Why Does Video Game Stealth Always = Crouching?

Over the last two nights I’ve played a few hours of Alpha Protocol, Obsidian’s new “Espionage RPG.” I mostly like it – it’s basically Mass Effect with spies, but I’ll write more on that in a later post. But something about it rubs me the wrong way…

Okay. Have you ever noticed how, with few exceptions, just about every video game out there that incorporates stealth into its play defaults to the old “Stealth = Crouching” setup? Alpha Protocol does it, and so do Fallout 3, Second Sight, Escape From Butcher Bay, Metal Gear Solid, Rogue Ops, and pretty much all the others that I’ve ever played1. In all of these games, “stealth mode” is usually triggered by pressing or holding a single button (frequently the “L3” button beneath the left trigger), which throws your character into a crouch which frequently looks comically ridiculous, reminiscent of old Looney Tunes characters sneaking along by their toes while rapid the sounds of a xylophone play.

I find this to be both unrealistic from a gameplay perspective, and flat-out lazy from a design perspective. One notable and wonderful exception to this ever-present crouching rule is Thief: Deadly Shadows2. I previously mentioned thief in my post on lighting mechanics as an excellent example of that concept, and it serves well here, too. In this game, stealth is accomplished simply by *gasp* walking slowly. The game does have a crouch mode, but it only marginally affects your stealthiness and is primarily used to access smaller places in the environment. In T:DS, the slower you move, the quieter you move, softening your footsteps and blending more into those “deadly” shadows.

While at the gym this morning I had an idea for a new way to implement stealth in console game. Both the PS3 and the XBox 360 have controllers which feature pressure-sensitive triggers. My idea involves having the left stick move the character around the screen, always at a full run. Use one of the triggers, then, to pace that movement. The further down you hold the trigger, the slower and more stealthy the character moves. Incorporate that with a context-sensitive cover mechanic (good examples of cover can be found in Mass Effect 2, or Wanted: Weapons of Fate), and you will have a much more enjoyable and intuitive stealth system that doesn’t lazily default to crouching. This would make stealth itself something of a pressure-inclusive mini-game. To make it more RPG-compatible, put a gauge of some sort on the screen showing a scale running from “completely stealthy” to “completely obvious.” The scale would contain certain set areas of stealthiness, and an arrow would float between them as you move. Raising your Stealth skill or related abilities would widen the stealthy areas, shrinking the less-stealthy areas, to the point that a true stealth-ninja master would have a scale mostly comprised of the “maximum stealth” area.

I would love to play something like this. I would keep this mechanical idea a secret for my own video games, but who the hell am I kidding? I just don’t have any intentions to design them myself, so perhaps someone will steal this idea and make something awesome.

Footnotes

1 I admit I’ve never played any of the Splinter Cell games. How are they? How do they handle stealth?
2 I’ve also never played the first two Thief games, ’cause I’m just not a big fan of stealth in First-Person Shooters. Of course, I’m not much of a fan of non-stealth FPS games, either. For me to like a FPS it usually has to be a truly fabulous paragon of its kind.

3 thoughts on “Why Does Video Game Stealth Always = Crouching?

  1. The blend option (your stealth option) in Assassin’s Creed sounds a lot like the mechanics in Thief. Most of what you do in order to hide involves hiding in plain sight, so walking slowly and not climbing on walls when guards are nearby. Also, reputation plays a factor into how easily you can be noticed.

  2. Actually after reading your ideal stealth mechanics, they sound a LOT like Assassin’s Creed.

    All in all, I don’t think the game is your type of game and I don’t think it would trigger nerdgasms for you like Fallout 3 and the like, but if you want to check it out let me know.

  3. You just described in a surprising amount of detail, the exact stealth mechanics of splinter cell. Go play any of the splinter cell games and you’ll find yourself immensely.

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