Stealth game heroes always have the best gadgets.
From Agent 47’s piano wire, to Sam Fisher’sgoofy goggles, to Emily Kaldwin’s fistful of superpowers – these sneaky boys and girlsare often defined by their iconic inventory items.
Because the truth is: stealth games aren’tjust about waiting for guards to move out the way before you sneak past.
Instead, they’re about using gadgets, superpowers, and abilities to tip the situation to your advantage.
So welcome back to the School of Stealth – amini-series about the design of sneaky games.
For episode two, we’re now deep behind enemylines, and ready to move on.
So it’s time to reach into our utility beltand pick out the five types of stealth game gadget.
So, like I said, most stealth mechanics canbe bundled into five key categories.
Category one covers gadgets that let you gatherinformation.
Anything that lets you see beyond the limitedviewpoint of your character.
So while a shut door would usually restrictyour knowledge of what’s behind it, Sam Fisher can slip an optic fibre camera underneathand spy on the room ahead.
There’s also the motion tracker in AlienIsolation.
Peeking through keyholes in Invisible Inc.
Leaning around cover in Dishonored.
And night vision goggles that highlight enemiesin the dark.
You could even count Snake’s interrogationskills, which force enemies to give up intel on guard patrols and ammo caches.
These gadgets give you an informational advantageover the enemy.
And as Gunpoint creator Tom Francis says “whenyou know more about the enemy than they know about you, you can factor them into your thinking.
[And that] information is the raw materialplans are made of”.
These gadgets also dictate the pace of thegame.
The rhythm of a stealth game is defined bya moment of carefully observing the next room – and then moving through it.
It’s a constant, repeating loop of observationand execution.
Category two covers gadgets that let you manipulateenemies.
On the previous episode, I talked about howstealth game guards can see and hear the player by using simulated eyes and ears.
These gadgets let us use those sensory systemsto our advantage.
So the Playboy magazine, the decoy, and thedropped weapon can pique a guard’s visual interest.
The sonic Batarang, the speaker on the stickycamera, and the trusty ol’ rock, meanwhile, can trigger a guard’s hearing response.
Sometimes, the distracting element is actuallyfound within the world itself, like overflowing a sink in Hitman.
All of these allow us to move AI charactersoff of their patrol path, and into a position that works for us.
For some, that might have you open a tinywindow in the guard’s patrol so you can slip past unnoticed.
For others, it’s about luring enemies intotraps or guiding them into the dark for an easy takedown.
You can also go further and use gadgets tochange the guard’s behaviour.
In Mark of the Ninja, the Terror Dart causesan enemy to become panicked and paranoid, and you can use this to make them accidentallykill their own team mates.
Category three covers gadgets that let youredefine space.
And to make sense of them, we need to takea moment to consider how stealth game levels are designed.
Thief’s project lead Greg LoPiccolo talksabout “space being the commodity that you are trading in”, and points out how a stealthgame level is split between areas of safety and danger.
In Thief, that idea operates on two axes:light and shadow on one axis, and loud and quiet on the other.
Other games might have a different split, like high and low in Batman or public and private in Hitman, but the idea is the same: a stealthgame level is like a sea of danger, and you’ve got to swim between the islands of safety.
However, these gadgets let you manipulatethis set-up.
So in Thief, the water arrows can douse candles- turning a brightly-lit area of danger into a dark corner of safety.
On the other axis, the moss arrows can creategrassy rugs that you can stand on without making noise, changing that zone from loudto quiet.
Another twist on this, is letting you changeyour character so that you can exist in a dangerous space, but with relative safety- like using the camouflage system to blend in with the surroundings in Metal Gear Solid3, or using disguises to upgrade Agent 47’s credentials in the Hitman series.
These gadgets let you see levels as not justa static puzzle to solve, but an opportunity to change things so they put you at an advantage.
Category four covers gadgets that let youalter your movement.
Typically, these are mechanics that let youreach spots that guards can’t get to.
So, there’s Batman’s grapnel which letsyou shoot up to the gargoyles that are high above the room.
Sam Fisher’s split jump, which – in certaincorridors – lets you stand above enemies without being seen.
And there’s Dishonored’s wonderful short-rangeteleport move: Blink, which lets you clamber up to high up places – and also dart betweenareas of cover.
We don’t see these audacious moves in everystealth game, though.
Mostly, these games concentrate on stances- like standing up, crouching down, and laying prone – all of which confer different levelsof visibility, noise, and speed of movement.
Finally, category five covers gadgets thatlet you incapacitate enemies.
Where would stealth games be without the blackjack, the trip-mine, or the trusty (and admittedly unrealistic) silenced pistol? The stealth game fantasy doesn’t precludetaking out guards as long as you cover up the evidence.
