Stealth in Non-Stealth Video Games

So, here’s the thing. The Breath of the Wild is nearly a perfect game. It’s epic, it’s engaging, it’s absolutely breathtaking. But, it still falls prey to one of the biggest complaints in game missions: the mandatory, horrible, controller-smashing forced stealth section. And, more than that, the game tacks on an escort mission to that forced stealth, two things that send gamers into fits.

 I hate you.

I hate you.

I am speaking of course, of that mission spent crouched in the grass as a tiny, green Korok who blends in to the same grass races ahead, checks behind him, and at one point sprints directly back at you.

There’s also the occasional enemies that attack Link and only Link to blow your cover, regardless of the fact that you’re meant to be “protecting” this little guy. Aforementioned little guy shows nothing but contempt for your saving him from wolves twice his size or, one a few occasions, literal skeleton monsters rising from the ground. No, he just exclaims, insists that he can do it alone, and deposits you back at the start to try again.

This mission could have been copy pasted from many other games, one those missions where you have to follow someone to trail or eavesdrop on them and their walking speed is slower than your slowest walking speed. That’s to say nothing of games like, say, the most recent Spider-Man wherein an action game quite suddenly hits you with a stealth section, wherein detection of your usually not-stealth oriented character is an insta-death and failure. Done poorly, these sections can grind games to a halt, frustrate players, and induce epic and memorable rage quits — ask me about that one section of Jak II sometime.

And, the thing is, every gamer I know has one game, one forced stealth section, that haunts them. But, when done right, stealth is my favorite aspect of video games. I play a sneaky mage who summons weapons in Skyrim. I’ve beaten all the Batman Arkham games several times over. The most fun I’ve ever had hiding in closets was in Alien: Isolation. So, what do those games have that games like Breath of the Wild don’t in their mandatory stealth sections?

There is absolutely a stealth system in Breath of the Wild, there to use if you so desire. It is right there denoted in the lower left corner of your mini-map and you can use it to sneak up behind enemies and deliver a sneak attack insta-kill. In practice, this works fairly well to just okay, depending on what armor you’re clanging around with, but only most of the time. Outside of these forced stealth sections (the Korok trial and that extended Yiga clan section, which is forgiven only for my love of bananas), the treatment of stealth as optional is what keeps it alive. And, in fact, the stealth heavy games listed above also treat stealth as optional — at the very least to where you can attempt recovery if you’ve messed up.

In the Batman Arkham games, if I failed a stealth action, well, I was still Batman and had the option to punch ‘em up, non-lethally fracture a few spines, and disappear back into the rafters. In Skyrim, I had the option to fight back or run around the corner and crouch under a table until I was forgotten about. Alien Isolation was the most heart stopping of all of these upon detection, but even though the Alien likely would kill me, the hope I had to catch it off guard with a flamethower or one of my hodgepodge weapons was enough to keep the tension up even through repeated failures.

In the main game, Zelda works much like this. The open world, choose your own adventure format shines in many areas, and being able to choose your own approach is one of them. Despite numerous puzzles and shrine quests necessitating different tactics to solve, none of them quite force the player to adapt playstyles like this — for an extended period, with an instant game over at the slightest mistake, and no other option than to crouch low and creep along behind the Korok as it traipses nearly invisibly through the tall grass, hoping for the best.

Basically, if I were to sum up, I would say that insta-death is no one’s friend. Stealth missions can be some of the most tense, nerve-wracking moments in video games (look no further than the Alien Isolation example), but there is a reason that a whole genre of rage-based games feature insta-death. Aside to a very warped few, it’s not fun. It’s tedious.

Forced stealth escort missions are an example of lazy design, something that we should really look to phase out by now. There are better ways to raise the tension that don’t involve forced following behind someone slow moving. Instead of an escort, what about using Link’s arsenal to play a version of hide and seek? If a forced stealth section is in the cards, and ok with a game as long and varied as Breath of the Wild maybe it is just for variety’s sake, then why could we not have included perhaps the use of those ice arrows to create false enemies as a distraction? For all that Breath of the Wild offers, it is a little frustrating to have encountered a mission so endemic in the game industry and so rage inducing that I’m still thinking about it, days after playing it for the first time.

Including a crouch button and a noise meter is not enough to create the elements of a successful stealth mission, but the choice of escort mission here and in many non-stealth games is simply a killer combination. It is tired and, more than that, it breaks immersion in otherwise brilliant games as players try again, and again, and again, and again to clear it.

So, please, let us all notice this mission type shortcut and, after exclaiming our detection, send it back to where it started — the drawing board.

