Picture this for a moment: An assassin nears his target in an office building. He pauses, assessing cubicle farm between him and the target’s corner office for threats and methods of concealing his crime. “Sorry,” someone stands up and interrupts their planning, “But couriers aren’t allowed back here.” Another voice chimes in “Did that new receptionist let another courier through?” A few more faces appear, taking in the scene. The assassin quietly allows themselves to be escorted out.
Now, let’s look at this event through the lens of the most successful of the “social stealth” games, Hitman: 47 nears his target in an office complex. He pauses, assessing cubicle farm between him and the target’s corner office for threats and methods of concealing his crime. A nearby worker stares at him for just a moment too long – “OH JESUS!” they scream, throwing their bundle of paperwork into the air and running to cower in the tea room. Another worker throws open a door and runs to find the nearest guard. A few moments later the guard bursts through the door and begins shooting at the courier standing in the middle of the crowded office.
Stealth games are terrible. They operate on a bizarre, contrived logic aiming to create artificially high stakes. Yet, for some reason – I just can’t get enough of them. Their exaggerated, absurd reality is really no different to the kind of “reality” shown in racing, FPS and sports games, but their (usually) more grounded and familiar settings make it all the more bizarre. In reality, no one freaks out and hides under their desk when they realise that a courier has somehow gotten past the receptionist. No police are called. The majority of the time even building security aren’t bothered. It is usually written off as a genuine mistake which ends with everyone apologising for wasting everyone else’s time. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule (the White House level in Hitman: Blood Money would be a good example), but for the majority of the levels in stealth games these greatly reduced stakes would hold true.
Games have only one real method of punishing the player for failing: taking away actual time by forcing a replay of a segment. With this in mind, wouldn’t it be far more punishing and emasculating for you to have your carefully laid plans foiled by a random call centre employee at a desk who asked you what you were doing there, rather than being forced into an idiotic gun battle with trigger happy security guards? Of course, this doesn’t feel as grand and important to most people and as such is just about impossible to make into an enjoyable mechanic. Stealth in the modern, urban environment is rarely about hiding in shadows or shuffling along ledges, and the stakes are rarely so high as to result in immediate gunfights. We live in an age of social engineering, where the key to stealth is to be seen by everyone, but dismissed as belonging.
Consider the scenario which I started this article with – have you ever confronted a courier or contractor about what they are doing in your office? Or have you always assumed that if they’re already there, then someone else has already asked the appropriate questions and let them through? I have to stop them and ask the questions, because that’s my job, but it has made clear to me how few people actually consider security, even in allegedly secure government buildings.
We are trained from a very young age to automatically respect many symbols such as traffic signs or emergency sirens. We have a conditioned reaction to them ? give way, no right turn, pull over and allow to pass. A more recent addition to this list is the high vis vest, associated with “work”. Roadwork to start with, then construction and now, most manual labour. It has subtle implications of danger, encouraging people to be alert of their surroundings for their own safety. However, like a road sign where we see the shape or colour and respond accordingly, people don’t pay attention to the vest itself, but to the environment around it, seeking a safe path through whatever hazard has necessitated the wearing of the vest. A high vis vest is the ultimate access all areas pass in many nations. If someone is wearing one and walks with confidence then they will rarely be stopped. Activists, criminals and journalists have all exploited this garment’s ability to render them beneath the attention threshold while engaging in their activities.
Another theoretical: someone wanders through your place of work in a coveralls with high vis flashes or a vest, toolbox or voltmeter in hand staring purposefully at the vents in the ceiling, do you keep watching that person intently? Do you harbour any suspicion? Or do you look around for the other vents and then think “well, it has been a little colder in here than normal?” before returning to work? There have been many experiments conducted into how shared responsibility diminishes individual responsibility. So walking through an office full of people could well be less likely to cause alarm than walking through a near empty one. This is counter-intuitive to most stealth gamers who would choose the empty office as it would be easier to avoid close contact with anyone – the traditional method for triggering an alert state in those games.
But what if someone does raise the alarm? Even an audible alarm and strobes going off has no guarantees in most workplaces. People ignore car alarms and building alarms all the time on the street. I’ve personally witnessed situations where duress alarms have gone off in workplaces and the police have responded before people sitting nearby have looked around to see what the incident unfolding is. This attitude should be exploitable in stealth games, the only people who really care about alarms are a) designated responders and b) people who are precious about their hearing. Alarms make events someone else’s problem, as by sounding them, people assume that efforts to resolve it are in motion.
And even if an alarm is tripped, the first response shouldn’t be shoot on sight. The first response may be other workers in the facility coming to investigate. It might be a security guard coming to speak to you. If you’re unlucky, it may be a literal case of “release the hounds” (as it was in one of my previous workplaces with an understandable obsession with physical security). This information would be available to the savvy spy/assassin/thief prior to a mission, allowing you to assess the relative risks of alarms being raised. Maybe you know that you will likely just get booted out of the area, maybe you get arrested and taken to a more secure area. Wouldn’t that be a great hook for a stealth level, having to carefully fail in order to be arrested and taken through to a holding cell in a secure facility and from there go about committing the perfect crime?
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