As if a Fly on the Wall

The cool breeze of the night feels like a second home to me.

I grew up sticking to the shadows, slowly and steadily teaching myself the secrets of stealth by playing game after game of hide-and-seek. Sometimes, the game was played indoors, and I availed myself happily to plastic hampers overflowing with dirty laundry or closets with just enough outerwear to conceal a youthful body behind sprawling layers of fabric and leather. Sometimes, the game was played outdoors, and I found myself suppressing the fear of the dark in favor of becoming the shadows between leaves. Scrambling up trees with a child’s lunatic disregard for safety was as much a personal art form as my desire to draw, or the hope that I’d become a television superhero when I grew up.

Although I never had to learn stealth for any practical purpose, my childhood could be described by the repeated failure to learn good stealth craft, but in sufficient quantity that learning became accidental.

The dancing light in the distance, and sound of movement from the grass, trees, and passersby tens or hundreds of meters away, were as much my cloak as the fading light of the evening. The key to success, one could assume, was in understanding the strength of stealth was patience and clever thinking, far more than fast reflexes and brute power.

Good stealth is often little more than good cover.

Stealth is a universal language for humanity. Hiding, creeping, and subtlety are familiar parts of human cultures, in large because its practices seem to appear nearly anywhere on the globe. Some human cultures teach stealth as a part of military training, alongside other features of squad doctrine, guerilla tactics, weapon usage, and tactical acumen. Some cultures teach it as warriors, inextricable from tribe and tradition. Passage into adulthood is often built with the ability to hunt and kill in mind, and though human tools have enabled the human machine to accomplish spectacular things, the best tool for felling a predator is very often in a stealthy first strike. For some cultures, stealth is a feature of spy craft. These cultures value the ability to subtly disappear into a crowd, appearing to any but the deepest of investigations to have belonged all along.

Given that, it’s hard to imagine how stealth could be anything other than an accidental feature of anything humans try to create. Games are no exception. They often incorporate stealth tools because there is no culture in which a measured, stealthy approach is an impossibility. Everyone can imagine a sneaky approach because every culture has an equivalent. The idea of failing to design sneaking seems ridiculous because it would be a glaring oversight. Of course stealth is an option, it never hasn’t been.

Absolute darkness is the nearest friend to good stealth craft. Few senses are so relied upon as vision, and vision is a failing sense in true darkness. Anything that wants to hide in the dark can almost always reliably do so. Eyes without light are genuinely meaningless.

There is something about stealth in games that brings out all the quirks of an old, familiar habit. Whether it’s picking silencing perks in Call of Duty and equipping weapons with suppressors, or stalking through the dancing shadows of the Zone of Alienation at a measured and exaggeratedly slow pace, the trappings of stealth feel like they transcend genre. The successful effort to silently creep up on an opponent produces a wonderful host of options, almost all of which are beneficial in more than one way. In Battlefield, it provides a free kill and dogtags for the player’s collection. In Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, bonus experience toward new skills and abilities. In Dark Souls, a very high-damage attack that can soften the grind of a hard sequence of fights. In Fallout, good stealth could negate the need for any engagement at all, and provides the player with an in-and-out option without any danger whatsoever.

And good stealth is often more than just hiding in the dark. Good stealth can challenge players to do more than just burying oneself in shadows and pretend that being invisible is as good as being inexistent. Good stealth can challenge all of the senses, or give the player a knack for listening to the barks of the passing guards, digging for information from the radio chatter, or listening for the scuff of boots outside to time guard patrols. Good reconnaissance means more than knowing where the best shadows are; it often means know which guards may go on smoke breaks, or which dogs can be distracted by a well placed steak at just the right moment. Good stealth is about a mastery of the environment, so that when needed, it’s possible to become indistinguishable from it.

However, the darkness only hinders me in the tropical and sandy purgatory I find myself in. My eyes are only so useful in the darkness, and my prey’s eyes are practically irrelevant. Their senses lie elsewhere. No matter what skills I may feel to have mastered, this beach continues to flummox me in the most numbing of ways. My fingers feel increasingly too cumbersome, my abilities just too rudimentary to succeed… And even though I can see my goal, reaching it is another beast entirely.

The tragedy of good stealth is that all the practice in the world will only help if it’s preparing for the right obstacles. A person can spend a lifetime mastering technique after technique, and run an Olympic 100M in the same time it takes most people to fully rise out of their bed in the morning, but that does very little if that same sprinter finds themselves having to swim the same distance. Although they share many parallels, locomoting through water and locomoting on rubberized track surface are two very different skills.

Some stealth is meant to result in capture, and learning how to throw a burlap sack over a security guard who stands alone out in a field is a very different prospect from extracting a Fortune 500 CEO from his penthouse suite with security outside. The skills aren’t entirely universal, and sometimes that means a lifetime of preparation can mean next to nothing.

As I approach the trunk, my excitement gets the better of me, and one of my steps turns into a shuffle through the sand. The sudden sound of sand scraping across sand alerts my prey, which rockets off into the night.

Well… That’s unfortunate. I’m never going to get the hang of this bug catching thing.

Catching bugs in New Leaf is hard. Other animals, though…

Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Bugs” theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.

Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and lifelong enthusiast of hiding for unproductive reasons. Although despite how he may characterize it, he enjoys the beach. Almost as much as he enjoys making new friends, which he hopes to do more of on Twitter.