Rambling about Stealth Games: They Should be Puzzles / by Matthew Marchitto

All the pieces are spread out before you. Trying to find the puzzle pieces isn’t part of the puzzle, it’s all about figuring out how they fit together. Stealth games should be the same. Videogames can do a lot of interesting things, but the stealth genre doesn’t seem to have the same traction as others. I think that’s because the code for what makes great stealth mechanics hasn’t been broken yet. So I’m going to pretend like I have some answers. 

A little while ago I was playing Styx: Master of Shadows, and having a lot of fun with it. But it got me thinking about one of my pet peeves about stealth games. “Realism.” 

What do I mean by realism? Realism is why stealth games don’t have MGS style radars. You turn a corner, no idea what you’ll see, and BAM. A guard spots you. Now it’s time to run away and find a spot to hide. Fair enough, and it sounds fun in theory (and can be fun). The idea being to replicate what real life sneaking would be like. But with a lot of caveats. The guards have to give up hope of ever finding you after a hot minute, and whatever alert status you’ve triggered usually disappears once you pass through a loading screen (or its equivalent). And if there weren’t those kinds of caveats, chances are getting caught once would mean you’d have to start all over. That’s also why most guards can’t see ten feet in front of them unless you’re radiating light. 

I still think Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 is one of the best stealth games, and that’s because of the radar (and not because I’m turning into a curmudgeonly old man). At first glance it might seem overpowered. “It’s like playing on easy mode,” says the goblin on my shoulder. Nay! I think it’s brilliant because it throws “realism” out the window.  

I’m not saying that the addition of something like a radar would completely get rid of those caveats, but I think it would help. The radar gives the player all the tools they need to solve the puzzle. You know where the guards are and how far they can see. The obstacles are clearly defined allowing you to adjust accordingly. Not being able to see the obstacles means there’ll be a lot of reactionary gameplay, and being reactionary can get frustrating. 

I was reminded of this after I saw some footage for Ghost of a Tale (which looks awesome). You can tell in the footage that the rats take a few seconds to realize your standing in front of them. Likely because the player needs time to react when they turn a corner and find a rat bearing down on them. It’s reactionary on the player’s part. 

Giving the player a radar, or something similar, would call for an entire redesign of the environments. It would facilitate a more tactical, puzzle solving approach to getting past baddies. The trade-off is that sense of realism. Of being knee deep in the goblin castle, wondering what the hell you’ll find around the corner in subbasement 14. 

Both have their place and offer different experiences. And I enjoy stealth games that have that realistic bend, but at the moment they seem to be the predominant style. I’d like to see more stealth games that fully embrace the idea of giving you all the puzzle pieces upfront.