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Stealth gameplay is in a weird place these days.

Too many times while playing a stealth game have my abilities conflicted with the character’s. I’m used to playing stealth games that feature a pretty powerful protagonist (Splinter Cell, Hitman, Dishonored), so it’s a pretty abrasive halt in the action when I fail to pull out the correct silenced gun to take out that guy that just spotted me. Sam Fisher sure as shit wouldn’t have accidentally lobbed a flashbang. He’s a deadly, trained professional and he knows which holster his fucking silenced sidearm is in. While it provides a humorous pause to the action, it really makes a distinct dissonance between the player and the character.

Newer Splinter Cell games have solved this, kind of (the mark-execute action, for example). Actually, let’s take that one outside of the brackets. Mark and execute lets you pick about three targets (caps out lower or higher depending on your circumstances) and then you hit a button when you’re ready to watch Sam flip out and kill them all with perfectly timed headshots. When juxtaposed with the rest of the game it’s equally jarring – here’s you, running around banging into walls and accidentally dropping grenades straight down instead of perfectly arching them into that sniper nest… and for a few brief slow-motion seconds, here’s Sam, allowed to actually be Sam, and not hindered by our shitty inability to remember what the right bumper does.

Something really important lies in that moment – I’m sure players often complain about that mechanic as it feels like an instant win button in many situations. I get where that feeling comes from, as most of the game does play out in the style of a shooter and triggering that sequence does all the shooting for you. But, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, an instant win button – it demands strategic thinking of you rather than demanding technical shooting proficiency. You have to position yourself appropriately, you have to pick which targets to eliminate and which extras to take care of before hitting the button, and then you have to pick the appropriate time to carry out the action. The game was decently good at presenting you with several situations in which you had to deal with many more enemies than you could immediately kill – so taking out three and giving away your position would still result in trouble, and demanded a more careful approach.

I want to see a stealth game take that to its logical conclusion. When you’re in trouble, you should be able to hit a button to get out of it, and quickly cap the person that saw you – but by that token, AI and enemies need to be much more severely aware. They need to understand once someone goes missing and aggressively investigate. They need to sound the alarm very quickly after spotting you. The game would ideally be about being as literal of a ghost as possible – not being seen or heard whatsoever – and being able to kill quickly and easily, with almost no room for messing up a button press.

The failure shouldn’t be in the technical prowess involved – the character already has that part on lockdown. The failure should be in the player’s inability to correctly approach the situation – a mistake that the character could just as easily make if they’re idle-minded, and the narrative could easily encompass such mistakes into playing out capture or escape scenarios.

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