On the Morality of Stealth Games

Here's a thought you don't usually have while lugging a body into a corner for the umpteenth time---stealth games use an examination of morality in order to examine the player’s relationship with power over other human beings.

Dishonored screenshot from Bethesda

Dishonored screenshot from Bethesda

The stealth game has grown to become one of my favorite mechanical genres in the gaming landscape. They’re great mechanisms for design that can encompass a wide variety of aesthetics, philosophies, play styles, and modes of play. It can be tied to superheroes, spycraft, war, or even journalism, as seen in games ranging from the Batman Arkham series to the stealth sections of Beyond Good and Evil. 

The rise of stealth games have also spawned a natural intersection with another gaming mechanic: the morality system. Whether it’s in Deus Ex, Splinter Cell or Dishonored, stealth games starting in the 90s have asked players a question -- when sneaking through a room full of guards, would you rather kill the people standing between you and your goal, or would you rather harmlessly knock them out?

Unlike RPGs, which have used morality systems as point counters to boost stats or unlock new powers, stealth games less frequently unlock gameplay features. They manifest more as a scoreboard alongside mission completion. But why do stealth games adopt the morality mechanic so easily?

To best explain this, I’d like to point to a defining experience I had in the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I picked up the game as a mode of catharsis. During a time of personal struggle, I sought a game explicitly searching for such control and power amidst chaos. Immediately in the game’s tutorial, which sets protagonist Adam Jensen against group of revolutionaries, it asked me if I would rather kill or go for nonlethal solutions. 

Crouched behind my first guard, I found myself examining my emotional state in the same fashion I imagined Jensen examining his own -- we both felt reasons to alter our behavior and darken our outlook in acting against a perceived evil. But in confronting Jensen’s demons, I realized I was examining my own -- would I change my own behavior and outlook in-game because I was angry outside of it?

There’s an immediate answer, but first let’s think about what the game asked. I can justify whatever answer I acted upon, but fundamentally, what Deus Ex was asking me was “What would you do if you were given this power over other people?”

It’s a pattern that many other stealth games follow, often explicitly in the name of a bigger ideological assessment. Andrew Levigne writes an examination of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and posits that the game tries to lend itself toward various terrorists sympathy. He also thinks the way you encounter enemies suggests a light metaphor for the American world police mentality. For instance: 

“The game is actually constructed to lend you sympathy for most of them: they're not evil, they're just grunts and sometimes in the wrong place. Dialogue you can overhear puts this clearly in the player's mind: one guard in the opening lighthouse mission stood in a rain storm overlooking a stormy sea, telling his partner about how his family was killed in a strike by American soldiers during a thunderstorm, and how weather like they were in terrifies him to this day.”

Sam Fisher, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory’s main character, is an omnipresent superspy. He can go anywhere in the world and kill or knock out any guard in his path. This can be argued to represent America’s power in real-world situations. Handling that power is crucial to both American foreign policy and the political stability of other countries. Splinter Cell obviously keeps a Western perspective on these affairs, but Levigne points out that the game still encourages players to think before they utilize their mighty American superpowers. To wit, Splinter Cell empowers the player with the full might of the American military industrial complex, then suggests they deliberately provided the option to hold back from using that full potential. 

While not every stealth character is overpowered -- in part to avoid blind-charging through levels --  their ability to strike definitively from the shadows is a mechanic possibly more powerful than Doom’s BFG. So when stealth games remove that choice, their ability to interrogate the player’s power over their fellow human beings fades as well. 

Cameron Kunzelman points out that in Assassin’s Creed, a stealth franchise with few nonlethal options, the game’s ideology shifts to an argument that violence is absolutely required to execute ideology, regardless of the methodologies of in-game characters. 

“The second, maybe more important, argument of the fiction of Assassin’s Creed is that the only way for this impasse between two worldviews to be crossed is through violence. This solution, which ends the game, is a moment where we have to scratch our heads. How is it that a game with a fairly sophisticated sense of a morally grey political ecology falls prey to what it essentially a “clash of civilizations”-style argument for the incommensurability of two different worldviews when they come to different conclusions about the same set of facts?”

Conversely, the Batman: Arkham series only allows nonlethal options, which also removes the moral question. Both Batman and Assassin’s Creed’s Altair have decided how they exist in relation to their enemies, but their bipolar actions lead to aggressive indulgence, not inquisitive questioning. That indulgence might serve well in pursuit of other thematic goals, but the absence of moral questioning means the player cannot examine the power they hold over other lives. 

Batman: Arkham City stealth mode screenshot from Warner Bros Entertainment

This question is largely reserved for thieves, assassins, and members of the military industrial complex. It's inspired by stories of ninjitsu, 80’s corporate paranoia, and Tom Clancy’s hyper-researched Red-Eye fervor of the 90’s. But now that we've had time to study the tools and learn their purpose, we can begin suggesting how to use its relationship to examine other forces in gaming, as well.

For instance, the stealth genre could be used to examine asymmetrical warfare and pit the player against characters like Sam Fisher; it could give power back to the powerless and see how players navigate that space. Maybe a stealth game could focus on a scared child with new powers taking on the people who scared her. If we’re looking for new ways to revitalize the stealth genre, we can simply search the world for people or groups who could use the sudden burst of power over their oppressors. And by mixing this question with other themes, could we unlock entirely new genres of storytelling?

I suppose what I seek is an alternative to the above questions and the answers I give to them. Because when I was standing behind that guard in Deus Ex, I gave the same answer I always give when handed this power.

I reject it.

And I suppose, as I look down at the cold-clocked body of a poor, unconscious sap in another gritty, gray stealth game, I wonder what space, what scenario, could finally convince me to make that jump? Because now that we've asked the same question as spies, thieves and assassins, whose shoes could I crouch in that would convince me to kill instead of silence?

And when we finally find that answer…what would that say about me?