Why Stealth Features Make Not A Stealth Game

After a lukewarm reception to Assassin’s Creed III following its release that some fear may have disillusioned some fans, Ubisoft went all-out in their marketing campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the series. As a fan of the series (and, incidentally, one who didn’t buy AC3 following the less than perfect feedback it got), I have no problem with this, and was intrigued and excited to see some of the features being implemented get put to use. However, one particular bit of promo material that caught my eye was the stealth gameplay walkthrough, which talks up the various stealth features employed in the game.

[Yes I am perfectly aware that this post is hideously out of date- I’m working through a backlog here]

Y’see, watching that video got me thinking about the role of stealth in the Assassin’s Creed games, and eventually led me to the conclusion that, at its heart, the Assassin’s Creed series is not a stealth franchise. I could justify that statement by pointing out the huge variety of stuff the game offers beyond stealth (free-running, the admittedly awkward ‘wait around for counter chances’ combat, and traversing the high seas spring instantly to mind), or by pointing out the extent Ubisoft is prepared to go to to ensure you don’t ever actually have to use stealth if you don’t want to- I mean for heaven’s sake, they’ve just announced a new mobile game based on Black Flag called Assassin’s Creed Pirates, which allows you to do all the sailing around and piratey things without any of the exciting running around on rooftops that made the game so popular in the first place. But this wouldn’t actually address the core reason behind the AC franchise’s non-stealthness- for that we must consider exactly where the stealth genre comes from.

To explain: every game genre is basically defined by a single, core game concept, a sort of combination of mechanics and the emotional hooks that get us to enjoy (or not, as the case may be) games of that genre. In an RPG it’s about the characters and your advancing skills, in a strategy game it’s about the concept of ‘playing god’ and dictating how a whole system works rather than an individual, and in a stealth game the core concept involves hiding. This central concept naturally extrapolates itself into a series of other features after a while. In many (but not necessarily all) cases, waiting becomes a core mechanic too, as once our protagonist has hidden from whichever bad guy is appropriate it would be strange for him to be able to move out of cover immediately- as Extra Credits said during their episode on the subject of stealth, the trick to making a good stealth game is to make waiting fun. Not only that, but a key part of making the experience of hiding compelling and fun is for the player to be able to use it aggressively to their advantage. Thus, protagonists in stealth games are also generally able to make highly effective sneak attacks on an unaware enemy, frequently one hit kills such as slitting the throat or the Dishonored choke hold.

Thus far, Assassin’s Creed is sounding very like a stealth game, and it’s true the games have always featured stealth gameplay heavily. The game’s most characteristic feature is, of course, the hidden blade, intended specifically for insta-killing an unaware enemy (with the option for a suitably dramatic dive throwing them to the ground for good measure), and in later games this can be adapted to allow an enemy to be poisoned, meaning he won’t die until you’re well out of reach of any blame. AC2’s introduction of attacks from ledges, hide spots and rooftops also expanded on this, introducing a new range of ways for a player to get into a killing position whilst remaining undetected. Not only does the series’ ever expanding array of hide spots help this, but they also give the option of helping a player to run away from a fight if they so choose, meaning fighting need not be the only option. But then again these features alone aren’t enough to make a stealth game: by way of example, Skyrim had a sneaking system that allowed for high-powered sneak attacks on unaware enemies, but is quite clearly an RPG with a few stealth elements rather than a true stealth game.

Thus, mere adoption of stealth gameplay features does not make Assassin’s Creed a stealth game, and it fundamentally is not one for the following reason: for hiding and waiting to become a game’s central features the player must have a reason for doing so; hiding must benefit the player in some way. Not only that, but the usually slower-paced stealth approach must some how become the more attractive option compared to a full-frontal assault, which from the start has the advantage of being faster, more direct and more exciting. One can attempt to railroad the player down this route by making the player instantly fail if they are detected (as the AC series has done on multiple occasions), but this is a clumsy way of doing things that fails to make the stealth experience more fun and only serves to frustrate the player as to why they can’t just rush in all guns blazing. In most true stealth games, the player is forced into hiding by making it the most favourable defensive tactic (ie the best way to stay alive), which is achieved by making sure they have relatively little health/armour/defensive ability so can’t really stand up in proper combat.

