7 great stealth encounters in games that are worth studying
There's an art to acting imperceptibly to those around you — to being surreptitious, or at least hidden from view. Especially in games, where other characters are programmed to spend all of their time looking for signs of trouble. But encounters and levels designed specifically for stealth are more often poorly-designed or rote by-the-numbers exercises in frustration than delightful moments of virtuosity.
Whether in a stealth game or as a palate cleanser or change of pace in a shooter or action-adventure, designing a great stealth encounter takes novelty, finesse, and patience. It's hard to get it right, but thankfully there are plenty of stellar examples we can look to for pointers.
We reached out to four stealth-loving game designers to get their thoughts on the stealth encounters that everyone should study and came up with these seven recommendations.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's stealthy party takedowns
Wildfire designer and Sneaky Bastards editor Dan Hindes points to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's closing stage as a standout moment. "Usually, stealth games require you to infiltrate a hostile/restricted area and take down enemies one by one, without getting spotted," he explains. But this level puts you in "neutral" territory: a fancy party in which both you and your enemies are guests and the goal is to take them down without alerting waitstaff, security, or other guests.
"This leads to tense, exciting moments where a disguised enemy might be standing next to a regular party guest," says Hindes. "You'll need to distract the party guest for a few seconds, take down the disguised enemy, and stuff their unconscious body under a table of champagne glasses - just before that party guest comes back for a refill, while you walk away like nothing has happened. Or perhaps you'll shoot a camera with an EMP blast to disable it for a few seconds, while you neutralize an enemy and move their body away from the camera's field of vision, before the camera comes back online. These feel like moments from a Mission Impossible movie."
Better yet, there are restricted spaces at the party like the kitchen and backstage — areas that are ideal for luring enemies into but that are also rife with danger because guards will notice unusual behavior more readily. By simply twisting the dynamics of the situation, traditional stealth mechanics and actions suddenly become fresh and exciting.
TAKEAWAY: Novel situations and new contexts can bring life to stale or old gameplay loops, and nothing says "cool spy shit" like pulling off big stealth maneuvers while staying out in the open.
Turning the tables on Mr Freeze in Batman: Arkham City
Good boss fights are hard to design, but Batman: Arkham City serves up a masterclass with the caped crusader's big battle against Mr Freeze. The encounter is a double-ended cat and mouse game, with the player being hunted while simultaneously searching for a way to use the environment to create an opening for a stealthy boss kill. "As a player, it felt really good to turn the situation around and keep hitting that overconfident jackass," explains David León, studio head at Aragami developer Lince Works.
"Designing a boss battle in a stealth game is especially difficult, as the whole point of the stealth genre is to evade confrontation and find a stealthy / indirect way to beat any challenge." But here the developers found a way to take the same stealth mechanics that are used throughout the game and twist them into a high-stakes one-on-one battle against a much more powerful foe. In a similar vein, consider looking closely at the final stage of Metal Gear Solid 5's Hellbound mission — in which Snake and his prisoner must hide from a formidable, terrifying Metal Gear.
TAKEAWAY: The best stealth-based boss fights are about turning the tables on a more powerful foe (and they're about embracing the same mechanics that are central to the rest of the game, but with a twist).
Braving the white death in Commandos 2
Big Robot founder/director Jim Rossignol notes that stealth tactics puzzler Commandos 2 was "an absolutely landmark game" — one he believes that confirms that stealth is often best done in 2D. "Nowadays it lacks a lot of the finesse and technical scaffolding that modern stealth games demonstrate," he continues, "but there was something about that systemic minimalism combined with exquisite pixel art that made it unbelievably engaging."
Take the White Death mission, for example. Set on Arctic ice in a Nazi polar camp near a crashed British submarine, the player is left to sneak off the boat while it's crawling with enemy soldiers, then to a hiding place where a second escaped commando ponders his next move. The player must then lead the pair, dashing through the ice, bootprints in trampled ice and snow trailing behind them, towards a parked German destroyer through a busy camp full of watchful Germans patrolling with their ever-pivoting vision cones stretching out before them.
All along the way — and in the moments that follow — the commandos' survival depends upon split-second timing, smart planning, clever manipulations of an inventory full of stolen distractions, and constant improvisation — as tensions ebb and flow and quicksave/quickload keys work overtime.
TAKEAWAY: Don't let complexity become a crutch; some of the most compelling stealth experiences come from the emergent possibilities triggered by multiple layers of simple systems interacting with each other.
Surviving the horrors of The Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows
All four Thief games can offer numerous lessons for good stealth mechanics and level/scenario design, but Rossignol mentions the penultimate level of Deadly Shadows, Robbing The Cradle, as a particular standout (though he concedes that what he remembers most was watching comic author/former games journalist Kieron Gillen play it in front of a crowd on a big projector screen). It's a horror-inspired break from the pure stealth of the rest of the game, widely regarded as one of the greatest (and scariest) game levels of all time.
Where stealth games are generally content to create their tension by establishing a fear of detection with hordes of patrolling, attentive guards, Robbing The Cradle goes much further. One simple way it does this is that it takes the lighting dynamics of the Thief series, which in essence is that light is hostile while its absence is friendly, and manipulates this relationship. Lights slowly pulsate and flicker — like breaths — while sounds rise and fall and dance around uneasily with them, crafting atmosphere from shattering expectations.
