ways, those forms of stealth sometimes seem to forget what makes the genre so satisfying and empowering.

(I guess it should be noted that while I do enjoy pretty much all stealth in games, I consider shadow-based stealth, seen in games like Splinter Cell, Riddick, and Mark of the Ninja, the purest and most enjoyable kind.)

A good stealth game requires patience and planning. The waiting game is not an act of frustration, or an annoying aspect to endure, but a compelling necessity. Rather than lining up headshots, you need to observe and study. Skill comes not from the ability to outgun your enemies, but learning how to outmaneuver them. When you clear a room or complete objectives undetected, it feels like an earned victory. The very logistics of remaining unseen adds another dimension to the gameplay, where success is not getting the best kill or acquiring the best weapons but planning the most efficient way to avoid conflict and then enacting it successfully.

I find stealth to be more empowering than other genres due to that more personal, calculated level of engagement with the enemies. In many FPSs or third person shooters, you engage the enemies at a distance, waiting for them to expose themselves and just pulling the trigger. But in a stealth game, your weapon is not your ability to outgun, but to out-think. You're not firing away from a distance; you're inches away from your unaware foes, their virtual lives at your discretion. You need to understand and predict the AI's response and manipulate it to your advantage. You need to know the layout of an area, and know what to do and where to go if it all goes wrong. It's skill based in a multi-faceted way that other action games are not: the puzzle-like aspect of considering the environment as a whole, how different systems interact and will react to your actions, and then using that to your advantage and to the enemy's disadvantage.

That tension between moving among a more powerful enemy undetected, the risk of discovery always looming, is what elevates stealth above other genres in my opinion. You need to play smart rather than just more aggressively. That's the most empowering aspect of stealth: you as a player are in control of the enemy, to manipulate the AI or not, to either be discrete, unseen, or strike from the shadows.

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