PATRICK STAFFORD asks who’s really lurking in the shadows?
Stealth has been experiencing a renaissance. The success of Batman: Arkham Asylum may have made stealth commercially viable again. Last year’s Deus Ex continued the (human) revolution, alongside Arkham City, while this year Mark of the Ninja, Dishonored, and Hitman Absolution, plus the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Thief sequel, are making fans happier than they’ve been in years.
It’s a curious revival, contrasted against a mainstream landscape of more-is-more. But if the renewal brings nothing else, it shows us just how unique the stealth gamer remains in the player lexicon.
They lurk in the dark. They’re slow. Patient. Methodical.
And maybe a little full of themselves.
“I think that may be true,” says Chris Ferguson, the associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University.
“There’s a sense that stealth players know they’re completing a game that is different - they’re really competing intellectually.”
Given the renewed interest in the genre, it seems appropriate to pose the question: who is the stealth gamer?
The answer reveals a patchwork of traits complimentary and conflicting. Developers from some of the biggest stealth games suggest they’re egotistical, intellectual, detail-oriented and more sympathetic to human experiences in games.
But as Eidos Montreal creative director Jean-Francois Dugas says, they’re also a little cruel…to a certain degree. Watching and waiting to strike.
“My immediate gut feeling response would be stealth players are an intellectual player with very good analytical skills,” he says.
In some ways this is obvious, but once we delve deeper into the stealth player’s psyche, we see they aren’t so different than the avatars they command - detail oriented and methodical. Nothing escapes their attention.
HIDE AND SEEK >>
Just as dedicated as any Call of Duty fan, stealth aficionados obsess and fret over seemingly minor details, like the ability to complete a non-lethal play through.
But their passion for the subject is old, even dating back to their birth. After all, one of the very first games you ever play with your parents is influenced by stealth – peek-a-boo. It’s a basic version of the form. But developers say if you want to understand how a stealth player thinks, this is where you need to start.
“Think back to playing hide and seek as a kid,” urges Andy Schatz, creator of the upcoming heist/stealth game Monaco.
“There are two major emotions that take place. One is the tension of hiding, and hoping you’re not seen. The other is the feeling of outsmarting your opponent, either as the sneaker or the hider.”
As Arkane Studios creative directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio explain, there’s an emotional underpinning for stealth, seen in games like Thief, or even inverted situations like revealing enemies in XCOM.
“However you define it, stealth games provide feelings that arise from specific kinds of interactive systems and from particular kinds of power fantasies.”
Just as any good narrative demands peaks and troughs, so it is with stealth. Gaming in the shadows is directly connected to these childhood experiences. The high creates a unique endorphin buzz.
Ferguson agrees stealth gamers have an intellectual one up on the rest of the gaming community, saying while there isn’t any research in this area, there’s definitely a case they have a better understanding of calculating risk.
“Going through a game like Thief or Splinter Cell, succeeding at that make you feel very smart. You’ve advanced the story based on your own skills.”
Patrick Redding, game director at Ubisoft Toronto, responsible for the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist, says this also indicates patience.
“From our experience, stealth appeals to players who…aren’t necessarily looking for instant gratification.”
Tom Francis, a British games writer and developer of his own stealth game, Gunpoint, says while he isn’t sure about the intellectual difference, admits a bent to creativity as gamers enjoy “orchestrating a situation where we have the advantage”.
Nels Anderson, the lead designer for Klei Entertainment, maker of the recent stealth hit Mark of the Ninja, says stealth gamers are particularly attracted to the genre’s innate difficulty as it allows the “ultimate test”.
“You’re going up against challenges in a way that allows you to be elaborate and expressive.”
That expression becomes complicated, Redding says, once you consider there are so many different types of stealth players – such as the hardcore players who ghost maps and never get detected, and those who prefer the action but still stay hidden.
But as Redding explains, there’s a lot in common between them – “they each share a degree of patience and strategic thinking”.
YOU GOTTA KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM >>
All these elements form a fascinating mix, and they’re shared in common with another notorious group – gamblers.
Ferguson notes punters who prefer to wait rather than attack blindly can develop what psychologists call an “intermittent reinforcement schedule”.
The term refers to a behavior where someone will delay instant gratification in order to achieve higher gains later on. Staying still and watching guard routes for 10 minutes straight may not seem like fun, but to the player, they’re just waiting for a jackpot.
“You get reinforced with behavior. It can make people patient,” he says.