Clever level design enhances the tension, too, forcing players to discover the building's dark past for themselves, and gradually it becomes clear that this is not just a level about stealthily avoiding enemies (which are notably absent for much of the level). The building itself as an adversary — one that's hellbent on keeping the player in its grasp.
"It's a truly horrible level," says Rossignol, "and I think it's one of those bits of design that gets almost everything right. Telling a story, enabling the player to find their own way, and multiplying the existing tension created by stealth by introducing genuinely terrifying enemies. Also Gillen's bug-eyed screaming. Not that everyone gets that part, of course."
TAKEAWAY: Great stealth games set clear rules and establish player expectations, then toy with them and gleefully manipulate these same expectations to reinforce and amplify tension — which is the essence of a good stealth encounter. (Also, don't be afraid to put storytelling right into the heart of a stealth encounter's design.)
Braving the financial district in The Last of Us
Stealth games — or stealth missions in games — used to play like they were almost anti-action games, where direct confrontations were to be avoided at all costs, but that hardline kind of stealth has in recent years given way to a closer blending of styles — like in The Last of Us, where being discovered simply necessitates a change in approach. This is well exemplified by an encounter that occurs right after escaping a hotel in a financial district.
"It’s a relatively small area, but an incredibly fun compact sandbox that’s dense with opportunities," says Morten Hedegren, game and level designer at ECHO studio Ultra Ultra. Right from the start, there's a two-storey coffee shop, a barricade, and a large tree all in sight for possible sneaking options along the sides, plus some concrete to hide behind in the middle for players who like to go in and out of cover — which, unusual for the time but common now, is non-sticky — rather than full-stealth.
Hedegren points out that the routes around the sides are especially great for providing tension and suspense, and as an added bonus they offer a vertical element that's great for escaping from danger or for surveying the area. "These types of encounters in The Last of Us served as a huge source of inspiration when we designed the levels in ECHO," says Hedegren. "We always tried to give the player enough room to experiment and move through the environments in very open ended and dynamic ways."
TAKEAWAY: Sometimes it's good to let players slip fluidly in and out of a stealth mindset, free to utilize any pathways, objects, and obstacles you lay out before them however they see fit.
Blending in, the silly way, in Hitman: Blood Money
Stealth doesn't have to be about sneaking; it's just as readily about blending in and looking inconspicuous, so not to draw attention to the fact you shouldn't be there. You'll find some of the best examples of this — that disguises are as much a form of stealth as sneaking — in the Hitman games.
Particularly Blood Money, suggests Rossignol, who looks favorably on a mission in which the player infiltrates a suburban party dressed as a murderous-looking clown. "There's something perfect about this," says Rossignol. "It's always a conceit, of course, and very 'gamey' — no one in real life would be fooled by a hat and an apron stolen from a corpse — but that is one of the things that makes it work."
"We tend to think of viewcones and lurking in the shadows," he continues, "but for me searching for the appropriate outfit is a perfect stealth solution."
TAKEAWAY: Unless you're making a simulation (and maybe even then), stealth need not be serious. Embrace fun and whimsical solutions to remaining undetected and drop in touches of frivolity if the situation allows.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's All Ghillied Up
Few stealth moments in games measure up to the carefully-crafted suspense of Modern Warfare's sneaking flashback. Cast as a sniper and paired up with a superior officer, the mission has the player dressed in a ghillie suit and tasked with following his directions to hide from enemies — while they walk directly over the top of you — and sneakily, methodically dispatch several guards.
Get it wrong and all hell breaks lose — unlike in typical first-person shooter stealth segments, which tend to give hard fail states and require a do-over — with enemies pouring out from all sides to start a frantic firefight. But take it slow, follow orders, and stay patient, and there's a brilliant build and release cycle of tension — especially in light of the chaos of the preceding mission (a failed assassination attempt).
It's a different brand of stealth to the other encounters on this list, with heavy reliance on tight scripting, but it's a compelling argument that artful stealth design is more about the experience than the mechanics.
TAKEAWAY: Great stealth moments don't need elaborate stealth mechanics, but if you're going for a more experiential, scripted kind of stealth take care to avoid hard fail states — let your players do it the hard way, if they choose to, and let them stay in control even if you direct them to behave a certain way.
Conclusion: Tense situations, solved creatively
Good stealth design is predicated upon tension. It's about letting the player choose when and how to engage in conflict, and making them fear that their plans will be spoiled at any moment if they put a foot wrong.
Great stealth encounters establish a clear reason for caution — for the patient and methodical approach that stealth requires — and then constantly tighten and loosen the metaphorical noose around the player-character's head, never completely allowing tension to wane until the mission is accomplished.
But they also leave room for player expression, with no one single solution and a systemic elegance that allows even catastrophic failures to be survived — with a bit of luck and skill, a lot of ingenuity, and possibly a very unstealthy few moments of activity. Solid Snake's cardboard boxes and Agent 47's far-fetched disguises may seem ridiculous, but history gives us much more unlikely attempts at stealth, so don't feel like you have to be sensible in crafting your stealth systems and scenarios.
Thanks to Dan Hindes, David León, Jim Rossignol, and Morten Hedegren for their help putting this list together.