There are a lot of things that suck about being in your 30s. Keeping an eye on your waistline, paying taxes, excessive nasal hair… I could go on. But it’s not all bad. Being a 31 year old gamer means I got to see some really cool things growing up. The evolution of hardware, the acceptance of gaming as a “culture” and the birth of new genres to cite a few examples. One of these genres was “Stealth”. It is difficult to describe just how hard my mind was blown the first time I played Thief. Over the years the stealth genre matured, culminating in some truly awesome titles such as the Hitman and Splinter cell series.

But then something happened.

More and more games started incorporated “stealth” as mechanic in games but the genre as a whole began to disappear. At the very least, it got extremely diluted. “Commercial relevance” was a reason oft cited by most publishers. Whatever the cause, as a player, it was impossible to not be disappointed.

Before I go on though, it’s important to mention why sneak em ups are fun to begin with. It is obvious stealth games are an inherently cerebral experience. Although every stealth game has a combat component, the best ones make it so that the optimal way to do stuff was to “out think” your virtual opponents. Getting into a secure location, taking out the guards and stealing something was one thing.  To do so without leaving a trace was something else entirely. But the core of any stealth game should be the struggle for power. That is both the underlying mechanic and the central theme.  “True” stealth games will put the player in a very vulnerable position 99% of the time. But then, there is a 1% time window where the balance of power shifts overwhelmingly in the player’s favor. And this, to me at least, is where the meat of the genre is.

Indie designer Andy Schatz (lead designer on the much awaited indie title “Monaco“) made a similar point when he called Pacman the first real stealth game. Ridiculous as it seems, his logic is sound. Mechanically speaking, Pac man nails all the components of a stealth game almost perfectly: Evasion, planning, tension, survival and of course the ability to occasionally turn the tables on your foes.

Now let’s take the Splinter Cell franchise (I’m only using it as an example and not singling it out). The third game in the series (Chaos Theory) is widely taken as the pinnacle of the franchise. Having played all of the Splinter Cell games, I can see why. Without going into too much detail let’s just say that there was a definite shift in game design from Chaos theory onwards. Stealth started giving way to action.

That’s a problem.

In my opinion, giving the player the option of going in guns blazing has no place in a stealth game at all. I’m no fan of insta-fail missions but allowing the player to shoot his way out of a situation is hardly cerebral. It also takes away a lot of the tension. The feeling of sneaking up on a guard that was just about to enter a camera’s field of view was heart poundingly delicious in Chaos Theory.  The same situation in Conviction (the latest game in the franchise) did little but elicit a shrug most of the time. If I got caught, I’d just get to some cover and pull off a few head shots. It was still a great game, just not a very good stealth game. It felt like I was “reacting” to an experience rather than planning it. That’s the sort of feeling I get from generic shooter #463 which sends waves of enemies at me till I get to the next event trigger. Sure, the mechanics are very different and my ammo and health may be limited but the game still put me on the wrong side of the power balance equation. This is what the current generation of supposedly stealth games seem to forget, or deliberately choose to ignore. As a result, what we have now are essentially action games with the “option” of stealth.

And it’s not like publishers are trying to hide it. Just look at some the trailers for Hitman: Absolution (which has been mauled by reviewers I trust) and Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Even if they are not representative of gameplay, it’s pretty obvious what market these are trying to tap. S and M assassin nuns and daylight shootouts?  Not very cerebral.

Just ask Pac man.