In the past few months I have completed Dishonored, Assassin's Creed 3, and Mark Of The Ninja.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution is leaping out of my video game storage ottoman trying to jump up higher on my backlog list and I am awaiting more information on the release of Xbox Live Arcade's Dark.  In Far Cry 3 I sniped and explosive arrow'ed from afar as well as snuck behind Tomb Raider's thugs for a strangling via bow and a hole to the head via pick axe.  Therefore, I am now a supreme authority on the required features for stealth gameplay or another gamer with a wish list for the stealth genre's current revival. 

Sneaking through the vents, an appropriate use of the duck walk.  Other uses include crouching to inspect the undersides of furniture and walking endlessly against a wall. 

In a long ago gaming age, stealth consisted mostly of a dedicated crouch button.  The crouching animation provided us gamers with hours of enjoyment forcing our characters into a "duck walk" for the majority of the game just for giggles.  Stealth gameplay evolved into the tense and exciting gameplay of slinking through the shadows and silently neutralizing enemies.  When executed poorly the game distills into a repetitive and tedious slog.  Sadly, we lost the crouch button along the way.

Hear my pleas game developers and avoid the common pitfalls that plague the current stealth genre.  Also, when in doubt, include a dedicated crouch button, I am looking squarely at you Assassin's Creed.  Dishonored one ups the crouch button and adds the ability to lean proving that our silent heroes not only have thighs of steel but also have impeccable balance!    

Narrative or the lack thereof.

Standing alone while brandishing a sharp weapon does not encourage friendships.  Especially when lurking on rooftops. 

Stealth is the comfort zone for the gaming lone wolf who is wronged and who must seek their (re)vengeance upon the evildoers far and beyond the perpetrators of the original terrible act.  Additionally, stealth requires creeping amongst the shadows and remaining undetected.  Such a life strategy does not support social network updates for your hundreds of friends, "Prepping for a burglary tonight, wish me luck" is not a helpful status update.  However, this character trope typically results in a largely silent hero, or anti-hero, who bitterly and gruffly rejects the notion of meaningful companionship.  Quickly, the storyline devolves into a series of politically based assassinations with little personal motivation beyond restoring a "righteous" society.  Plotting and planning a clever assassination or a heist is the forefront of the game and the question of "why" is minimally addressed.  A successful operation leads to a letdown finish with expository dialogue explaining the political ramifications of removing the target or lifting the valuable thingamajig and quickly segues into "Good job, now for your next target..." 

The Assassin's Creed franchise is famous for growing assassins from personal tragedy but after the first few assignments those initially responsible are stabbed dead and the next kills are a blur.  Why was the Florence, Italy native Ezio Auditore da Firenze in the bygone city of Constantinople in Assassin's Creed: Revelations?  His family was well avenged after two full games.  In AC: Revelations after a roughly 24 hour campaign, who were Ezio's targets and why?  What were those glowing CDs again (and how did an ancient and highly advanced civilization not understand that flash drives are much more efficient?)?  I have played every Assassin's Creed game in their proper sequential order and I hardly remember the narrative pull of the individual games beyond Templars versus Assassins.  For AC: Revelations I remember the introduction of the hook blade with its "clink" sound as a last minute save from a deathly fall and occasionally blowing up wells because I had no other use for my bombs.  Even the morally gray Dishonored and Mark Of The Ninja provides protecting the young child Emily and restoring the clan's honor respectfully as a personal impetus propelling the story but both narratives wither with a personality-less protagonist.  Provide a meaningful narrative with a continuing personal stake in the local political machinations for our protagonist or at least instill our protagonist with a sense of personality and a compelling reason for remaining involved. 

Guard and other NPC conversations.

If you stand and listen quietly rather than hearing the sounds of the ocean you hear the sounds of cranky guards. 

Stealth requires a sneaky slink through the shadows resulting in watching and waiting as a big aspect of the gameplay.  Watching a guard's patterns and waiting for an opportunity to position into a stealth takedown or sneak past can become tiring.  A dynamic world includes semi meaningful or at least varied overhead speech.  Dishonored's guards repeat the same, "Shall we gather for whiskey and cigars tonight?" or the repeated so often as to cause groans, "Think you'll get your own squad after what happened last night?" throughout the entire game.   

