So I played Arkham City recently, and it got me thinking about “stealth vision” in video games. What I’m referring to is, in Arkham’s case, “Detective Mode,” in which you can see enemies through walls. This is an extremely common mechanic, particularly in open world stealth games in which you have an option between combat and stealth. Very similar features have existed in games like Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of Mordor, and more recently Ghost of Tsushima.
This is one of the more annoying mechanics in modern games, and I believe it’s a symptom of developers trying to sideline stealth in games in favour of combat. Stealth doesn’t sell lots of copies, so it almost always has to be accompanied by combat options in modern games. This often leads to stealth feeling tacked on and exceedingly simple.Being able to see enemies through walls takes almost all the tension out of stealth, when that tension is the greatest strength of stealth games. It turns potentially intense stealth sections in games into merely waiting for enemies to separate themselves enough for you to pick them off. The advantage in not knowing exactly where enemies are is that you have to plan escape routes, and be constantly on-guard for an enemy to be in a place you didn’t see initially.
This wouldn’t be an issue if it was possible to reasonably play the game without the “stealth vision.” In Arkham City, enemies spot you very quickly, and are very unpredictable with how their vision-cones move. Furthermore, there are so many enemies that you essentially need to use detective mode frequently to play the game, especially on higher difficulties. Even worse, there are no drawbacks of any kind to using the Detective Mode, meaning the optimal way to play the game is using your stealth vision constantly.
When this mechanic is dropped, stealth has to be more carefully designed, but is much more gratifying and tense. Metal Gear Solid 5 is the most notable example, and is one of the best stealth-action games in recent memory. The stealth in that game becomes so much more creative and tense than when you have access to a lazy cheat-code mechanic like Detective Mode. The more recent Assassin’s Creed games have done this slightly better, in that you have an eagle that can mark enemies, but it’s still very possible to miss an enemy and be surprised when trying to sneak through a camp. The modern Hitman games have a “stealth vision” mechanic, but it’s perfectly reasonable to play the game without it, and I would say it makes the game significantly more intense, if more challenging.
If a game is designed for you to play without having a lazy x-ray vision ability, it usually ends up being more intense and engaging than the average open-world-stealth experience. It’s more work for the developers, and stealth games have proven to not be terribly commercially successful nowadays, but I still wish we’d see more attention paid to how stealth is designed in modern games.
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