In the best new games, stealth—not violence—is key.

The art of play.
July 9 2004 9:29 AM

Hide and Go Sneak

In the best new games, stealth—not violence—is key.

Game box

Sometimes I get bored with killing people. When you play a lot of shoot-'em-up games, as I do, you spend hours joyfully mowing down your opponents with sprays of gunfire. But 10 years after Doom, the rampant weapon-play can start to seem tedious. Kill your enemies, reload, kill some more, reload—man, what a drag. You become a pacifist for the weirdest possible reason: not because the virtual violence seems so awful but because it's so bloody repetitive.

Perhaps that's why "stealth" games have become so popular in recent years. These action titles force players to rely on guile and smarts rather than constant killing, and they've created something remarkable: a new style of play—and possibly even a different moral vision.

Recently I've been addicted to Thief: Deadly Shadows, and it's a classic of the genre: The goal is to accomplish missions by sneaking around and avoiding conflict. You don't want to get into fights. In fact, you don't really even want to be noticed, because you're a weak character, easily killed. You can knock people out if you need to, or even kill them. But the latter is only a last resort, because other enemies will notice the blood and noise, call in reinforcements, and overwhelm you. Instead, the best strategy is to lurk in dark corners, where you become essentially invisible. If you're good, your enemies will walk half a foot from you and not see you there.

Philosophers from Machiavelli to Hegel have pointed out that the weak must always pay nervous attention to the behavior of the powerful. That psychology is precisely what makes stealth gaming so gripping: You're always fretfully observing your opponents. To get past a guard, you might spend five minutes just standing there, stock-still, spying on him to figure out his movements, the better to creep by. The upshot is that you feel like a minor character in a play, eavesdropping on conversations as you attempt to unravel Thief'sintrigues. (The enemy characters scheme and backbite with positively Elizabethan glee.) It's like a video game designed by Carol Gilligan: You have to pay attention to relationships and monitor everyone's feelings.

I sometimes wonder if stealth games aren't the industry's sheepish response to public unease about blood-soaked shoot-'em-ups. You can practically imagine the designers of shooters getting attacked again and again and again by "family values" pundits until even they started to wonder if there wasn't some alternative. Stealth became an elegant feint out of this endless debate and better yet, an impetus to develop intriguing new game-play: Stealth titles are now some of the most popular games of all. Of course, the idea of sneaking around isn't entirely new—it dates back to Frogger, the ur-stealth title, where you desperately hopped around to avoid traffic.

But stealth has only come of age in the era of 3-D gaming, and I think that's because moving slowly through a game offers an unexpected benefit: Your aesthetic experience becomes much better. Most lightning-fast "twitch" shooter games are so fast-paced you barely have time to notice how wonderfully detailed the 3-D world is. But in Thief, the game-play demands that you slow down and observe your surroundings with the careful attention of Sherlock Holmes. Because you're trying to stay in the shadows, you're forced to study minute design elements. A torch that produces multiple flickering shadows as it shines through a set of medieval pillars is no longer eye candy; those shadows can keep you hidden, and alive. As I hung out on the fringes and quietly waited for an enemy to pass by, I'd actually crane my neck around to check out peaked castle doorways or the cramped, squalid peasant houses I was looting. Stealth turns gamers into tourists.

Still, stealth isn't always a kinder, gentler form of play. Many of these games do, in the end, require you to resort to at least some violence. In the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cellseries—another set of highly touted stealth titles, the latest of which is Pandora Tomorrow—there's plenty of gunfire and dead bodies. Indeed, you could argue that while there's less violence in stealth games overall, the violence that does exist is infinitely creepier. Instead of fighting someone fairly and face-to-face, you're always sneaking up from behind and sucker-punching them, like Gollum. In Manhunt, another superb recent stealth game, you actually pop a plastic bag over your opponents' heads and listen to them slowly, achingly gurgle to death. Conflict, it seems, is inevitably messy. You can keep your head down, but your hands will never be entirely clean.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.