So yes, I quite like stealth. Although, judging by my reaction to Splinter Cell, apparently not all stealth. It’s like what I say when people ask me if I enjoy anime: That’s a medium, not a genre. It’s an animation style. Ask me about specific examples. On second thought, don’t. You’re very fat and unattractive and you smell like old milk.
I’ve been trying to figure out why, exactly, the Splinter Cell brand doesn’t push my sneaky buttons, and I think I know what it is at this point. I think it lacks the essential foundation of a stealth game. That is, that you are a shadowy, easily disregarded entity breaking into some kind of stronghold you’re not supposed to be in, which isn’t anticipating you and hopefully won’t notice you throughout. You are an outsider in a world where you don’t belong and which would prefer not to acknowledge you. That’s something the Thief and Hitman games do quite well; they use big, open-ended levels with many different routes, full of guards and civilians going about their patrols, conversations and asinine daily lives. It all goes together to give the impression of a living, functional piece of human society. This, it says, is a place that existed before you arrived, and hopefully will exist after you leave. Poorer, though, and with a couple of its occupants assassinated.
Splinter Cell, however, is a linear game. You proceed in a constant straight path from one small network of hiding places to the next. And while there are a lot of linear games I like, they’re all beset by this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that the only reason the environment would possibly be designed like this is as an assault course for visiting infiltrators. Enemies wander aimlessly about because they’ve been told you might be there. Rather than being a place that actually functions normally when you’re not around, I strongly suspect that the universe only exists within a fifty foot radius from Sam Fisher’s position. And it’s hard to be stealthy when the world revolves around you.
But at least it is stealth, and it’s always nice to see developers going some way to get away from pitched firefights all the time. You know, I was watching Kick Ass a while back, and I had a strange thought during the scene where Nicolas Cage was mercilessly gunning down a roomful of severely outmatched thugs. I remember thinking, “I do that sort of thing in games all the time. But from this perspective it looks completely psychotic. Nicolas Cage comes across as an emotionally ruined demented sociopath who I’d never in a million years leave alone with children, and the character he’s playing isn’t very wholesome either. Is this what outsiders see when they watch me playing Half-Life? And why didn’t he drop a grenade there? Those guys were standing really close together.”
So I’ve been thinking about conflict alternatives a lot lately. Now, your first response to that statement might justifiably be “What alternative is there to conflict? Passing around flowers?” Games are (and should be) all about conflict because conflict means adversity and adversity is the essence of drama. Even something like Animal Crossing has the overhanging threat of Tom Nook breaking your kneecaps for debt non-repayment. But conflict can be more than just two knuckleheads taking pot shots at each from either side of a disused warehouse.
Last week in XP, I referred to something called the “conflict triangle.” Some people mailed asking to know what the chuffing hell I was talking about. Well, it’s nothing particularly insightful; just an illustration of the many forms conflict can take at its most basic level. It all comes down to the fact that there will be a player, and there will be an enemy. Both can either be attacking or not attacking. This creates the following scenarios:
|Enemy attacking||Enemy not attacking|
|Player attacking||Direct combat (every game ever made ever)||Stealth (Thief, Splinter Cell, Hitman)
Breather moments (Getting a power pill in Pac-Man)
|Player not attacking||Evasion (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, those running away bits in Beyond Good & Evil, Pac-Man at all other times)||A lovely tea party
You see, it’s a triangle because you disregard the bottom-right one, leaving just the three corners. I’m not terribly sure where this is going, I’m just transcribing a train of thought at this point, but it’s clear that a disproportionate amount of games base themselves almost totally around the top-left corner when there are two great, big other corners everyone could spread out into. Evasion and stealth could (and indeed have) produce gameplay just as interesting as head-on fighting. More so, perhaps. Stealth is the skillful, strategic, patient neutralization of hostiles, full of those short bursts of quiet tension that come from hoping enemy A won’t turn around while you’re busily removing enemy B’s jugular vein. While evasion is a panic-driven constant flare of excitement and vulnerability. Attack-attack is just two stags butting heads until one of their skulls cave in and frankly it’s the most boring option of the lot.
Whoa, don’t get too excited, people, but I think I just figured something out. Maybe Ebert was right all along. Maybe videogames, especially combat-driven ones, are essentially flawed in their storytelling ability because their very nature is incompatible with the standard three-act structure.
You see, in, say, the plot of a film, your protagonist is generally going to be losing. Right up until the end of the second act they’re going to be the one being repeatedly shat on, either by an antagonist or their own failings, before overcoming their problems in the final act just in time to save the day. But the nature of a videogame is to give you a series of challenges, which means that in full-on combat the protagonist has to be winning all the time. Generally you start off in a low point but from then on it’s win, win, win, all the way, and it gets harder and harder to take the villains seriously when you’ve straight up murdered 90 percent of them. Ideally, a game with a three-act plot would use all three corners of the triangle – start out with evasion when you’re vulnerable, use stealth in the middle to redress the balance guerrilla-style, then gain sufficient strength to sort everything out with violence in the end. But that’s mixing gameplay styles, which is almost inevitably rubbish.
This isn’t an argument against games for storytelling. It’s an argument for games to stop trying to tell stories the same way films do. And consequently that adapting videogame stories to films is as futile as stitching a dog’s head onto a horse’s body to create a creature that can both fetch the newspaper and win the Grand National. Well, that was a fun little train of thought, wasn’t it. Maybe next time I could try to end it on a slightly less patently bloody obvious point.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.