VGM Subgenres: The secretive sound of stealth

Laced with Wax VGM Subgenres: The secretive sound of stealth

With the help of composers David Housden and The Flight’s Joe Henson, we tiptoe around the topic of stealth music in video games — teasing out common musical elements, and highlighting furtive favourites for skulking in the shadows.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

I wonder if it’s occurred to anyone else that so many of our favourite video game characters have preposterously strong legs and lower backs.

To maintain the stealth-crouch position commonly found in modern action games would, in real life, necessitate diamond-strength core muscles, hamstrings, glutes, and, quads. Frankly, I don’t buy that a louche lad like Nathan Drake does 2,000 squats a day to prepare for all that time spent bent over — although I’ll give an obsessive like Batman the benefit of the doubt.

All that stalking, crouching and crawling takes up an awful lot of time in games; time that is often soundtracked by what I like to call ‘undetected-in-stealth’ music. For me, this is typified by a combination of a foreboding bass, repeating synth patterns, constant percussion, and various musical stabs [pun intended] to maintain the tension.

‘Undetected-in-stealth’ deserves to be recognised as its own subgenre of video game music, a dubious honour I’ve previously argued should be extended to Resident Evil save room tunes and JRPG world map music.

Here’s a handy YouTube playlist with the video game music cues mentioned (and also embedded) below.

To get started, let’s swiftly shimmy our way through a history of stealth in video games, listening to a few tracks from landmark titles along the way…

How stealth has infiltrated games

To quote two interesting YouTube video features: ‘well-designed stealth gameplay is about making waiting fun’ (Extra Credits – Design Club - Mark of the Ninja - Stealth Games and Visual Cues); and, ‘humans seem to be pre-programmed to enjoy games of hide-and-seek’. (gameranx – Evolution of Stealth Games)

(Other ideas from these two videos are sprinkled below, but they themselves seem to draw on multiple other sources including Wikipedia.)

As a gameplay concept, remaining unseen by antagonists has been around pretty much since the dawn of home computer and console gaming. Many would cite 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein as the first game to feature stealth gameplay (some would say 1979’s Manbiki Shounen); whilst 1987’s Metal Gear, led by fledgling designer Hideo Kojima, is often credited as the first stealth-focused game (others suggest 1985’s Saboteur deserves that honour).

“Theme of Tara” by some combination of Iku Mizutani, Shigehiro Takenouchi, & Motoaki Furukawa, featured in Metal Gear (1987):

1998 saw three landmark stealth releases of the the 3D era: immersive sim Thief: The Dark Project, with its shadow- and sound-based gameplay; the unforgiving and brutally violent Tenchu: Stealth Assassins; and the impactful, cinematic Metal Gear Solid.

“Punish the Evil Merchant” by Noriyuki Asakura from Tenchu: Stealth Assassins:

Milestone titles kept coming in the 00s, with Deus Ex and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind offering stealth as one of several gameplay mechanics; The Operative: No One Lives Forever and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay gave players a choice between stealth and fighting; Hitman: Codename 47 and Assassin’s Creed hinged around hiding in plain sight; Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell took Thief’s simulation of player detectability to the next level; meanwhile multiplayer stealth was popularised by Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow’s Spies vs Mercs mode.

“Berlin by Night” aka “BaDeDum (Med Vibes)” by Guy Whitmore from 2000’s The Operative: No One Lives Forever:

As player immersion improved with each technological leap forward, the survival horror genre was revivified as it embraced stealth gameplay as a core mechanic. This was most notably exemplified by the disempowering first-person hiding games of the early 2010s, including Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast, and Alien: Isolation. (In another Laced With Wax piece, we highlighted a subtle little music moment — Ripey’s My Lucky Star — in one of the DLC missions for Alien: Isolation.)

“Derelict Tension” by The Flight from 2014’s Alien: Isolation:

In 2018, we’ve reached the point where, thanks to advances in fidelity, AI, and design sophistication, stealth is a key element of many of the largest gaming franchises, including The Last of Us, Uncharted, Batman: Arkham and Call of Duty. This is on top of there having developed a separate, thriving stealth genre, typified by 2D indie platformer Mark of the Ninja.

