The Stealth Letters, Part One
Hiders & Seekers
Stealth game fans pay heed. Over the next two days RPS hosts a conversation between Nels Anderson, Lead Design of Mark Of The Ninja, and a number of other stealth-game luminaries, as they discuss matters of of sneaking and hiding in videogame form. Anderson talks to Patrick Redding, Game Director on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, and Raphael Colantonio, co-creative director of Dishonored.
This is part one, part two will appear tomorrow. Onwards! (But stay out of sight...)
Nels Anderson, Lead Designer of Mark of the Ninja
Thanks for taking the time out of your undoubtedly busy schedules to talk, although given the subject material, I don't think I had to twist any of your arms too hard. Given that we're all just finished or are in the midst of making a stealth game, it seems like it would be mad not to take the opportunity to discuss this style/genre/whatever we call it. Plus I thought it would be interesting to get a couple of different perspectives, comparing the experiences of smaller folks like myself and Andy to the much larger scale you work in, Pat and Raph. Also, maybe Pat could offer some insight into what it's like to work in a long-established series like Splinter Cell, vs. the rest of us who are working on games without direct predecessors.
To start, what is it that you all find interesting about this type of game? Or more simply, why make these games? Beyond their surface trappings, they've always felt ... distinct, I guess could be the word. They felt different from other types of character-based games, but I was never able to put my finger on exactly why until I started really digging into how they work so I could, you know, design one. So what seemed to emerge, and I'm really curious about the rest of your take on this, is the flow of their gameplay is fundamentally "pull" where nearly all other character games are about "push." So by "push" I mean the gameplay is mostly taken on the game's (read: designer's) terms. The player enters some area crossing a trigger, enemies spawn, they come charging at the player and they have to react. Even something that's more of a puzzle is still about the player encountering said obstacle and trying to derive how they must get past it. I'd call this sort of thing very designer-centric. And to be clear, that's not a value judgement- great games have been and will continue to be made in this vein.
But stealth games are interesting to me because they're not this. As the default state of the game world is to be ignorant of the player (because, well, they're hidden), it must be able to operate independently of the player. This seems to result in stealth games being more systems-oriented, with lots of interconnecting gears and pulleys, so to speak. The players wait and observe, and then perturbed the system in a very considered way. They basically pull the world into some new state that suits their purposes to interact with its systems. While success is still defined by the designer on a very high-level, almost anything else is at the player's pace and on their terms. The context of play is no longer just about reaction and survival. I think it's fair to call these games more player-centric. And that's really interesting to me.
Especially because the consequence of this seems to be that play in these games tends to be far more intentional than other types of character-based games. Thinking tends to take place at a higher level that's more about chains of cause and effect, rather than discrete moments of immediate reaction. The players are able to manipulate the game's systems to get the output they want. There is a dependency that emerges from this though- players need to be able to understand the game's systems to bend them to their will. I think this is a factor in why some folks don't really connect with stealth games. The core stealth systems are generally quite opaque and they require a bit of risk and experimentation to parse out. But given the power dynamics of most of these games (i.e. the player is quite vulnerable in many circumstances), I can see how it could be a bit schizophrenic. I think some folks might be feeling that friction when they try stealth games and don't really connect with them.
And that's the long, circumtuitious path to the guiding principles I had when designing Mark of the Ninja. Because 2D side-scrolling stealth hadn't really been done before (Tom Francis didn't make the excellent Gunpoint known until about 6 months after we started Ninja, ditto on Stealth Bastard), the design process ended up being a lot about deconstructing what works in 3D stealth and figuring out how to provide gameplay that *felt* similar, but actually was achieved through rather different means. I'll spare the details for now, lest I bang on too long before we even get going, but suffice to say, we ended up having to do a lot of things that were pretty counter-intuitive. Andy, even though Monaco is top-down and it seems to have a little more in common with 3D stealth games (as in you have, you know, corners to hide around if guards are approaching and such), I imagine there were some differences, yes?
Pat, I wanted to turn things over to you first though. Even though Far Cry 2 isn't explicitly a "stealth game," I think it does have a lot of those player-centric dynamics that I mentioned above. And I know I spent a lot of time skulking around in tall savannah grass, waiting for the right moment. Was that an intentional decision you all made or was it just a subconscious thing with Clint and so many other folks having spent time on Splinter Cell? And what kind of things did you all discover while working on FC2 that you've brought back to Splinter Cell?
Patrick Redding, Game Director on Splinter Cell: Blacklist
You brought up an interesting point about the underlying philosophy of Far Cry 2 that sort of exposes its stealth roots.
Around the time work started on FC2, we were really preoccupied with two key ideas that Clint had explored in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, the first being design for intentional play (which was literally the title of his GDC talk that year), the other being reconciling dynamic meaning with narrative theme. Both those interests strongly informed the design culture on FC2, but we definitely succeeded more at the former than the latter. If you talk to Jon Morin (who was the Level Design Director on FC2 and is now the Creative Director on Watch_Dogs), he’ll tell you about the challenge of identifying parameters for an open world that allowed the level designers to organically deliver recognizable gun combat encounters, in a space where both the player and the systemic AI have 360 degrees to maneuver. His solution was to look at the spatial density of game ingredients in different combinations — so attacking from low density to high, or high to medium, or medium to low, etc. — because anything more pattern-driven started to expose the hand of the level designer in a really ugly way.
