WHAT games come into mind when someone asks you, ‘What are Stealth Games?’
Of course, the first thing that would spring to mind is a game where you sneak around and try not to get caught. And that would be correct.
Most people would say that the first stealth games would be Metal Gear Solid, Thief: The Dark Project and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. All three games were released in 1998, arguably being what started the Stealth genre in mainstream gaming.
But this leads to many great debates on which game is the ‘actual‘ first stealth game – an interview conducted by Retro Gamer’s John Szczepaniak appears to place this as a 1979 Japanese game by the name of Manbiki Shounen or as the name translates to: Shoplifting Boy.
Stealth falls under the many sub-genres of Action games, like many game genres over the years. The stealth genre has grown and evolved.
The genre and mechanics initially spawned from games like Pac-Man (1980), where using the games mechanics to actively avoided confronting enemies until you eat that big old dot and went on the attack if you so choose too.
In Castle Wolfenstein (1981), you steal secret plans and avoid detection by acquiring uniforms and keeping with the WWII theme, The Great Escape (1986) has you trying to break out of a WWII Prisoner Of War camp while avoiding detection by the guards.
And then there’s the predecessor of the Metal Gear Solid series, Metal Gear (1987) and its sequel prior to the release of Metal Gear Solid. But due to things such as hardware limitations, the stealth genre started more as maze style games where you would control the main character around the said ‘maze’, avoiding enemies. And it was with gaming hitting the 3D space we finally got what has become the Stealth Genre as we know it today.
To date, the most recognisable name in the stealth genre remains to be the Metal Gear Solid franchise, with its most recent chronically recognised game being Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, released in September 2015. It is also the last Metal Gear game helmed by the original creator Hideo Kojima. But it’s not the only prominent stealth game out there.
One of the first major steps in the stealth genre came in June 2000 with Deus Ex. Though some thought the games controls to be somewhat clunky, Deus Ex was the first game to bring in non-lethal takedowns, unlike previous games where you generally had to avoid enemies altogether to remain stealthy.
November 2000 saw the release of the first Hitman game, Hitman: Codename 47, which brought its own form of stealth, with the ability of hiding in plain sight by using different outfits and different ways of killing your target. It allowed you to get creative with your form of stealth kills, especially in the release of the ‘World of Assassination’ Trilogy of Hitman games by IO Interactive in 2016.
It’s no surprise that after Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation 1, the ‘Father of the Stealth Genre’: Hideo Kojima pushed the boundaries for the stealth genre on the PlayStation 2.
Kojima and his team at Konami brought new mechanics such as: being able to leap and hang from railings, hiding in lockers and, a personal favourite of mine, sneaking up on enemies and holding them up to get potential items and ammo (their little hold-up wriggling always give me a laugh). Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty earned itself a Guinness World Record for the ‘First Stealth Genre Game to feature a collective artificial intelligence’ which only adds to the game.
In translation, guards in the game work together, and they will communicate with other off-screen guards as a counter-attack measure. This is now an integral part of any stealth game, since you rarely encounter a game that doesn’t have this system built into it.
Probably one of the next predominant stealth genre games, along with the Metal Gear Solid and Hitman franchises, is Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell – a game that is said to bring more realism to the stealth genre by following Sam Fisher, a black-ops National Security Agency operative.
There is only so much realism a lot of players can handle in games, especially in the stealth genre – such as having to subdue the person that found them or an instant game over if caught – so the Splinter Cell game uses dynamic light and effects to allow the player to hide to avoid detection.
The stealth genre isn’t all serious games though, with games like Sly Cooper by Sucker Punch Productions. It changed the stealth genre in its own way by being suitable for all ages content-wise and being a stealth platformer game. To help with the stealth aspect of the game, Sly has what is known as his thief sense which is reflected in the game by blue sparkles of light in particular areas; this allows Sly to sneak up on and one-hit neutralise enemies.
One of the next major game series in the stealth genre are the earlier Assassin’s Creed games with its mechanics of blending in with crowds of civilians to hide from enemies/pursuers, hiring other people as a distraction or tossing a coin. Assassin’s Creed II even brought in the notoriety level system.
It was also around the mid-2000s when games started incorporating stealth elements into multiplayer games, beginning with Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and including stealth missions in games such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007).
Around 2015, the stealth genre now expanded into the open-world genre. And naturally, 2015’s Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain was the one that introduced this, followed by the Hitman reboot in the following year with its much more expanded maps, changing the stealth genre once again and making no two different playthroughs the same.
But rolling back to 2014 with the release of Alien: Isolation and stealth being implemented into the survival horror genre as you are trapped on a space station with a Xenomorph that you must avoid for most of the game as killing it is just not an option.
2014 also came with new innovations to the stealth genre, courtesy of Sniper Elite III and it’s future titles with it’s mechanic to use environmental noises to mask gunshots sound as well give you the ability to to move locations to avoid enemies upon detection
And who could not forget the game that won several awards, 2012’s Dishonored. This game brings an interesting twist to the stealth genre, not only by incorporating mystical aspects into the game but it is one of the earlier games out there where you choices of kill or be stealthy affect the outcome of the game – such effects as NPC’s refusing to speak with you because you’ve played too chaotic/violent through out the game, to the plague of rats increasing in numbers because you’ve killed rather than knocked out enemies. And those rats will go after you if you are within their range.
Some of the more recent games incorporating some subtle stealth mechanics are two little indie games known as Among Us by American game studio, Innersloth, as well as Australian developer House House’s Untitled Goose Game.
Among Us is a multiplier social stealth game with the aspect of hiding in plain sight to pit crew members against each other while you slaughter them all without getting caught. Whereas Untitled Goose Game is a hilarious puzzle stealth game, you complete challenges and manipulate items in a small village as a pesky goose.
All in all, the stealth genre hasn’t made massive changes over the past couple of years, but most games we play today have elements in them whose origins started in stealth games. With rumours of a new game from Kojima in the works, is there a possibility of further elevation in the stealth genre? Even if he did step away from stealth a bit with Death Stranding, but it still plays a big part with avoiding BT’s and other enemies.
We will see. But stealth has become a big part of action games and remains a personal favourite genre for myself, and I look forward to what the genre brings us in future.