Wake Up, Wendy
If you wanted to craft a truly rare and special beast – a stealth action adventure – would you pick a game engine that’s seemingly incapable of generating shadows?
Cast your mind back to 1998.
In terms of being a pivotal year in gaming, 1998 saw the stealth genre reach full-maturity. The iconic Metal Gear Solid and the dwindling Tenchu: Stealth Assassins between them set the standard for third-person stealth action for decades to come but it was the leftfield PC title Thief: The Dark Project that stuck its neck out the furthest. Putting you in the shoes of one of the most underrated and sublime anti-heroes in the history of gaming – steampunk master thief, Garrett – Thief turned gaming on its head in ways that few titles have even dreamt of doing.
Thief was a landmark title for two reasons. Firstly, it lovingly painted a picture of a morally ambiguous world in which you could choose to behave as you saw fit. This may be something that we take for granted in many games today but in 1998, this was a relatively new concept. There were no complex morality systems built into the design of the game per-se, but morality was there nonetheless. Do I kill this guard, knock him unconscious or simply pass him right by? No game had ever made me reflect on this before: I’d been trained to shoot first and never ask questions.
Thief: it has water arrows. Nuff sed.
Secondly, it was the first stealth game to be made in first-person and was a complete and utter revelation to those of us who’d gleefully blasted our ways through Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, Goldeneye, Unreal and Half-Life. Suddenly we were hiding? Waiting? Being cautious over each and every enemy? It remains to this day arguably the purest franchise in terms of stealth gameplay and one that can’t return soon enough (even if it does ride back into town with the somewhat silly ‘THI4F’ moniker).
What made the Thief experience work so gloriously well (particularly in the third instalment, Deadly Shadows) was just how dark it all was and of what excellent use was made of real-time shadows. The dark is like a blanket in Thief – an organic friend, if you will, that can be manipulated through the genius gameplay mechanic of water arrows. Inching your way through the gloom, carefully watching, waiting, absorbing yourself within the darkness and carefully picking out lights to extinguish soon became an experience with far more gravitas that any frag-fest that had gone before it.
But this was generations ago and in Garrett’s absence the genre has rolled along at its own methodical and carefully measured pace.
Something, something, dark side.
A more recent and much more commercially successful high-point has been the Splinter Cell series. And whilst Sam Fisher has gone through a number of gameplay evolutions himself, it’s perhaps the widely regarded pinnacle of the original trilogy, Chaos Theory, that best captures the essence of the stealth experience. Superb use is made once again of light and dark, including some truly impressive real-time shadows and environments that you could become completely and utterly absorbed in. Coupled with the same sense of moral ambiguity and another somewhat complex anti-hero, it was the complete stealth package re-imagined for a new generation.
Now here’s the rub: if last generation consoles and platforms can pretty much nail the stealth experience, why have games this generation seemingly struggled to capture the same essence? With Thief off the radar, Metal Gear Solid busy going schizophrenic, Tenchu throwing itself onto its sword and Splinter Cell keen to please a new demographic: what has been left to capture fully this acquired taste?
Arguably the two main contenders in recent times have been Bioshock and Dishonored. Both games share many similarities with each other (and indeed with the icons of stealth games past) but perhaps the most telling similarity is that of which game-engine they are built upon: the Unreal engine.
Now, I’m no programmer and am more than willing to stand corrected on any or all assumptions I’m making in this piece but from a user’s perspective it certainly feels as though the Unreal engine is highly capable at some things but much less so at others. Shadows, for example?
Those dudes at the back remind me of the weird guards from Flash Gordon. Just though you should know.
See, when I’m playing Bioshock or Dishonored, I’m simply not hiding in a shadow. I’m stood over, or next to, a dark texture. And that’s it. And once you realise this, the whole experience of hiding and moving through these otherwise rich and atmospheric environments becomes a rather flat and dull experience. It completely ruins the illusion – and these are games with a tremendous amount of positive things going for them. They are still both unquestionably remarkable titles but if the key experience is one of watching and waiting in the shadows, surely more attention should have been given to creating this impression? It took me several days of playing Dishonored to realise that I’m only in a shadow if the on-screen hands suddenly go dark. The feeling of disappointment is inescapable.
At least now I know what Peter Pan felt like when he lost his shadow.
Perhaps I’m looking at games from my wasted youth with rose-tinted spectacles on – or perhaps I simply don’t appreciate how hard it is to leverage real-time shadows into a game. What I do know is that if a game is making a big deal about asking me to hide, it should at least give me something tangible to hide in.
Check out all of our Splinter Cell Blacklist coverage at our Splinter Cell Blacklist Central.
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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.