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In Praise of Video Gaming’s Purest Stealth

1998's "Thief" and "Metal Gear Solid" nailed the stealth genre, but since then games have rarely captured the same compelling tension.

Promotional imagery for the 2014 'Thief' reboot, featuring series protagonist Garrett.

The exact date in 1998 eludes me, but the days were still long enough. The curtains were drawn in the quiet, suburban bedroom, cocooning us in darkness despite the afternoon sunshine outside. This was highly necessary. In front of us, on the CRT monitor, the demo for Thief: The Dark Project provided all the light we needed.

It was like nothing I had seen before: alien, fantastical and thrilling. And scary. That was the most surprising thing. Moving gingerly through a shadowy, crate-stacked room, I can hear a guard out of vision, whistling and mumbling to himself. In a clumsy miscalculation I knock a spade to the floor, its clatter echoing around me. "Who's there?" the voice yells and, a second later, footsteps are pacing my way. I freeze, heart in mouth. Panic floods through me. What the hell do I do?

Thief arrived in November 1998, during a watershed for stealth gaming. This was a time when true 3D graphics were still relatively new, and developers were getting to grips with just what could be realized. 1998 also marked the arrival of Metal Gear Solid, which pushed the PlayStation's visual limitations and made Hideo Kojima's espionage sci-fi freak show a worldwide phenomenon. Likewise, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines made the case for stealth as the play style du jour.

It wasn't the first time stealth had been used in games. But the advent of 3D worlds and the march of gaming tech meant conditions were ripe for experimentation. In many ways, stealth pushed the barriers for what could be achieved, placing fresh emphasis on immersive play. Visual considerations like lighting came to the fore (perhaps most strikingly with Thief's Dark Engine), backed up with AI that responded intelligently to sound—a major leap. Now, players had to stay invisible and silent.

A screen shot from 1998's 'Metal Gear Solid'

"On the surface, stealth gameplay is about fictional themes of hiding, evasion, surprise, quiet, light, and dark," wrote Tom Leonard, Thief's lead programmer at Looking Glass Studios, for Gamasutra in 2003. "One of the things that makes that kind of experience fun is broadening out the grey zone of safety and danger that in most first-person games is razor thin. It's about getting the player's heart pounding by holding them on the cusp of either state, then letting loose once the zone is crossed."

It was a new high for immersive gaming, and its ripples were soon being felt in earnest. From the first crop of "pure" stealth titles, first-person shooters, action games, and others began incorporating elements of covert play. In some cases, such as the masterful Deus Ex of 2000, players could choose to use stealth as they saw fit—an idea that would soon become commonplace.

In one sense, pure stealth gaming has been a victim of its own success. Admirers line up to pay lip service, but it's often no more than that: a shallow imitation of the original mechanic that placed sneaky behavior right at the heart of the experience.

A screen shot from 1998's 'Thief: The Dark Project'

Many brilliant new games continue to use stealth as part of their design. But they do so as a choice. They're the bastard children of true stealth gaming, refusing to place firm restrictions on what players can get away with. In pure stealth, sneaky behavior is an imperative, not a bolt-on option. But this doesn't equate to less creativity for players, quite the opposite: By giving you clear limits tethered to the core tenets of the game's design, improvisation becomes all the more satisfying.

For me, the beauty of pure stealth was its speed—or lack of. Compared with adrenaline junkie FPSs streamlined for ADHD, rapid-fire combat, the school of '98 today seems positively geriatric. In pure stealth, a rushed approach is frequently a death sentence. As a player, your strength comes from your secrecy. You watch, you scheme, you wait for the perfect moment. Remaining hidden and avoiding open conflict is often the only way to truly push home your advantage and win.

Within these limitations, something unique and thrilling emerges.

Your power is concentrated in a sliver of shadow, and the stakes are high. Zen-like focus is required to succeed, and the surest path to this is total immersion. Properly playing a game like Thief II: The Metal Age can put you into something approaching a meditative state. Many games create a sense of flow, but few at such a low speed. Like meditation, time becomes an abstract concern; looking up from the screen, I was at first shocked—almost embarrassed—to see how many hours I'd sunk into a single level. Later I would come to accept this was just what the game demanded. It had faith in your intelligence and patience as a player. This was something to be cherished.

'Alien: Isolation' emphasized stealth over any other gameplay element, particularly when creeping close to its invincible and deadly beast

In fact, in the case of Thief, it was a conscious decision taken by Looking Glass Studios—and a risky one. Until late in development, the studio had a treasure chest of flashy extras prepped for the game, from multiplayer modes to allowing extra-sensory perception. All this was scrapped, as the conviction that the game represented something new and iconoclastic eventually trumped fears it might be boring for players.

It's not to say pure stealth has been permanently consigned to the great curio cabinet of gaming history. 2014's Alien: Isolation channelled the stealth games of old to deliver a refreshing survival horror hybrid, while the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will doubtless place a major emphasis on sneaky play. Indie sneak-em-up Volume is another one to watch, and raises the prospect of small, left-field titles venturing into the hard stealth territory big blockbusters fear to tread.

While it doesn't fit into my beard-stroking pure stealth paradigm per se, Dishonored also deserves mention for the kick up the ass it gave the genre in 2012. It was arguably more of an heir to the Thief series than the 2014 reboot, and a sequel is on the cards.

But, with its sandbox of play styles, Dishonored also sums up my beef with the "more is more" mentality that colors so much big-budget game development. In fact, it was the deliberate minimalism of that first wave of stealth games that made them so special.