The stealth game is something that often works much better in theory than in practice. The tense atmosphere and clever strategy can be dashed to the ground by a glitching spotlight or a guard's inability to see past fifteen feet. There are very few games that can thread that needle successfully. But one of the seldom acknowledged factors of a good stealth game is not just how players can avoid being seen, but how they can see everybody else.
There is a theory in film called voyeurism that--in a far too condensed a nutshell--suggests that there is a vaguely perverted pleasure in watching people that can't see us. Common knowledge says that people behave differently when alone than when they're among others, the sense of being watched changes what people say and do. It isn't often that we can see somebody before that change occurs. When somebody is caught off guard, and the opportunity to see another's private self emerges, even the most mundane and common behaviours carry an air of mystique and taboo.
There's a balance between being watched and
watching. Being watched is uncomfortable, violating, fearful, and being able to
instil those feelings on another gives one the upper hand. The sense of
insecurity we get from seeing the lit office windows overlooking the test
chambers in Portal would be equal to
the sense of voyeuristic pleasure we would get if we were the ones behind them.
A part of the fun of not being seen is lurking in on other people's daily
lives, giving us a sense of who they are when nobody else is around. A stealth
game hero can see every identical mook in a way that they're closest loved ones
hardly ever catch them in. Stealth games carry an inherent fear of being seen.
No matter how competent or elite the hero is supposed to be, in a stealth game
the second they're spotted and the music rises, they're helpless. An endless
battalion of uniformed goons will hunt players until they're dead or they
disappear again. By necessity these games have us lurking in the background,
where there's comfort in isolation and terror in exposure. What the best
stealth games do, though, is turn this fear on the bad guys.