“Firefly Lab Tension” by Gustavo Santaolalla from 2013’s The Last of Us:


So what makes up a typical undetected-in-stealth track? In my mind, there are a few key elements to gratifyingly stereotypical stealth music: an appropriately taut tempo (e.g. between 105-140 bpm); jagged repetition; lots of rhythmic detail; tension-building bass; and a thoughtful approach to dynamics.

David Housden composed the music for Mike Bithell’s 2015 stealth-em-up Volume: "I think that the most important aspect of creating good stealth music is creating a subtle sense of tension. If the player is trying to avoid detection, the stakes are usually high, so you want to subconsciously impress upon the player that it would be bad news to get caught. There are a number of ways you can evoke this state of tension, however, the music needs to be in keeping with the scenario — if you're sneaking around a highly secure location, then an understated and subtle approach is obviously going to be far more appropriate than something big and brash.” Here’s a subtle cue from Volume, “Steal from the Rich”:

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

Of course, video game music is generally very repetitive, and this especially tends to be the case with ‘undetected-in-stealth’ underscore. But, because composers have the job of maintaining tension in an interesting way, they face the secondary challenge of creating repeating melodic and rhythmic patterns that change often enough to avoid staleness.

Composition duo The Flight, (Horizon Zero Dawn, Alien: Isolation, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), work hard to mix things up from bar to bar and game to game. One half of The Flight, Joe Henson, comments: “Every project we do has a different sound palette — AC: Odyssey is very different to Alien: Isolation, for instance — so we never start composing from the same place.”

A cue from 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn by The Flight:

Henson: “When composing stealth music, the main thing we do is try and keep up the pace whilst constantly changing the levels of tension. These moments usually benefit from some kind of interactive music system to immerse the player in the game, but we also try and make sure the underlying music layer has a lot of variety and gear changes — where the music regularly ramps up in tension, and then drops to moments of stillness and calm. This constant tension and release will introduce a lot of serendipitous moments — something we always strive for in music that isn’t written specifically to picture — and is the key to a good stealth track.”

Arguably, 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of the most successful modern games to blend stealth and action gameplay. Listen to “Stealthy Bat” by Nick Arundel & Ron Fish from from 2:18...

...then maybe jump forwards to different points in the track (e.g. 4:40; 6:20) to hear some of the ways that the composers mixed things up during stealth sections:

Rhythmic detail

The sound of ‘undetected-in-stealth’ often comprises lots of percussion and intensely rhythmic synths (especially arpeggiators); typically with lighter percussion playing constantly, and extra layers of heavier sounds punctuating the track after every bar or two.

“Midnight Shadow” by Harry Gregson-Williams from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Regarding the electronic patterns he created for Volume, David Housden comments:I used a lot of Heavyocity's Aeon for this specific purpose. It's actually more of a loop library, and I figured that, at the time, not many people would have thought to use it for synth design. I'd load up something that had an interesting timbre, chop it up, isolate a particular part, and add effects to create arp's and pulses from.

“I received a lot of nice feedback about my use of synths for Volume, and I think that stemmed from purposefully taking the road less travelled, rather than instinctively reaching for [plug-ins] Omnisphere or Zebra, as I had done in the past. [Easy-reach tools like these] make it very easy to create something stealthy-sounding, but very difficult to create something unique.”

On that point of mixing up tools, The Flight’s Joe Henson adds: “Because of technology, anything is possible nowadays compositionally-speaking, so the first thing we do on any project is give ourselves a set of rules and restrictions. With this in mind, we gather a group of musicians and strive to get as many people playing together at the same time as possible. We don’t don’t really worry about sounding ‘generic’, but always push everyone creatively and try to experiment as much as possible. The main difficulty is remaining inspired and fresh when having to compose four hours of music for a single project!”

Who’s afraid of the big bad bass?

The maintenance of in-game tension is often well-served by bass sounds — usually some combination of bassy drums, traditional bass lines, and/or long, held bass notes (also known as ‘pedals’).

