What makes a stealth game a stealth game? Many would argue that the act of sneaking around, and staying undetected, however the truth is that a proper stealth game relies on a lot of interweaving design choices to fully capture the stealth experience. Skyrim allows you to sneak, but it is not a stealth game. Xcom 2 allows your troops to remain undetected, but is not a stealth game. Dishonored 2 gives the player tools to stay out of sight, but is not a stealth game.
To emphasise this point, it becomes necessary to compare Dishonored 2 to a proper, similar stealth game. The most recent first-person stealth game would be the 2014 reboot of Thief. As flawed as this game might be, an obvious emphasis was put on the basic act of sneaking around, and it gets right what Dishonored gets wrong in a lot of areas.
The biggest question in any stealth game ever made is: “Can they see me?”, but Dishonored 2 seems to have a lot of issues answering this question.
Thief’s stealth system can be broken down into three main sections: Sound, Sight and Shadow. An NPC can detect you either by hearing you or if you enter their line of sight, but you can mitigate how likely you are to be seen by staying in shadow and removing light sources. The visibility gem even gives you a clear indication as to whether you’re properly concealed by a shadow. Guards may still spot you if they come too close, or if (god forbid) one of them is carrying a torch. Thief’s tensest moments come from stepping on broken glass, then diving into a shadowy corner and praying for mercy as three angry mobsters start searching the place.
Dishonored 2 doesn’t utilise light in its stealth, instead reducing it back to just sight and sound. By failing to replace the shadow mechanic, it loses any indication as to whether or not you are visible. Being instantly seen despite being under desks or in overhead pot-plants is common, because there’s no way to determine whether you’ll be visible or not when an NPC looks in your direction. Compounding this issue is a strange mechanic wherein guards may be near or farsighted, because it’s often impossible to determine when you’re far enough away from someone so as to not be seen by them as you sneak across an open rooftop.
Tying into knowing when you are and aren’t hidden, one of the things that needs to be balanced and polished as much as possible is the simple act of getting caught. When you open a door and bump into a servant, or dive under a table as a group of guards pass, you need to know what kind of leeway you have before you need to start sprinting and necking health potions.
Thief gives you a brief window to escape. Under normal circumstances enemies aren’t going to notice you instantaneously, and you always have the option of diving into the nearest hiding spot. Dishonoured 2 on the other hand has a nasty habit of having guards alerted the instant they turn in your direction, alerting everything in the vicinity. Even when they don’t notice you immediately, diving into a hiding spot is difficult since you’re never entirely clear on what is and is not hidden.
Thief and Dishonored 2 subscribe to different philosophies when it comes to enemies, most often guards, and this difference ripples through all the aspects of the respective games. In Thief, guards are obstacles to be circumnavigated. In Dishonored 2, guards are targets to be eliminated. This is emphasised in guard layout, actions, and level design.
In Thief, the guards are distributed relatively sparsely, and are programmed to wander in set routes than can be observed. This allows the player to memorise the routes from a hiding spot, and move only when the coast is clear, slipping between sight-lines and into the next set of shadows.
In Dishonored 2 the guards are far more numerous, which combines with the fast notice time and the lack of awareness of your visibility. It’s ridiculously difficult to circumnavigate guards without eliminating them. Though many guards are set to move, they spend long periods in single spots, ready for when you sneak up and incapacitate them. Others are set in single locations, often leaning on ledges with their backs conveniently towards you.
This emphasis on the removal of guards directly harms the pure stealth experience. The developers, despite the supposed emphasis on player choice, tailor their game around their own expectations of the player. You are expected to remove guards, but for the stealth-game aficionado, removing a guard might as well be a failure state.
So, once you get caught, and you’re leading a conga-line of angry guards across a rooftop, what happens?
Thief would shrug and ask whether you wanted to load the game now or when you get the game over screen. Garret is a weak, scrawny chap that can’t handle more than one sword in the stomach at a time and has no place being in a fight. It’s possible to run, and several of your items facilitate a quick beeline in the opposite direction, but the most important thing is that you don’t try and fight more than zero people at a time. This emphasis on character frailty enhances the stealth, and encourages the player to take the slower, more careful approach.
Dishonored 2… Well I think this is best illustrated by my playthrough of the second mission, the Addermire Institute, wherein I would sprint from room to room, trailing a platoon of angry guards, using my tentacle to jump over them and occasionally downing a health potion when one of them hit me. I was moving so quickly that I kept losing my little entourage, but I’d find them again shortly afterwards and the fun would begin again. Dishonored 2 had no mechanical incentives or limits as to keep me stealthy. I played the rest of the missions stealthily not because I needed to, but because I chose to implement another self-imposed limitation.
Emphasising the difference in character vulnerability is the way each game handles the physicality of interactable objects.
Thief requires that Garret pick up every object by hand, that he takes a few precious moments to reach out and open a drawer, and physically take whatever is inside. Paintings are removed with a beautiful but horrifically tense animation of slicing it from the frame, as you pray that the guard in the next room stays in there for just long enough for you to get back into cover.
Dishonored 2 again takes an entirely opposite approach. The characters in Dishonored 2 are apparently telekinetic, able to make objects fly at their face without any apparent interaction. Additionally, Dishonored 2 allows the player to manipulate levers, switches and doors from positions that shouldn’t be possible. While this feeds into Dishonored 2’s faster, more action-based design, it detracts from the feeling of vulnerability that stealth games need.
Is Dishonored 2 an inherently bad game? No, it’s well made and does exactly what it needs to do. What it is however, is a bad stealth game, and we should stop pretending otherwise. Dishonored 2 is an assassination game, emphasising target elimination and fast movement. Holding it up as some kind of stealth exemplar because you can crouch only hurts the game and the industry, as stealth fans will find it boring and frustrating, and stealth game devs will pivot towards this stealth-lite form of gameplay because it’s suddenly popular.