Stealth In Video Games And Why It's So Fun

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May 2nd, 2010

The following is a guest blog post from Wilbefast on the topic of stealth mechanics in games and why they are so appealing.

I didn't actually introduce myself last time around, because I thought it would be a little pretentious to assume that anyone would actually care. You see, unlike many of the people who've written guest posts, I'm neither qualified nor recognized for anything except hot air.

Wilbefast's self portrait

I discovered Wolfire and Overgrowth just as I was becoming disillusioned with the current state of the commercial games industry (an overdose of sequels, zombies and lens-flare about sums it up). Because Wolfire Games is exactly the sort of company I'd like to work for I figured I'd stalk them to see if their venture went well or failed horribly.

Alas, over the years I've become more and more emotionally involved...


A baby is born autistic, with no concept of self. If it is hungry, the universe is hungry. If it is in pain, the universe is in pain. It cannot yet differentiate between itself and the rest of existence, so it cannot conceive of anything outside of its own experience.

Each and every one of us, though most won't remember, has passed through this state of consciousness on our way to one that encapsulates the existence of other individuals, each with their own experiences, tastes and ambitions.


As adults, we often look upon childhood as the golden years, before work and responsibility, but in truth it's period of great neurological renovation, spent cramming knowledge as quickly as is humanly possible. Childhood is the time during which we develop basic language and motor skills, coordination, spatial awareness, balance and pattern recognition, and many other abilities we tend to take for granted in later life, until we have a stroke and suddenly lose them.

But how exactly does a child develop and perfect these skills?

Why, by playing games of course!

If you ever watch children play, aside from being added to a bunch paedophile watch-lists you'll notice that everything they do involves the use of some important skill. Think of all the counting, memory and word games you played when you were young. To be fun, a game needs to provide some sort of challenge: imagine a game based purely on luck, the winning player chosen with no discernible pattern - does that sound like much fun to you?

What is it exactly that makes "Wordwang" a (hilariously) "bad" game?

In a sense, "fun" is Nature's way of encouraging effective behaviour, and to be effective the mind must be kept in shape with regular exercise, just like the body. Play is an evolutionary response to our need to develop and maintain survival skills: because of this, learning is Fun.

Now, assuming you've been through High-School, you're probably a bit sceptical about this "Learning is Fun" concept. You're probably used to learning being unpleasant, having spent years sitting in a class-room practising arithmetic. I'd hazard a guess you'd rather have spent the time outside playing "Tag" or "Hide and Seek".

But wait a minute, what are these games if not ways of practising stealth and speed? Evolution hasn't been able to keep up with the changes in Human society. Most of us will never need to hunt or fight or run for our lives, but we still have a killer instinct buried deep in our psyche. The point I've been trying to make is that a good game should incorporate elements of, for want of a better word, "learning": a game generally becomes "boring" when it has exhausted its ability to aid us in practising a skillset. Games are also a way of exploring our primordial "Hunter" side, which we're mostly divorced from in modern society. Today I'm going to be analysing the "stealth" genre, to see what games like "Thief" and "Deus Ex" teach the player, and how.

I Have A Cunning Plan

Stealth games are all about strategy, but what is strategy exactly? According to Wikipedia (which, let's face it, knows everything), it means "a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal". Generally the player will be presented with an objective to accomplish, a certain amount of resources and various obstacles to overcome. Generally they will be outnumbered and out-gunned (sometimes even out-punned), so the direct approach is unlikely to prove successful.

Stealth games are all about "Brain versus Brawn": to prevail the player will need to scout out the area and formulate a plan based on what they discover.

Formulating a plan

To aid the player in this task, these games will generally provide them with various "safe zones" from which they can observe the enemy without being seen.

Mostly this simply means that the player will have superior vision: in almost all stealth games the guards are half-blind and short-sighted, so you can see them long before they see you, and can become invisible in dark corners where your character is still easily discernible. Some games further supplement the player's vision with gadgets such as binoculars (Deus Ex, Alien vs Predator), scouting orbs (Thief) and night- or heat-vision (Splinter Cell, Chronicles of Riddick).


On the other hand, having foes with sharper senses than the player can hurt this aspect of gameplay: for example, there's the apparent x-ray vision of enemies in Far Cry. Likewise Lugaru uses scent as a form of detection, but it can be difficult to gauge its direction and range, making the mechanic a little unwelcome at times.

The player character is generally also a lot more agile than his or her opponents, allowing them to camp out in an inaccessible area to observe patrol routes unhindered. The player can often swim underwater, or climb up onto high areas using ropes (Thief, Arkham Asylum) or ninja skills (Splinter Cell).

Recently technology has allowed for larger numbers of NPCs, so game mechanics can revolve around hiding in plain sight, in a crowd, by acting in an inconspicuous manner and maybe even wearing a disguise (Hitman, Assassin's Creed).

Let's put your pattern recognition abilities to the test: can you spot the one that doesn't belong?

Again, all this is provided to help the player safely observe their enemies and the various passages through the area. A lot of the gameplay in Stealth games involves memorising these patrol routes: in other words, the player must build an improvised 4D map of the level in their head. Naturally doing so is great for practising spacial awareness and pattern recognition, which makes the experience as a whole very stimulating.

