Stealth Games Are Kinda Easy

In-between my many WoW sessions, I have been working on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The short version is that it is pretty much Human Revolution with new plot and Augments; if you enjoyed the first game, then you will enjoy this one as well.

But one of the things I have noticed over the course of 30 hours is that… well, it’s easy.

I am playing on the highest difficulty – Give Me Deus Ex – and just breezing my way through, even without Augments. Indeed, I spent half the game with 11+ Augment Points banked just waiting for a situation in which I needed to spontaneously develop wall-punching or remote hacking skills. However, this may be more a systemic issue with stealth games generally.

When we talk about stealth games, what we’re really talking about is extremely simplified, often binary, gameplay. If you are outside the cone of an enemy’s vision, you are hidden. The alarm is either raised or it is not. The enemy is fully active or they are incapacitated. This binary nature even extends to after the enemy is alerted, as almost every stealth game features the conceit that guards eventually completely forget that they watched their compatriots die, and go about their usual patrols.

This is not a criticism of stealth gameplay, per se. There is a good reason why “more realistic” behavior is not often implemented: it is less fun. Ever play a stealth game where the enemies patrolled randomly? It’s an exercise in frustration. Without a pattern to recognize and exploit, incapacitating/avoiding guards either requires RNG (which doesn’t feel good) or just attacking them straight out. And if the guards never reset after the alarm is raised, why wouldn’t the average player not simply reload their last save?

So if you are going to have “stealth mechanics” in your game, you have to make some concessions. This means it is incredibly difficult to introduce varying levels of difficulty with stealth mechanics without running afoul of annoying gameplay.

Still, I do have some suggestions. These mostly pertain to Mankind Divided – and especially at the higher difficulties – but I feel like they can be applied more generally as well.

1) Incapacitated Guards wake up.

Some stealth games have this already, but its lack seems especially egregious in Mankind Divided since you are in the same city for most of the game. Basically, once you knock out the guards, they are unconscious permanently. Since you already get more XP for using nonlethal methods, there really is no reason to not knock them out rather than use lethal methods. Yes, unconscious guards can be awoken if discovered by other guards. But considering how easily guards can be taken out – and no one cares about patrols reporting in – this is an irrelevant concern.

So… have the guards wake up, randomly. Not immediately, mind you, just over a period of a few minutes or so. This will still give you enough time to stroll through the area, but maybe not enough for a thorough searching of every file cabinet. If you want safety in your looting, you will need to kill the guards instead.

2) Nonlethal takedowns are more difficult.

In the last two Deus Ex games, you get the option of lethal and nonlethal takedowns any time you are within melee distance. In truth, there is just one rational option: nonlethal. Not only do you get more XP with nonlethal, but the actual nonlethal action is quiet, whereas the lethal one makes a lot of noise. Considering you can just shoot sleeping guards in the face with a silenced pistol afterwards, there is zero reason to go lethal initially.

How about we just reverse that? Lethal takedowns are quiet, but nonlethal makes some noise as the target struggles. This can extend to tranquilizer dart weapons as well, considering nobody really seems to care about a huge syringe poking out of their leg, even after it was fired out of a sniper rifle 50 yards away. Let them make some noise for the few seconds of consciousness they have remaining. Or, alternatively, make the tranquilizer take a random amount of time to fully go into affect, so that it’s possible they fall unconscious after walking to a less discreet location.

Because, honestly, the situation with the Tranq rifle in Mankind Divided is just silly broken. Headshots will instantly knock out guards, and body shots take a few seconds more. But, really? The delay is actually a boon. I can tag three guards in a row, all in the leg, and by the time the first dude hits the floor, the others start passing out before they have a chance to raise an alarm. That shit would be impossible with a regular sniper rifle, even a silenced one. Speaking of which…

3) Silencers not being silent.

This is one of those universal videogame/movie sacred cows, but silencers on guns don’t actually make them silent. As it turns out, propelling lead out the end of a metal tube by way of igniting gunpowder is still kinda loud. So let’s have those guns still be loud with silencers attached. This will shorten effective engagement range for stealth runs, thereby increasing the chance that a guard could discover you, e.g. making the gameplay a bit more difficult.

4) Guards check in with each other.

There is a level in Mankind Divided that sees you skulking about a research facility with a PA system. While I was taking out guards left and right, I got a little nervous by what I heard. “West wing reporting all clear.” “Brzezinski, please report to docking bay 12.” Did I already take out Brzezinski? Would he be missed?

Then I remembered I was playing a standard stealth game, and none of that stuff matters.