One Little Thing: Pitch Perfect

Here’s the thing: I want to like Pitch Perfect. The first one, at least. There is, on the surface, nothing wrong with it. Happy escapism for women, majority female cast, it’s fine. Fun, even. Mostly. The franchise has an uncomfortable tendency toward racist humor that makes the later entries unwatchable, and even the first one is not exempt. This is not about that, if only because other people far more eloquent than I have already discussed this subject at length. This is more about a narrative choice that I keep tripping up on in the structure of the movie, one I really don’t understand, and one that makes an otherwise strong movie that much weaker. One little thing, relatively minor, but one which illustrates the importance of how sloppiness can undermine a theme.

It is entirely predicated in a line from fairly early on in the movie.

“This is a list of all the songs that we have ever performed. And you will notice that we only do songs made famous by women.”

The next line is from Becca, our hero, commenting that there is nothing from this century on the list of songs, and don’t they need to freshen it up? And, yes, they do! It’s a valid point, it’s a great manifestation of the central conflict. They need to modernize their set-list, they need to take risks, they need to come together and collaborate rather than only rigidly perform what’s worked before, and they do all these things — but, they perform songs written by men, for men. It’s a problem that, like many of the other problems in these movies, is only exacerbated as the franchise wears on.

When the Barden Bellas start to excel, they do so with more modern music, yes, and an updated set-list, willingness to work together, and by completely abandoning what seems to have been a guiding principle for the team for years. They start singing Bruno Mars, Pitbull, more Pitbull (seriously, these movies have a LOT of Pitbull), and Simple Minds.

This may have initially been a means of adapting to a plot point, Becca winning Jesse back with a song from his favorite movie and favorite movie ending of all time. Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds is a song made famous by a man. I can see why the screenwriters would have thought they needed it and, okay, that is one I am willing to give a pass on. It’s plot related, we can sweep that one under the rug if we must, if there are truly no epic movie songs made famous by women deemed romantic enough for the mandatory romantic subplot.

As it stands, the line is one that the movie seems to want to sweep under the rug in it’s tale of female cooperation and empowerment, and one that should have been cut if it was not going to be adhered to because, as presented, the movie makes the argument that “updating the set list” needed to include songs by men in order for the Bellas to become successful.

The “only made famous by women” line would not have bothered me as much as a throwaway line, if not for one little moment where the potential for what might have been shined through — the scene on the bus, with the spontaneous Miley Cyrus song.

Imagine the ending of Pitch Perfect 1, but with songs like that. The claim here isn’t that Party in the U.S.A. is some feminist anthem or that Pitch Perfect needed to be, but just imagine the Bellas finale with some Spice Girls. Brittney Spears. Destiny’s Child. Songs that women know, songs that women can’t help but sing along to, songs that make women feel good about themselves. Imagine how much stronger the ending of the movie could have been by incorporating feel-good songs made famous by women, keeping true to the Bella’s roots and updating their set list for a modern audience at the same time.

The film’s framing of the nostalgia inherent in the emotional center of the finale was good, but for one little thing.

Florence: A Powerful Story in Gameplay

No other medium ever feels quite as deeply involving to me as video games. It is hard for me to divorce myself entirely from characters in books, even written in first person, when their actions don't quite fall in line with ones I believe I'd be making in such situations. The motivations are the character's alone, I'm along only for the ride. While the same is true in video games, it is true more literally that I am along for the ride. While the decisions are predestined by the story and character, the inciting action is my own. The game does not progress, the story does not move one, unless I physically fulfill certain requirements -- I dragged the dirty dishes into the sink to clean them, I computed simple (and yet hard) math problems for work, and I completed the language bubble puzzle to speak to another human being. I was not Florence, but I was acting with her and thus I felt her struggle as my own, her triumphs warmed my heart, and her sorrow made me gasp and my heart twist. 

Young adult Florence Yeoh is stuck in a very familiar rut when we meet her at the beginning of Mountains and Annapurna's mobile game. Stuck feeling unfulfilled, she goes through her daily routine by rote, until she opens up after a chance meeting and begins to find happiness in love. The game charts the ups and downs of a relationship through a style somewhere between a visual novel and a narrative game, inviting the player to step into Florence's shoes by offering short mini-games to play out her daily life. There's a lifeless, colorless matching game of numbers at work, there's swiping to reveal her true thoughts and dreams, and there's puzzles that get easier and easier to put together the more comfortable Florence is talking.

