Where Have All The Stealth Games Gone?
The game genre of “stealth” has been limited in recent years. Popular franchises like Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell, Thief, Deus Ex, and Sly Cooper have been laid to rest or dormant for a while now. Nearly the entire future of the genre (in terms of AAA games) sits in the laps of Dishonored and Assassin’s Creed, the latter of which has somewhat shifted away from the core tenets of this type of game. It’s as though the game industry decided sometime in the early 2010s that stealth games just weren’t worth the investment and moved on. However, it seems to me that as we head into the next decade, it’s time to take another dip into the tension and excitement of sneaking your way through levels.
Stealth as a secondary or tertiary gameplay component has never been very appealing to me. It usually feels like an afterthought and is used as a mechanic to arbitrarily slow down the gameplay. For instance, the stealth missions in the recent Spider-Man game where you take the role of Mary Jane or Miles felt out of place mechanically when the bulk of the game features the high-intensity web-slinging of Spider-Man himself. I felt similarly with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The game’s amazing “dual-wield anything” carnage was so regularly offset by clunky stealth that the game ended up flowing like it was riding on square wheels.
Stealth gameplay as a core component of the game design is wonderful though. The sensation of dodging between the shadows in a game like Thief, even in it’s less popular fourth iteration, made for a game that rewarded the player’s caution and analysis of the environment. It made the levels design of a 3D world less about aesthetics and more about creating a visual puzzle for the player to solve in their mind. Being discovered meant often-deadly combat with enemies designed to be far tougher than the typical cannon fodder of more action-oriented titles, which meant stealth gameplay wasn’t just rewarded – it was a necessity.
Along with the basic elements of a stealth game – staying out of sight and being silent – the genre usually provided a collection of cool gadgets and tools to drive the gameplay forward. Whether it was the moss and water arrows in Thief, the tranquilizer guns and cardboard boxes of Metal Gear Solid, or the simple advantage of night vision goggles in Splinter Cell, gameplay progression often meant using these items effectively. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the Deus Ex franchise. Here we saw the imaginations of the designers going wild to come up with futuristic gadgets that allow you to dispatch the heavily armed enemies in style. Making use of cloaking, special nanobot or augmentation abilities, or even hacking meant that every problem has numerous solutions.
The stealth genre does still have some representation in the AA and Indie worlds. While still not a prominent genre, notable titles like Ghost of a Tale, Heat Signature, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Mark of the Ninja’s remaster, and Aragami, and the recent release of A Plague Tale: Innocence shows that there is still an interest in games that center around the protagonist avoiding direct conflicts by sticking to the shadows. Indie games, in general, are very capable of filling gaps that the AAA industry has neglected. That industry is one of the reasons for the resurgence of space sims so many years after their peak popularity, leading to the massive growth of games like Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. The future of the stealth genre may still be in good hands.
Still, I hold onto hope that the franchise that contains one of my favorite games of all time, Deus Ex, isn’t set to go on another long hiatus. While the modern Deus Ex games may not be quite on the same level as the original, the execution of stealth mechanics, dialogue problem solving, and so many other enjoyable gameplay elements are something that I need more of in my life. The half-hearted implementations of stealth mechanics in games without that as the central theme are only going to make me want stealth-centric games even more. However, it might be the case that a whole new stealth franchise is out there and not on my radar yet, one that may live up to the standards some of these great games like Deus Ex have set.