Whether you’re sneaking past guards unseen leaving nary a slumped body in the bathroom, cutting a silent bloody swathe through unwitting enemy forces, or cowering in a convenient closet as some terrible invincible stalker pursues your newly ripe scent, stealth games are a cornerstone of modern video games. I think that stealth is often a more satisfying approach than straight action when given the option between the two, because you’re not just eliminating or navigating threats- you’re outsmarting them. Observing movement patterns, slipping in between weaknesses in the patrols, and removing threats to your infiltration, it’s a more cerebral approach than swatting out a roomful of enemies with a big gun.
A lesser-used aspect of stealth is the use of disguises. Most prominently used in the Hitman series, but also notably turning up in the Metal Gear series and ingeniously in Team Fortress 2’s Spy class, disguises allow you to pass by NPCs (and other players in TF2’s case) unnoticed, so long as you don’t start to act too out of place, like sharpening a knife and asking if anyone wants a free back rub over there. It recently occurred to me that it’s a criminally underused mechanic, both in single player and multiplayer games.
I think my biggest problem with Hitman: Absolution is that it introduced the concept of the “instinct” resource being used to “sell” your disguises, which is represented onscreen through Agent 47 looking down and to the side, gaining a kind of “keep it cool keep it cool” saunter, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. Part of the atmosphere of previous Hitman games that I loved was the ability to acquire disguises and wander into appropriate areas unmolested by NPCs. If you were caught showing an FBI agent your piano wire throat massage technique, you’d have to show Agent Jones your bullet lipstick, but if you managed to change unseen and hide your outfit donor somewhere safe then you could go wherever the outfit let you. There really is a kind of perverse glee in just striding on by guards without anyone questioning your presence.
Team Fortress 2’s use of Spy disguise to trick enemy players into thinking you’re on their team. You use your disguise device to pick a class to emulate, and to the enemy team you appear as a member of their team, in their colour, and your name shows up as a random member of their team’s. Of course, if the person whose name you’re assuming spots you, they’ll realise you’re a squishy enemy Spy and introduce you to the wonders of cheese grater cosplay. You really have to try to emulate movements that the enemy would make in that class- but you can’t shoot the weapons that the enemy thinks you have, so you need to avoid being spotted not shooting your pals on the frontline. It’s a really interesting method of play that’s totally unlike any other class.
This mechanic seems like it’ll be explored further in Compulsion Games’ upcoming survival game, We Happy Few. Set in an alternate dystopian England, most of the populace takes a mind-altering drug, Joy, to keep them content and under control under the powers that be. The player is a “Downer”, that is a member of a resistance movement that refuses to take Joy, and wishes to escape town. The general populace doesn’t like downers very much, murderously hunting them down when they notice they’re not tripping Joy. So, the player has to act like they’re high on Joy to navigate unmolested, scavenging food and supplies from the environment and navigating the game’s procedurally-generated world. Aside from the very promising premise and inspired art style, We Happy Few seems to expand on the “Acting” mechanic to really make players think on their feet and avoid detection. Needless to say, We Happy Few seems like it could be a very interesting game.
Stealth in plain sight is so potent in games, I think, in its delicate balance of empowerment and tension. When you can brazenly trespass in restricted areas, yet feel like one wrong move might be your downfall. It’s been used so well in Hitman, Assassin’s Creed (especially online) and TF2, and I’m glad to see new games like We Happy Few picking up and running with the concept. I think that as A.I. evolves and we can start programming for more complex reactions from NPCs, disguises and other plain-sight stealth mechanics will see more use. And they should, because used right, they’re damn fun to play with.