For the past few years, we’ve been spoiled by some of the greatest stealth games ever made. And with a growing trend of developers combining their RPGs, shooters, and strategy games with the sensibilities of the stealth genre, it’s important to know what makes the best of the best… well, the best.
So here’s your list of ingredients to making a damn-near perfect stealth experience. Use them to cook up the freshest stealth games the world has ever seen.
A dollop of dumb, but not TOO dumb, NPCs
In the real world, people can spot out-of-place individuals pretty dang well. A stealth game that accurately simulated human vision cones, hearing sensitivity, and capacity to investigate suspicious activity would result in a real bad time. This is why we dumb down AI in not just the stealth genre, but games in general. It’s fun that way.
And that sentiment is most crucial in stealth games, where the entire challenge is one of tricking, outsmarting and evading fake computer people. The best AI in the genre is subtly smart enough to be convincing as an actual person, but dumb enough to ease off in the interest of fun. It’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, in which guards have an impressively elaborate detection cycles that range from “must have been the wind” to “I should probably go check that out” depending on how long you exposed yourself. It’s fair, fun, and completely unrealistic if you think about it too much.
4 Tablespoons of Total Environmental Awareness
One of the most empowering aspects of good stealth games is the total environmental awareness afforded to the player. The more knowledge a player has, the better they can experiment with how to handle a difficult maneuver without worrying about unpredictability.
More recently, series like the Batman Arkham games have popularized a now common way of giving information to players — “detective vision,” or seeing through walls and marking guards. This usually works well in games like Watch Dogs 2, Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Far Cry 4, but there are some great examples of how gathering information to keep the advantage can be a fun challenge in its own way.
The best example of this is the XCOM-inspired Invisible Inc., which only lets players see what their agents can see. But as an extension of your agent’s eyes, you can also hack security cameras in rooms to keep track of anything that happens there. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain lets players mark targets with their binoculars, but also allows you to experiment with a sonar upgrade to your robot arm that sends out a sound wave that temporarily marks blips of lifeforms in view.
Just a dash of non-lethal options
Being engrossed in a stealth simulation is a big part of what makes them so invigorating. We love writing our own narratives of “knocking guards out and placing them in beds for their naps” or “throwing a hammer at my target’s head so hard he fell off the balcony,” but what makes it all work is that we have those options.
One of the greatest things in stealth games that has become more common is the option of killing in general. The games that do this right (give it up for Dishonored 2, Watch Dogs 2, MGSV) make their non-lethal routes just as (if not more) fun than the alternative.
Being able to walk engross yourself in a game world without having to reconcile with all of the bloody murder you’ve inflicted on poorly-paid security officers and civilians that spotted you by accident is a truly valuable thing that can make or break the best stealth games. It broke an otherwise great-feeling stealth/action shooter in the first Watch Dogs, for example, and is simultaneously one of the best parts of its sequel.
1 Cup of body hiding
This is a super simple ingredient that most stealth games completely fumble. If you’re going to let the player quietly dispatch their enemies, let them hide them somewhere they won’t be found. The absence of this feature breaks what can otherwise be a perfectly surgical infiltration.
Some games have the right idea in this area, but take only a half-measure that is tolerable at its best. I’m looking at games that let you move bodies, but don’t supply boxes or lockers to hide them, like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Other games let you move bodies, but the experience is clumsy and can give you away by knocking stuff over if you’re not careful (Dishonored 2, and yes, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided again).
Then there are the games that do this so well you just wanna kiss ’em. This honor goes to the likes of Hitman (2016), any given Metal Gear Solid game, and Mark of the Ninja. They all make it easy to knock a guard out, drag them to a box/locker/closet, and tuck them in for the long-haul. Or in the case of MGSV, strap a balloon to their chest and kidnap them into indentured servitude.
Disguises, diced and pre-seasoned
Disguises in stealth games add an entirely new layer of delicious deceit to NPCs. It is forever satisfying to hide in plain sight wearing the clothes of somebody who’s sleeping in a locker three floors down.