And this, really, is what distinguishes Assassin’s Creed as not fundamentally being a stealth game. The combat in AC games is frequently (and rightly) criticised for being formulaic and repetitive, and part of the reason behind this is that all AC characters are really good at defending. To block just about all incoming attacks merely requires the ‘high profile’ button to be held down, and if the counter button is pressed at the appropriate moment then almost every incoming enemy can be killed the moment they attack. If countering isn’t your style, then many a foe can be taken down by simply bashing the attack button, and as later games allow you to upgrade your weapons by the end this can result in a very quick death for any NPC foolish enough to get in your way. And all that’s presuming the player wants to stand and fight; even in AC1 enemies could be taken out from afar with throwing knives (which I suppose could be tenuously considered stealth weapons), and by later games our protagonist has grenades and a ****ing gun* at his disposal, which aren’t stealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

By making it so easy to fight, to cut through swathes of enemies with hardly a thought, the developers of Assassin’s Creed have ensured the focus of their game is not about stealth, and although this is by no means a bad thing (not every game need be stealthy) this fact does, I feel, somewhat undermine many of the stealth features they have chosen to include in their various games. Just so I can consider my point proven, some months ago the Assassin’s Creed Facebook page asked its readers which series was their favourite: Assassin’s Creed or Thief, the series that almost single-handedly invented the stealth genre and had recently announced a new game (the fact that this game has subsequently turned out to be terrible is, of course, an entire other point). How did these people, who I shall remind you were writing on the official Assassin’s Creed Facebook page, respond? Why, overwhelmingly in favour of Thief, of course.

This was, however, before AC4 was released.

*That list doesn’t even mention stuff like the hookblade and parachutes which, cool though they are, do nothing for the games’ stealth elements other than distract from them.

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The Consolidation of a World Power

I left my last post on the history of music at around 1969, which for many independent commentators marks the end of the era of the birth of rock music. The 60s had been a decade of a hundred stories running alongside one another in the music world, each with their own part to play in the vast tapestry of innovation. Jimi Hendrix had risen from an obscure career playing the blues circuit in New York to being an international star, and one moreover who revolutionised what the music world thought about what a guitar could and should do- even before he became an icon of the psychedelic hippie music world, his hard & heavy guitar leads, in stark contrast to the tones of early Beatles’ and 60s pop music had founded rock music’s harder edge. He in turn had borrowed from earlier pioneers, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Who (perhaps the first true rock band, given their wild onstage antics and heavy guitar & drumkit-based sound) and Bob Dylan (the godfather of folk rock and the blues-style guitar playing that rock turned into its harder sound), each of whom had their own special stories. However, there was a reason I focused on the story of the hippie movement in my last post- the story of a counter-culture precipitating a musical revolution was only in its first revolution, and would be repeated several times by the end of the century.

To some music nerds however, Henrix’s death aged just 27 (and after just four years of fame) in 1970 thanks to an accidental drug overdose marked the beginning of the end. The god of the guitar was dead, the beautiful voice of Janis Joplin was dead, Syd Barrett had broken up from Pink Floyd, another founding band of the psychedelic rock movement, and was being driven utterly insane by LSD (although he thankfully later managed to pull himself out of the self-destructive cycle and lived until 2006), and Floyd’s American counterparts The Velvet Underground broke up just four years later. Hell, even The Beatles went in 1970.

But that didn’t mean it was the end- far from it. Rock music might have lost some of its guiding lights, but it still carried on regardless- Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the four biggest British bands of the time, continued to play an active role in the worldwide music scene, Zeppelin and The Who creating a huge fan rivalry. David Bowie was also continuing to show the world the mental ideas hiding beneath his endlessly crisp accent, and the rock world continued to swing along.

However, it was also during this time that a key division began to make itself firmly felt. As rock developed its harder sound during the 1960s, other bands and artists had followed The Beatles’ early direction by playing softer, more lyrical and acoustic sounds, music that was designed to be easy on the ear and played to and for mass appeal. This quickly got itself labelled ‘pop music’ (short for popular), and just as quickly this became something of a term of abuse from serious rock aficionados. Since its conception, pop has always been more the commercial enterprise, motivated less by a sense of artistic expression and experimentation and more by the promise of fame and fortune, which many consider a rather shallow ambition. But, no matter what the age, pop music has always been there, and more often than not has been topping the charts- people often talk about some age in the long distant past as being the ‘best time for music’ before returning to lambast the kind of generic, commercial consumer-generated pop that no self-respecting musician could bring himself to genuinely enjoy and claiming that ‘most music today is rubbish’. They fail to remember, of course, just how much of the same kind of stuff was around in their chosen ‘golden age’, that the world in general has chosen to forget.