The new Tomb Raider reboot is not a stealth game but allows for sneaking and takedowns, especially in a sequence that involves wolves, a lot of wolves.  Lara dependably crouches with the nearby presence of guards, a better example of no dedicated crouch button than Assassin's Creed but the button remains missed, and she can linger behind cover listening to the guards' conversation.  The story is expanded with simple exchanges showcasing fearful guards at faraway posts unsure of exactly the calamity occurring further inland or in the thrall of religious worship or vowing vengeance on Lara, The Outsider.  I particularly remember a sequence between guards that began, "So what did they say? What's going on up there?" "Some woman busted out all of the prisoners...killed anyone in her way." "Damn, seriously?  Who the hell is she?" "Don't know, they think she came in with that new wreck.  She killed Vlad during the round up."  The conversation continued fearing the reaction of Vlad's brother upon eventually learning of his brother's death.  While looking up a walkthrough YouTube video with the game's captions turned on in order to capture the dialogue I learned that Vlad is the name of Lara's initial kill.  At the time during my playthrough I chuckled at the guards discussing one of Lara's many kills and that a killed goon had a brother who would react to his death.  In short, make the waiting worthwhile and enjoyable.

Dynamic guard reactions.

Swinging dead bodies from lamp posts causing a panic?  No way. 

Multiple enemy types are an age old video game tradition.  Varying enemies require different offensive reactions.  For me, the original Assassin's Creed suggested an intriguing reversal of this relationship and the player reacted defensively to the enemy's offensive strikes.  As the AC franchise moves into action gameplay, I still struggle with the concept that in Assassin's Creed multiplayer I cannot attack, only avoid, my pursuer and if I attack I will automatically lose a direct confrontation.  Instead, I must wait for an attack in order to slap my pursuer into a stupor.  The paralyzing "slap" is arguably one of the most fun game mechanics today.

In stealth gaming, enemies typically react to the sound of dying comrades, to the discovery of dead bodies, as well as to your apparently flat footed and non-stealthy gameplay.  Mark Of The Ninja is a satisfying 2D side scrolling game that warped stealthy ninja gameplay into a constant puzzle of determining how to clear a room or quietly get to a treasure chest with guard reactions that are well balanced into the overall gameplay.  Besides the discovery of dead bodies causing an alert (and lugging dead or unconscious bodies to the local dumpster is only so much fun), guards' reactions can be manipulated for certain incomes such as a hanging or a thrown body instilling fear that results in "friendly fire" killing other guards and the terror of the original guard causes erratic behavior that is both helpful to sneak in for a takedown or deadly if caught in the unpredictable gunfire.  Additionally, dead bodies can be used to lure living guards for an inspection without automatically triggering an alarm and a creative arsenal allows for various combinations such as a hallucination dart causing friendly fire or quiet hiding in nearby environmental features from doorways to potted plants.  Dynamic guard reactions beyond flanking, finding cover, or a consensus to only attack in groups of one or two accentuates the puzzle-like gameplay of stealth games while preventing the usual boredom that arises from repeatedly replaying the same sequence. 

Lock picking (or hacking depending on the universe) and pick pocketing.

Controller throwing rage at not holding the controller just right versus the rising panic of finding the right elbow pipe.  Elbow pipe wins!

