It Was Nothing
Zachary Brictson examines the relationship between players and A.I. in the stealth genre.
As a child, I often played a game called ‘Sneaking around the House.’ It was an immersive, non-violent simulation in which I’d navigate rooms within my family’s suburban home. All it required was a parent or sibling to be the subject of my espionage and a pretzel stick “cigarette” to roll between my teeth – to my impressionable mind, Metal Gear Solid was a smoking advert more so than a videogame. My typical mission briefing would have me shimmy past my mother reading her book on the easy chair. From couch to grandfather clock and then evading the sleeping labrador, reaching the final checkpoint without being seen was absolute satisfaction. And that pretzel, however soggy it became in the duration of the mission, always tasted like the sweetest of victories.
But what I must concede is that my mother knew I was there the entire time. My presence was as obvious as it was obnoxious, something that could only be humoured by a parent (older brothers tended to be less forgiving). The times I was caught, when my parents did ask why the hell I was crawling on the floor, upset me greatly. I was partially disappointed with my performance, but more frustrated that somebody broke the make-believe scenario. Spotting me was unfair, somehow. So I’d stomp my feet and proclaim: “Mom, I’m being a spy!” and she’d take the hint. Returning to my starting point I’d try again, and sure enough, I’d get by.
“Let me win” is a child’s mentality and one the stealth genre, like a parent to a kid playing pretend, continues to humour. Sneaking up on neglectful guards is fun, for a while, but once the ripe imagination of childhood fades, it becomes patronizing. Shoot a soldier in the neck with a tranquilizer dart and they’ll conclude the needle in their skin is “just the wind.” Throw a bottle down an alleyway and a city guard will chase the sound like a dog playing fetch, without ever investigating the source of the flying object. These are familiar and concerning circumstances, to the point where the observation might be as tired as the trope. Mocking remarkably scatterbrained A.I., the weapon of choice for critics, may be painting a reductionist view of the stealth genre’s flaws, and its design options for the future.
A sneaky scenario is often only as good as it is believable. Indeed, since the genre’s inception nearly two decades ago, improvements and more aggressive enemy behaviors have earned some franchises more points than others in this regard. When Eidos showed early glimpses of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, increased situational awareness was a much touted feature. But are guards with more sensitive ears really changing anything? One patrol can have their neck broken or chest impaled and their buddy ten feet over still won’t notice. That I’m shooting out lightbulbs with a 9mm in Splinter Cell Blacklist (2013) instead of dousing torches with water arrows in Thief: Dark Project (1998) doesn’t make the guards’ reactions (or lack thereof) any less oblivious. No matter the miniscule improvements or what difficulty these games are notched to, the player is coddled.
Realism is futile. It can’t be expected from a genre that is inherently ludicrous, a genre that depends on its very stupidity to function in the first place. Sneaking up on real people is near impossible, wetsuit and night-vision goggles or not. Human behavior is so unpredictable and fickle that these videogames, upon attempting to imitate such awareness in their A.I., would immediately become unplayable. The entire genre would crumble if guards stopped sleeping on duty. These games would cease to exist if they included peripheral vision. A compound would be impenetrable if thugs would simply stand guard at the elevators and not mill about the halls. What’s that, Snake? You’ve encountered a security camera that doesn’t swivel? Abort, abort!
I don’t mean to insult. The programmers behind these games are definitely smarter than their goonish A.I. demonstrates. In fact, incapable enemies are proof that designers have their priorities in order. It’s a measured decision. Either the A.I. clearly conveys its limits and creates playability, or it frustrates the player in ambiguity. The latter case can be encountered in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us: Joel can be caught in what appears to be peripheral vision, but there’s no way to be sure. Or he’ll get pounced on if he steps near a rickety zombie within some undefined radius. Some human enemies can see down an entire hall, others only half as far. These rule sets only encourage impatience and the abusive habit of trial runs and checkpoint restarting.
When you hear a patrol exclaim “It must have been my imagination!” after throwing a brick at their face, it isn’t meant to be believable. It’s to instantly inform the player of what they can and can’t get away with. Canned reactions are functional. That stealth action is still founded upon them is a necessary evil, and has always undergone criticism. Yet the hands of developers are tied, aren’t they? What else can the genre do besides laugh at itself and continue these habits, if not become obsolete? And while some would laugh at themselves quite a lot, as Metal Gear Solid does so brazenly with its arsenal of cardboard boxes and Playboy magazines that players can distract guards with, not everyone is as fond of parody as Hideo Kojima is.