Nonetheless, this frustration with generic pop has frequently been a driving force for the generation of new forms of rock, in an attempt to ‘break the mould’. In the early seventies, for example, the rock world was described as tame or sterile, relatively acoustic acts beginning to claim rock status. The Rolling Stones and company weren’t new any more, there was a sense of lacking in innovation, and a sense of musical frustration began to build. This frustration was further fuelled by the ending of the 25-year old post war economic boom, and the result, musically speaking, was punk rock. In the UK, it was The Sex Pistols and The Clash, in the USA The Ramones and similar, most of whom were ‘garage bands’ with little skill (Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols, has frequently admitted that he couldn’t sing in the slightest, and there was a running joke at the time on the theme of ‘Here’s three chords. Now go start a band’) but the requisite emotion, aggression and fresh thinking to make them a musical revolution. Also developed a few years earlier was heavy metal, perhaps the only rock genre to have never had a clearly defined ‘era’ despite having been there, hiding around the back and on the sidelines somewhere, for the past 40 or so years. Its development was partly fuelled by the same kind of musical frustration that sparked punk, but was also the result of a bizarre industrial accident. Working at a Birmingham metal factory in 1965 when aged 17, Black Sabbath guitarist (although they were then known as The Polka Tulk Blues Band) Tony Iommi lost the the ends of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. This was a devastating blow for a young guitarist, but Iommi compensated by easing the tension on his strings and developing two thimbles to cover his finger ends. By 1969, his string slackening had lead him to detune his guitar down a minor third from E to C#, and to include slapping the strings with his fingers as part of his performance. This detuning, matched by the band’s bassist Geezer Butler, was combined with the idea formulated whilst watching the queues for horror movie Black Sabbath that ‘if people are prepared to make money to be scared, then why don’t we write scary music?’, to create the incredibly heavy, aggressive, driving and slightly ‘out of tune’ (to conventional ears) sound of heavy metal, which was further popularised by the likes of Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Motley Crue (sorry, I can’t do the umlauts here).

Over the next few years, punk would slowly fall out of fashion, evolving into harder variations such as hardcore (which never penetrated the public consciousness but would make itself felt some years later- read on to find out how) and leaving other bands to develop it into post-punk; a pattern repeated with other genres down the decades. The 1980s was the first decade to see hip hop come to the fore,  partly in response to the newly-arrived MTV signalling the onward march of electronic, manufactured pop. Hip hop was specifically targeted at a more underground, urban circuit to these clean, commercial sounds, music based almost entirely around a beat rather than melody and allowing the songs to be messed around with, looped, scratched and repeated all for the sake of effect and atmosphere building. From hip hop was spawned rap, party, funk, disco, a new definition of the word DJ and, eventually, even dubstep. The decade also saw rock music really start to ‘get large’ with bands such as Queen and U2 filling football stadiums, paving the way for the sheer scale of modern rock acts and music festivals, and culminating, in 1985, with the huge global event that was Live Aid- not only was this a huge musical landmark, but it fundamentally changed what it meant to be a musical celebrity, and greatly influenced western attitudes to the third world.

By the late 80s and early 90s the business of counter-culture was at it again, this time with anger directed at a range of subjects from MTV tones, the boring, amelodic repetition of rap and the controversial policies of the Reagan administration that created a vast American ‘disaffected youth’ culture. This music partly formulated itself into the thoughtful lyrics and iconic sounds of bands such as REM, but in other areas found its expression and anger in the remnants of punk. Kurt Cobain in particular drew heavy inspiration from ‘hardcore’ bands (see, I said they’d show up again) such as Black Cloud, and the huge popularity of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ thrust grunge, along with many of the other genres blanketed under the title ‘alternative rock’ into the public consciousness (one of my earlier posts dealt with this, in some ways tragic, rise and fall in more detail). Once the grunge craze died down, it was once again left for other bands to formulate a new sound and scene out of the remnants of the genre, Foo Fighters being the most prominent post-grunge band around today. In the UK things went in a little different direction- this time resentment was more reserved to the staged nature of Top of the Pops and the like, The Smiths leading the way into what would soon become indie rock or Britpop. This wave of British bands, such as Oasis, Blur and Suede, pushed back the influx of grunge and developed a prominence for the genre that made the term ‘indie’ seem a bit ironic.

Nowadays, there are so many different great bands, genres and styles pushing at the forefront of the musical world that it is difficult to describe what is the defining genre of our current era. Music is a bigger business than it has ever been before, both in terms of commercial pop sound and the hard rock acts that dominate festivals such as Download and Reading, with every band there is and has ever been forming a part, be it a thread or a whole figure, of the vast musical tapestry that the last century has birthed. It is almost amusing to think that, whilst there is so much that people could and do complain about in our modern world, it’s very hard to take it out on a music world that is so vast and able to cater for every taste. It’s almost hard to see where the next counter-culture will come from, or how their musical preferences will drive the world forward once again. Ah well, we’ll just have to wait and see…