Imagine this scene.
A character walks into a bar, then he starts to boast about his past exploits. “I’ve been in the field for more than 10 years,” the character sips his whiskey in front of youthful, eager faces waiting for the story. “I have never killed a man”. The youths are awed. Not a single kill in his career? He must be the master!
Such scene can only be seen in stealth games. While other action games characters may boast number of enemies they killed or beat up, the stealth game characters boast about all the enemies they chose not to hurt. It’s a complete opposite way of thinking.
Of course, stealth game can involve killing. Mark of the Ninja offers many creative ways to lethally remove the guards while remain hidden and I personally like such gameplay. It is a different type of empowerment; instead of competing in the same field as your opponents, you force them into your world and overpower them. But non-lethal way of playing has a significance in stealth game, because it is a sign of your skill.
Stealth game is basically a puzzle game, according to Extra Credits and other critics. The heavily guarded environments are puzzle problems and way to trespass the enemies is the solution you have to figure out. You need to observe the enemies’ behaviours and plan your movements.
This emphasis on problem solving is the reason why non-lethal is celebrated among the stealth gamers. If you kill the guards, it’s like you’re forcibly removing obstacles. It may be seen as a sign of ineptitude. Thief series emphasizes that violence is for the amateurs; the game will force you not to kill anyone on higher difficulty, and states that true thief does not kill. This perspective adds different significance to non-lethal gameplay; Avoidance of violence is not a sign of cowardice or inefficiency, but the sign of intelligence and skill. In this way, there is a very interesting reversal. Now non-lethal way is empowering(show off the skills) while killing is disempowerment(admitting your lack of skill to get through the problem).
Of course this does not apply to all the stealth games(remember, killing the guards in creative way can be a show off of your skills and creativity as well). But many stealth game uses that 0 kill stat as a sign of your competence. With different perspective, the same number means different thing.
But how many game genres celebrate non-lethal like stealth games? The most games actively promote killing as an acceptable(often the only) solution, and there are games that do not allow the gamers to kill in the first place. But stealth game? Yes, you can resort to violence if you want to, but it will mean that you’re not good enough. That’s the beauty of the stealth games – it shows that violence is not the only solution without being preachy and overly ethical. The developers of Mirror’s Edge tried to make a game that makes the gamers feel good for throwing away the guns. Not sure if that was successful because I still haven’t played it, but I think they will find stealth game to be the better medium for their idea. Stealth game gives you great satisfaction for avoiding violence. Unlike any other game genres, avoidance of confrontation is not the sign of cowardice, but of skill.
Sparing an enemy feels great in stealth game. Every single guard walking oblivious to your presence is the evidence of your skill. It makes pacifism stylish.