12 distinctly different ways to practice infiltration, assassination, and exploration before making a clean getaway.
Why it's essential: The "Tactical Espionage Action" opus has undergone multiple revisions, side stories, and flirtations with varying levels of action to complement all of the sneaking around and tranq darting of patrolling guards.
That delicate balance between staying out of sight and then making snap decisions on the fly when spotted hit its gameplay zenith with Metal Gear Solid V and its Ground Zeroes prologue chapter.
Series protagonist Snake has never controlled so tightly or been so capable of re-entering stealth after engaging with enemies using firearms at range or in close quarters.
Why it's essential: Rarely has a world felt as lived-in and fleshed out as Dishonored 2's city of Karnaca. Teeming with tight crawlspaces and precipitous ledges, they offer ample exploration opportunity to surprise foes after careful observation and planning. The sequel lets you choose to play as original protagonist Corvo Attano, or Empress of the Isles Emily Kaldwin, each with their own powers.
Deep lore tucked into optional books and overheard conversations mixes with supernatural powers that allow the bending of time, distance, and otherworldly forces. Both games' worlds react to the amount of lethality you dole out; kill too many enemies and the world plunges into darkness. Incapacitate and hide them, and you may just save it.
Why it's essential: Bald-headed, barcode-tattooed professional assassin Agent 47 has been taking on kill contracts for almost 20 years, and the latest entry, Hitman 2, is a constantly updated series of murder sandboxes.
Each level presents an environment pregnant with possibilities; nearly every person has their own routine to track, and after dispatching them, their clothing can be taken for disguise. This allows access to new areas, where environmental hazards can be turned into booby traps to dispatch a primary target.
Of course, if he can get close enough, 47 can always get his hands dirty with a variety of lethal means too—either those chosen before the start of the mission or plucked from the environment along the way.
Why it's essential: While the last two Assassin's Creed games take place early in the timeline of the franchise, with players exploring the sprawling open worlds of ancient Greece and Egypt, many of the series' instalments occur in more modern environs such as Renaissance-era Italy, or Paris during the French Revolution.
The most refined of these adventures is Assassin's Creed Syndicate, taking place in Victorian-era London. Players will traverse the dense, bustling city using the new grappling hook, arguably the fastest way of traversal (especially from street level to rooftop), which dovetails perfectly with the series' trademark high-flying parkour movement.
The focus on staying out of sight means taking down targets requires a keen eye and a bit of pre-planning, leading to thrilling approaches and nail-biting escapes after the deed has been done.
Why it's essential: Series developer Rebellion stumbled on one of the most viscerally satisfying mechanics ever when they paired skulking around WWII-era Nazi bases as a lone sniper with an uncommon knack for sending bullets screaming in slow-motion towards their targets.
Kills are shown through cross-level zooms that march from trigger pull to eventual impact in x-ray views of bone and sinew being destroyed with almost balletic precision. The game's reward for carefully seeking out sight lines is a series of Reich-upending assassinations that never seem to get old, even after four games.
Why it's essential: Most stealth games tend to have imbalance of power between your player and the world to create a sense of tension, but there's perhaps no greater imbalance than being relentlessly stalked by the titular xenomorph from the Alien films.
As Amanda, the daughter of the films' Ellen Ripley, you're trapped aboard an ageing space station where every vent and crawlspace could have an acid-dripping horror on the other side. Throw in few human survivors and glitching synthetic workers and you have a near-constant sense of dread that turns successful escapes into intoxicating rushes of relief.
Why it's essential: Near-future corporate espionage may not sound like a white-knuckle thrill, but when level layouts, objectives, and enemy placement are randomly generated every time, careful planning in this turn-based take on stealth feels incredibly novel.
Throw in multiple agents with their own unique skills and missions that adapt to your strategies on the fly, and you have a recipe for a game with near-endless challenges and rewards—which is good, because if an agent is killed, they're gone from your roster forever.
Why it's essential: Unlike their other game on this list, Invisible Inc., Klei Entertainment's sneaker is decidedly more action driven—and direct. Slicing and impaling your way through darkened side-scrolling levels as a vengeful ninja, the element of surprise is your ultimate weapon.
With the ability to take out light sources, zipline to grapple points, hide in foreground objects, use ninja tools for evasion, and climb walls with ease, each level feels almost like a stealthy puzzle to solve. Plus, bonus ninja rescues and rewards for staying completely hidden offer reasons to head back into levels.
Why it's essential: Indie developer Mike Bithell has designed some truly clever levels to complement his moody, stealth-cloaked story, but the heists don't stop when the story ends.
Unlike the other games on this list, Volume's user-generated levels and sharing mean there's a massive amount of additional content to digest, all built around the game's simple use of distraction and snappy movement to avoid patrolling guards' prying eyes.
Shown through a simple top-down perspective that pays homage to the early Metal Gear Solid games' VR missions, the clean art style and inventive level design mixes perfectly with moody music and trial-and-error gameplay that'll have you uttering the clarion call of the can't-put-it-down stealth classic: "Just one more try…"
Why it's essential: It's a testament to the incredible level design work that Eidos-Montréal put into Deus Ex: Mankind Divided that you certainly don't have to play Deus Ex strictly as a stealth game, but you'll get infinitely more out of it if you explore every nook and cranny of its immersive world while staying undetected to unearth the myriad secrets in every level.
Coupled with a non-lethal run, it gives the whole game the effect of a kind of techno-ninja simulator, staying out of sight of patrolling guards, silently incapacitating them and overriding electronics to approach your objectives in a way that's distinctly unique to this franchise's pacing and world building.
Why it's essential: Aragami packs a ton of depth and a surprisingly inventive set of skills into its central mechanic of shadow manipulation, and is careful not to try to do more than it needs to keep that mechanic feeling fresh as new powers are unlocked.
There are more than a few ninja-themed games on our list, but this one leans heavily into the Japanese aesthetic, marrying moody music and light narration to tell the tale of a hooded assassin that has the ability to carry the shadows with him to get the drop on unsuspecting guards.
Why it's essential: Beyond the striking, baroque setting of Echo's sprawling Palace lies one hell of a secret: this place is constantly studying protagonist En. From the way she moves to the attacks she uses to the paths she takes, all is used to generate murderous copies that play back the previous day's route through the mansion in an effort to kill her.
This sets up an absolutely diabolical challenge where you have to consider not just what you're doing in the present as you sneak around, but what you did previously. The Palace is constantly adapting and reacting to your play style, making you literally your own worst enemy.