Thoughts on Stealth-Based Games


The stealth genre is an interesting one, going against many non-gamer expectations.  As we discussed before, non-gamers can easily see video games merely as violent, run-and-gun experiences.  Stealth-based games are pretty much the opposite, since they’re about patience, caution, and careful planning, three traits many non-gamers wouldn’t attribute to the hobby or the gamers that enjoy it.

The first stealth-based game is one that may come as a surprise—Castle Wolfenstein.  While later titles in the series went in a more run-and-gun direction, the first game of the series was also the first game that brought the idea of stealth to the hobby of gaming.

The history of the game and its influence on the hobby I feel too few appreciate.  While it’s arguable whether or not the stealth genre as a whole would even exist without this game, at the very least it wouldn’t have come around for quite some time and might not have been all that popular by this point.  As such, it’s not as likely that franchises like Tenchu, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, or Hitman would at least be popular, if they even existed in the first place—and those are the more popular series in a genre that’s never really been as popular as more action-oriented franchises.  There are plenty of stealth games from smaller companies or even individuals—and it’s likely that they wouldn’t exist if Castle Wolfenstein didn’t pave the way.

Castle Wolfenstein showed that the setting could be financially viable, and other developers/publishers took notice.  That’s the important part, that it was shown to be a financially viable endeavor—games are a business, developers and publishers won’t make or put out games that they think will bomb (smaller companies and individuals have a bit more leeway, there).  We can enjoy this setting or that, but if it doesn’t seem like something that’s going to do anything but eat their money, they won’t make it.

It’s also not really easy to create a stealth-based game, code-wise.  In most run-and-gun games, you have coding for health (the player’s avatar, enemies, allies), path-finding (which is a complicated process, as can be glimpsed here and here), and simplistic detection scripting.  The latter doesn’t need to be all that complex in your average shoot-’em-up games.  To boil it down to the point of risking over-simplification, it’s enough to have a few triggers that basically decide if the enemy knows you’re there or not.

Making a stealth game means the detection system has to be a lot more intricate, because the non-player characters take on a more vital role.  In shoot-’em-up games, non-player characters are typically targets and nothing more.  In stealth-based games, they can be targets, yes, as well obstacles, “puzzle components”, and more.

A more open-ended game series like the Hitman series exemplifies the notion of N.P.C.s as “puzzle pieces” quite well.  In order to progress through a level undetected, it’s sometimes necessary to occupy their attention elsewhere.  For example, one level in Hitman: Contracts has you going through an English manor.  To get through a bathroom unseen, one can turn off the hot water, since there’s a woman in the bathroom bathing.  While she goes to turn it back on, you have a few moments to slip through and into a secret passage.  Hitman as a franchise is rife with such things, though other stealth games can have such a thing as well.

All of that means, again, that the detection system scripting for N.P.C.s has to be more complex.  It has to be such so as to make it more interesting—thus more fun—for the player.  Having different N.P.C.s react somewhat differently to different situations keeps the player on their toes, as it were, since they can never be sure how a new N.P.C. will react.  That sort of thing is one of the reasons gamers play stealth games in the first place, because it’s a genre so different from the others.

Some gamers get a “rush” of enjoyment from driving games, whizzing through the streets and skidding around turns, narrowly avoiding pedestrian vehicles by mere feet.  Others get that from sports games, where a narrowly-successful down-field pass or three-point shot wins the game.  Still others get that from action games, taking on scads of enemies and being the only one left standing as the dust settles.  Gamers who play stealth games get that rush from being less than a few feet from an enemy or non-combatant, knowing that if they do so much as look slightly downward the entire mission will be scrubbed and they’ll have to fight for their very lives just to escape so they can try again.

That’s not to say gamers really play stealth games (or any genre’s games) to the exclusion of others, of course.  Few gamers (if any at all) really only enjoy first-person shooters, or fighting games, or stealth games.  Most gamers at least have a decent assortment of tastes from different genres, and many run the gamut.

That said, there are certain expectations gamers bring with them to their games, and the same gamer can easily bring different expectations to different games.  We don’t expect our action game N.P.C.s to be all that bright.  First-person-shooter N.P.C.s tend to not be much brighter than the weapon they’re firing, and that’s alright.  It generally works for the genre, and there are plenty of other areas the script-writing can tackle.

