In the Shadows: A Brief History Of Stealth Games

For decades, stealth games have been challenging players to overcome obstacles and enemies by simply avoiding them. Instead of firing machines guns, throwing grenades, and punching people in the face, titles such as Hitman, Metal Gear, and Splinter Cell put an emphasis on hiding in the shadows, using disguises, and making as little noise as possible. Oh, and don’t forget those precious cardboard boxes! Though the genre has seen a slight decline in quality over the last few years, recent games like Volume and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain are showing that stealth games still have plenty of life and creativity left in them.

Splinter Cell
Splinter Cell Series

The basic blueprint for the stealth genre was set in 1981, when SEGA released what is largely regarded as the first stealth game, 005. This arcade title has you control a spy who has to take a briefcase full of secret documents to a nearby helicopter. Its gameplay mechanics are actually still used today, but they’re a lot more refined now. You avoid enemies by dodging their flashlights (or field of view), and you can even hide in boxes to avoid detection. Yes, I’m not making that up. Maybe that’s where Hideo Kojima got his cardboard idea from? Since 005 is an arcade game, it comes in a generic wood-grain panel cabinet and isn’t anything too fancy. And like most SEGA arcade games of that time, 005’s monitor is vertically mounted. If one were to take a glance at a screenshot of 005 it’ll look similar to an Atari 2600 title, like Jungle Hunt. Even though 005 is the first game to employ stealth mechanics, it wasn't until Kojima’s original Metal Gear that the genre finally gained a proper identity.

Before Metal Gear Solid was a tangible thing back on the first PlayStation, Kojima released an overhead action-adventure stealth game for MSX2 in 1987 simply called Metal Gear. The game revolves around a special forces operative codenamed Snake who has to destroy Metal Gear, a bipedal walking tank capable of launching nuclear missiles. He travels to the fortified state Outer Heaven and confronts none other than Big Boss himself. You have to constantly avoid visual contact and you can’t be seen, otherwise the game enters an “Alert Mode.” Sound familiar? If Snake is seen and there’s only a single exclamation mark above enemies’ heads, he can simply move to a different screen and escape the alert status. However, if he’s spotted by a camera or uses an unsuppressed weapon, enemies will have two exclamation marks above their heads. Reinforcements will then start appearing off-screen, and Snake has to enter an elevator or eliminate all of the enemies.

Though the game isn’t as mechanically sophisticated as Metal Gear Solid, the basis for the series was set here. But not only that, Metal Gear is considered as the progenitor of the stealth genre due to the its gameplay and level design. It received a direct sequel three years later, but it wasn’t until well into the 1990s and early 2000s that the genre started to come into its own. In 1998, developer Looking Glass Studios released Thief: The Dark Project, a first-person stealth title set in a medieval steampunk metropolis called the City.

Thief: The Dark Project
Thief: The Dark Project

Though its story and characters were great, it’s the game’s use of first-person perspective for non-confrontational gameplay that really made Thief special. It changed the dynamic of first-person games and opened people’s eyes to games being entertaining despite containing little to no combat whatsoever. Main character Garrett has little damage resistance and combat capabilities, but the game still manages to feel fun and challenging at the same time. Thief also uses light and sound as major gameplay mechanics, which significantly adds depth to the gameplay as well and really made use of the newer technology the developers were working with. Its influence can be seen today in Hitman and Splinter Cell.

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Of course, that same year saw the release of Metal Gear Solid. If you’ve played Metal Gear before, you’ll find that Metal Gear Solid contains the same gameplay ideas. It’s top-down, you have to sneak around and avoid enemy detection, and use non-combative weapons. Yet again, like Thief, Metal Gear Solid showed that you don’t need to always shoot people in the head in order to have fun. Though games like Thief and the original Metal Gear were the first to introduce a wealth of stealth mechanics, Metal Gear Solid is the game that popularized the stealth genre. It also opened people’s eyes to the narrative potential within video games, as its story is still considered one of the best. MGS’ commercial and critical success paved the way for future sequels

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Peace Walker, and now Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain all look, feel, and play differently, but they’re still stealth games at heart. Each entry managed to introduce something new and exciting and significantly impact not only the stealth genre, but the games industry as a whole.

stealthhistoryinsert3Now shifting away from Metal Gear Solid, we have another two popular and impactful stealth franchises—Hitman and Splinter Cell. In the former title players assume the role of Agent 47, a deadly assassin who must eliminate specific targets in gargantuan levels. You can kill them in a myriad of ways, as pretty much all of the games in the series put an emphasis on player choice. This is different from other games like Splinter Cell, as there are usually much more prodigious objectives that the player has to accomplish in those respective games. Hitman also introduced, and still heavily focuses on using disguises to outsmart your enemy and avoid detection. Agent 47 can dress up as pretty much anyone, which is often the basis for some light humour. There are a total four main games in the series, with developer IO Interactive currently developing a new entry set for release in 2016.

Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell series plays a little more similarly to both Metal Gear Solid and Thief. You’re encouraged to kill enemies quietly but you can eventually blast your way through, and it’s in third-person. But the first game, if not the entire series in general, took Thief’s emphasis on light and turned it into the main gameplay focus as well. The player is encouraged to move through the shadows whenever possible, and you can use both thermal and night vision goggles to help you see in the dark. There’s even a light meter that reflects how visible the player is to enemies. The series has introduced a plethora of new mechanics over the years, and it even turned into an action-packed revenge thriller with Splinter Cell: Conviction.

Assassin's Creed Series
Assassin's Creed Series

Of course, there are also games like Deus Ex and Assassin’s Creed that are much more mechanically complex, but sneaking around is still important. Deux Ex is more known for player choice and leveling up, but stealth is still very much an integral part of the overall experience. The same goes for Assassin’s Creed, as it’s part-stealth, part-action, part-platformer. And as you can see, the stealth genre has produced some of the best and most important video games over the years, and it continues to prove a point with perhaps the best game of the year so far in MGSV. Who knew remaining quiet and silently choking people out can feel so damn gratifying?