The stealth game is something that often works much better in theory than in practice. The tense atmosphere and clever strategy can be dashed to the ground by a glitching spotlight or a guard’s inability to see past fifteen feet. There are very few games that can thread that needle successfully. But one of the seldom acknowledged factors of a good stealth game is not just how players can avoid being seen, but how they can see everybody else.
There is a theory in film called voyeurism that—in a far too condensed a nutshell—suggests that there is a vaguely perverted pleasure in watching people that can’t see us. Common knowledge says that people behave differently when alone than when they’re among others, the sense of being watched changes what people say and do. It isn’t often that we can see somebody before that change occurs. When somebody is caught off guard, and the opportunity to see another’s private self emerges, even the most mundane and common behaviours carry an air of mystique and taboo.
There’s a balance between being watched and watching. Being watched is uncomfortable, violating, fearful, and being able to instil those feelings on another gives one the upper hand. The sense of insecurity we get from seeing the lit office windows overlooking the test chambers in Portal would be equal to the sense of voyeuristic pleasure we would get if we were the ones behind them. A part of the fun of not being seen is lurking in on other people’s daily lives, giving us a sense of who they are when nobody else is around. A stealth game hero can see every identical mook in a way that they’re closest loved ones hardly ever catch them in. Stealth games carry an inherent fear of being seen. No matter how competent or elite the hero is supposed to be, in a stealth game the second they’re spotted and the music rises, they’re helpless. An endless battalion of uniformed goons will hunt players until they’re dead or they disappear again. By necessity these games have us lurking in the background, where there’s comfort in isolation and terror in exposure. What the best stealth games do, though, is turn this fear on the bad guys.
Consider how awkward it is not to notice somebody until after you’ve been talking to yourself for over a minute or when you fart just as someone enters the room. People do strange things when they’re alone, and being walked in on that immensely disrupts a social balance. There’s considerable subconscious power in seeing people that can’t see you (even if they’re just virtual simulations of people). Peering through a ventilation shaft to see a goon getting sick, taking a crap, humming or mumbling to themselves or whining to their colleagues exposes people at their least dignified, when they’re less human. Secret agents and theives have to go to the bathroom like anybody else but you can bet nobody has ever intruded on Batman when he’s taking a shit.
What makes these characters special, their skill at avoiding detection, makes them uniquely powerful even if they are otherwise just like anyone else. Snake is as receptive to bullets as any mercenary, but he’s still the badass superhero because his actions are undetectable; even his cigarettes are invisible until he chooses to reveal them. Shake is never caught in an indecent, undignified, subhuman condition. But the terrorists and fanatics he’s spying on don’t have that luxury, all of their dirty laundry is out in the air, eventually it’ll be exposed.
If horror games show players how uncomfortable and helpless it can feel when something is lurking after them for an unknown reason, than stealth games can show how delightfully creepy it is when that power changes hands. Without being a programmer I can think of a dozen reasons why stealth games are the most difficult to program successfully but for those thinking of sketching out the next edition of, say, the the Splinter Cell or Thief series it might be useful to remember how much fun it is to make strangers feel uncomfortable.