The first stealth game I remember playing is… The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Around that same time, I played my second… Beyond Good and Evil.
You might say, "But Andrew, those aren't stealth games!" And you’d be right. But both of these titles incorporated stealth in moments that made a mark on my memory and imagination. As a kid, you don't know how much games can do, so when you discover a new genre, your horizons expand. These non-stealth games introduced me to the idea that there could be another tool in your arsenal in experiences not solely focused on skulking in the shadows.
Until then, the games I played had been about hitting enemies. You might hit them by jumping on their head, slashing them with a sword, and/or rolling around at the speed of sound. You might hit them in fast action combat or in slow turn-based battles. I learned a lot of ways to beat my opponents up, but sneaking past them was something entirely new.
Wind Waker’s Forsaken Fortress, in which Link has to tiptoe through a massive castle at sea patrolled by moblins, was revelatory. It showed me that games could reward strategy and patience and careful thought, not just brute force or twitch skills. That was a welcome lesson then, and a pleasant reminder now, as reflexes have never been my strong suit as a player. I don't play many games on Hard or higher, but the exceptions are titles like Dishonored and The Last of Us in which I can sit unseen and watch, waiting for the right moment to strike.
That love of dedicated stealth games has changed how I feel about titles that incorporate stealth as one ingredient among many. Now, I tend to hate stealth sections in non-stealth games, largely because they just don't give you enough options. Though doing stealth as Spider-Man is fun in Insomniac's games, Mary Jane sections drag because the developers don't give you enough tools. It's not until the last stealth section that MJ finally gets a taser which she can use to take enemies out. Until then, she just needs to avoid being seen. For a stealth section to really sing, it needs to encourage the player to experiment, and that means giving them the stealth equivalent of beakers and Bunsen burners and letting them cook.
We tend to regard these stealth sections as annoying across the board. They're annoying to stealth aficionados, because they aren't robust enough to encourage experimentation. They're annoying to action game fans because they take you away from the action.
But, at the same time, it's also true that they may open a gateway for young fans who have never played a stealth game before. If I had picked up Hitman or Prey as a young gamer, I think the sheer amount of options would have overwhelmed me. Now, as an adult, I can understand how systems work together and learn to exploit them. As a kid, I needed something as simple as "get seen = fail." It's a firm foundation. Developers like IO Interactive and Arkane have built impressive, complex things on it. But, you need that foundation first. I found it in the Forsaken Fortress.
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