Stealth is a tricky subject to deal with in gaming. There are countless 3D tries at the genre, failing to capture the magic Metal Gear and Splinter Cell had. Things aren’t much better in the 2D realm, as most stealth is done with very simple pattern memorization and waiting. Tension isn’t quite the same on a 2D plane as a 3D one, and many of these games choose to make the player powerless to create a sense of vulnerability, which just robs the player of options to work with. Eventually, the player gets used to the pattern of hiding and avoidance, and, unlike the wider range of possibilities in 3D space, start to repeat the same tactics over and over.
This is what makes Gunpoint so interesting. It’s a stealth game that chooses to empower the player, but it still remains challenging. On top of that, it’s all about options and manipulating the level to best benefit you. Design wise, the game takes mostly from puzzle games, but puts it in the trappings of an action stealth game. These styles blended together result in a truly elegant, challenging, and entertaining game that rewards experimentation and offers multiple play styles.
Most 2D stealth requires the player to remain passive and hide in crevices or behind objects while waiting for enemies to go by. Gunpoint challenges this by giving the player more mobility and requiring more active play to succeed. Because you move on the same plane as guards, and there are no places to hide in another “safe” plane outside the elevator (which comes with risk because it makes a noise when you hit a floor that draws guard attention), you have to figure out how to move around them. Tension is replaced by challenge. The game isn’t trying to make you feel powerless and get through those emotions to make the right choice, it wants you to think and plan ahead from the start. It has different aims from most 2D stealth games, treating narrative or emotion secondary to the satisfaction of solving difficult problems.
It’s pretty clear from the story proper, in which the game allows you to make snarky comments at almost all times. Achievements are the same, all making self-aware jokes for certain out of character actions, like punching a man to death or finally using the door kicking abilities. The narrative proper is a good one and maturely told, forcing you into the role of a man trying to stay out of jail, creating a mess as a result, and trying desperately to fix it alongside the people trying to catch you. The final decisions of the game are also well done, creating complex moral quandaries that leave no right answers beyond what you see as right. Yet, the designers chose to undercut their own narrative with meta-humor quite a bit.
Their focus is almost entirely on mechanics. The puzzle elements come in the level design, creating carefully crafted problems that change based on player action. Instead of a focus on reaction, the focus here is on cause and effect. We see this most with the crosslink, which lets you connect devices in the level and use them in ways they were not originally designed for, like using cameras to open doors or turn off the lights. This is one of the most empowering mechanics, letting you make the level itself a weapon or tool. It’s also the most puzzle-like element, challenging you to make a decision to solve problems to progress.
The most interesting mechanics are not puzzle based but action based, however. Your character is outfitted with a futuristic jumpsuit that lets them jump to incredible heights and distances, plus crawl along walls and ceilings. This added element gives the player more movement options, and changes the stealth to something more active. Much of the game is based around moving around guards and avoiding their line of sight in the process, making unorthodox entrances and exits usually impossible in other games of its ilk. The only times you hide away in this game are to get some time to plan your moves and to have time to use the crosslink, making progress requires you move around guards and obstacles more often than not. It has a good balance between patient and fast paced play.
Most importantly, the game offers multiple ways to tackle situations and allows the player to form their own play style. You can be a complete ghost, or you can remove the guards from your path by knocking them out or outright killing them in various ways. Upgrades change overtime to reflect this, as some are better for non-violent stealth, and others better for takedowns. There’s no one right way to play the game, a very Deus Ex idea realized in a new sort of plane and gameplay style.
The game wants you, the player, to express yourself in play. It wants you to feel strong, but not invincible, as you can easily die if you’re not careful. Stakes are there, but the means to reach success are varied and fun to discover. Most importantly, choices have consequences, but they’re limited in impact based on the player’s own morality. This is what makes the ending of the game so effective, as it presents you with a situation where you have to give something up to accomplish something else. Afterwards, it lets you pick from different options in a blog post to best represent how the adventure made you feel, offering choices for those who took the narrative seriously, and those who just wanted to get the door kicker ability.
The designers take everyone into account and made a game that’s designed on making your play style the right one. It allows you freedom to explore and experiment, especially with the constant auto-saves that let you restart a few seconds before you died. It’s a stealth game that’s about more than just hiding and waiting. That play style is here, but it also allows you to be more aggressive and active. Gunpoint, unlike most stealth games, is about empowerment, and tit’s a refreshing, enjoyable twist on an old formula.