A New 'Thief' Is Coming--What It Can Learn From Last Year's Excellent Stealth Games (Part 1)


Eidos Montreal's 2014 release of "Thief" has the misfortune (arguably) to arrive after the well-received "Dishonored," a game whose look and feel was inspired by the Eidos franchise and is fresher in gamers' minds. And look, conceptually, I've admired the stealth game more than I've actually wanted to play it. Give me a game like Ubisoft's first few "Splinter Cell" games, and I'll politely acknowledge the intricacies of the level design which are driven by deliberate, cautious encounters (or non-encounters) with trigger-happy, heavily-scripted enemies. Looking at something like "Tenchu" it was about limited input for an over-matched player character in tightly-controlled game worlds of trial-and-error survival and typically, I've hated every minute of them.

But 2012 saw the release of four titles that took the lessons of their predecessors and evolved the genre in smart ways. Consider the exquisite art and sound design of Klei's "Mark of the Ninja" which made its world one of the deliberate, clever audio/visual feedback, which the game's Lead Designer Nels Anderson described to me as "player-centric."

Anderson joined IO Interactive Game Director Tore Blystad ("Hitman Absolution), along with "Hotline Miami" co-creators Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin, and Arkane Studios' ("Dishonored") Creative Co-directors Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith to talk about keeping the tension, empowering the player, and building a better stealth game--concepts I hope the next "Thief" takes to heart.

As With "Hitman Absolution," Allow Accidents To Happen

The "Hitman" formula didn't get a dramatic reinvention with "Absolution"--this is still the planner's stealth game. The core experience remains exploring the map, avoiding detection, and identifying/executing Agent 47's target before slipping away, unnoticed. It's the systems that IO Interactive have tweaked and added this time out that make the experience feel wholly different than previous outings in the series which began with 2000's "Hitman: Codename 47."

Outlining the changes in "Hitman: Absolution," Blystad says his team has integrated a hint system to identify points of interest for the player, while added "a more graphical "attention HUD" to visualize the NPC reactions to the player. The biggest change, perhaps, is the Instinct Mode, a metered ability which allows Agent 47 to see objectives, NPCs, and NPC movement patterns. Time dilates, the world's colors become desaturated, and for a few seconds, even amid the crowded streets and alleys of Chinatown, Agent 47 is able to pinpoint his mark, on a cellphone surrounded by guards.

With this last feature, IO was very aware that Instinct could potentially break the game. "We were really scared of giving away information to the player and when we implemented the first version of the Instinct feature we thought it would be far too powerful," Blystad explains. "But what it did for us was to move the challenge from players knowing everything about the level (usually by hours of recognizance) to being about strategy, how to get past areas or dealing with NPCs." Plus, the Instinct meter allows the player to pull off slow-motion, multiple character kills in a move lifted from "Splinter Cell: Conviction's" Mark and Execute (although Agent 47's kills aren't instant, and NPC's are still able to raise the alarm or make noise as they see their comrades fall). And of course, for the hardest of hardcore players, all of these inputs can be turned off in higher-difficulty Purist setting.

"One thing we spent a lot of time with on Absolution was to find better ways of presenting the situations to players and giving them tools to avoid some of the more tedious trial and error gameplay."

- Tore Blystad, "Hitman: Absolution"

So knowing where the target is and what they're doing, the challenge then becomes "how to get to him," and more importantly, "how to make it look like an accident?" Blystad says that it's easy to kill in "Hitman Absolution," the real skill comes in getting away with it. Through its arcade-style scoring system, "Hitman Absolution" very deliberately encourages players to move away from using Agent 47's more traditional arsenal of guns and garrotes. Instead, keep an eye out around the game's open levels for a fuse box that might power up a nearby electric fence, or poison that could potentially be dropped into a NPC's pizza.

"We tried to come up with as many different concepts as we could, but it is a pretty challenging task because we wanted some parameters to be present with the kills," Blystad explains. "There needed to be an effort up front in exploration and planning, and then a deliberate action to trigger the accident at the time of the kill."

It's this emphasis on player exploration--along with sometimes highly-variable AI behaviors and the game's detection system--that prevented the developer from completely getting away from the trial-and-error experience. "The detection system was going through countless iterations all the way up until the release of the game, and we would have loved to spend more time refining it. It's one of those impossible design tasks where there are so many unpredictable situations in the game, each level having its own challenges in terms of architecture and NPC placement, that whatever we did to the system, there were places in the game where it would freak out."

To counter some of these challenges, Blystad's team scaled back the size of the levels (he's especially proud of his team cutting the "Death Factory" level down to a third of its size) in order to account for the Butterfly Effect created by the nexus of the permeable NPC behavior and player choice. Quite a few of the levels have Agent 47 hiding in plain sight among crowds, Blystad explaining that these large groups of people often function like one massive organism in the game. In its design, "Hitman Absolution" had to be very deliberate in teaching the player to recognize how the world would see their Agent 47, Blystad pointing to early showings of the game at trade shows where players would stride into a crowd, gun drawn, only to panic the crowd with SWAT coming in to take down the armed bald guy. "We really mulled over this problem and how we could make the game a little more forgiving to the player's actions, but inside the crowds everything is quite binary, they are either happy or in a panic. So we put our efforts into making the hint systems inform the players of 'acceptable' behavior in civilian environments."

