Why Do I Always Feel Like I’m Playing Stealth Games Wrong?

My favorite thing about stealth games is the way they constantly immerse me in the moment. Each stealth kill and escape into the shadows is a pulse-pounding sequence that requires precise timing and exact inputs. Stealth games reward the skill I find especially valuable, like patience, careful observation, and creative problem-solving.

My least favorite thing about stealth games is that I always feel like I’m playing them wrong.

Every time I finish a stealth game, be it a linear immersive sim with branching paths like Dishonored or a more sandbox-style stealth game like Hitman, I always feel like I’ve somehow missed a major part of the experience. As satisfying as the moment-to-moment gameplay is, stealth games just don’t give me the same sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I get from other games when I finish them. The reason, I think, has something to do with incentives — or the lack thereof.

My love for stealth games began with Metal Gear Solid. In the original game, you are given weapons and tools to help you maintain stealth as you work your way through Shadow Moses, choking out guards from behind and hiding them in lockers as you go.  If you’re ever spotted by a guard or security camera (and I was, constantly), then every enemy in the area will start hunting you down. You can try to kill everyone before they can kill you, or you can hide in a box and wait for the heat to die down. Whether your spotted or not, the game continues on without any consequences.

Being stealthy is safer, but if you can catch the bad guys in a choke and gun them all down, then there’s nothing wrong with choosing to exit stealth. The only thing you’ll lose is some ammo and healing items, but that’s what bullets are for, right? No matter how many times I failed at stealth, I could just kill everyone and continue on without any consequences.

The Dishonored series tries to solve this problem with incentives and skill trees that funnel players into either a stealth playthrough or a non-stealth playthrough. You can run through the streets of Dunwall slicing and dicing everyone that gets in your way, but the difficulty of the game will increase. Corvo and Emily can learn abilities that make them more lethal, or abilities that help them stay hidden.

The problem with the way Dishonored handles stealth is that it incentives stealth over non-stealth. If you finish a mission without being detected or killing anyone, your scorecard rewards you with a couple of checkmarks. If you make it through the game entirely in stealth, you’ll earn achievements and the “good” ending. This communicates to me that stealth is the correct way to play because it rewards you for staying in stealth. When I played Dishonored, I felt like I had no choice but to save scum every time I was spotted by an enemy because the game rewards me for doing it. This encourages a lot of people to play through the game multiple times, but I’m not much of a replayer, and reloading saves over and over to beat Dishonored “correctly” has given me Dishonored fatigue.

Then there’s the sandbox style of Hitman. This is the stealth game that confuses me the most. When starting a new level of Hitman, you’re given a plethora of methods to assassinate your targets. Choose one, then simply follow the quest marker and do the most obvious thing when you get there. If they’re on the phone, you listen to them talk, if they’re alone, knock them out and steal their clothes. If it’s your target, walk up to them press the kill button. As you explore each level, you’ll discover new ways to finish the job – all you need to do is follow these new objectives markers.

Hitman is fascinating because there are so many ways to accomplish the same task, yet none of them are the “correct” way. Completionists and trophy hunters enjoy repeating the mission and trying different tactics. The game rewards completion rather than exploration and discovery. I mentioned I don’t love replaying games, but I feel especially disinterested in repeating the same level just to experience a slightly different sequence of events.

In the Paris mission, I can follow a quest marker to a journalist, follow a quest marker out to the news van to get her a new lens, follow a quest marker to her interview with the target, and kill the target as soon he’s alone, or I can read the mission details in the pause menu and just imagine I did all those things. On the other hand, if I don’t want to replay a mission just to follow another quest chain, I don’t feel like I’m playing the game correctly. I’ve been told you’re supposed to turn the quest markers off so you can find things for yourself. If that’s how it supposed to be played, though, why do I have to go into the settings to turn them off?

Metal Gear Solid asks you to just make it through to the end however you can. Dishonored presents stealth and non-stealth as two distinct playstyles, yet over-incentivizes stealth. Hitman only incentivizes different playstyles to the extent that you’re willing to replay the same mission a dozen times and make your own fun. These are three very different types of stealth games and each one approaches player incentive differently, yet somehow they all have the same problem.

Am I supposed to save scum in Dishonored? Am I supposed to turn the quest markers off in Hitman? I don’t know how to play these games correctly. I love them, but I always finish them feeling like I played the whole game entirely wrong.

Next: All Six Hitman 3 Locations Have Finally Been Revealed

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Eric Switzer is the Livestream News Editor for TheGamer as well as the lead for VR and Tech. He has written about comics and film for Bloody Disgusting and VFXwire. He is a graduate of University of Missouri – Columbia and Vancouver Film School. Eric loves board games, fan conventions, new technology, and his sweet sweet kitties Bruce and Babs. Favorite games include Destiny 2, Kingdom Hearts, Super Metroid, and Prey…but mostly Prey. His favorite Pokémon is Umbreon.

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