In most computer games the player's character is powerful enough to mow down enemies left and right. They don't have to worry about setting alarms off, or enemy reinforcements being summoned. (True, there are occasionally levels where you have to be a bit careful, but those are specifically scripted.)
In a Stealth Based Game, the player's character is simply too weak to survive a head to head confrontation with his enemies most of the time. Either it's too easy to die, or you can't carry enough ammo, or there is some other reason. Just running away from enemies like in Pac-Man isn't enough to count as a stealth-based game; you need to be actively hiding from them.
Whatever it is though, they've got to be careful, stick to the shadows, kill silently, and only when necessary. And they better hide the bodies well because someone is going to stumble over them otherwise.
The different types of stealth used can be broken up as such, though many are often hybrids.
- Line Of Sight Breaking: Horizontally or vertically, stay out of view. (Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2, horizontal) (Assassin's Creed, vertical)
- Moving Through Shadows: Avoiding the light, creating darkness to move through. (Thief, Splinter Cell, partly Hitman)
- Hidden In Plain Sight: As part of the crowd or as part of the scenery. (Hitman and Assassin's Creed, crowd) (Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4, scenery)
A Stealth Based Game is to a Third-Person Shooter as a real spy is to James Bond. The Ur Examples of the Stealth Game genre are 005 and Castle Wolfenstein, the Trope Makers are Metal Gear 1987 and Metal Gear 2, and the Trope Codifiers are Metal Gear Solid and Thief series.
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