To an extent, having guards checking in (or being sought by other guards) is one of those realistic features that end up making the gameplay feel worse. After all, if you are going to be so actively punished for taking guards out, you may as well remove the ability to take guards out at all. But what if the mechanics were more nuanced than that? What if you could get some kind of guard manifest that lists which ones need to check in, or figure out when they already checked in such that you are free to take them out afterwards? What if their absence is noted and guards are sent to investigate, but they eventually disperse if they don’t find any foul play?

Basically, instead of having each guard be a puzzle individually, perhaps force the player to consider a more holistic approach to rendering a base unconscious.

5) Blood stains.

Just so it doesn’t seem like all these changes make nonlethal useless compared to lethal methods of infiltration, let’s have guards react to blood stains. And, you know, have blood stains result from wetwork, assuming specific methods are not employed. Moving bodies might still be useful, especially for distraction purposes, but it shouldn’t be a Get Out of Jail Free card either.

——–

I will be honest with you here: I’m not even sure any of the above will result in a better gameplay experience. All I do know is that my current experience with stealth games (and Deus Ex in particular) has made all of them not only play the same, but play easily. If I choose the highest difficulty in a stealth game, that difficulty has to be a function of changing stealth mechanics and not just making it easier for me to die once a firefight starts. Because a firefight will never start when I’ve knocked out every guard everywhere with impunity.

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Posted on October 25, 2016, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. An easier way would be to increase the number of guard. When you have enough of them their blind spot will cover be covered by other guard.
    I loved the random or semi random patrol.

    I might not be patuent enough : i am playing dishonered and i often find myslef detected.

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    • That would be an interesting – and possibly more “realistic” – way to handle the stealth situation.

      On the other hand, you could soon approach a point where it is too frustrating to even attempt stealth. At which point, the game ceases to be a stealth game at all.

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  2. I have the complete opposite experience with stealth games. I am far too impatient and as a result I die a lot. I played Deus Ex on easy and spent the majority of my time dead or hiding in the stupid air vent for 3 minutes until guards forgot about me. And then I quit.

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    • I suspect that’s because you’re really at your best when you’re deleting people.

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    • It is definitely an acquired flavor of gameplay. Sometimes I like pressing buttons, and sometimes I like learning patterns and behaviors. Still other times, I stroll into a BG on my rogue and just Sap random people and watch with glee as they futilely attempt to find me.

      Which, now that I think about it, makes me kinda sad there are Demon Hunters running around that can just auto-detect people out of stealth.

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  3. FFXIV’s new event dungeon has a stealth mechanic which is interesting and non-binary. Every time a patrolling monster spots you, you get turned into a pumpkin for a few seconds and the group loses some “sanity”. The group has 100 total sanity and loses if they hit zero sanity, not if a monster spots them.

    Perhaps that might be an interesting mechanic to adapt to a stealth game. The player starts with 100 cover. Being “spotted” reduces your cover, but the guard only actually “sees” you once your cover is gone completely. So essentially, the whole sneaking becomes one complete encounter where you try to conserve as much cover as you can, but where you can also spend it as necessary to get past tricky spots.

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    • I’ve always envisioned a similar system to “replace” Hit Points in various games where it makes less sense to get shot 47 times and eat a candy bar to heal yourself. Like have a pool of Luck instead, where a bullet that would have hit you instead barely misses or something. Functionally the same, but a bit more “realistic.”

      I think the problem might be trying too hard to be realistic and then falling into the Uncanny Valley of systems. HP is weird and abstract, but everyone sort of accepts it at this point; portraying everything as Luck just sounds kinda weird. Similarly, I don’t know how I feel about Cover.

      Hmm.

      You know, maybe the solution is going completely the opposite direction and having something like a Suspicion or Evidence meter. Then you could have traditional stealth mechanics, but if you start taking out guards or getting spotted, the remaining guards grow more suspicious and/or you lose points for leaving a trail of evidence that indicates you were infiltrating the base at all. Kinda force players to ghost levels to succeed on the higher difficulties or something.

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  4. “When we talk about stealth games, what we’re really talking about is extremely simplified, often binary, gameplay. If you are outside the cone of an enemy’s vision, you are hidden. The alarm is either raised or it is not. The enemy is fully active or they are incapacitated.”

    And then there’s a problem with the vocabulary of player actions, which tends to be very limited in many stealth games. When all you can do is crouch, move around and sap, everything becomes a basic cone-of-vision based puzzle, and difficulty scaling is reduced to forcing the player to time their button-pushing better.

    Some of the better examples of the genre added more actions/verbs, tying them to the player’s resources (Thief), environmental objects (Hitman) or a combination of both (MGS). This approach can serve a dual purpose: it makes the player’s decisions more interesting and it gives the designer more room in regards to difficulty scaling through restrictions on resources.

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