The Death of Stealth

Written by Craig Lager

November 1, 2010 | 07:36

Tags: #hitman #stealth #stealth-games #thief

Companies: #looking-glass-studios

Stealth Games are Dead

Splinter Cell: Conviction, for example, was a great game, but it wasn’t Splinter Cell. Instead of lurking in shadows and plotting assaults and escapes you went from room to room shooting people in the head while trying to be seen as little as possible. It was an action game, a very fast paced and often linear shooter - it wasn’t Splinter Cell.

Metal Gear 4, too, was a different beast. It was full of over-the-shoulder shooting, the odd motorbike sequence, and cutscenes that were maybe a little too frequent and a little too long for some tastes. In many eyes it was still amazing, but there's no denying that it was a fair departure from the original MGS.

And it’s not like we’ve really had any new franchises picking up the slack that the tried and tested have left behind. There have been two Assassins Creed releases, but I’d argue that they aren’t really stealth because with them you can win huge fights - just master the counter button. And they aren’t really about planning attacks or being smart, you just do what you’re told and then run away - the running away is amazing mind so, yeah, good games, but when it comes down to it they aren’t stealth.

So, what happened? Well, it’s hard to tell. I can’t believe that people don’t want stealth games any more because I defy you to find a top 100 PC games list that doesn’t mention at least one game each out of the Splinter Cell, Hitman and Thief franchises, plus Rainbow Six and SWAT as strong possibilities. Instead I have more of a feeling it’s down to what publishers think we want, or what they think they can market.

The Death of Stealth  Stealth Games are Dead

Traditional stealth games are really quite far removed from other games; they aren’t about explosions or flashy set pieces - they’re about slowly creeping through dark corridors, they’re about waiting and thinking and planning, they’re about standing stock still with your back against a wall for three minutes while you wait for an area to clear. Hardware people can’t use it to show off their stuff because it isn’t fast paced or flashy - trying to sell a GPU by enthusing about a pitch black corridor is next to impossible. Likewise, marketing people can’t make videos exciting and eye catching (unless they cheat and try to make it look like something it isn’t) because how stealth games work doesn’t translate well into five second clips mashed together.

The other problem is that designing a stealth game is pretty tricky, especially in the modern climate. For starters it’s tough to put a decent difficulty curve on a stealth game. With other genres you can mostly just make enemies harder and more frequent and it will leave a pretty nice curve. With stealth though it doesn’t quite work: more enemies that can detect you more easily creates two huge problems - it stops a game being fun when you have to restart a section over and over because of constantly running into trouble, or it comes to the point where the only way to progress is to fight - something that should never happen.

Stealth is at its best when we are made to feel clever, like we outsmarted the AI because we are a super spy/thief/ninja. A big firefight going wrong in a shooter is fine because you can normally blast your way out and that's the whole point of the game, but stealth is binary - you are unseen and OK, or you are seen and probably dead. It’s a fine line to walk between making the levels progressively more challenging and just progressively worse. And harder to make means more time consuming to make, which means it costs more money. When the more standard formulas of shooting men in the face sell so well, from a business perspective these are risky investment.

The Death of Stealth  Stealth Games are Dead

So, because of these problems stealth games died. Or to look at it another way, maybe, they just hid from view instead? Back in 2000 a game was released called Deus Ex - you may have heard of it. In that stealth was an option amongst other more violent or subversive routes, it’s why we loved it. Bewilderingly though, “stealth as an option” has taken a decade to become a viable design approach that other games have emulated.

If you consider it, you’re playing a stealth game when you cloak in Crysis, or when you hide in the bracken of Far Cry. You’re playing a stealth game when you play as The Spy in Team Fortress 2 or Recon in Battlefield. You’re playing a stealth game when creeping through a dungeon in Oblivion or a dilapidated hut in Fallout. Alpha Protocol, No One Lives Forever, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Quake Wars, the list goes on where stealth is a subsection - an option, and it’s becoming more fashionable.

As trailers roll in for the new Deus Ex, Crysis 2 and The Witcher 2, as every Bethesda RPG is released from now until forever, and as every other game that focuses on choice comes into view, we will see the stealth options. Player choice is a massive thing, and stealth is proven as a fun, engaging choice to make. Maybe one day we’ll see Hitman 5, Thief 4 (I’m not calling it that silly name again), and a new, proper Splinter Cell but until then we’ll have to manage with the New Stealth Game - the cross-breeds, the mutants, the “stealth as an option” titles.

Stealth games are dead. Long live stealth games.
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