Stealth: Why is it so bad

Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 10:28 am

Stealth in Bethesda games has never really been the mixed bag that many of their other systems have been. Its always been pretty poor, almost reliably so. It's a huge part of the games, usually with entire environments and factions geared towards it, but it's a system that has never really progressed beyon 'Eh, it works I guess'. Why, after almost 2 decades, has Stealth in Bethesda games never really progressed beyond its rather pathetic state?

I'm asking this because, as I've thought about the problem, and looked as truly great Stealth games (Alien Isollation, Deus Ex, and the single best Stealth game in history, Thief 2) I've come to the opinion that Bethesda's problems here stem from one main issue. Stealth is TOO Skill dependent.

There as a bunch of other issues with Stealth, from lighting issues to environmental design, but at it's core the problems stem from how enemies detect you, and this problem sems from the over reliance on the Sneak Skill to determine detection. This is very clear when you look at low level Sneak interactions (in which you're practically detected through solid objects just for breathing) and high level Sneak (in which case you can press your face against an NPCs nose and they won't notice you).

Because Sneak becomes the primary model by which NPCs detect, there's no real drive to update other systems to newer models or dynamics (which, you know, aren't 25 years old) which would decrease the value or impair the function of that Skill-Driven interaction. This leads to absurde things like NPCs detecting you through solid objects, unerringly tracking you regardless of where you go, detecting you like they have eyes in the back of their head, or even literally running into you and not noticing. All because things like Light Level, LOS, Cover and such take a back seat to an outdated Skill-Driven stealth system.

Ultimately, I don't think it's a coincidence that the best Stealth experiences come from games that have little to no RPG elements. That doesn't mean that you can't layer RPG elements into a good Stealth dynamic, but I have grown to think that the big problem is that Bethesda is simply approaching this problem from the wrong end. They're building a Stealth System around a Skill, whereas they should be building the Skill around a Stealth System.

Am I missing something? Is Stealth in Bethesda's games actually fantastic? Or do others agree?
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Patrick Gordon
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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 9:50 am

I love the sense that my character is getting better at sneaking the more she does it. I would hate to have that taken out of the game.

I'm not thrilled with some of the Sneak perks Bethesda has given us though. Oblivion's Journeyman perk that removes the armor penalty to sneaking, the Expert perk that removes the penalty for running, and the Master perk which ignores the enemy's armor rating, are terrible ideas in my opinion. Skyrim's Silence and and Shadow Warrior perks didn't make much sense to me either.

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Nick Tyler
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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 10:43 am

So would I, but I don't think the sense of character progression is the problem. Rather, it's building the system around that, instead of working that into a system that functions without it.

Inevitably, every system used in every game is going to function off different variables which, when viewed together, produce a result. Doesn't matter if it's Daggerfall or Infinite Warfare, Tiberium Wars or Barbies Dreamhouse. RPGs then try to link control or influence over some of these variables to the abilities of an In-Game character, so as that characters abilities get better, those variables scale more favorably, and the outcomes become better.

The issue I'm talking about is how those systems and the control of variables are derived. With Stealth (and, now that I think about it, pretty much everything in every RPG... Maybe this should be renamed 'Building a better RPG..) It seems that the development of the system starts with 'What should Sneak do?' and then the entire dynamic is built up around those variables.

But it should be the other way around. Stealth as a system should be developed entirely without consideration for Sneak, and be able to function with zero RPG interactions. Then, you can look at the variables that determine its outcomes, and apply RPG elements and behaviours to those.

So, if you take something like Thief 2 (arguably the best Stealth game ever made... And yes, I support that opinion) and what it does, you have a fully functional Stealth System that requires no Skill to be successful in. So, as it stands, one would think it's not that well suited for an RPG. But all the variables are there to tweak. Movement Speed, and the sound you make are two big elements that you could tie into skills, but so too could you handle damage from Stealth (your ability to silently and efficiently disable or kill) and even your ability to really hug shadows (though in broad daylight that's not going to do anything for you). In Thief 2, all these variables are static, but by applying them to an RPG dynamic you can still create a sense of progress, without having a dysfunctional system.

Ultimately, there is a problem with how Bethesda develops, or developed, their dynamic. No amount of dynamic lighting, varied reaction states and Perks are going to resolve the fundamental flaw in their Stealth System.
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Damian Parsons
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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 5:17 am

I think it's a really hard thing to do right. Stealth based games have levels built in a way that makes it possible to get everywhere and do everything unseen, more or less, but that would be hard to do in a game like TES. At least that's what I think, I'm no game designer though. To be honest I never really had a problem with the stealth in TES, I like that when I have maxed out my sneak skill I'm like a living shadow, even though it's not realistic at all.

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Krystina Proietti
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Post » Sun Feb 26, 2017 7:27 pm

I agree, to an extent. I dislike walking right into NPCs and remaining undetected, though. That, to me, is a bit too unrealistic.

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Dean Brown
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Post » Sun Feb 26, 2017 9:16 pm

Part of it is the fact that Stealth is only a part of the gameplay. Like, think about how combat works in Alien Isolation and the Thief series. Often combat comes as a last-ditch response, limited, and weak if not almost-unusably clunky. It tends to be that way because if combat was more viable, it would be easier to play that way compared to sneaking (even games like Dishonored and Deus Ex make a point to have combat-focused gameplay result in harder encounters, if not a worse ending). But in TES, not only does combat need to be functional, it needs to be at least on-par with stealth, and not only that, the player needs to be able to blend stealth, combat, and magic in whatever way they choose.

