Saturday, 28 March 2020

[BEYONDE] Thief: The Metal Anniversary

Rooftop exploration in Feast of Pilgrims
Thief: the Dark Project, a unique and moody stealth game, was released late November 1998. It was instantly recognised as something new – a kind of game that has not been done before. The Dark Project was praised for its inventive darkness- and sound-based stealth mechanic, its commitment to what became recognised as “immersive simulation” (a term invented years later to describe a design movement Thief had spearheaded), its massive and complex levels, and the pervasive mood of mystery and menace that enveloped it. But Thief was also criticised: many had thought it had not yet perfected its own formula, or that it had included several supernatural-themed missions as a sop to action game fans. As these arguments went, Thief’s real strength lay in its human-centred levels, where its advantages could shine fully.

Casing a Victorian interior in Fierce Competition
Thief’s creators, Looking Glass Studios, took this feedback to their heart. The sequel, originally planned as a mission disk, would mostly leave behind the forgotten tombs and weird underworlds of the first game, to focus on social upheaval, human intrigue, and the rise of a fanatical sect of technologically inclined militants calling themselves the Mechanists (as the game’s anti-hero, Garrett would put it, “Every bit as fanatical as [their predecessors], and twice as industrious.”). Thief: The Metal Age would be Thief, but even more so. The game would prove to be Looking Glass’ last hurrah: they could barely get it out of the door in March 2000 before being sunk by old financial difficulties, which had haunted them for several years and finally caught up with them. Ironically, the game proved a massive critical and financial success (although not, as it is often suggested, as successful as the first instalment); had Looking Glass still been active, the sales could have provided it with a substantial cash injection, and an evergreen title that would continue to sell well over the years. Thief 2 was also embraced by the growing fan community as the definitive version – the game that finally delivered on Thief 1’s promises.

Keeping off the streets of an upscale market area in Into the Odd
In hindsight, The Metal Age is a troubled sequel. It was produced under a short development cycle, and rushed out to avoid getting mothballed as the studio was shut down. The poor texture work and the obviously unfinished levels show a lack of polish, but the problems reach deeper. The story is a baroque mess, sacrificing The Dark Project’s elegant noir plot of a talented but vain man’s downfall and his inability to see his fault in it, with a poorly paced and often nonsensical narrative which drags our hero this and that way, but is not meaningfully connected except by fairly flimsy railroading. The Metal Age is more a collection of individual levels than a coherent whole. Some of these levels are all-time classics – taking to the rooftops (“the thieves’ highway”) of a bustling metropolis and infiltrating a mediaeval art deco skyscraper in Life of the Party, looting a sprawling warehouse complex with dark and sometimes funny secrets in the underrated Shipping and Receiving, or breaking the interlocking security systems of First City Bank and Trust – but there is a lot that is filler, or fundamentally botched. More than that, the loss of supernatural elements and “otherworldly” levels had robbed the game of much of its mystery and menace. The critics wanted a “pure” thieving game, a “Victorian burglary simulator”, and they got what they wanted – to the game’s detriment. It is still very good (in a gaming subgenre not known for an abundance of titles), but it does not replicate the success of a much more focused, aesthetically superior predecessor.

Approaching an eccentric mansion in Where Unknown Lurks
Yet Thief 2 undeniably lives, and it does so through its fan community. It was the fans who had convinced Looking Glass Studios to release a level editor for Thief 1, but it was second game where this tight-knit design community really took off. There were 17 Thief 2 fan missions in 2000, 60 in 2001, and until 2008, the number had steadily remained in the 70s (more recently, the number has been around 20 annually). There is a lot of inevitable repetition among the 870-or-so titles, and of course many uninspired missions or beginner efforts. But the overall quality has always been good, and there is a staggering amount of outstanding levels, even some masterpieces of game design and interactive storytelling. In some sense, the basic game’s weaknesses may even be said to encourage creative experiments – wild departures from the look and feel of its default stock assets and sometimes iffy level design. Thief 1 is so distinct and strong in its look and feel that it stamps every mission made with it with its own identity; the second game can be pushed very far (even in very odd directions) and moulded into very individual projects.

Someone has met a gruesome fate in Ten Little Taffers
There has also been another factor in Thief 2’s success as a level design platform: the lack of good alternatives. The game offers one of the few genuinely accessible and powerful editing platforms to produce your own interactive stories. This element is missing from first person shooters, while games from other genres rarely offer accessible editing tools. The Thief scene has thus been populated by many aspiring writers and game designers – some of whom went on to successful professional careers in the field (readers of this blog should recognise the name of Anthony Huso, whose contributions to the Dishonored series, and excellent RPG work are also to be noted; the late Terry Pratchett was an enthusiastic fan mission player). The Thief community’s demographics have consequently been a bit “out of place” in gaming, with more women, and a larger share of older players (some now in their 60s and 70s). It is, for all intents and purposes, a very helpful and supportive bunch, a self-contained, if a bit insular creative movement. After all, there are no games like ours! Techraptor has recently published a piece on what makes the community tick, interviewing Huso, yours truly, and other figures involved in the level design scene.

A Metropolis-worthy vision of industrialisation
run amok in The Builder's Paradise
The occasion for this post, then, is to celebrate not just the game’s 20th anniversary, but also the surrounding community, which took it way beyond its intended scope and lifespan. Last year, a 20th Anniversary Contest was launched to commemorate the occasion. The results are now 11 new missions to download and play (and a few out-of-contest entries to come in the future). These missions are a great showcase of the community’s ability to deliver great gaming, and covers many of the popular styles and approaches to mission design. We have missions from enthusiastic beginners who wanted to make something for the occasion (and may later improve their craft further), and from old hands with several missions under their belt; smaller projects and grand affairs which took a full year of intense work to produce and polish for release; missions which are easy and comforting, and others which offer a formidable challenge even to the best. There is a mission which reproduces the exhilaration of exploring the rooftops and noble palaces of an upscale districts to infiltrate and rob a massive cathedral in the middle of a grand assembly of heavily armed fanatics; a warehouse job with more than meets the eye; a surreal and terrifying trip to weird underworld beneath a cramped and labyrinthine bazaar area (titled Into the Odd – no explicit relation to the OSR RPG, but some interesting thematic parallels); a journey into a grandiose and terrible mechanical hell that’s half high-tech factory and half expressionist movie set – and much more. 

At 20, The Metal Age is a Methuselah of computer gaming, but the longevity of the game, and the creative community around it, shows that it has transcended the constant churn of new titles, and become a classic – perhaps in a different way than The Dark Project, but certainly no less valuable. And then there are the contest missions - after all, what else should you be doing while the Bat Plague is out in full force?

Exploring an elegant office in pursuit of a rare vintage in My Favorite Year


  1. Wonderful retrospective. Thank you, Melan!

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  4. Good thing those comments were removed. Trying to run Thief on a Macbook - now that is an offensive idea.

  5. I always love your "Thief" posts. But you still owe us, your faithful readers, the translation of what you learned from Thief as it applies to tabletop rpgs! :)

    - stranded in the UK during the Bat plage, your friend Santiago

    1. Indeed I still do! I will try to gather my thoughts.

      Stay well in the UK! Perhaps distant Scotland, or some unpronouncable locale in Wales would be the ideal place...

  6. I'm staying at my cousin's weekend house at Stroud, a small town 2 hours from London. The place is quite ideal! Hills and sheep.

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