A lot of the fear in FromSoftware’s now-iconic PvP mode comes from the studio’s long history with horror. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has always played with fear, from Demon’s Souls to Bloodborne to Elden Ring, and home invasions are among the scariest things you can think of. Slipping in the shower or taking a high school trigonometry test is more dangerous than a Dark Souls invader.
Even scarier is the fact that the intruder knows everything about your house. Soulsborne PvP veterans often go back to hunting grounds they’ve already mastered. They know the location of every cliff they can push you off, every dead end they can trap you in, and every drooling monster they can lure you toward. Don’t worry about the best weapons in the meta; a good invader knows how to turn the world itself into a weapon against you.
But wait. Those sneaky moves sound like something an undercover assassin would do, not someone with a sword as big as a skyscraper. Splinter Cell 101 is to learn how to memorize map layouts and AI patrols so you can trick enemies into dangerous situations. And this similarity between horror and Hitman may be why other action RPGs need to use Souls’ invasion mechanics. Instead, stealth games are.
Deathloop and Sniper Elite 5’s Invasion modes have lifted Dark Souls’ PvP almost entirely in the past year, but stealth games have been playing with the system for years. In 2014, Ubisoft changed the idea into a cat-and-mouse game for Watch Dogs’ Online Hacking mode. In this mode, an invader must download essential data from another player’s phone without being seen. A year later, Hideo Kojima took the idea back to its attack/defend basics for Metal Gear Solid 5’s FOB Invasions, which sent invaders to break into other players’ forward operating bases and steal valuable resources.
It’s easy to see why invasion modes are so attractive in these action-stealth games. Like FromSoftware’s games, stealth games are mostly played alone, but their single-player systems are accessible for a bad player to take over. In Bloodborne’s Nightmare of Mensis, for example, a tower in the distance manned by a creature can cause Frenzy, a status that builds up and causes your brain to overflow and burst. To get through the Nightmare, you must avoid its lighthouse-like gaze. When played alone, the Nightmare is a fun puzzle to get through. But it’s no surprise that this is a popular place for invaders, who like to lure their prey into the creature’s line of sight so it can kill them.
No stealth game is precisely like Nightmare of Mensis, but each developer has found exciting ways to turn solo mechanics on their heads. For example, in Deathloop and Sniper Elite 5, knowing the single-player goals helps you figure out where to set up an ambush. If you see the mission, you can easily be three steps ahead of your target.
But in these two games, as the invader, you also have the advantage of being on the player’s side against you (the Eternalists and Nazis, respectively). This means that all of the AI soldiers on the map are automatically on your side. These NPCs act as your eyes and ears in the world. They look for your target and tell you where they are by doing things they already do. But it’s enjoyable to send your AI minions into battle with you. Even though there is no Frenzy tower on Blackreef Island, the next best thing is to send a dozen flashy thugs to kill your target for you or create a distraction for your elaborate kill.
Chasing a ghost
In Watch Dogs and its 2016 follow-up, the people walking around digital Chicago and San Francisco are off your side. They don’t exist for much else than to be accurate and create an atmosphere. But when there is an invasion, everyone in that crowd is a threat. A good Watch Dogs invader will blend in with NPCs by copying AI movements and recreating ambient scenes as they slowly move towards their target. It’s a great example of how parts of a world made for a single player can be reinterpreted during invasions, which FromSoftware came up with initially.
Deathloop also plays with this sneaking around in social situations. As the hero Colt’s enemy, Julianna, you can use the “Masquerade” ability to make yourself look like any other human. By acting like a background thug, you can watch Colt without being seen and plan his downfall without being seen yourself. Even though there’s a clear link to Dishonored: Death of the Outsider’s Semblance skill, it’s likely that Masquerade also pulls from Dark Souls 3, which Arkane staff had to play during the research phase for Deathloop.
In Dark Souls 3, the bright red color of an invader shows right away what they want to do. But artifacts called “Untrue Rings” can change your appearance during PvP, making you look like a much friendlier spirit and hiding the fact that you want to kill. The Chameleon sorcery is another sneaky tool in Souls. It turns you into urns and bushes that are hard to see. The upcoming stealth PvP game Deceive Inc. was inspired by these mechanics, but unsurprisingly, many other stealth developers have used Dark Souls as a rich source of ideas. They were already working with those ideas but in a single-player game.
Traditions of the trade
But the thing that connects FromSoftware and stealth the most is the hunt, which is more of an idea than a set of rules. When you start an invasion in a Soulsborne game, you go to another player’s world and have to find them before you can fight to the death. This hunt doesn’t just work in stealth games; it speaks the same language. Deathloop, Metal Gear Solid, and Sniper Elite all put you in the role of a hunter looking for prey in places you shouldn’t be, so it makes sense for a PvP player to have the same goal.
Invasion stories are a lot like stealth stories on a small scale. They give you everything you need to play a traditional stealth game in a fast, session-based way. The mode may have started as a dueling competition with a horror theme, but it only needed surprisingly few changes to fit in with stealth games.
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