Top Stealth Games Use Specific Settings to Heighten Tension

Alekhine's Gun prioritizes stealth with patrolling guards in tight spaces.
Alekhine’s Gun uses a variety of stealth game setting staples to achieve its supreme atmosphere of tension.

Top stealth games like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell are popular because of their detailed mechanics and excellent production value, but setting plays an often underappreciated role in stealth. Even settings of different time periods and places, such as Splinter Cell’s tight, sometimes futuristic corridors and Metal Gear Solid V’s open deserts, share characteristics that make stealth possible.

We don’t see a lot of open-world stealth games, and for good reason—a truly open world is a large space with pockets of activity, something that doesn’t work well with the constant tension of stealth. Despite the popularity of open world games, top stealth games continue to base their design in open, elegant levels rather than truly open worlds, combining a few key elements in different ways for radically different player experiences.

top stealth games like splinter cell use narrow corridors to great advantage
Splinter Cell’s tight corridors allow for acrobatic maneuvers like Sam Fisher’s split jump, and serve to heighten tension in gameplay. Image Source: ChaosTheory07 via Wikia.

Tight Corridors Make for Tense Gameplay

Open worlds are the popular design trend of the moment, but tighter level design focused on corridors and claustrophobia can do wonders in a stealth game. Splinter Cell does corridors and tight quarters particularly well, as protagonist Sam Fisher is not just a talented spy and military expert, but also proficient in acrobatics and other related physical skills like parkour. The tight corridors give him the opportunity to exercise skills like his trademark split jump.

In stealth, tight corridors like these force players to slow down, take stock of their surroundings, and approach with caution. While Sam Fisher can often climb his way out of trouble, the tight corridors of Alekhine’s Gun offer a similar element of challenge that must be dealt with differently. While Agent Alekhine has a wealth of assassin and spy skills at his disposal, evasion in this game must be more subtle. Alekhine can evade enemies by watching their patrol routes and timing his approach or by using a disguise, which requires a different set of skills than the acrobatics of Splinter Cell.

Tight, labyrinthine level design like this creates an intellectual challenge for players. Stealth encourages a slow-paced approach to each challenge, tasking players with evaluating each situation before leaping right in. By interspersing them throughout a game, developers create gameplay that varies in pace and structure, leaving players wondering what new challenge will come next.

Guards in Alekhine's Gun are intelligent, presenting a real puzzle for players.
Guards patrol the high-security settings of Alekhine’s Gun, making players pause to determine how best to respond.

High-Security Targets Require Intelligent, Active Guards

Castles, military bases, and highly guarded facilities are common in top stealth games. Because stealth and espionage often go hand in hand, it’s no surprise that these games often take place in high-security settings, but it’s not just for the story’s sake.

Stealth games require that enemies be smarter than your average goomba to present a real challenge. Putting the player in a place of suspicion means the AI guards will be on high alert, reacting swiftly and aggressively to any missteps a character makes. These attentive enemies in high-security settings encourage the belief that you can be found out at any moment, heightening the tension a player experiences.

In Alekhine’s Gun, the game’s eleven open levels all require Alekhine to remain undercover in spaces where he is an object of suspicion. Shooting will just make him more suspect—instead, Alekhine has to find disguises and dispose of enemies silently to avoid attracting more attention than he can handle. These settings are important because that level of trickery and strategy works best with human AI-powered enemies. While stealthing past animals, aliens, or zombies can be its own kind of satisfying fun, human guards present a more realistic, nuanced challenge.

Tops stealth games like Alien: Isolation require players move carefully and cautiously to avoid their enemy.
Alien: Isolation makes the player feel alone with an undefeatable enemy, heightening tension and making stealth necessary. Image Source: Midhras via Flickr.

Isolation and Fear Make Stealth a Necessity

Isolation is another key element of stealth games. While it’s also common in genres like horror, it’s an effective technique to make players feel like they’re truly under threat. It’s the opposite of social games like MMORPGs and party systems like those found in Mass Effect—games like this make you a lone wolf out for your own survival against frightening odds.

Alien: Isolation, an example of a hybrid horror/stealth game, does this particularly well (as you might guess from its title). As Amanda Ripley, you’re trapped alone on a spaceship with the titular alien who is faster and far more powerful than you. Evasion is the primary mechanic as you hide and avoid direct confrontation, with the alien seeming to get smarter with each encounter. Separating you from your teammates makes you feel weaker, because you have nobody to count on, making each moment fraught with tension.

That’s why so many spy and assassin characters often work alone in true stealth games. While Alekhine might have a team behind him and Sam Fisher is part of an elite group, Alekhine is the only KGB agent in the CIA and Fisher is known for his lone-wolf tendencies. Placing them in settings that emphasize their isolation showcases both the power and vulnerability of their characters.

Stealth Settings Need Tension and Atmosphere to Succeed

A good stealth setting isn’t just a creepy castle or a packed military base. The best stealth games throw in a healthy dose of isolation, claustrophobia, and heavy guard fortification to keep players feeling the fear of vulnerability. While not every stealth game emphasizes each of these elements, most will combine them in different ways—not all the levels in Alekhine’s Gun are filled with tight corridors, and not all of Splinter Cell takes place in isolated settings. By breaking games up with situations highlighting each, developers create an unpredictable experience to keep players hooked the whole way through.

Featuring dedicated stealth mechanics, intelligent enemies, and eleven tense, action-packed levels to navigate, Alekhine’s Gun brings the best of stealth gameplay to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Purchase your copy today!