A short game, one I finished in one sitting on a plane, Florence nevertheless packs an intense, emotional punch. The entire game is beautiful, from start to finish, from art direction to the accompanying soundtrack, and it weaves an intricate story of discovering yourself, opening yourself up to another person, the cost of dreams, and the price of inaction. It's a story about life as much as it is without love -- and it accomplishes all this with minimal, if any, text. 

Video games have an edge for showing over telling, and that edge is on full display in Florence. Every person has had the experience of having trouble talking, self-doubt nagging at you as you try and piece together sentences, stories, even just words themselves while navigating the minefield that is getting to know someone. The game shines as it gets easier and easier to talk to someone, showcasing the connection being formed and then breaking it again as it becomes easier to piece together sharp words than the softer edges of before. The game plays more like a silent movie or a slice-of-life wordless graphic novel, encapsulating the feeling more acutely for having drawn the player into the story. 

When asked about my favorite thing about video games, my answer is without hesitation the storytelling. I get odd looks. I understand the reputation games have, as well as the fact that not every game is (nor should be!) about telling stories alone, but there is such potential there, and such opportunity to connect to people like fiction never has before, that I simply cannot look away. When I am responsible for a character, and I truly do feel responsible and take to heart shortcomings or failings as my fault, the story takes on a new life. It feels adoptive, it feels close, it feels personal, and at last I have a good, quick, introductory game to point people to when I am asked that question again. What do I like about video game stories? Play Florence, and I think you'll start to understand why. 

Particle Mace: A MagFest Review

Just last weekend, my boyfriend and I attended MagFest 13 in National Harbor. We very much enjoyed our time at the Music and Gaming Festival, attending panels and autograph sessions and spending too much money on merch, but no where did we have as much fun as in the arcade. There I learned that there is no such thing as finesse when handling a Commodore 64 controller, that I'm rather good at Dig Dug, and Galaga (my father's favorite arcade game from his day) is harder than advertised. However, our favorite machine was the one that was typically the most crowded: Particle Mace, a game by Andy Wallace that has been making the festival rounds for a while now and which was just released on Steam

Particle Mace is self-described as "a game about trying not to die, but that's impossible." Rather than the more traditional means of shooting, your only weapons are the tiny maces you are dragging along behind your ship. Knocking those into things will cause them to explode, sometimes into much smaller versions of themselves, whereas knocking your ship into things will cause you to die. First impressions of the game were that it was some version of the legendary Asteroids meets Geometry Wars, but with a truly inventive mechanic the game leaves those comparisons to the merely aesthetic and reminiscent game modes. Particle Mace is fast paced, exciting, and filled with close calls and moments wherein your utter surprise at your survival  leads to your imminent death. A sort of "I shouldn't be alive -- oh wait, I'm not" vicious cycle in the style of many of yesteryear's best arcade games. 

The game offers solo missions, arcade types, as well as 1 - 4 player co-op, deathmatch, and other mission-based game types. Playing with others is both exciting and frustrating. In co-op mode, so long as one ship lives, the rest float by in little crosses waiting to respawn. You must hit them with your tail to bring them back to life in a flash of color, and there is nothing like the hysterical laughter inducing frustration that comes from chasing your friend across the screen, trying to avoid enemies and asteroids on the way to save them, only to have them slip from your reach. There is also a barrier surrounding the field of play, you see. It can be a hexagon or a star or a claustrophobic clover, and it changes shape depending on how long you play. Oh, and it starts to spin around and move, adding to the frenetic pace of the game. 

The game does take some getting used to, the bright colors and the jarring nature of the score popping up each time you kill an enemy seem to be reinforcing the game's ultimate professed goal of killing you. There are a number of different ships to unlock as well, each suited to a different play style. My favorite ship was Cascade playing at MagFest, but each ship is suited to different people and even game types. 

Either playing alone or with friends, Particle Mace is a fun, fast-paced indie game that is well worth a look. It even has that wonderful indie game great soundtrack as well.  

Particle Mace has been collecting a series of well deserved awards from the festival circuit. Set up in the back of the room at MagFest, the arcade machine holding this new indie game was never not crowded. I was very pleased to have discovered such a fun, exciting game at MagFest and am happy to report that it is just as much fun to play on Steam. I would recommend playing with a gamepad though, given the speed of the game. Or, perhaps I should invest in a mouse rather than trying to play off of my trackpad. Either way, Particle Mace is a fun game and I am in admiration of the smart marketing strategy behind putting a new indie game in an old fashioned arcade machine, then showing it off at cons and festivals. 

Particle Mace is currently 25% off on Steam