It has been twenty years (and one week) since the publication of Looking Glass Studios’ unconventional masterpiece: Thief: The Dark Project was released 30 November, 1998. Thief would invert the formula of first-person shooter games: instead of shooting enemies, you would have to hide from them (or carefully sneak up on them and knock them out with a blackjack); instead of playing a badass space marine, the main character was a thief who could hardly fight a single guard; and instead of a rocket launcher, your ammo would consist of water arrows to extinguish torches, and moss arrows to coat loud surfaces with a sound-dampening moss. Thief had replaced non-stop action with carefuly scrutiny of the environment and the patrols around you, and quick, panicked bursts of action while trying to move from one safe, shadowed spot to another. Getting through a loud, tile-covered corridor segment before the patrol would return; nabbing a priceless gemstone from behind the back of a guard looking the other way; or breaking the lock on a well-illuminated door before bolting back into the shadows – these are the building blocks of the Thief experience. Thief had originally been planned as a swordfighting game (Dark Camelot was never realised, but the fencing system is still fairly robust), but something went fatefully wrong during development, when one of the lead designer tried to infiltrate a room while hiding behind an enemy. This kind of tension can prove addictive.
Thief’s main attraction lies not just in its conceptual originality, but also its precise and narrow focus. Deus Ex (2000), often held up as the best game ever, is a mediocre shooter, a mediocre sneaking game and a mediocre CRPG, with some decent but hardly outstanding environmental simulation – but the individually flawed bits make for something much more than the sum of its parts. Thief does two things (sneaking and exploration), but does it impeccably. Its graphics were already dated on the date of its publication (contemporary reviews were surprisingly critical about it, even though its“look” is iconic, and uses colours and shapes in a very clever way). However, its audio – consisting of noises, odd echoes and monotonous tension loops – is one of a kind, and has rarely been approached in its atmosphere. The guards’ drunken rambling and lowbrow conversations are not just a matter of establishing a certain feel, but cues to help you locate and avoid them: they will signal whether they are preoccupied with their crappy night job (“I don't see why I should have to be the one down here in the cold and the dark and the damp....”), looking for you (“Is it just me or did something move?”), preparing to rush and kill
you (“All right, you're in for it now, thief!”), or
summoning help (“Intruder! Help, help!”). The stealth system, based on
shadow-light patterns and the loudness of footsteps on various surfaces (wood,
earth, carpet, metal, stone, tile, etc.) requires a minimal user interface in
the shape of a small “light gem”, while being fully immersive and providing
excellent visual and aural feedback. Learning to move silently is a talent you
have to learn, and then master to get ahead. Thief is, in many ways, a fully player
skill kind of game.
|The Sound of a Burrick in a Room|
|Whistling of the Gears|
Then there is the world: a clash of the middle ages and an industrial revolution, surrounded by the soot-covered walls of a claustrophobic, nameless city that has grown well beyond its natural limits. A place filled with inscrutable, ticking machinery; pipes and grates belching steam and smoke; arc lights and generators – and on the other side of the coin, guards in mail, snooty lords and dark magic. Progress in this world is represented by the Hammerites, a fanatical religious order maintaining much of the City’s technological infrastructure, slowly losing out to more commercially-minded lay smiths, while trying to root out the pagan heretics who would return the world to an irrational (and entirely wretched) bucolic past. Most of the citizens, however, are corrupt or simply uncaring guards, cruel crime bosses, indolent aristocrats and their snivelling servants. While
may seem steampunk, it is in truth outside the confines of genre: like its
distant successor, Dishonored, it is an original creation that has more
to do with film noir (particularly The Third Man – when you steal from The
Third Man, you are stealing from the best) and Dungeons & Dragons. The
story is a highlight: the protagonist, the cynical and embittered thief Garrett,
is an anti-hero in the truest sense: he is egoistic, arrogant, petty, and his
own worst enemy – under the mask of professionalism, he is motivated by enormous
vanity, and resentment against his former benefactors. By the time the story
ends, he loses all he has gained, but learns nothing.
|In and Out|
|Darkness Walk With Us|
Thief has never been continued in a truly worthy way. The story reaches its due conclusion at the end of the first game. The sequel, while often more refined, loses much from the energy and the aesthetic; the third and fourth games are increasingly fruitless efforts to sell the original formula to a mass-market audience. The results are at first questionable, then catastrophic: the 2014 reboot is a complete failure both as a Thief game and a corporate moneymaker. Underworld Ascendant, the new game by Looking Glass alumni, is a creative and financial black hole. The true successors are found in the Dishonored series (which remakes the original idea as an assassination game where you don’t actually have to kill anyone), and in the free, fan-made Dark Mod. However, the richest content lies among the community-made fan missions, still going strong after 20 years.
|Lost Among the Forsaken|
The Thief community has always been tight-knit and motivated, verging on the fanatical. It was their incessant lobbying at Looking Glass which had earned us the release of the editor, followed by a stream of fan missions from small, simple affairs to sprawling, campaign-length epics (some still under development). It would be too much to play all 1200 of them, and of course, they have an enormous range in style and quality. However, the best, including Gems of Provenance, The Seven Sisters, Endless Rain, the Rocksbourg Series or Calendra’s Cistern/Legacy, are worthy successors to the original game.
|The Burning Bedlam|
With a build time of a whole year, the recently completed 20th anniversary contest has seen the release of no less than 24 missions (and one out of competition). They are wildly different takes, from beginner efforts (proving that Dromed, the game’s quirky editor, is still inviting) to a surprising number of missions which should become modern classics (see this article’s illustrations). One of the missions, Rose Garden, is mine – I returned to Thief after a 10 year hiatus, and spent much of this year on constructing a giant, complex city map. Of course, you should play the basic game first if you haven’t. Make sure you do so without any texture or model “upgrades” (and if you have particularly good taste, stay with software rendering), and enjoy Thief the way it was meant to be played. It has aged well, and it is just as intriguing and mysterious as in its year of publication.
(A post on Thief's lessons for tabletop gaming will follow shortly.)