One interesting implication of this is that making the enemy more unpredictable doesn't necessarily make the game more fun to play...

Patience Is A Virtue

Patience, like tact and compassion, is not innate: children are impatient, capricious and rash until they learn to develop a lighter touch, to consider others and to wait their turn. Patience is all about controlling your emotions, your fear or your boredom, so that when you do act you achieve the best possible results.

When it comes to Stealth, patience really is a virtue. Most stealth games provide a direct trade-off between speed and silence. Often the player must also assume a vulnerable position such as crouching or lying down (Modern Warfare), with reflective weapons sheathed (Thief), trusting in their cover or camouflage to protect them from an enemy mere centimetres away.

This whole mission, especially the segment around 5 minutes in, is beautifully done.

This is all very primordial, instinctive, "Cat and Mouse" stuff: overcoming the fear of discovery in order to stay absolutely still and silent, until the opportune moment. This could be when the enemy is isolated or in a dark area, or simply when the player is close enough to perform a silent take-down (Thief, Deus Ex, Splinter Cell).

Stealth also means being careful to cover your tracks. In games this generally involves hiding bodies so they won't be discovered (Thief, Hitman, Chronicles of Riddick). Some have taken this a little further though: occasionally opponents will react to changes in their environment such as broken windows or open doors (Splinter Cell) so can effectively track the player down using the various traces they've left behind. Lugaru also subscribes to this tendency by urging the player to clean their weapons after every engagement.


So stealth games also call upon the player to be patient, and to correctly judge when the moment has come strike, taking care not leave to any traces of their having passed through. In a sense the aim here is to appeal to our buried instincts, but patience and clear judgement are also important life skills that the brain is only too happy to be practising.

The Show Must Go On

The number one rule of plans is that nothing ever works out exactly as envisaged. In this case it's necessary to have a backup plan or, if you're right out of plans, improvise. Improvisation is a very important skill to have at your disposal. It effectively means coming up with an effective plan and putting into action within a strict time-limit.

Being discovered also provides a few moments of excitement to break up the constant tension. The player can often get out of a tight corner using distractions such as coins (Hitman) or arrows (Thief) or by stunning the enemy with smoke bombs (Thief, Deus Ex, Assassin's Creed), which are effectively "get of of jail free" cards. On a side note, these same techniques and gadgets can often be used to set up traps and to lure gullible opponents into them. More often though, improvisation involves running or fighting, which in games means putting ones dexterity and reflexes to the test.


Games that feature both stealth and combat can be difficult to balance, seeing as stealth, as previously mentioned, is based on the idea that a direct assault is impossible. Most of these hybrid games use some sort of level-up mechanic, which forces the player to choose between upgrading stealth skills or combat skills.

The trouble with this solution is that obligatory stealth or combat orientated levels can be very difficult, depending on the build: for example, un-avoidable boss-fights can be nigh-impossible for a build based around stealth (Knights of the Old Republic, Bloodlines). Some games avoid this issue by making every fight avoidable (Deus Ex) or by providing a way of winning using only basic weaponry and the environment (Iji).

Another solution is to give the player a choice of weapons and gadgets at the start of each mission (Thief, Hitman, Splinter Cell): this enables them to equip themselves for other stealth or combat. This solution has the advantage of not locking you into a given play-style, and is also a bit more intuitive: it makes sense for example that better armour should be heavier and more bulky, and so harder to move quickly and quietly in. Meanwhile a "Ghillie-suit", while fashionable, is unlikely to stop a sword-blow.


As you can see this "cutting your loses", "damage control aspect" of stealth games is a brilliant way of providing variety, changing the tempo and fostering improvisation. Unfortunately some of us players often miss out on this aspect of stealth games due to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and quick-save mechanics: if you anything like me you probably find it very tempting to undo your mistakes to make sure that your brilliant plan works perfectly.

I played Deus Ex for the first time recently: I started off trying to finish the game without ever setting off an alarm or killing anyone, but I discovered about half way through that it was a lot more fun to get caught occasionally, and to have to think on your feet for a change.

Unfortunately Deus Ex is a game balanced with quick saves in mind: there are a lot of cheap deaths, so unless you save often you can lose a lot of progress...


To make a "good" game it's important to understand what makes that game "good", and to understand what makes certain games "good" it's helpful to consider why we play games at all. A brief tour of the stealth genre reveals that such games encourage creativity and planning, pattern recognition, judgement, timing, improvisation and many other important talents, and my humble suggestions is that this practice is what makes a game stimulating. Now, I'm not suggesting that play is purely utilitarian (there's a social and recreational aspect to it also), but it's certainly true that a game without an associated skillset is unlikely to keep anyone's interest for long: Nature really has no time to waste.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents, but if I have the right to an opinion then you certainly do too. Why do you play games, and why do you think, as a species, we enjoy playing games so much? I'd also be curious to know what you thought of the post: I've been trying very hard to make it more approachable, using images to break the big blocks of text into bite-sized chunks. I'd like to think it's an improvement...

Thanks for another awesome post Wilbefast. Be sure to check out Wilbe's site for more awesome perspectives on the world of gaming. Wilbefast also has a ModDB page where you can find his game projects.