Applied Valence Theory

Since the playtest a few weeks ago, I have been aiming to improve the core stealth experience in NEON STRUCT. A couple of friends reminded me of Randy Smith’s GDC presentations on stealth gameplay, and especially the concept of attractive and repulsive stealth spaces, which Robert Yang called valence theory. Here, I’ll examine in detail the first stealth space in the game and show how I am using this concept to improve it.

In the playtested version of the level, this is the player’s perspective as they enter the space. There are some distant guards slowly patrolling the area, and an apparent path of shadow straight up the center toward the large, well-lit central building. But reviewing this space through the lens of valence theory reveals some key problems.

First, it’s kind of a mess: a large ground, dotted with lights and big looping patrols, but no interesting features to break up the space. More importantly, the apparent best path (from the player’s perspective) turns out to be a trap. Halfway to the destination, the player will end up in the middle of the field with no safe approach. Furthermore, there is an alternative path to the right which entirely circumvents the patrols and dangerous spaces. If the player goes this way, they will have a flat, unchallenging experience, and entirely miss the stealth gameplay this space was intended to provide.

This is my first pass at improving the encounter. The most immediately apparent difference is that the space is much smaller, and broken up in the center by a large walled structure. The patrols are much shorter and nearer to the player’s point of entry, making them more visible and learnable.

From the player’s perspective, there is no longer a direct path to the central building. Instead, the player is intended to make a shorter movement to a nearer destination. There are two visible destinations: the dark wall straight ahead, and the dark corner to the left. Both involve waiting until a guard has turned away, but the path to left is somewhat safer as it has some nooks to hide in along the way. (I may also put some planters along the road to provide a bit of occlusion for the player, as both paths still look a little more dangerous than they are intended to be.)

There is a hidden third destination, to the right behind the well lit blind corner. As before, this leads to a mostly unguarded space in front of the right wing of the complex, but getting there is no longer a flat, trivial experience. A player might risk approaching that blind corner, but the light and occlusion are designed to repel them from it. They are more likely to traverse that space when exiting the level, as it provides a safe vantage point to scout these patrols from the other side.

On the far side of this space, I have also added an entrance canopy to the central building. This serves both to identify that building as the primary destination, and to provide occlusion from the bright lights.

Much of the rest of NEON STRUCT‘s development will be spent iterating on the levels and making this sort of improvement. The game is nearly end-to-end playable now, but a few more months of work on stealth gameplay at the micro encounter level is needed to make it the game I want it to be.