Stealth-based games, on the other hand, almost require that the N.P.C.s be a lot more interesting.  It’s not enough to widen or lengthen the N.P.C.’s field of vision (basically, imagine an N.P.C.  Now imagine a cone emanating from their face—that’s their field of vision, and anything in that cone is “seen”).  The N.P.C.s themselves have to be more interesting.

You can sometimes cheat this with interesting dialogue.  For example, in many Tenchu games, if you sneakily stick near N.P.C.s long enough, you hear interesting comments on their love-life, recent trips to the doctor, and more humorous ones as well.  That’s actually a decent way to cheat having N.P.C.s be interesting.  They still have basic path-finding scripting, but the player is more interested, even if only a little.

The main hurdle with N.P.C. scripting I’ve found is their reaction after they’ve been alerted.  By that I mean that before you do anything, they’re still basically “at ease”, roaming their paths, guarding a door, whatever.  After they realize someone is there—and how they realize it—is what we’re going to discuss now.

It is very difficult to program believable reactions to alerts of enemy presence and still achieve a good balance.  Tenchu tends to go in one direction, and Hitman in the other.

In most Tenchu games, you can kill someone and then drag their body off to be hidden somewhere (like in a lot of stealth games).  The problem with that is that it’s not really necessary.  If you kill someone then find a good hiding spot, you can just wait.  A guard (or other enemy N.P.C.) will run up, find the body, hunt around the immediate area—then shrug and go back to what he was doing before, completely ignoring the body from that point onward.  If there are a number of enemy N.P.C.s in the area, all you have to do is wait for all of them to be alerted then shrug it off.  All it requires is patience.

The opposite reaction can be found in most Hitman games.  To be fair, the game play itself is radically different—in Tenchu you’re generally worried about hiding in the shadows, leaping out to strike, and noiselessly scurrying off again.  In Hitman it’s generally wiser (especially if you’re going after a higher after-mission rating) to not kill everyone.  Plus, a big draw of the series is dressing up like the N.P.C.s themselves, to walk amongst them with them none the wiser.

The problem with that is, where Tenchu‘s N.P.C.s tend to be simple-minded and/or easy-going to the point of being Feudal-era hippies, Hitman‘s N.P.C.s tend to be trigger-happy to an extreme, and what will set them off doesn’t always make sense.  Anything you do that doesn’t seem “right” will get you shot.  In the face.  Repeatedly.  This has many absurd examples, but one that sticks out is again in Hitman Contracts.  In the manor level mentioned earlier, you could dress up as an English hunter, red coat and all.  If you don’t brandish the hunting rifle, you’ll get shot in the face by the guards patrolling the manor.  On top of that, no matter what disguise you’re wearing, if you so much as run in the house, you’ll get shot in the face.

Other stealth games have their own “quirks”, to be sure, and many of them involve dealing with how the guards react to being alerted, and how they’re alerted in the first place.  Again, that has to be one of the hardest things to deal with from a coding point of view.  Yet it’s one of the most important aspects of a stealth game, above level-design, artwork, and almost if not everything else.

The genre of stealth-based games isn’t the most popular genre out there, but potentially holds the key to creating better games elsewhere.  Take a look at this video for path-finding errors in many different games.  The games displayed were patched and the like to be as current as possible at the time of uploading that video, which almost three years ago.

Games today have similar, if not downright the same, issues.  The stealth genre needs to focus on similar issues just due to the genre it is, and if it does it will help other games, in other genres.  I can’t see how that wouldn’t be welcomed by any gamer, whether they enjoy stealth games or not.

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5 Responses to “Thoughts on Stealth-Based Games”

  1. WhiteWolf Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I recently picked up what I thought was going to be a straight forward third person shooter and found I was vary wrong. I picked up Gears of War 1 & 2. Since the third one is coming out later this year and looks great I thought I would get through the first two. I am a Halo player and thought it would be like the Halo games. I was wrong. Even on easy you must think about what you are doing. When some one is shooting at you with a turret gun, it’s not enough to just shot back. You must find a way to get around or at least to a better vantage point to take him out. However while doing that you must make sure that his spotter doesn’t see you and warn him. It’s a hard game so far and I have not beat it but for a game of this generation I think it does a really great job of blending the action shooter with stealth. Now that’s not to say you have to hide in shadows but you do have to find non conventional was of doing things.

  2. I didn’t know that.

  3. I never thought of it that way, well put!

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