Variations of lock picking (or hacking depending on the universe) and pick pocketing are necessary stealth gameplay mechanics that are usually mini games.  Usually, the gameplay mechanics of lock picking are either maddeningly frustrating or upgrades all but circumvent the mechanic altogether.   I contend that Assassin's Creed 3's lock picking is one of the worse gameplay mechanics of this generation.  Ultimately, I balanced the controller on my knee in order to precariously hold both analog sticks still at wildly divergent angles while simultaneously squeezing the triggers in rapid succession.  Eventually, I expected Ubisoft to include a need for every single button on the controller to be pressed simultaneously just to ensure that the mechanic was actually impossible.  My favorite hacking mini game is the original BioShock's.  The puzzle aspect of diverting the liquid through the appropriate pipes on a timer served as a fun breather in between creeping through water logged Rapture awaiting screaming splicers or the heavy footfall of a Big Daddy.  The solid puzzle playing was a fun change of pace for a horror shooter and the save anywhere option allowed those of us who save immediately before cracking open anything to start over in the event of an explosion.  A well created lock picking mini game makes a required game action enjoyable and anticipated.  Otherwise we are groaning at the ten minute halt required to power through the sequence. 

Safe hacking is another unique variation of lock picking/hacking.  In Dishonored as well as BioShock and BioShock 2, safe combinations are often hid somewhere in the environment reminiscent of looking for a fake rock in order to access a friend's house (with their permission of course).  The mechanic itself simply requires inputting the correct numeric code but locating the number sequence serves as a reward for a thorough playthrough.      

I have never been particularly skilled at pick pocketing unsure of the intended fun of this skill set.  Typically, pick pocketing requires standing nearby the target for an extended period of time without detection.  I have antagonized many civilians into a shoving match in the Assassin's Creed franchise trying to lift or plant information.  If pick pocketing is needed, ensure that the character controls are well calibrated.  Angering the target with an unintended push from behind is rage inducing. 

Visual representation of sound. 

Vision cones helpfully inform me how to stand just outside of the guards' sight.  Plus, springing a trap with a rung gong.  So many options. 

Stealth requires sneaking and sneaking requires remaining undetected.  Sound cues are incredibly important less so as an atmospheric clue of an impending boss battle but more so for successful gameplay.  As a deaf gamer, accounting for the locations of multiple guards based on whistling, footfall, and murmured conversations is very difficult.  Even in non-stealth games such as shooters, the compass-like image that appears showing the general direction of the bullet storm helps me orient towards my aggressors rather than running amok throughout the map.    

Dishonored's supernatural power, Dark Vision includes vision cones for the guards illustrating the breadth of the guards' individual awareness.  Understanding guard's placement and the impact of my location is vital such as knowing whether or not the ficus potted tree used as universal decor is providing adequate cover.  The Assassin's Creed franchise features a colored icon above the guards' heads but the progress from a yellow to a red attack on sight alert feels arbitrary and nearly impossible to understand why my actions and/or location resulted in a change in alert status.

Mark Of The Ninja illustrates both the guards' vision as well as the player's and NPCs' actions.  Traditional guard vision cones show the reach of a guard's eyes, or of their gun's light.  Environmental sounds, including the player's footfall, is illustrated with an expanding circle similar to a radar such as shattering lights or a guard's yell or a body dropped.  Guards within the vicinity of the sound's outreach will react with an investigation including searching the last suspected location of you, the ninja.  Even the noise of flying crows is depicted and loudly ringing a gong will interrupt all of the local guards' routines.  The visual depiction of the auditory clues sets up clear gameplay that allows for purposeful maneuvering amongst the obstacle course of patrolling guards, clambering through vents, strategically placed crouching height tables, and locked doors with a distinct understanding of why the run through failed or succeeded rather than relying on guesswork.    

I am not a "run and gun" gamer.  I enjoy crouching, or duck walking, my way through a game, discovering a situation, and planning my preferred actions.  Yet, stealth gameplay quickly becomes an exercise in frustration and aggravation when the gameplay requires a strict path in order to progress.  Immersing the player as a successful shadow lurker alleviates the boredom of a slow crawl through a level and requires purposeful play without multiple restarts in order to feel as if the game is played "correctly."  Here's hoping for a slew upcoming stealth games that satisfies the assassin and thief within us all.

Thank you to all who read through my writing and may your upcoming week include copious amounts of game time to put a dent into your backlog.

What is your favorite stealth game?

How about your favorite stealth gameplay mechanic?

Were you successful with Assassin's Creed 3's lock picking mini game?

Do you miss the dedicated crouching button?