Inheritance Of A Thief

In today’s gaming climate, we need pure stealth games more than ever. Come with us to find out why as we see interesting places, meet interesting people, and think about robbing a casino.


There came a time last year when the beeping ECG beside the bed of the stealth genre seemed to flatline. Solid Snake and Sam Fisher had burst forth from the shadows, guns blazing, whilst stealth was only one part of Ezio Auditore’s parkour power fantasy. Relatives gathered round, holding their breaths; physicians uttered grim prognoses.

Now, with fans uncertain about the new Hitman, and bemused by the inventive but nonsensical ‘Thi4f’, it is worth looking at just why we need dedicated stealth games – not games with stealth options, or games with stealth elements, but games built from the bottom for sneaking and snooping.

Here are three reasons why, if they are to perish, we should all be in mourning.

See interesting places (like, really see)

I miss burglary. While not the best method of paying off my university debts, it was a great way to see other people’s houses. When you have to watch each stairway for creaking floorboards and scrutinise every shadow for danger, you learn to appreciate the finer points of architecture and interior décor. Just so, because they often demand patience and a slow pace, stealth games (ste4lth games?) tend to bring to the fore environmental and level design in a way unique to the medium.

Hey! Where are you going? Is the tennis on?

Metal Gear Solid was praised on release for the atmosphere and beauty its lush maps squeezed from the ageing PlayStation processor. But this was only possible because each one was roughly the size of two tennis courts. It didn’t matter; the necessities of stealthy play forced a slow pace which masked their tiny size. Writ in the grammar of stealth games is a level of caution, both on the level of player verbs and of play objects. Slow modes of movement like crawling and creeping are essential to success, while common obstacles like guards, traps, cameras and noisy floors force you to pay careful attention to the environment. Avoidance tempts players to explore the world in search of secret routes, while observation demands they examine it carefully.

Stealth games also require you to go Enviro Mental… but in a different way. Perhaps Enviro Meticulous?

More than this, maps designed for stealth have a high ratio of significance to content. Very little of the environment can be safely dismissed as incidental: floors must be considered for their noise potential; doors and windows for their line-of-sight; torches or lights for the shadows they pool. Even games which dispense with these elements tend to put others in their place. The mansions and opera houses visited by 47 are invested with social significance and divided by overlapping spheres of authority, whilst a spy in Team Fortress 2 must be acutely aware of his enemy’s expectations about different areas of the map.

This combination of slow pace and ludic density creates an approach to space that demands and rewards environmental detail. Players of stealth games are given time to appreciate the world of the game and asked to wring maximum possible significance from its corners and gratings. It is the antithesis of, say, Bulletstorm, where you will catch more amazing sights in the corner of your eye than you even have time to look at on your hell-for-leather sprint through the guts of your enemies.

Meet interesting people (and outsmart them)

Sometimes ‘intelligence’ seems like the wrong word to describe the cognitive faculties of guards in stealth games. Hey, what’s that over there? Hmm, must’ve been a skunk. Walking on its hind legs. Wearing night vision goggles. But this artificial stupidity is nonetheless part of a coherent system of perception and response that pits the player against the capabilities of his enemies in a way that is becoming ever rarer. The fact that we notice it at all is an indication of its importance.

How clever can a shooter’s mook be in the half-second before he accepts your bullet? While the FPS remains one of gaming’s pre-eminent genres, recent developments in its design have minimised the importance of AI. A trend towards realism means enemies are downed in a few shots before they have the chance to outsmart you; a convergence towards linear environments gives them little room to outflank you; the perfection of scripted sequences renders them bit-players in a cinematic shock-and-awe offensive that leaves them no scope to act.

