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.