No game goes harder with the fun of disguises than Hitman, a series that made its name being a game about stealth in plain sight. This year’s Hitman has seen that concept taken further and stronger than ever before, and the result is one of the best stealth games ever made. But that begs the question: why don’t more games implement disguises?
Some games have more non-direct ways of hiding in plain sight that still qualify as disguises, like donning a cardboard box in Metal Gear Solid or possessing guards in Dishonored, but almost any stealth game could be made more interesting with the added fun of a deceptive costume. It’s by no means a make-or-break mechanic, but one that should be explored further.
2 quarts of Leaning
This ingredient isn’t entirely necessary and typically only applies to first-person stealth games, but third-person games have their own problems in this area. First-person stealth titles can be truly thrilling and add a sense of density and scale to the world that third-person doesn’t, but its limited vision can often make stealthing around more frustrating.
That frustration is mostly exemplified when you’re trying to peak out of corners and get a sense of your surroundings, but doing so inherently makes you vulnerable to detection. The best way this has been handled is in the Dishonored series, which has a handy leaning mechanic that lets you peek with a decreased chance of being seen by what’s around the corner.
In third-person games, the same problem can sometimes happen if the cover system doesn’t work well and exposes you to the enemy (*cough*, Hitman). Suffice to say: don’t let bad or incomplete mechanics hamper such an important part of your stealth game.
Marinated Light & Sound indicators
This is one of the few ingredients that can be so crucial to a delicious stealth game, yet so oft-forgotten before it goes in the oven. Similar to environmental awareness, light and sound indicators make sure the player has complete awareness of themselves.
The longtime arbiter of these mechanics are the first few Splinter Cell games, and most notably Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which featured a handy meter that told you how much light you were exposed to and how much noise you were making. And most importantly, the game had a clear indicator of how much light and sound was too much, so there was always a clear awareness of what should and shouldn’t be done.
The other best example of this is Mark of the Ninja, which makes light and darkness literally black and white (you’re either completely hidden or exposed). The game also tells you ahead of time using sound rings exactly who is going to hear your next move. More games need these mechanics, as sight and sound-related accidents are the leading cause of premature rage quitting in stealth games.
Low-fat Quick Manual Saving
This ingredient is the “use pot holders” of the stealth genre in that it should not need a reminder. The best stealth games are all about experimentation, and sometimes those experiments blow up in our faces (especially when the games skip over some of the ingredients above). When that happens, you need to have a safety net of saves to fall back on.
We’re going to go ahead and crown Dishonored 2 as the best example of this trend, as it not only lets you save whenever but makes quick-saving “just to be safe” as easy as pulling a trigger on the pause menu. No fussing around in save menus, no deciding which save to overwrite — just quick convenience. The load times could be a lot better, but that’s true of most big-budget games. If you want to do this ingredient justice, literally copy Dishonored 2.
The loser here goes to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for a slow and annoying saving process, as well as games like MGSV, Watch Dogs 2, Shadow of Mordor, and Far Cry 4, all of which make you restart at a checkpoint or just roll with the punches. Uncool.
A healthy scoop of Discovery
This truly is the cherry on top of your perfect stealth game, but also the sturdy base that makes it all worth it. The best of the best give players a wealth of options and reward them for exploring every nook and cranny.
This is the Dishonored series, which probably still has houses and sewers in its levels that you didn’t know existed, Hitman, which constructs gigantic mansions and city blocks that are near-completely explorable, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which has a fascinating world of environmental storytelling that you might never fully see unless you take a look.
These are games that take their well-designed levels and make them more than an advantageous route to the end. They use those spaces to house a random vampire disguise that has no real purpose beyond feeling awesome to find. They tell stories and reward you for caring enough to find them. And that’s the key. Believing that taking a second look around might mean the discovery of something cool is an incredibly powerful thing for a game to pull off.