Don't Be Afraid To Let Players Die (And Die Again) Like In "Hotline Miami"

The creators of "Hotline Miami" don't really consider theirs to be a stealth game--if anything, co-creator Dennis Wedin sees the indie hit as more of a "puzzle arcade action game." A savvy enough player could complete a "Hitman Absolution" chapter undetected with only the primary target kill as the only indication that Agent 47 was there. By contrast, a spray of blood or bashed-in head serve as the telltale signs that its nameless protagonist has been through. If the player can be a ghost in "Hitman," they're forced to be a force of brutal, swift violence in "Hotline Miami."

Inspired by Michael Mann by way of "Smash TV" with a dash of 80's LSD acid trip thrown in, "Hotline Miami" is like an abrupt jolt that sticks with you for hours after playing it. Maybe its the neon-drenched, top-down levels, patrolled by white suit wearing, faceless goons, or the pervasive sense that your identity-free "hero" might, in fact, be on some kind of prolonged, lethal trip shooting, slicing, and dicing his way through the Miami nightlife. There is no world, but the kill, and outside of interstitial chapters, there are no civilians or NPCs to trouble the player's conscience. It's a strange horror show where the jump scares come when one of those faceless guards catch sight of the player's voiceless killer.

Wedin and co-creator Jonatan Soderstrom were surprised at the visceral reactions to the game at GamesCon, with some players jumping in their seats the first time an enemy would rush and kill them in-game. Wedin cites an incident where one gamer returned with his own towel to mop up the profuse amounts of sweat the tension of playing the game produced (he was wary of shorting out the game's keyboard). Sonderstrom ways he was dubious about the GamesCon reactions, having never encountered the same kind of freakouts in his own game--you know, until he finally did. "I kind of laughed at it, thinking that people were maybe getting a little bit too into it at the time, but then a couple of months later it happened to me too! I guess the gameplay experience is tense enough for this kind of thing to happen."

"It was pretty evident early on that the game got very chaotic and difficult when we introduced larger open spaces, and that's only something we put into the later parts of the game when we wanted the difficulty to ramp up a bit."

- Jonatan Soderstrom, "Hotline Miami"

The top-down release from from the two-man outfit at Dennaton Games, was inspired by the mechanics in “Super Crate Box,” “Hakaiman,” “Nikujin,” “Tappan Kaikki,” “Chaos Engine,” “Alien Breed,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Loaded,” focused players killing enemies quickly (or dying themselves via one-hit kills). Levels are made up of tight corridors and closed-door rooms where enemies lurk. Sometimes, these weapon-toting goons will pace methodically in regular circuits around a room, while other times, they might just stand stationary, blocking the next place the player needs to go. Speed is integral to the "Hotline Miami" experience: like "Hitman Absolution," the game is scored based on how you approach the levels (variety of kills, etc.), but the core of the game is about stringing together kills (gotta keep that multiplier up) and picking your target before they pick you out.

It's seldom that these encounters resolve themselves with one on one shootouts with the player coming out on top (at least in my experience): although Sonderstrom concedes that the AI might not be too bright (especially in tighter spaces), the "Hotline Miami" NPCs are simply too fast to escape most times, with hair trigger reaction times. Where "Hitman" (and another title under consideration here, "Dishonored") open the game up to player choice in how to approach and survive encounters with the enemy, Wedin and Sonderstrom chose to instead concentrate on refining a few discrete interactions--NPC behavior is binary, kill or no kill, and besides being able to grab enemies as human shields, the player is primarily restricted to brutal, bloody, 8-bit kills.

The Dennaton duo said that their goal was to ensure that the stealth/combat puzzle remained intact, which is why enemies mostly revert to their normal patrol routines after the player has (somehow) successfully evaded detection. "We wanted to make the levels into rooms made up of small puzzles that need to be figured out before approaching them," Wedin tells me. "With that in mind, we didn't want the enemies to wander away too much from their starting positions so that the puzzles was destroyed or made easier." That means they'll rush to the sound of a gunshot or if they see the player character (and pray you don't get in a dog's line of sight), but for the most part, NPCs behavior will rubber band back to where it was at the start of the level. "We had to make some design decisions regarding how the AI reacts to things happening around the enemies."

To preserve the integrity of their combat puzzle, Wedin and Sonderstrom pared down the experience, like IO Interactive, reducing the size of their levels while culling any features that weren't related to killing or being killed. "We considered letting the player jump in through windows so he could decide where to start a level, but it made more sense to restrict that so that we could set up the levels for a good flow," Sonderstrom says, while Wedin adds that the "shoot and smash" controls were down fairly early on in the prototyping process.

While I'm not sure what to expect from the combat puzzle for "Thief" (its team has gone on record as making the usual stealth game promise that it can be completed with a non-lethal approach) I do hope that death isn't simply a way to allow players to test the parameters of the level/encounter. That's an outmoded system, I think, down to the simple trial and error stealth gameplay of the past. How often have stealth games boiled down to memorizing enemy patterns via accidental death just so you could dodge your way through them perfectly on the next try?

I prefer the Dennaton approach, which allows for experimentation and mistakes with the understanding that the challenge could be a little different when you come back from the dead. In that case, it's not about perfecting the player's understanding of how the enemies behave but the level, and what the player is able to do with their character. You want them to get really good at playing your game as opposed to really good at memorizing how it works.

In tomorrow's part two, we'll look at "Dishonored" and giving the player too many choices while "Mark of the Ninja" uses sound and light expertly to make you a stealth expert.

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