Stealth is a part of most highly-acclaimed titles. People like the idea of being sneaky and most good games have a stealth element. Think of any popular open-world game and you will find a sneaking button or portion of the game that involves stealth. It’s a popular idea and when it comes to simply being a part of a game, I don’t have much to complain about, be it good or bad. However, when a game considers itself to be a part of the stealth genre and completely fails at its job, my feelings change. As it is, all but one game make me feel that way. This has led me to a reasonable question, “How can an entire genre be bad at its one job?” The answer I ended up with was an interesting one. Metal Gear Solid. It’s because of the existence of this game. I believe MGS was such a good game that it justified the existence of an entire genre with its excellence.
This game by Konami was (and still is) its own completely unique experience, defining then in 1998, things about sneaking games that would shape them into a fully fleshed-out genre. Things like creating distractions to lead enemies away, using gadgets to solve puzzles, and general psychological gameplay elements were all mastered in this one title. That being said, Metal Gear Solid at its core isn’t really a stealth game. It’s almost the opposite. You blow up a giant dinosaur nuke and a Hind D helicopter with stinger missiles. You have to do that to progress in the game. That’s not really stealth. That’s the most fascinating and disappointing part. A game that is not necessarily about stealth has the best stealth in it.
This brings me to my main point. Stealth as a genre, is garbage. Metal Gear Solid was successful at it and it seems as though every other game about sneaking wants to do the same exact things in the same exact ways. However, they don’t do those things and when they try, they end up creating something incredibly frustrating instead. I’ve come across so many games that attempt to show off neat stealth gameplay mechanics but that instead make me want to pull my hair out. Being caught by boring and lifeless enemy patrols isn’t my personal cup of tea. When it comes to gameplay, I expect something original and interesting to take place. I expect some kind of challenge other than waiting for an opportunity to run by while someone isn’t looking.
It’s difficult to explain the disappointment experienced upon playing my next major stealth title after Metal Gear. I played Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. Put simply, Sam Fisher is a bad idea. No amount of under-door-seeing cameras is going to make me change my mind about that. The game has goofy sounding terrorists and completely forgettable main characters. Why is it considered to be a decent stealth game and why were there sequels made for it? According to IGN, the original game is “amazing.” I guess it’s amazing how insubstantial and loaded with hype a game could be. Splinter Cell shouldn’t be considered a popular stealth game. It’s a bad Syphon Filter at best.
It’s those games that fail to contribute to the genre and simply distract from creative growth that upset me. Metal Gear made every character lovable and relatable. It even made characters you didn’t even get to know like Decoy Octopus seem really impressive. It did this while juggling a bunch of other enjoyable components. I have never been invested in Sam Fisher or anyone else that he dealt with. Players care about games that the game makers care about. Metal Gear games are a collection of beautiful ideas all working harmoniously together and I expect that standard for all games in the genre.
Stealth games fail with more than their lack of ability to trigger an emotional response. Technical aspects lack as well. Perhaps I’m being a smidge obsessive-compulsive here, but when I play a game like Hitman and I get super caught by being too bald or whatever reason, I choose to start over and play the level in a way where I am undetected. I can only make these games satisfying by completing the missions without being caught (it’s a game about being an assassin, after all. I start over because playing as a bad assassin is stupid and makes me feel like I’m disrespecting the canon.) So, when I have to do that constant restarting, I anticipate the game maker creating easy, fun ways for me to do that. It seems like stealth games often just don’t care at all about what it feels like to restart. It’s never fun and smooth to start over; there’s always this feeling that I’m breaking the game and ruining my own experience. They instead encourage you to go on a rampage immediately, the first time your cover is blown. However, it’s a stealth game. So no, I don’t actually ever want to ever have to pull out the silverballers and massacre everyone on the map. There is a game that doesn’t have this problem. There is a game that has a really cool and iconic failure screen that doesn’t yank you out of the moment. That game is not the Thief remake.
The remake of Thief is the worst game I have ever experienced and that isn’t hyperbole. It’s bad because of the way the beginning of the game hypes the player up and then leads them to massive amounts of disappointment. The beginning of the game is exciting and if the game were just the first part of the game repeated a bunch of times with minor variations, the game would have been good if not great. All of the parts of a great game are there. It looks good, the controls are good, the characters are almost there. It’s a game with massive amounts of wasted potential; that’s what hurts me. The worst part of all is the stealth, though. There are parts of the game that actually don’t let you get past them with non-combative stealth. You just can’t do it. If I spend half of a game doing perfect sneaking and there is a portion that just doesn’t allow for that, I’m going to emotionally check out. They clearly gave up during a part of that game’s development and I gave up when playing it as well. My point in saying all of this is that, the biggest mistake a stealth game could make is not allow you to use stealth when you play it.
The stealth genre needs work. Stealth itself is still pretty cool, again, I’m not talking about games like the Elder Scrolls where you can have fun with the sneaking in a free-roaming environment. As I mentioned, games like that aren’t the issue. I’m talking about stealth games. I’m talking about games with objectives that encourage sneaking with gameplay and then reward you for not being caught. I need more games that celebrate restraint and make the not murdering everything a good time. Hopefully it wont be too much longer that we are blessed with another classic in this genre so that there can be two good stealth games.