By contrast, stealth – as opposed to the exquisite but ultimately simple Simon Says of Modern Warfare’s ghillie suit levels – simply does not work without good AI. Guards must react to their environment in ways beyond spotting and shooting you, and must be sensitive towards environmental cues or the status of their friends. Variable alert states and awareness of what’s ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ were the bread and butter of stealth even a decade ago, in the age of the first Thieves. Imagine what could be done now! By necessity, the player of a stealth game engages in a duel not against the tenacity of an infinite respawner, nor the accuracy of (inevitably) enemy fire as a probability calculation, but against a model of consciousness that resembles themselves – which makes it all the more satisfying when they win.

Perhaps this is an issue of visibility, and AI has been quietly advancing for years. But whether it’s the giant open world and super-powered bullet time of Red Dead Redemption, or the pedestrian gunfights of LA Noire, modern game design rarely gives it a chance to shine.

Be a predator (and then prey)

Splinter Cell: Conviction would need a third graph of its own.

In a talk on stealth level design at the 2006 Game Developers’ Conference, Thief series veteran Randy Smith drew a line between the failure states of action games and stealth games. In the former, you’re typically shot repeatedly without dying, and further damage only gradually changes your situation. But in the latter, everything can go tits up in a single moment – and play depends on flirting with that moment over and over again.

One moment you’re a master of shadows stalking your oblivious prey, unseen but all-seeing; the next you’re desperately pulling your frail, pasty arse out of the fire as armed bastards surround you and chase you into hiding. Good stealth games keep the player balanced on a slim stiletto’s edge between hunter and hunted, threatening at any moment to flip from one to the other. It is the satisfaction of being on top of them, coupled with the risk of reversal, that gives them their unique exhilaration.

Just so, the best moments of any stealth game are those where you are required to move ever closer to this edge. Whether it’s going for the top loot in Thief, or holding up a guard in Metal Gear Solid 3, these are moments of proximity in which your vulnerability is balanced equally against your power. Since most stealth games do not stop at failure, allowing the player to run and hide and wait and return, this unstable point forms the centre of a flowing cat-and-mouse game in which predator and prey repeatedly swap places. Instead of death, you get an emergent underdog tale: how the oppressed hero returns to revenge himself on his oppressors long after they have forgotten him. Those sections where getting spotted means instant failure tend to attracts the most ire from players precisely because they deprive you of this flow.

Are they just faking it?

I think it's time to rob something.

Mourning clothes are a convenient shade of black, and there are indications that this year could be a good one. Either way, it is assuredly worth preserving. Stealth has not reached a dead end: it could expand into open worlds, try complex simulation of crowds, or model movie-style casino heists (as well as George Clooney’s face, right down to the pores) and sprawling security systems.

Rather like the adventure game form of the ’90s, stealth can also be a platform for themes and concepts not well-served by the prodigious body counts of action genres. Regardless, stealth games retain qualities which are beautiful and a likely, if not inevitable, consequence of their design. The medium would be poorer without them.

John Brindle

Further Investigation
The City By The Bay
Examining the stealth genre's depictions of society and culture, as seen through the stark, shadowy lens of The Maltese Falcon.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Conclusion
Our deep dive analysis of the Thief reboot concludes with a holistic look at its stealth systems in the context of the game's level design.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 11 – Big City Life
The hub world of the City in the Thief reboot features some well-designed sidequests within confusing architecture.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 10 – Cast Off
Thief's anti-climactic finale features easily-bypassed encounters within confusing and characterless spatial design.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 9 – Sacred Ground
The second last chapter of the Thief reboot returns to locations and lore from the original trilogy.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 8 – The Fall of Northcrest
Garrett returns to Northcrest Manor in a Thief mission that shows glimmers of good spatial design.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 7 – Institutional Lies
Don't mention the Cradle, don't mention the Cradle, don't mention the... dammit.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 6 – Architect of His Own Demise
Garrett finds his way into the Baron's stronghold in the most confusing and illogical Thief chapter yet.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 5 – The House of Secrets
Our level design analysis continues as Garrett's thieving sensibilities find him in The City's red light district.
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 4 – You Can’t Take it With You
Chapter 2, the first non-tutorial mission of the Thief reboot, sees Garrett infiltrate a foundry used to dispose of The City's plague corpses.
The City By The Bay
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Conclusion
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part

9 Responses to Inheritance Of A Thief

  1. By Linkage, February 1, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Goodness knows I’d be all over a “pure” stealth game if one were released. But as you’ve said yourself I think things are starting to look at least a little better for stealth games now- over the last two years I think there has been an increase in games that are either stealthy or involve stealth in SOME way (like Deus Ex, which I’m actually yet to play) with Conviction and the announcements of Hitman and so on. There’s hope yet, and not to mention if a site like this can gain a decent following there may yet be a stealth revival on the way.

