From ‘Castle Wolfenstein’ to ‘Dishonored 2’: A Brief History of Stealth Games

<b>Presented by 'Dishonored 2'.</b> The sneakiness of Arkane's new game is a key part of how it plays – so let's take a moment to look back at some of its predecessors.

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Nov 4 2016, 2:00pm

'Dishonored 2' screenshot courtesy of Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Presented by 'Dishonored 2'.

Stealth is a big thing now, isn't it? We're always finding people hiding in the bushes outside the office or hanging from the ceiling. It's very disconcerting. But stealth in video games wasn't always about complex AI and systems of camouflage, distraction and quiet neck-snapping in the dark. Ahead of the release of Dishonored 2, one of the sneakiest games of 2016, allowing the player to take both the quiet and considered route, or fly in, blades slicing, blood spurting everywhere, here's a look back at some of the stick-to-the-shadows titles that came before it.

The first real stealth game is up for debate – you might argue for 1980's Lupin III, or Manbiki Shounen, aka "Shoplifing Boy", which dates from 1979. But we're going to say that the most prominent early stealth title, the one that made us all stand up and take notice of the emerging genre, was Castle Wolfenstein. Released in 1981 on the Apple II and later the MS-DOS, Atari 8-bit consoles and the Commodore 64, Muse Software's game tasked the player with sneaking past patrolling guards and enemies by using various disguises. Killing isn't really the way to go about proceedings – Castle was more about avoiding combat, and remaining unseen, although later Wolfenstein games did introduce murder as a core mechanic.

1981 also saw another stealth-ish game emerge, SEGA's 005, an arcade game that involves you, a spy, trying to get secret documents to a helicopter while avoiding the enemies' flashlights. You can also hide inside boxes, and what does that remind us of?

The Metal Gear series has been a huge cornerstone of the stealth genre, right from its first appearance in 1987. Though earlier Metal Gear games had elements of stealth, like line-of-sight, box-based camouflage and noise detection, stealth games in the modern sense didn't come about until 1998 – when Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project were released.

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was the first 3D stealth game, and Thief the first first-person stealth game, making them both pioneers in their field. Thief, in particular, was notable for using light and shadow as a mechanic – something that would inform future stealth games for years to come. Metal Gear Solid wasn't the first of either of those things – but it's definitely become the best known of the three.

But what exactly is stealth? The principles of stealth, at least from the perspective of the British Army, are the Seven "S"s: sound, smell, sight, silhouette, shadow, shape and shine. And I'll add an honorary eighth: "smovement".

Being stealthy is about minimising each one of those, by being quiet, dark, and inconspicuous in shape (achieved, usually, by shoving tree branches into your clothes and hair). When games are designed around stealth, they have to take these things into account and make sure that they are all recognisable parts of the level design.

Using real-life stealth examples is what helped players understand and engage with game mechanics. They made sense to just about anyone who's ever tried to sneak upstairs at their parents' house after curfew. We've all been there.

Games like 2002's Splinter Cell, Thief and the original Dishonored of 2012 have light and shadow as an actual mechanic that you can use in your favour – you can literally hide in the shadows. Metal Gear Solid 3 introduced camouflage as a system, with stealth becoming about blending into the natural environment as well as just not being seen. Assassin's Creed has you walking into crowds to disguise the very recognisable shape and colour of a conspicuously-dressed assassin. Using real-life stealth examples is what helped players understand and engage with game mechanics. They made sense to just about anyone who's ever tried to sneak upstairs at their parents' house after curfew. We've all been there.

Once the stealth genre was firmly cemented in the public consciousness, non-stealth games started to incorporate it into sections of their gameplay. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker had you dodging spotlights to avoid being spotted and thrown in prison, Paper Mario had you playing as Princess Peach and trying to escape the notice of her captors, and The Elder Scrolls series has given you the option to play as a thief or a rogue and focus on stealthy behaviour as much as you wanted.

These sections were made possible by the now-ubiquitous cultural understanding of what makes a stealth game: mechanics like hiding, avoiding enemies' line of sight and waiting for patrols on a set route.

It wasn't long before games started to raise the stakes by incorporating stealthy assassination into the more general idea of not being caught. Hitman, Deus Ex, Assassin's Creed and Dishonored are all games that give you the tools to take out targets as well as guards, enemies, and even civilians. The stealthiest option – a "Low Chaos" run in Dishonored, for example – is to do nothing but the objective, avoiding capture and attention until you've managed to reach your target.

It's often the case in modern stealth games that their design tempts you into the "easy option" – running into a room, taking everyone out, rinse and repeat – but gives you the option and the abilities to take the more difficult stealth route. As the game progresses, you'll find more powerful weapons and abilities, but you'll also have the option to increase your stealth skills, like Dishonored's teleporting "Blink" ability and Assassin's Creed IV's sleep darts. That choice and agency (along with achievements) encourages players to engage with the stealth elements in the game, rather than treating it like any other shooter.

Many games nowadays use interesting and non-realistic mechanics like vision cones, visualised noise and magical powers to make stealth a more interesting and unpredictable challenge. Dishonored 2 gives the player the choice between the familiar (to players of the first game) tactics of Corvo Attano and the newer, more supernaturally creepy Emily Kaldwin, who can transform into a shadow and clone herself. Each level has its own mechanic, like the Clockwork Mansion of assassination target Kirin Jindosh, which offers multiple routes and options – something intrinsic to modern stealth.

The fact that stealth games are moving towards the fantastical means that we're approaching a point where stealth is becoming more than real life can sustain. Players want more options and more abilities, and it's only by branching out into fiction that we can match that desire. Deus Ex has augments, Dishonored has magic, and Batman has lots and lots and lots of money, and it's all of these differences that keep stealth fresh and exciting, rather than stale and stagnant.


Dishonored 2 is released on November 11th for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. For more information, and to order the game, visit its official website.

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