Instead, the new direction being sought is one that bypasses awkward interaction with A.I. altogether. With potent sets of tools and abilities, some games today allow the player to remove themselves from that intimacy, effectively masking the problem. In Bethesda’s Dishonored, for example, Corvo is an assassin who isn’t meant to weave in between rigid pathing. He can teleport from balcony to rooftop, magically blinking to the top of a street lamp to behind the backs of the unsuspecting guards below. It’s Corvo’s talents that are the undoing of his enemies, not their own lack of intelligence. Similarly, Batman in Arkham Asylum takes to the rafters with gadgets, swooping down on helpless sentries beneath, while Altair and Ezio in Assassin’s Creed use parkour to find architectural perches above targets.
These approaches outmode the newly released Thief, which has an average human being, by comparison, step between shadows and easily confused grunts. Thief’s tightly bound corridors make matters all too personal, and its A.I. so evidently algorithmic. Although it’s often clamored for, this issue can’t be remedied by incorporating more advanced behavior. The solution is a character who has broader options and who operates in broader environments, who can evade and kill enemies so quick and viciously that there is no opportunity to see behavioral shortcomings. Oldschool stealth is being replaced, perhaps rightfully, by this newfound view of enemies as playthings rather than obstacles. Superhuman prowess and gadgets seem to be the life preserver the genre has been shouting for, pulling it from stagnant waters.
The implications of power mixed with stealth have always been troubling, however. Combat becomes a failsafe, an alternative to the ‘Mission Failed’ screen, but is this outcome any more desirable? It usually means being thrown into hapless retaliation. The Last of Us stocks players with guns, bombs and 2x4s, but few would opt to waste it all in an estranged shootout when their original plan was to avoid confrontation altogether. Sam Fisher and Solid Snake, likewise, are routinely caught with their pants down. Players are forced into panicked combat that feels demoralizing: Digging through quick select inventory menus, desperately trying to elbow soldiers as the screen’s health indicators blare red – the games might as well throw you back to a checkpoint, since many will choose to restart anyway.
Embracing a character’s power only makes matters worse. If a thief can out-muscle their targets at a moment’s notice, why hide in the shadows at all? Why should Snake peek around an entire office floor when he can dish out flashbangs and sprint for the next door? Why is Ezio always freerunning when he could easily about-face and, using his infallible counter-attacks, kill the entire city guard? Hell, Corvo can snap his fingers and stop time itself, enabling him to waltz around and murder as he pleases! The only checks put on these powers are moral compasses that point to naughty or nice at a mission’s end, as with Dishonored’s chaos system, or equally arbitrary achievement goals that limits players to non-lethal approaches. Clearly, if such power is to be the life preserver for the genre, doesn’t the very act of tossing it unravel the identity and premise of stealth action? It replaces the original problem – enemies who act neglectful for the sake of players – with the exact opposite: a player who must act like they can’t, on a whim, kill everyone in front of them. Who is patronizing who now? Who is playing pretend?
These days, the best examples of stealth occur as afterthoughts or occasional pleasures. The Uncharted franchise or the new Tomb Raider allow players to choke out a few thugs or kick one off a cliff before engaging the remaining group. Kingdoms of Amalur and Skyrim were two RPGs where characters could enter hideouts and backstab dangerous enemies out of commission before provoking the rest. The beauty of this style of takedown killing is that it’s inconsequential. Approaching an isolated enemy for an assassination comes with the sweet feelings of stealth power without all the overhead. No dumb A.I. to toy with, no rules to abide by, no memorization to abuse, just an opportunity to slice a few throats and move on.
Of course, asking an industry to move on may not seem like a welcome conclusion. The romanticization of hooded assassins, handsome thieves, crafty rogues and legendary CIA agents is too popular to abandon to mere imagination. Grown gamers will continue to play pretend if need be. But the pessimist in me says that serious, cover-to-cover espionage will always be ridiculous. That it invites silliness, a circus act of balancing on the developer’s part and a great degree of forced roleplaying at the expense of the A.I. or the players themselves. That every time a scenario doesn’t go as planned, I’ll have to tap that city guard on the shoulder and remind them that “Hey, I’m being a spy!”
Zachary Brictson is a Computer Science graduate from Northern Illinois University who chooses to write about games rather than code them, contributing to physical publications like The Printed Blog, sites such as Playstation Universe, and his own blog, Up Magic.