In most action games, players are encouraged to enter new rooms without fear of discovery. Unless objects like doorframes, desks or other debris are used for ducking into cover, players are meant to run past rooms while shooting madly, swinging a sword or casting a spell. In these cases the game's level is only window dressing for the action and enemies offer up only temporary inconveniences.
This isn't true within the genre of stealth games.
When staying hidden is required, every area of a room must be considered. The position of guards has to be monitored and movement becomes slow and deliberate. The stealth game asks players to sink into the task at hand — to concentrate, plan and become involved with gameplay in a way that's seldom considered in the action titles that currently dominate the medium. This type of play seemed like it was pretty well destined to form nothing more than a niche market until recently.
The slow fadeout of the stealth game makes a lot of sense in some ways. There are obvious problems with older genre tropes and, for many players, the less straightforward objectives of a Splinter Cell, Metal Gear or Hitman can feel frustrating. How many (unfortunate) players must have checked out from 1998's Thief: The Dark Project during the opening mission because there are real consequences to being discovered? How many people picked up the first Tenchu because it had rad ninjas on the cover, but were disappointed to find that they had to concentrate to succeed in it?
Despite understandable annoyances (notorious, controller throwing problems like having to restart a mission after being discovered once should probably be confined to an expert level difficulty option), though, the stealth game could still enjoy wider relevance. This has already been demonstrated by the original Deus Ex and last year's prequel, Human Revolution. In these games the player is asked to accomplish something, is provided with the moral imperative of avoiding lethal force, but can choose for her or himself whether to vie for the rewarding, pacific approach of tranquilizer darts and sneaking or the fast paced, less satisfactory option of tackling objectives with guns blazing. Recent entries to the Metal Gear Solid series (Peace Walker, Guns of the Patriots and Snake Eater) embraced modern stealth in a similar way. Like Deus Ex, modern Metal Gear encourages the player to work through missions as quietly as possible (covert operatives like Snake and Denton are not meant to be noticed, after all), but can still be completed with less contemplative tactics.
These games punish players who opt to bypass sneaking, ensuring that they're still firmly within the stealth genre, even if they don't have to be played within a strict set of mechanics. Alarm states are, of course, just a different kind of "game over." Sure, they can be overcome (I definitely remember fighting tooth and nail through a misstep late in Human Revolution that required me to fight off waves of enemies and a homicidal turret), but these games very quickly teach players that getting caught out in the open isn't the ideal way to progress.
In examples like Metal Gear and Deus Ex it's possible to see the path that stealth games have to take in order to maintain relevancy. This fall will test the viability of the genre by doing just this, updating the strict mechanics of older stealth titles by exploring the Deus Ex school of design in Dishonoured and reiterating on Hitman's multifaceted problem solving through the series' latest entry, Absolution.
The slow fadeout of the stealth game makes a lot of sense in some ways.Whether these releases find the critical and commercial success they hope for or not (considering the reception of Human Revolution and the Assassin's Creed series, I'm optimistic) could make an argument for the survival of mainstream stealth games. The more advanced technology of modern videogames makes creating absorbing environments, advanced artificial intelligence routines and other important elements of the genre more feasible than it was in the past, and I hope this gets properly taken advantage of. Imagining a future where slickly produced stealth titles exist alongside run-and-gun action games is exciting — and imagining the various ways that talented developers could innovate within the genre is even more so.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.