Importantly, though, stealth games don’toften give you machine guns and rocket launchers.
Because, if you think about these five typesof gadget – they’re about letting you find an advantage over the enemy on practicallyevery axis – except sheer brute force.
You know more, you can move more freely, andyou can manipulate guards into doing what you want – all of which puts you in totalcontrol, until you get into a straight up firefight.
But more on that in a future episode.
The other thing that these gadgets all havein common, though, is that they must be balanced.
Without careful consideration for how thesemechanics should be limited or countered – they can cause all sorts of problems in the design.
So, unrestricted use of gadgets that let youmanipulate enemies and space can lead to dominant strategies – which are simple and incrediblyeffective tactics that you can use again and again, in place of more interesting solutions.
Things like using an endless supply of rocksto slip past braindead enemies, or dousing every torch you see.
Gadgets that confer too much information canbreak the flow of the game.
So in Assassin’s Creed Origins, you canfly your eagle buddy over a base like a feathered drone, and tag every enemy you see.
This then gives you complete knowledge ofwhere that enemy is, for as long as they’re alive.
This breaks that wonderful stealth game rhythm, essentially flattening it out into a single, effortless observation stage – followed byan unimpeded, and relatively low-stakes, execution phase.
And using overpowered weapons to kill (orpermanently incapacitate) every guard you see can actually reduce the complexity ofthe situation.
Game design professor Robert Yang says thatkilling foes in stealth games “depopulates a level, severs connections between systems, and makes the game boring”.
If you’ve ever had to exfiltrate a Dishonoredlevel by simply walking past all the corpses you made earlier, you’ll get what he means.
Oh, and there’s also that problem of x-rayvision modes being so helpful that you never want to turn them off – making the entiregame look like it’s being played on an airport security monitor.
So how can we balance the power of these gadgets? One way is to give systems inherent limitations.
Look at Ghost Recon Wildlands, which has avery similar system to the eagle in Assassin’s Creed, but the bird is replaced with a UAVthat has a limited battery, a short range, and can be shot down by observant enemies.
It lets you gather information, but it’snot omnipotent.
Likewise, The Last Us does let you see enemiesthrough walls – but only when the enemy is making noise.
And Deus Ex lets you tag enemies, but there’sa limit to how many you can track simultaneously.
Another way is to make your power temporary.
Sam Fisher can overflow fuses to turn offlights, but they’ll soon flicker back on.
A smoke bomb creates a tiny and temporarypocket of safety within a danger zone.
And when you knock out enemies in InvisibleInc, they’ll wake back up after a few turns – unless you sacrifice one of your team matesto pin them down.
A rather obvious way to restrict something’spower is just to limit how many you have.
In Chaos Theory, you only get a few stickycameras per level, and in Thief you have to pay for water arrows with the money you stolein previous stages.
While some games let you throw infinite stoneswith a touch of the button, Dishonored makes you find physical objects in the world.
And in Hitman, you can only stuff two enemiesin a cupboard before it’s full up.
You can also give AI the ability to counteryour best moves.
Enforcers in Hitman are characters who cansee through disguises, so private areas keep some of their danger.
And in Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, enemies who wear straw hats simply aren’t distracted by rocks.
I don’t know the logic behind that decision.
But, hey, video games.
This can also be handled adaptively, likein Metal Gear Solid V where guards will start wearing helmets if you’re too handy withthe headshot.
An even bolder take on this idea is the gameECHO, where enemies learn and then copy your tactics, which means if you stick to one powerfultechnique, you shouldn’t be surprised if your opponents start using it against you.
There’s also an opportunity to provide uniqueset-ups for certain levels or areas, which temporarily thwart your favourite plans.
In Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, for example, there’s a level on a ship where the engine room is filled with gas – which means youcan’t use your weapons or everything will go boom.
Then there’s the layout of the level andthe guard patrol patterns.
One guard on their own can be easily dispatched, but two guards who are looking at each other will require a much more complex plan to overcome.
And, finally, there are abstract systems thatexist outside of the current situation.
So killing a guard in Invisible Inc causesthe alarm system to ratchet up one level, and using lethal takedowns in the Dishonoredgames makes you miss out on certain grades on the end-of-level score system, and cancause changes in the narrative.
The idea is to make players more thoughtfulabout the tactics they use, and try to stop the game from veering into a more simplisticexperience.
So using weapons should be risky, not effortless.
Information should be carefully gathered andimperfect, not handed to you.
And strategies should be mixed up, not endlesslyrepeated.
That’s it for lesson two.
Come back next time for more deep dives intosneak ‘em up design.
For now, let me know your favourite stealthgame mechanic in the comments down below.
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