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Gamereactor UK

The Joy of Stealth: A History of Sneaky Video Games

The story of how stealth crept into our hearts.

Stealth is at the forefront of our gaming thoughts at the moment. Not only have we just spent some quality time with the largely excellent Prey, sneaking around the Talos 1 space station, hugging scenery and avoiding the deadly gaze of the Typhon, but the question mark hanging over Hitman after Square Enix announced its intention to ditch IO Interactive has also got us thinking, reflecting on some of our favourite games in the genre and why we like them as much as we do.

There are few things in video games more nerve-shredding than stealth done right. Whether you're hiding in a locker, desperately hoping your heavily armed enemy will walk past without checking, or scrambling to find somewhere new to hide after being spotted by a patrolling guard, good stealth creates unparalleled tension that's guaranteed to get the palms of your hands sweating, gluing you to the screen and immersing you in a way so few types of games can. It demands patience, control, careful planning, accuracy, and often a little bit of luck, but when it works it can be a powerful way of immersing you in the action.

Like many of you, we have been playing stealth games since they became a thing; titles such as 1998's Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu: Stealth Assassin, both good - nay, excellent - pioneering experiences that embodied the core features that have since defined this sub-genre. They might feel limited by today's standards, but at the time they were nothing short of revolutionary, using 3D spaces and new camera angles to facilitate fresh types of gameplay. However, you need to look further back to chart the origins of stealth in video games, and then look ahead for the moment when things really clicked and its tentacles started to sneak into different genres.

Looking back, then, and it was 1981's top-down arcade effort, 005, that you could argue was the first stealth game of substance. This was followed up by the original Wolfenstein games, where we saw some new stealth tropes appear, in this case, players were able to don disguises and, in the second game, kill stealthily (ironically, this is a series that would actually go on to influence gaming in a more profound way, with Wolfenstein 3D preceding Doom and thus helping define every first-person shooter that followed thereafter). A young developer by the name of Hideo Kojima also started putting out the first Metal Gear games in the 1980s, and while we know how that ended, the future dominance of the series was only hinted at in those early pixelated efforts.

Stealth elements started appearing with increasing frequency, and in the mid-to-late '90s, games like Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee and even GoldenEye 007 hinted at what was to come shortly thereafter. GoldenEye, in particular, had us shooting out security cameras and judo-chopping oblivious bad guys. 1998 is the year that the genre flourished, though, and in the space of just a few months, we were given three games that would be the foundations upon which the entire genre would later build. We mentioned Tenchu and Metal Gear Solid before, but you can also add Thief to the list of those that brought the various strands together.

Warren Spector and the team at Looking Glass Studios worked on Thief and the first two System Shock games, all three of which are hugely important for our purposes here. Thief because of the focus on stealth, with intertwined gameplay systems that encouraged experimentation and a non-lethal approach to thievery. System Shock and System Shock 2, on the other hand, because of the emergent gameplay they facilitated. When Looking Glass ceased to be, its shattered remnants would go on to define some of the best-known of studios of today. Irrational Games may no longer be a functioning outfit, but the influence of the Bioshock series is almost immeasurable. Arkane Studios came into their own with the brilliant Dishonored. The now defunct Ion Storm, along with Warren Spector, crafted Deus Ex.

Deus Ex is a landmark title in many ways, but we're mostly concerned with how it fused action, stealth and narrative together to make something that we'd never seen the likes of before. In the post-Deus Ex world, we can see so many games that borrow design elements pioneered in the 2000 masterpiece. Ion Storm was a short-lived endeavour, though, and was closed down in the wake of 2002's Deus Ex: Invisible War and 2003's Thief: Deadly Shadows.

Around that time the Hitman series kicked off in 2000, and Sam Fisher emerged from the shadows in 2002 with the launch of Splinter Cell. Hitman introduced more puzzle-orientated stealth gameplay, with 47 regularly donning costumes (some of these outfits were quite silly, and on this front, the series peaked with Blood Money's chicken suit) and using these cunning disguises to infiltrate different areas on the map. Splinter Cell, on the other hand, followed in the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid and, to a lesser extent, Deus Ex, mixing up stealth and action with a layer of narrative polish from the late Tom Clancy. Sam Fisher's first outing was defined not only by a realistic plot full of political intrigue and state of the art gadgetry, but by the use of lighting techniques that saw the superspy clinging to the shadows.