    • By Daniel Hindes, April 5, 2012 at 1:12 am

      Though we’d love to be partly responsible for a stealth renaissance, we don’t think our egos are that big – yet ;)

      Still, we’re happy to provide the stealth community somewhere to call home for now!

  2. By Nick, February 1, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Wow this is really, really well-written and apt. The parts about the use of AI and stroytelling not possible in games which require a high bodycount are really cool.

  3. Pingback: silence is a dangerous sound | thebackline

  4. By Ivan, March 23, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    I guess the unasked question here is is a pure stealth game feasible enough for the development cost of a AAA title? When you look at sales figures for games, is there any supportable market research that indicates that a game that is purely stealth driven would even recoup the cost it cost to develop?

    It’s great to start with this as an assumption, but I don’t know that there’s evidence to support it as a reality? I’m no market research analyst, but it’s something I’d be curious to see some research put into.

    It’s one thing to point at a group of pre-existing fans and say, “Those people right there would absolutely buy game X”, but ask any MMO developer about the pitfalls of just relying on your existing fan base to carry your product – they’ll all tell you the same thing; attracting new fans and new players is crucial for the success and longevity of the product – and I’m curious if we haven’t managed to inadvertently train this new generation of players to always assume that Stealth based game play is always the foreplay to Stealth based executions.

    • By Linkage, March 26, 2012 at 6:48 am

      It’s certainly a good point and also likely to be one of the reasons we don’t see as many stealth games these days. Setting aside newer announcements like Dishonored and the new Hitman, Splinter Cell etc.- I reckon it’s a shame we haven’t seen a lot of indie titles taking on the stealth genre just yet (though that could always change).

      ‘Hardcore’ stealth titles are definitely a niche market, so building on that niche with some solid indie titles is always one step towards encouraging more AAA stealth productions.

    • By Daniel Hindes, April 5, 2012 at 1:11 am

      I think the idea of a hardcore stealth title is being muddied with the concept of a pure stealth title – the latter being one in which stealth is the primary route to success, while the former has the air of “remain stealthy or else you’ll die, instantly”. All pure stealth games need to do to be successful in a marketing sense is quickly and concisely explain why their variation of stealth can be a thrilling thing. It’s something I’ve found indie titles like Monaco are faltering at a little – all the footage they’ve released so far borders upon vague. Hitman Absolution is focusing on showing off its more robust action approach, while Dishonored is still mostly under wraps.

      Point being, stealth in general is becoming less of a niche. But both the indies and the triple-As are still timid about revealing the full extent of their stealth play to the public, because stealth gameplay still suffers from a hardcore stigma.

    • By Daniel Hindes, April 5, 2012 at 1:15 am

      Your last point is something I’ve been wanting to touch upon – is the inevitable result of stealth simply a cinematic takedown? More stealth games need to focus on expanded stealth rules – silence, ghosting, not being seen at all. The natural response is to make a stealth game “easier” by eliminating hostiles and enabling free exploration of the environment, but few games encourage players to avoid interference entirely. At the moment, it’s simply a player-driven goal.

    • By Sabathius, July 11, 2012 at 9:35 pm

      I think we’re going to see a trend more akin to the upcoming Dishonored, where a AAA game can be pure stealth if you want to play it that way. But the same game can be played “guns-a-blazing” too, if the player chooses. Or, if you’re like me, a blended approach when the situations call for it. I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution was brilliant that way.

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