Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Stealth Mowed

Wellp, Pillars of Eternity made me want to play a duel-wielding rouge for once, aside from my usual mage/druid routine.
That's me stealthi... I mean sneak- I mean scouting the temple of the Quiet Slave. Normally I'd laugh off game designers' attempts to re-label overused concepts as ludicrous, vacuous, gratuitous attempts at branding. Your mana bar still contains mana even if you call it "energy" or "power" or "sprituoulousity" or whatever random crap you've come up with. In this case however I find it warranted, and apt. PoE doesn't really have a stealth feature, not as it's usually understood anyway, as the ability to sneak around opponents. As I noted in the image above, you can almost always be detected from significantly farther away than the distance you'd need to close in order to sneak by unobserved, even for a character invested in stealth. Instead you enter Scouting Mode in order to do exactly that: scout ahead spotting traps, take stock of enemies before they see you and maybe plant a trap of your own but little more.

This seems largely a capitulation to the difficulty of implementing any sort of stealth mechanics in a D&D-ish party-centered RPG. In fact the best implementation I've seen of stealth in PoE's precursors was in Icewind Dale, where it served pretty much the same function of scouting just slightly ahead to spot for a strong opening move against each group of enemies.

Say my rakish roguish (s)elf there does manage to tiptoe past the cultist. Then what? What am I supposed to do about the rest of my party, who couldn't sneak past a deaf mole with a head cold? If I have to bring them along, there's no point in stealthing past. If I don't need them to complete the objective, then why bring them along at all? A system dependent on careful interdependence of rocks, scissors and papers won't work very well if the rock can complete everything by itself.

So stealth tends to work much better in games where you're by yourself. Ironically, given the iconic role of the tabletop D&D thief / rogue, computer game stealthing tends to play much better not in RPGs but in FPS games, which are inspired more by Hollywood action movies.... in which stealthing would be considered a boring waste of screen time. Even James Bond spends more time blowing people up than sneaking past them. Survival horror games center on hiding even if they lack hard delineations of stealth, and they're almost by definition not only single-player but single-character. Of FPS games, it's the ones centering more on surviving than killing, like Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl or the more experimental projects like Sir, You Are Being Hunted which tend to be memorable for stealth mechanics. In fact the most famous stealth-centered games like Thief or Assassin's Creed seem to have straddled the line between the two genres.

So maybe it should be no surprise that the Elder Scrolls games, among the most FPS-like of RPGs, also feature a very accessible, very useful stealth mode.
- and they also happen to be single-character games. Hire an NPC redshirt in Skyrim and your ability to stealth past anything drops to "not a Leeroy's chance in Jenkins." Of course it's not like I'm trying to sneak past that mechano-spider in that screenshot. Just positioning myself to shove a very critical arrow up its tailpipe, much as my rogue would in Icewind Dale or Pillars of Eternity. Regardless of my ability to bypass a fight, I almost never do. Somehow, as soon as we get back into the realm of RPGs, solo or party-based, stealth tends to become not a way of avoiding a fight but a prelude to fighting.

Why is that?

Let's have a look at V:tM - Bloodlines.
That's a stealth kill. Bloodlines was an RPG. It had classes and experience points and backstory and varying approaches to mission completion. For one thing, many missions require you not to kill anything. Of course that still doesn't entirely explain why you find yourself breezing past enemies in stealth mode even when you're not restricted from bathing in blood. It also borrowed a very Thief-like mechanic of one-shotting any non-boss enemy just by sneaking up behind it. If you can mow them down so easily, why not do it anyway? There's something missing. Loot. In the example above, every single one of those girls, interrupted, drops a knife. You can only carry one knife at a time. Yeah, I've got the means and opportunity, but what's my motivation?

Party size is a factor, sure. So's playing different roles, some of which are not stealthy. However, the biggest stumbling block I can find between FPS and RPGs in this respect is the reward system. FPS games tend to give you very limited inventory space. You can only carry so many guns, with limited ammo. Killing everything in sight doesn't gain you anything. D&D-inspired RPGs on the other hand have you chasing down every last enemy on every map for the experience points. Pillars of Eternity tried to address this by only giving experience points for the first few kills of every creature type, but unfortunately it kept the incentive of loot drops, so you still end up chasing down every last goblin and ghoul if for no other reason than to turn its skin into potions. Same goes in the Elder Scrolls games. Kill 'em all. Never know when a few ogre prostates will come in handy. Who knows, the next enemy might have something good.

Bloodlines rewarded you almost exclusively for completing missions. No experience points from killing and very little loot, and so by dis-incentivizing the Schwarzenegger approach to problem solving it rendered other approaches viable.

So far I've purposely restricted myself to single-player examples, because in multiplayer stealth becomes much more an issue of balance and teamwork rather than direct rewards. However, I played World of Warcraft back when it first came out, along with its clones, and in vanilla WoW rogues and druids really did use their stealth ability to bypass "trash mobs" and cut to the end of missions while other classes had to wade through the hard way. In fact, one instance (Lower Blackrock Spire) was routinely run by groups composed of a 3/2 split of druids and rogues, sneaking past all the trash mobs to kill the boss in a quarter of the time it would take a normal group. This was of course because in a game with respawning mobs and infinitely regressing "end-game" goals, the incentive is to maximize the rate, not the absolute value of gains. Still, the same principle applied: killing "trash" mobs was made less palatable and thus stealth made not just a prelude to but a viable alternative to fighting.

The same was true in City of Heroes, where invisibility and teleportation were combined by some players to not just complete non-combat objectives but teleport their entire team right to the boss of an instance.

There's no strict reason for RPGs to fail so miserably at implementing sneaking. Like that old classic Bloodlines, they just have to outgrow and abandon the idiotic old mentality of hooking players through the operant conditioning routine of random loot drops and the gear and exp-farming treadmill.

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