Stealth Gaming and the Importance of the Pile

Whenever I’m playing a stealth game and I finish a mission, there’s an after-mission conversation that I imagine happens between the Evil Bossman and his Head of Talent Management. And usually (taking Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as an example, since that’s what I happen to be playing now), that conversation goes something like this:

****

Timmy, Head of Talent Management: “Got a minute, boss?”

Evil Bossman, warily: “What now?”

Timmy: “It’s happened again, boss.”

EB: “… fuck. Where?”

Timmy: “Dubai. Remember that construction site, just off the coast? Boys were there for an arms buy? That’s where it happened.”

EB: “He did it again, did he?”

Timmy: “Yeah, boss. Three piles of bodies. Well, not bodies, because he didn’t kill anyone. There was one pile near a rooftop, which we’re guessing he used as his entry point. One near the middle of the building, at one end of a 500-meter hallway. One near what we think was his extraction point. Biggest one was twenty-something.”

EB: “… twenty something? Twenty something? You’re telling me this guy knocked out twenty of my men, stacked them up in a corner somewhere and no one noticed?”

Timmy: “… yes, boss. Got a few in Medical at HQ complaining about friction burns, seems he dragged them across that hall to pile —”

EB: “He dragged people across a five hundred meter hallway and no one saw a goddamn thing?”

Timmy: “Er, yeah boss. There’s also some chatter going on about hazard pay now. Jimmy says he can’t get the smell of arse out of his nose, and Johnny won’t be able to sit right for a while on account of the burns. Got a lot of chatter going on about Mr. Piles and his —”

EB: “Mr. Piles.”

Timmy: “Yes, boss?”

EB: “They’re calling him Mr. Piles. Christ, I work with idiots.”

Timmy: “Sorry, boss. Anyway, I was hoping you could —”

EB: “No. No hazard pay. I don’t care if Jimmy tastes arse for the rest of his life and if Johnny never sits back down, because these idiots KEEP GETTING KNOCKED OUT AND THEN PILED IN A FUCKING CORNER.”

Timmy: “I’ll, er, I’ll put a note in their performance review, shall I?”

EB: “Fuck off, Timmy. And for fuck’s sake, go out there AND FIND ME SOME BETTER HENCHMEN.”

****

Needless to say, it should be clear by now that there is a very specific thing that I enjoy doing in stealth videogames. While it’s fun to sneak past everyone, all ghost-like, unseen and unheard, I think it’s infinitely more fun to send a message. And, in my strange and depraved brain, sending a message involves knocking out every single evil henchman in the level and lugging them over to a quiet corner where they can be piled up.

I love the puzzle. I love looking at a room, studying the angles, trying to gauge everyone’s field of view, and trying to find the first person who looks like he can be taken out at an opportune moment. I love whittling down the guards in one room and slowly piling them higher in another. I love imagining the last guy, sweating bullets, sticking to his patrol route, entirely conscious of how alone he is, repeatedly saying to himself, “This is fine, this is fine, this is fine.”

I find it hilarious and I’m probably evil but hey, them’s the breaks.

So, to cater to my very specific and unusual tastes, I would like games to lean into the pile mechanic more. Dishonored, for example, allows me to carry unconscious guards around, slung over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. If memory serves, Thief did as well. I think Hitman did also. Deus Ex, however, does not. It forces me to drag poor henchmen about which is honestly a big excessive. It’s one thing to wake up in The Pile, but it is another entirely to have your buttocks scraped off in the process of getting there.

But, to get back on point, I want pile mechanics. I want an enemy that stumbles across a growing pile to start shrieking his head off or just pass out outright. I want to acquire a reputation for the lunatic things I do to unconscious bodyguard. I want the game to comment if I’ve made a lot of piles. I want to be able to stuff people in lockers and garbage bins and reasonably sized cartons, and then I want enemies to chatter about it as the game progresses. By the end of a game, if I’ve spent most of my time stacking unconscious people, I want guards whimpering in terror as they talk about Mr. Piles.

You get the idea.

I also want to be able to cultivate a reputation in-game as a very particular kind of lunatic and then hear characters talk about it. Hell, when I’m playing Dishonored 2, I want to stumble across a newspaper clipping headlined “Thirty Years Later, Has Mr. Piles Returned?” I want acknowledgement.

A lot of games have very flexible sandboxes that allow you to do very creative things. I have no idea how technically challenging it is to do — if it wasn’t, I imagine everyone would be doing it — but I’d love for games to acknowledge the mad things we do in them.

Shadow of Mordor had a fledgling example of this. Whenever you created a Nemesis, they would have dialogue about how you tried to kill them last. They would also have scars, would be visibly different, and would have character attributes that reflected your encounters with them. While the overarching story was unaffected by this, the smaller moments, the ones that I tend to remember, felt personal, unique to me, and noticeably influenced by either decisions I made or by accidents that just happened along the way.

I want that system to evolve. If, hypothetically, in a videogame, many, many, many evil henchmen were strangely and impossibly killed by aggressively thrown vending machines, I would like the game to respond to that.

That is all. Thank you for reading.

Trevor Coelho

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