The Elements of a Stealth Game: Intelligence, Freedom, and Tension Characterize Popular Genre

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Stealth games require certain elements that make them both fun and challenging. Image source: UnconventionalSoldier21 via Wikia

Creating an excellent stealth game isn’t just a matter of slapping together fun elements and hoping it works. It requires a nuanced approach. While the genre does have core elements that players expect, those elements must work together in a particular way or the game won’t hold up to the expectations of stealth fans. The way each piece of the puzzle fits together is crucial to the success of the stealth game, so innovation and the reimagining of familiar elements both go a long way toward helping a game stand out in the genre.

Stealth Game Enemies Need Intelligence, But Not Too Much

All games with enemies need some form of artificial intelligence or your foes will simply stand there as you mow them down, but stealth games demand a little more from their AI. Enemies need to be intelligent enough to find players hidden in the shadows – but not too intelligent, or else it becomes a game of luck, not skill.

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Enemy AI is a crucial part of stealth games.

Stealth game developers have to ensure that enemies are smart enough to feel real without endlessly pursuing the player, as in a game like Pac-Man. Enemies must be programmed to respond realistically to light, shadows, and sound, as all three are tools of a stealth protagonist. They need to be able to respond to cues like footsteps, but not too suspiciously—a convincing stealth game AI is one that investigates if things don’t seem right, but not if there’s no reason to be suspicious.

There’s plenty of room for innovation when it comes to developing efficient AI. While it’s not strictly a stealth game, Alien: Isolation‘s titular enemy seems to learn from each encounter with Amanda Ripley because the AI uses a new ability every time they meet. What works once may not work again. It feels like the AI is learning, but really it’s just a progressive revelation of mechanics. This makes for an effective and entertaining stealth game.

Stealth Game Freedom Means More Approaches, More Routes

The intelligence of your enemy is so important because half of the fun of a stealth game is the satisfaction of successfully evading that enemy. This is also why freedom within the game is so important in the stealth genre. If everything is totally linear—only one path through, only one way to finish an objective, and so on—the game becomes less about thinking and more about outright progression. While that’s okay for other genres, in a stealth game, that rapidly becomes boring.

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More approaches and more options mean more fun in stealth games.

This means that levels need to be designed with room for multiple approaches. Players need the freedom to pick the path that most appeals to them, whether that means evading guards entirely or picking fights with each guard they come across. If the play is reduced to a single route that can only be addressed in one way, the game feels less like stealth and more like action.

Most stealth games address this by providing several pathways through a level, as well as many different ways of approaching a problem. Allowing a guard to be evaded, shot, knocked out, or tricked means players get to feel clever, in addition to feeling a sense of achievement for progressing. It’s that feeling of cleverness that’s part of what makes stealth games so appealing, and losing that would significantly dampen that appeal.

Tension Creates the Stealth Game Atmosphere

Also crucial to the stealth genre is that feeling of tension as you navigate around your enemy. Without tension, a stealth game turns into a mere action game. And while stealth/action is an excellent hybrid, you don’t want to lose the atmosphere that makes the genre so great. Players want to feel genuinely threatened by enemies in stealth games. They don’t want to rack up enormous kill counts thanks to overpowered weapons – they want a game where every move counts.

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It’s not a stealth game without a tense atmosphere!

While well-developed artificial intelligence is one way to go about creating tension, it’s not the only way. Stealth games also offer a feeling of vulnerability that isn’t usually present in other genres. This might be achieved by restricting access to ammo and health, as in the Splinter Cell series, or by making avoiding detection the main purpose of the gameplay.

That feeling of vulnerability is unique to stealth games, and it’s one of the things that most sets the genre apart from other games. Much like enemy AI, this tension requires a balancing act—if your character is too weak, players will quickly become frustrated, but if they’re too strong, the game will be too easy to be entertaining.

Creating a good stealth game is more than just adding some shadows and sight cones. It’s a delicate balance of making things challenging enough to be interesting without overwhelming the player. But when things mix together in the right way, you get spectacular, unique experiences that stand out in the world of gaming, many of them blazing new trails across genres.

Want to see all these stealth game elements in action? Check out Alekhine’s Gun, a tactical, stealth-based shooter putting you in the heart of a Cold War conspiracy that threatens to send the world into global conflict.