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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 12:01 am

While you make a pretty good argument, Lach, upon thinking about it some I don't think making it less skill level-based is the answer. It seems to me that most of the issue is the AI itself as opposed to relying too much on your skill in Stealth. Like you said, enemies can often hone in on you far too easily when you are detected at lower levels, and then be absurdly idiotic when you are a higher level to the point they can't see you when you practically tap them on the shoulder right in front of them. That is just ridiculous. But that says to me it is more of an issue with the AI, and I don't think making stealth encounters less reliant on skill fixes it (side note: can you imagine the outcry from the "later TES game(s) are not RPGs" crowd if sneak skill-level had less impact?).

I mean, I'm one of the last people to have a clue on how to fix AI problems, but I think that's where the majority of the issue stems from.

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Robert Devlin
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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 1:22 am

But it has. Oblivion had huge stealth improvements compared to the older games, and Fallout 3 even more (whose lead designer was Emil Pagliarulo who previously worked on Thief 2 and behind my favourite level in the game Life of the Party). Not much happened since then though.

And it's a hard nut to crack, since it is a RPG there's a balance between player skill and character skill and what one person feel is a good solution is a horrible one for someone else.

I also believe it's harder to get it right in a large open game world rather than a level based game too, since everything has to be programmed for a general case. While with levels you can more easily fine-tune shadows, detection and other details to suit the area in question. I also think this might be why the Bethesda games tend to "okay" as best as far gameplay is concerned. I mean, there are games with better combat, there are games with better magic and there are games with better stealth, but no other really blend it all together into an open world mixture.

Not saying it can't be improved upon though, of course it can, and I hope the future Bethesda games will offer better stealth.
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Trevor Bostwick
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Post » Sun Feb 26, 2017 9:47 pm

Fair enough. Admittedly, i did mostly skip over Oblivion, though i think Fallout 3 has some of the best embodiment of the core problem.

I agree, and i think that's where the problem is really stemming from. In many ways, Stealth is running into the same problem Combat encountered with Morrowind. Outcomes have become too dependent on the Character skill effectively determining the actions of NPCs. Sneak determines if an enemy detects you, rather than determining how hidden you are. It's dictating the enemies abilities, the same as Morrowind's To-Hit system did, rather than really highlighting your own, if that's making any sense.

Oh absolutely, and i think that's why Bethesda remains so well thought of, despite generally mediocre mechanics. Simply put, you can't get as much elsewhere, better or worse. Even other Open World games simply don't offer the breadth of what TES does.

Doesn't mean it's not fun to examine the problems with it though :P

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Naughty not Nice
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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 7:16 am

From Oblivion onward, I have been very satisfied with Bethesda's stealth game. Line of sight matters. Light conditions matter. If an area is lit by so much as a torch, you cannot "press your face against an enemy's nose" without him detecting you, regardless of your skill level. Unless an enemy is reasonably far away, then you cannot safely sneak through his line of sight in a well-lit area.

Noise matters too. Enemies have different levels of alertness. If an NPC hears a noise, then his alertness increases. It is more difficult to avoid detection by an alert enemy than it is to avoid detection by an unaware one.

Once they detect you, enemies should have a good chance of tracking you. Before you were detected, the enemy wasn't actively watching for you, or listening for you. Now you are seen, or heard, or both. The enemy is intent on following you, and on seeking further evidence of your whereabouts should you momentarily escape his senses. Enemies can and do lose track of you. When an enemy loses you and gives up the search, I believe his alertness level remains elevated, making it even more difficult for you should you try sneaking past him again.

I play stealthy characters more often than not, and I enjoy it. Lighting, sound, and line of sight have a noticeable effect on my success in stealth. My skill level and perks also have an effect. In Skyrim, I often find myself in situations where remaining hidden is not guaranteed, even when I am a master of Sneak with all of Sneak's passive perks. When I play a novice in Sneak, I feel that I am detected and tracked as easily as I would expect a novice to be. As I acquire experience, I feel that my chances of avoiding detection and evading pursuit scale appropriately.

Emil Pagliarulo was the Thief 2 designer responsible for "Life of the Party" and "Precious Cargo." He was a key player in the revamping of stealth for Oblivion. I trust his sense of good stealth-play.

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Post » Sun Feb 26, 2017 8:33 pm

Incidentally, I think Oblivion has handled stealth the best. It's far better than Morrowind, and while Skyrim mostly employs the same mechanics as Oblivion (with some improvements, like sound distractions and them being less like homing missiles), the enemies seem to have a much harder time detecting you even at low levels (and just becomes Hax Mode at higher levels).

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Samantha Pattison
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Post » Mon Feb 27, 2017 10:12 am

Based on what we've got... I would not. And i would disagree about the importance of Light and Line of Sight, as even in Fallout 4 i can stand in the open, in daylight, in front of an enemy and not be detected. At the same time, in every game i've had enemies hear me through walls and emediately know where i was, track me with unerring accuracy once i've been 'Detected' even though they had no line of sight for a protracted period of time, and hunting remaining in their frenzied bloodhound state for eons after they've lost sight of me. One person doesn't make a system work, and the system in TES doesn't work.

Even GTA 5s stealth is more refined at this point. And it's 99% shooting up everything in sight. Heck, the Thief reboot had better stealth...

Which is another end of the flawed system. Once you get past a certain point, 'Detection' becomes almost irrelevant. Again, the Skill is too strong a determining factor, largely overruling the need to actually think about anything. Either your Skill checks out and you don't get detected, or you get detected and instantly switch into combat mode because the AI will hone in on you like a bad cheque on someone below the poverty line.

It's just too dependent on that one factor be it the Sneak/Stealth Skill, or Fallout 4's Stealth Perks.

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