“Sloan” by Power Glove from 2013’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon:

An emphasis on bass frequencies can be very subtle, with more ambient underscore achieving this as much through mixing techniques as the use of specific instrumentation and musical parts. For example, Daniel Licht’s “Streets Suspense” from 2012’s Dishonored:

Varying the level of bassy stuff is a way of indicating to the player how tense they should feel, and a trick composers can pull off especially well when there is an adaptive music system involved. In Hitman (2016)’s Paris level (composer Niels Bye Nielsen), there is a notable absence of bass sounds whilst everything is hunky-dory; but, when things get a little more heated, or you’re nearing the completion of your objective, there are more bass licks and heavier percussion kicks in. To hear this in action, listen from the beginning for a bit, before jumping to (or past) 9:32:

Softly does it

Naturally, being undetected-in-stealth means being as quiet as possible. There are plenty of games where stealthy sections feature music only occasionally, or not at all, relying on ambient sound effects — as with several of the Splinter Cell and Thief titles.

Otherwise, game composers might choose to employ a very light touch. David Housden adds: “It’s not particularly hard to maintain that tension as a composer, but then, for Volume, I took more of an ambient approach to things, rather than a rhythmic one.

“If you were to build an entire piece around those driving, pulsing eighth notes you usually associate with stealth music, and then you take them away at any point, the player will naturally feel a drop in the intensity. Whereas if you're able to create a tense state without an overreliance on a rhythmic element of the composition, then you can start to bring those elements in and out at your whim, without losing the vibe you've already been able to establish.”

Here’s the cue “Burma Streets” by Michael Richard Plowman from 2002’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell:

The solid signature sound of the stealthiest series

When I think ‘stealth music’, my mind immediately jumps to the sound of the Metal Gear Solid series. Forged by numerous composers, that sound is probably most often associated with the work of Norihiko Hibino and Harry Gregson-Williams...

"Fortress Sneaking" by Harry Gregson-Williams from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater:

It’s a sound that even transfers to the chiptune of the Game Boy (Color) — evidenced by “Infiltration 2” by Norihiko Hibino and Kazuki Muraoka from 2000’s Metal Gear: Ghost Babel:

Sneaking around the comparisons

One of the obvious touchpoints for Mike Bithell’s Volume was the spin-off game Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions (aka Special Missions), something David Housden had to bear in mind: I was at pains to avoid any musical comparisons to Metal Gear Solid, so I tried to find a unique sonic identity rather than reinforce the comparisons people were making based on the visuals.

“There are certain stealth tropes that have become synonymous with Harry-Gregson Williams’ scores in particular, so it's quite challenging to create something which avoids these. The way I tackled it was to focus on texture, ambience and melody above percussion and rhythm.”

“I also tapped into Volume’s story — a modern day reimagining of the Robin Hood legend — and utilised sounds, instruments, and textures inspired by the subject matter. There's a lot of period and ethnic instrumentation mixed in with the more modern-sounding technology, to give a hint of a medieval vibe to things. This involved a couple of days of field recording in Sherwood forest, gathering found sounds and ambiences, to be manipulated and layered in with the more traditional elements to create sonic interest. I found that there are always new ways of presenting things and experimenting with pre-existing concepts and techniques.”

Story-specific stealth

Some of my favourite stealthy music is from games where sneaking is a part the story and/or vibe of a level, and there might be a stealthy mini-game or two, but stealth isn’t a primary mechanic.

Final Fantasy games tend to feature the infiltration of enemy strongholds, negotiating occupied towns and escaping from jails, requiring a variety of stealthy tracks. Some of my favourite such tunes appeared in the ‘90s classic titles — a time before adaptive scores were particularly nuanced, meaning that a fantastic stealth cue was often rudely, randomly interrupted by a brash battle theme.

“Infiltrating Shinra Tower” by Nobuo Uematsu featured in 1997’s Final Fantasy VII:

To keep up with the times, and third-person action design, 2016’s Final Fantasy XV employs stealth as a primary mechanic at certain points; but it’s nice to see the tradition of especially melodic underscore continue.

“Imperial Infiltration” by Yoko Shimomura:

gameranx’s video feature Evolution of Stealth Games reminds us not to overlook GoldenEye 007 as a title with plenty of stealth gameplay. Grant Kirkhope’s “Severnaya Bunker” will probably be very familiar indeed to a certain generation of gamer; embedded below is the uncompressed version (if that freaks you out a little, here’s how it ought to sound coming from an N64.)

Inevitably, we’ve missed some great stealthy video game music — feel free to tell us so: