Two guards, one with a machine gun at the ready, the other pulls lazily on the bent remains of a cigarette, smoke trailing above him. Beyond, three cameras, all of which will alert the rest of the security team. Crouching in the shadows between a row of shipping crates and traffic cones you weigh the options.
One: arm your fully automatic weapon, pull the grenades from your utility belt, pop the guards, blow off the cameras, and dump the grenades on the incoming security forces, then walk through the rubble, acquire the target, and walk out before major reinforcements arrive.
Two: silently evade each of the guards, then disable the security cameras for long enough to slip by without being detected. Once inside another similar situation will present itself, and then another, until the target has been retrieved and you escape with your enemies none the wiser.
So what will it be, toasted or ghosted?
Players of stealth action games know that there is only one answer. Indeed there is really only one option. Now, how one goes about ghosting a level is entirely up to one’s creativity, risk aversion, and patience.
Why is it that blasting one’s way in seems so distasteful, so unrefined, so barbaric? Certainly more NPCs will die in this scenario, but they’re just digital representations of people after all. No one will care that they’re gone. Or maybe the head-through-wall method shows a lack of intellect. Wouldn’t want to look like some meathead, would you? Nope.
Why is it that the silent, nobody-even-knew-you-were-there approach is so much cooler? The game probably rewards such behavior, but that’s not likely to be enough. It could be that you’re low on ammo and can’t shoot your way in (though if we assume a modern game, this is also not likely).
The answer, I think, goes back to the medium through which the player experiences the scene. It’s a digital world, filled with digital representations of people. Now, if you were to literally explode your way into a highly secure facility in real life, that would be spectacular to watch. Gruesome, but spectacular. If you were to sneak into the same facility, there would be less spectacle—though probably more praise. The thing is, it’s not real life, so your explosions and chunks of debris and dead bodies aren’t all that impressive. However, maneuvering past the traps and guards flawlessly is still impressive even though the guards are little more than dumb, walking security cameras, and disabling the actual cameras in-game means pushing a single button or winning a mini-game designed to be just difficult enough to slow you down.
You needed timing, sure, but so does the head-through-wall guy. You needed mastery of the controller, and again so did he. Here’s the difference: stealth, good stealth, requires forethought, resourceful improvisation, and above all, patience.
Games are a pastime for most, and time is the scarcest of all resources. Stealth forces the player to spend that resource doing what seems like nothing. Killing that guard would be faster, but tossing a Coke can at the opposing wall and laughing as you duck past while he’s busy investigating, is a different experience entirely. The guns-blazing option makes use of copious amounts of in-game resources: bullets, grenades, health-packs, NPCs. With stealth, real “ghosted” stealth, no resources are consumed in-game, but time and patience are. Now that the most important resource of all has been invested, the payoff is greater, as is the frustration with failure.
The ghost combines patience with thought and skill to provide an incredibly rewarding outcome, a flawless conquering of the system.