Imagine an Agatha Christie story where you are the murderer. This is the simple, brilliant conceit of the second mission in Hitman 3, the new addition to the long-running series from Danish developer IO Interactive. In the polished shoes of Agent 47, a dazzlingly bald killer with sangfroid to spare, you arrive at the stately Thornbridge Manor on Dartmoor on the day a suspicious murder has taken place. If you have your way, there will be a second before nightfall.

Your target is Alexa Carlisle, flinty matriarch of a noble family and director of Providence, a secret cabal that manipulates global politics. As you roam the stately home, all dark wood and gloomy portraits, it becomes apparent that there are several ways to dispose of your target. You could impersonate the family photographer and electrocute Carlisle by means of a leaky fountain and an exposed cable. Or don the garb of an undertaker and push her into an open grave as she walks in the cemetery. Better yet, play the role of detective, interrogating family members until you work your way up to Carlisle, who topples “accidentally” from her balcony as she surveys the misty moors.

Whichever approach you take, the mission will involve lots of listening, observing and waiting. These are hardly activities typically associated with thrilling gameplay, yet they are cornerstones of the beloved genre of “stealth games”. It’s easy to understand why people play action games that make them feel stronger or faster than they are in real life. But why is it so much fun to sneak around and avoid action at all costs?

The fundamental tenet of stealth gameplay is that you circumvent, rather than seek, combat. You move slowly and quietly, picking locks and striking enemies from behind when strictly necessary. The genre was popularised by Hideo Kojima’s first Metal Gear game in the late 1980s, and subsequent titles introduced new dynamics that became commonplace: new technology to measure sound and silence in Thief; the introduction of complex lighting and concealing shadows in Splinter Cell; the social camouflage of Assassin’s Creed, in which you can blend in with a group of passing monks by pulling up your hood and clasping your hands in prayer.

A language of common tropes emerged in these games, with regular features such as tall grasses to hide in and noisemaking objects that can be thrown to distract guards. Sometimes these abilities stretch into parody — who can believe that Snake, the hero of Metal Gear, remains unseen as he scuttles around a military compound under a cardboard box? Or indeed that in Hitman, Agent 47’s shining pate and distinctive barcode tattoo are undetectable to guards who appear fooled by a simple change of trousers?

Over time, the stealth genre has proved remarkably adaptable. It was spun into colourful, child-friendly adventures in Sly Cooper and Untitled Goose Game, spliced with top-down strategy in Desperados, social gameplay in Among Us, and high-octane combat in Dishonored and Ghost of Tsushima. Most action, adventure, and open-world games released today throw in a few stealth sections for good measure, but these token sneaking scenes generally lack the thrill of tension found in dedicated stealth titles.

Each level of Hitman 3 offers a detailed simulation of an exotic locale, ranging from the souks of Marrakesh to a village in the Colombian Amazon or a rave in a decommissioned Berlin power station. The environments bristle with characters living out their own micro-dramas, while inventive opportunities for murder abound — in Colombia you might sabotage a submarine or feed your target to a hippo. Whatever you choose, you must first observe the elaborate clockwork mechanism of the level and select the perfect moment to stick your spanner in the works. Get it right and you are rewarded with the supreme satisfaction of walking away calmly from the scene of the crime as a horrified crowd gathers.

The complexity of each Hitman level creates the perfect terrain for “emergent narrative”, storytelling that arises not from a script but from the interaction of a player with a game’s systems. While the game rewards you for being a silent assassin, you are free to ignore this and wreak creative havoc — a player went viral last week for their seven-hour attempt to kill every character in the game’s Italian seaside village using a single rubber duck.

Yet it’s not just the creativity and tension that make stealth games seductive. There is something thrilling about seeing somebody while remaining unseen, something that children intuit when they play hide-and-seek. Watching someone from the shadows gives us a sense of power over them. In the real world this can be voyeurism and violation, but games allow players to explore these thrills, to treat sneaking as a sport and murder as a puzzle.

We relate to stealth protagonists because they are not grizzled bullet-sponge action heroes, but vulnerable humans who must rely on their wits. These games reward us for our strategy, patience and precision — not as the strongest hero, but as the smartest.