The gambling analogy breaks down when you consider more complicated elements like addiction, but it does mean stealth gamers get more of a high when they “beat” a game than a player who can only express themselves in a situation with only a limited range of options – such as shoot or be shot.
Francis suggests with this in mind, the stealth gamer’s brain might be wired just a little differently.
“Stealth players are so invested in the rules of stealth, self imposed or otherwise that our brains release an endorphin kick in response to something that happens almost entirely in our own heads: getting away with it.”
Or, as Redding says, it’s simply a “psychopathic thrill”.
It would go too far to suggest stealth gamers are loners, but to be sure they prefer working on their own. Others just get in the way.
“Other players have a decided effect on stealth games,” says Harvey Smith.
“There’s something about being alone in your own place, even if it means sitting in the rafters for two minutes straight, a long time in games.”
Ferguson says the anecdotal evidence suggests stealth players can get an egotistical kick out of being alone.
“We all like to think we’re special and better than everyone. These games can give you the sense that you’re better than the average person.”
It’s the need for that ego boost that Smith says gives the stealth genre its power, providing what he calls an opportunity to fulfill “less common power fantasies”.
“Stealth games are usually based on systems more than scripting, and if you play games you know that systemic interaction contains a kind of pleasure that is hard to articulate.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER >>
But perhaps most of all, stealth gamers thirst for knowledge.The entire genre is built on, what Nels Anderson calls, “the pull and flow of information”.
In order to advance your position in a game like Dishonored or Hitman, players need to gather as much information as they can and calculate a strategy. As Smith says, it lays the groundwork for a “sublime sort of tension”.
“The “information economy” in stealth games is critical,” he says. “What does the player know about the noise or visual info being collected by the AI; is the AI nearby; what state is it in.
“All those are relevant to making meaningful tactical decisions.”
Anderson agrees, although points out a key difference between stealth gamers and say, pure strategy players. “This isn’t a knowledge that desires to be all encompassing,” he says.
“They desire to know enough for them to do their job.”
Stealth gamers don’t want all information at once. That would ruin the fun. Instead, they chase the elusive feeling of beating the odds – of beating the system that knows more than they do.
As Ferguson says, it all comes back to ego.
Schatz says he once shopped an idea for a Chess-like board game but was eventually turned down – the feedback was that games which don’t have a fog of war component tend to not do very well, because you’re asking the player to think like a computer rather than a human.
“Whereas if they don’t know where someone is, that creates a lot more tension, and you’re asking the player to make the decision from their subconscious,” he says.
This is what the mechanics of stealth games are built upon: triggering an alarm in Metal Gear Solid erases access to the mini-map, and mismanaging mana in Dishonored limits your ability to see through walls.
That pendulum of knowledge allows for pace, Ferguson says, commenting it has the added affect of making stealth gamers “extremely patient people”. They’re waiting, and watching, for the high that comes from successfully beating a smarter system.
GHOST STORY >>
It’s curious that stealth players are so keen for games to include the possibility of a non-lethal play through, though many of them won’t bat an eyelid at running through a game a second time and killing everyone in sight.
But as Jean-Francois Dugas explains, it’s merely another opportunity to inflate the ego.
“I think they’re attracted to the challenge because it really allows them to put their skills to the test – they have to use their wits, their tools at hand in a very meticulous way.”
Redding says completing a non lethal play through is the “ultimate expression of mastery” – and as players addicted to the endorphin buzz of tension, it’s hard to resist.
“Imagine two kinds of “perfect play through”: The one where the player takes out everyone in the game, no survivors, and the one where the player completes the entire game without touching anyone. The latter is the more fragile and difficult to sustain.”
Ferguson says this type of expressionism gives the stealth player bragging rights. It’s a subconscious reinforcement of their intelligence – a digital pat on the back.
“I think these games can give you that sense that you’re better than the average person or gamer.”
But can it ever make a comeback from the high of 1998 with Metal Gear Solid and Thief? The industry has pursued fast-paced action, and as Ferguson says, that may make it harder for gamers to go back. Their brains may literally be rewired.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about the way that cartoons and video games and movies are meant to be fast flashes of information, so that we’re getting used to being continuously flooded.”
There is some hope. Mark of the Ninja and Dishonored have proven successful, and with Splinter Cell going back to its roots, stealth is in the spotlights once again.
But no matter what happens, the success of the genre still depends on the dynamic we all know from the schoolyard – the emotion of striving to stay invisible.
“It’s tapping into a core emotion,” says Francis.
“A good stealth simulation will always tap into the emotional side of not being seen.”