That approach had a surprising output, which Clint talked about after FC2’s release: The defining moment of the mid-level experience became that instant when the player has observed the tactical situation near an objective, developed a plan, and was just about to execute that plan when the game world systemically burps up something utterly unpredictable to monkey-wrench everything. If FC2 succeeded at nothing else, it took that notion of a systems-oriented, independent, objective universe and gave it permission to explode into anarchy, which nicely aligned with our larger intended meaning, I think. That dynamic is ALSO very present in systemically deep stealth games. Splinter Cell always featured fairly linear environments, but as the series progressed it started opening up the levels to different player approaches, letting you tackle the objectives in different order and experiment with how that altered the conditions in each section as you completed everything. That meant you weren’t just playing cat-and-mouse with an individual guard in a corridor, but with the entire security apparatus of the map.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: When stealth games had their “golden age” from Thief and MGS to roughly the first Splinter, it felt like they hit a sweet spot between player accessibility and production values that were possible for that generation of tech. It was okay for the game’s metaphor to be a bit gamey if it was readable and affordant and rewarded exploration.
Somewhere along the line it became too expensive to make games like that because the world needed to be “cinematic” and that’s antithetical to very high levels of interactivity. It became too expensive to create a fully-realized AI that might never know the player was there or a section of the world that the player might never see.
The other challenge was that as blockbuster games became more immersive and realistic, the tools they gave to the player for reading the state of the game – which really hinge on the simulation of human reactions that are at the far end of nuance scale – seemed increasingly crude. In real life, if I’m hiding in a dumpster to avoid the cops, and I’m peering through a tiny crack at some scared rookie who’s slowly advancing down a dark alley with his gun and maglight, I’m parsing non-verbal cues (to tell me whether I should hold my breath or make a run for it) that are as old as time and yet a thousand times subtler than anything we ask AI to do in games.
So the prevailing view in our industry has been that players won't tolerate having to process a ton of second-to-second information about the game-state, making pure stealth play a tough sell. But when I look at Mark of the Ninja or Monaco, what stands out is that the more symbolic/illustrative metaphor allows players to process a LOT of information. They’re immersed systemically, and it doesn’t pose a problem at all.
Andy, I know that Monaco went through some fairly significant changes in terms of graphics and presentation direction between the version you showed at IGF and what we're seeing now. How much of that you trying to optimize the amount of game-state intel you're feeding the player, vs the visual polish that goes along with finishing the game? By contrast, did the player's low-level actions change much at all?
Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco
First off, let me thank Nels for hosting this conversation, and all of you for including me. It's an honor to be included in such an illustrious crowd.
Pat, you brought up an interesting point: that in the real world we can use subtle clues to understand human behavior, whereas in a game, NPC behaviors are more mechanical, limited, and far less subtle. I don't have a problem with this. The ideal AI -- in a stealth game -- is one that follows predictable but complex rules, immersion be damned.
The purpose of infusing a humanity into stealth AI is NOT to make the player feel "in the game". The purpose of realism in AI is so that the player can more easily intuit the rules that govern their behavior. Immersion, in my opinion, is a canard, given that we are asking players to accept all sorts of weird things bout the game world and its rule-based limitations. Players accept the fact that the guard doesn't check the closet after the fifth time he heard a suspicious sound, and that doesn't in any way reduce the fear of being caught or the thrill of escape.
To that end, Monaco really throws immersion out the window. Instead, the game relies on the player's ability to interpret symbology in order to connect emotionally with the state of the game world. As a side note, this is one of the reasons that Monaco is set to a silent film score piano soundtrack -- because the game very explicitly asks players to use their imagination to fill in the blanks between what they are seeing and the reality of the game world.
This leads me to Nels' comparison of stealth games being mostly "pull" while other games are "push". Pat's description of the Far Cry world being almost fractal in it's self-similar interactivity reminded me of how difficult it is to design a game where the world simulation acts as the main character of the game, rather than the player character himself. And when the game world is your main character, the player becomes a hero of the negative space, rather than the positive. Living in the negative space of the game world is disconcerting, and is one of the primary drivers of the tension and fear in a good stealth game. In games that provide a stealth option as a predecessor to combat, players use the negative space to choose their entry point into the positive space.
Of course, one of the things I think stealth game designers often struggle with is that it's hard to avoid punishing the player when they fail to remain in the negative space. In many stealth games, players only have a choice between perfection and failure. I'm curious if games like Far Cry and Dishonored, which seem to live in BOTH the positive and negative space, deal with rewarding the player for less than perfect stealth strategies. During development, did you approach level design in binary terms ("the stealth option" and "the combat option"), or did you approach things from a more analog perspective? Are you relying on the player to make choices based upon preferred play style or strategic analysis? And do find that players are predictable in those choices?
Raphael Colantonio, co-creative director of Dishonored
Great question Andy.
Harvey and I often talk about this very point with the team: We don’t have “the combat path” or “the stealth path”, we like our environments to support a variety of play styles at any point: so we design our missions and locations in a way that the same spaces can be used for both, including a player’s sudden change of strategy: there’s always a place to hide, etc… so the player really makes his own path as he plays.
In our games, stealth is not enforced, it is encouraged in different ways: you save resources, there is the emotional pay off of sparing someone's life, also you’re more lethal when you take people by surprise… but we have to take into account that the player can fall back to combat at any time, and we must make sure he still has fun if he does so and doesn’t feel punished for falling out of stealth. This specific dynamic has really been one of our hardest game design challenges in Dishonored: to encourage stealth, but not punish the more direct player or make him feel like he's failing in any way. We want to make sure he's still having fun no matter what. To meet that challenge, we did a lot of micro tuning, including making the combat very hard, while keeping it fair and rewarding: the player might die but he had fun and he felt powerful on the way.
Nels, I really liked what you said about what attracts you to stealth games. I share your thoughts, specifically the part where you describe the world living on its own. In addition, I would say that the feeling of being somewhere forbidden, and the feeling of being vulnerable if I get caught are two things that really work for me.
Next time: multiplayer stealth?