The balancing act of stealth, power and escapism

November 5, 2016


As I venture into the unknown of my early 30s, I am physically reminded that I’m no longer as indestructible as I was when I was 19. I can’t put the same stress on my knees as I used to, and stretching has switched from warming up before a sporting activity to an absolute necessity if I don’t want to be hobbling around the next day. It is a sobering experience.

Thankfully, I can still play video games without tweaking my back or pulling a hamstring. I transform myself into an entity that doesn’t require heartburn medication every other day, or set a reminder to put in their orthotics later for gym purposes. I’m powerful when I’m a character in a game. I can jump higher, run faster, punch harder and carry an unrealistic amount of gear without getting tired. I make friends with monsters, wage war against angels and test myself with puzzles that fly at you quicker than you can blink. Game over. So what? I’m mighty. I’m learning. I can do it again.

That’s why I generally hate stealth games. The prospect of avoiding unknowing enemies was never fulfilling to me. Sections requiring me to sneak past bad guys while they unrealistically walk down a hallway, wait a few seconds, then turn back again is a trope I will never appreciate. If you’re caught, you often have to start the section over again, because an alarm will sound and the story forbids you from activating any alarms. Or you’re so poorly equipped that you can’t take on a single foe.



It becomes a game of trial and error, in which the errors cost you a few identical minutes of play and don’t make me feel powerful. I feel weak all over again. I’m reminded of my mortality. Beyond that, some games implement their stealth mechanics so poorly, I really can’t tell when an enemy is going to see me or not. Where’s the fun, has anybody seen it? The opening dungeon of Wind Waker nearly killed the entire game for me.

Thankfully, in the last year, I’ve played several games which avoided making me feel this way by using stealth as a weapon, not a punishment. They empowered me to sneak and blend in the shadows and rewarded me for doing so, instead of focusing on the punishment and plopping me back where I started. The tables turned when I played Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Is there a cooler fictional hero in our lifetime? Beyond the origin of Bruce Wayne and his abilities, he has an outstanding cast of supporting characters and adversaries. He’s psychological. He’s a genius. His one rule is not to kill. And, perhaps most intriguing, he doesn’t have any superpowers.

No wonder Batman has been host to such a vast, rich display of entertainment. For comics, we have Year One, The Killing Joke and the The Dark Knight Returns, to name a select few. For movies (do I even need to remind you?), we have the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Even the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer gives me chills. “Tell me… Do you bleed? You will.” Batman, wearing some kind of armor, threatens Superman. You know, the indestructible alien god of DC Comics? And it doesn’t seem out of place.


The Arkham series is one-of-a-kind. So few licensed games manage to completely capture the spirit of their source material, but not for one second did I not feel like the Caped Crusader while playing through these three (soon to be four!) games. Every action I took, every dramatic camera angle I controlled, every gadget I acquired, every gang of thugs I destroyed reaffirmed how great it was to be the Dark Knight and how powerful I felt in his shoes.

The stealth portions instantly converted me. Certain areas made it very clear that a series of enemies were far beyond the normal knife and pipe-wielding dummies I’d seen before. They wore body armor and had machine guns. If I brazenly charged in, I would find myself falling to their gunfire, so I had to be stealthy.

It helps that you have “detective vision,” which highlights usable items, areas of interest and enemies in an easily-seen yellow-orange outline. As a nice touch, you even see soldiers’ heart rates, which increase rapidly when you start to take their friends down. The situation becomes a patient puzzle instead of straight-up action. Take down an enemy quickly, either from the grate below or the gargoyles looming in the rafters, and move to a new hiding place. If you’re found out, you still have a chance to recover your hidden position. It’s not an instant game over. I still feel powerful and eager to ambush my next victim. I’m not slipping past an obstacle in a cowardly fashion. I became the obstacle.


I recently completed a stealth area in Tomb Raider (2013) that had me smiling the whole time. Lara Croft is stuck on a mysterious island full of cultist psychopaths who will stop at nothing to kill her, in gruesome ways. I like the atmosphere the game presents. It’s supposed to be a gritty reboot of how Lara came to be a toughened, brazen explorer, and you can’t help but empathize with the amount of suffering she goes through in the game. The visuals are outstanding, even two years later.

The level in question takes place in a forest at night. As I duck and cover into the bush, I can hear the cultists talk to each other. I see each one has a flashlight; this works really well on multiple levels. Primarily, it makes sense that a large group of people searching for someone in the dark would have powerful flashlights. Secondly, it works because I have a visual indicator for where all the units are. I’m not confused about when I might be found out; if they shine a light on me, they’re going to call their friends. I understand this – if I keep to the trees and shadows, out of flashlight range, they won’t find me. Now that I’m confident in the mechanics, I feel comfortable experimenting.

I have several weapons in my arsenal to help me beat the bad guys, but also stay stealthy. I can remain hidden the entire section, or use my grenade launcher to just blast my way through. There are higher areas and platforms I can use my bow and rope to access in order to get a better vantage point. You can’t quite see everybody in the dark, but you sure can make out the flashlights. Hmmm, do I plant an arrow in this guy’s face, or would that risk alerting his buddies? Eh, I’ll hop down and take him down silently.

Once again, the game empowers and encourages you to use stealth, but doesn’t punish you for taking a small misstep. I’m not plagued by constant triggers forcing me to replay the same, slow, plodding, boring wall-hugging gameplay (I’m looking at you, Splinter Cell). It’s been very encouraging to see this choice more present in games I’ve enjoyed. Mark of the Ninja and Dishonored also provided me with a sense of power, instead of powerlessness, due to the choices given to me.

I’m not a quiet person by nature. I’m loud, and proud of it. I know when to be quiet and when to not put a spotlight on myself, but when I’m controlling Batman, Lara Croft, Corvo Attano or a nameless ninja, it should be up to me if I want my enemies to know who took them out.