I love stealth games, for so many reasons, but I know a lot of people find them dull and frustrating. Stealth games may never be the biggest sellers, even when they’re met with universal acclaim. Dishonored sold around 420,000 copies in it’s first month in the United States, whilst CoD Black Ops II sold 7.5 million copies. That statistic could do with a little more context. I chose it to highlight the big difference between, what I consider to be, a wonderfully created game and just another click-on-a-man-until-he-falls-over-athon. Games with a big emphasis on stealth do sell well; Far Cry 3, a critically acclaimed blend of action and stealth, has recently passed the 6 million sales mark, according to Ubisoft.
I’m digressing, this is about why I love stealth games, not sales figures. I’m a follower of the “games are art” school of thought, and art has a worth besides sales. It’s about how it makes you feel, how it makes you think, and just how much you enjoy and appreciate it.
Any good stealth game should have you thinking all the way through. Not about the story though. About your next few moves, the guards next moves, about consequences. I love the careful planning, scoping out who is where, escape routes, hiding spots, which guards to take out, which ones to leave bemused.
The stealth segments in the Batman games are great for this. Perched on a ledge above half a dozen armed nutjobs, you survey the environment and plan your attack. Which guards to take out first, and how? Can I take out more than one at a time? What if they see me, where do I go? After the plan, the execution. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when I manage to ghost it it’s so satisfying. Pulling off the perfect hit, getting in and out without a single soul being aware I find so much more rewarding than a kill count or accuracy statistics.
It isn’t just in the planning, the tension that stealth games create can explode into action after a single misstep. This tension is normally heightened compared to shooters because of how fragile the characters are, especially on harder difficulties. You can be turned into bloody swiss-cheese, a hastily skewered kebab or just a smear of your former self in a matter of seconds. This is another part of stealth gameplay I really enjoy; reacting when it all goes wrong. All careful planning goes out the window and panic takes over. Do you attack, potentially completely blowing any hope of sneaking? Do you try and escape, leaving you open to death? The build up of tension from skulking in shadows is perfectly complemented by the knowledge that at any second the alarm could sound, the lights will go on and you’ll be fighting or fleeing for your life.
I find that stealth games can make me think a lot more creatively than other genres, mainly because they tend to give you more gadgets and mechanics to play around with. Corvo’s powers, the utility belts of Sam Fisher and Batman, Snake’s cardboard box, Adam Jensen’s augmentations. The more toys I’m allowed to play with, the more choices I have, the more I love the game. The Metal Gear Solid games really excel in this area, especially MGS4. You’re given so many different mechanics, gadgets and weapons which gives you so many ways to approach almost every single scenario. From the ridiculous (hiding in cardboard boxes and oil cans) to the surprisingly useful.
One of the best thing about stealth games, or games with a big emphasis on stealth, is how much of a badass they can make you feel. Mowing down hundreds of mooks in a corridor shooter has a certain catharsis, bludgeoning pedestrians with a giant purple dildo is pretty cool, but sneaking up on an unsuspecting guard, taking him out, and retreating into the shadows? That’s badass.
You don’t need me to tell you that Far Cry 3 does this in spades, and then some. You’re largely devoid of gadgetry and gimmicks, and have to rely on good recon, careful planning and a bit of luck to stealthily take out an outpost. Setting a tiger on guards, creeping in during the ensuing chaos and taking out the remaining enemies is a special kind of satisfaction. Splinter Cell pulls this off in a different way. You’re massively outnumbered, out gunned, and Sam Fisher is pretty frail. Getting through a level, neutralising every guard without being spotted? That’s a different kind of badass.
Choice is another thing that is great about most stealth games. Mainly the choice to kill or not. Having the option to totally ghost entire levels, or even the entire game in some cases, is a really cool, natural moral choice component integral to the actual gameplay, rather than relying on the story. Sam Fisher can snap all the necks he can, or none at all and it’s the players choice. This freedom makes stealth games feel a lot less linear that they often are. It’s the freedom of choice of how to progress that makes them great, rather than just having an open sandbox to run around in. (Having said that I’m stupid excited for the prospect of a sandbox MGS).
The main reasons I love stealth games? Freedom and satisfaction. Freedom of choice, to explore the environments, to kill or not, to take your time or blitz it. While stealth games can be frustrating when your planning is wasted, but when you do pull off the perfect heist, hit, piece of corporate espionage or outpost takeover the satisfaction cannot be matched.
I know there are so many other great games that I didn’t name in this piece. If I’d tried to talk about all of them, you’d be reading this conclusion in another 10,000 or so words. The Thief series is excellent, Hitman is beautifully satisfying, Assassin’s Creed has some great stealth sections, Manhunt is…Manhunt. I’m yet to play The Last Of Us but hear that the stealth in that is brilliant, not to mention the indie games like Gunpoint
For me, stealth games have the best bits of loads of genres. The action and badassery of shooters, the freedom of sandbox (albeit on a smaller scale), the tactical thinking of strategy games and this blend creates a really tense and engaging experience. What are your favourite, or least favourite genres?