Games: Thief

When I first played the original “Thief: the Dark Project” back in 1998, It was something I had a hard time adjusting to. All other first person games to that point revolved around having the player run around as fast as possible picking up weapons and slaughtering the hordes of monsters taking up space between you and the exit.

Playing Thief was a massive departure from the norm because it suddenly demanded something more of you as a player: namely strategy. In Thief, running around like a maniac (which was certainly my first instinct) got you spotted by guards and immediately killed. Fighting was pointless since you were a wiry little guy in a hood using a blackjack to fend off a platoon of heavily armored soldiers. Much to the surprise of players, the game actually respected this disparity.

No, the only way to get around the game was to slow down, arm yourself with diversions, and learn to sneak through the shadows without making a sound. That’s right. This was the first game to make use of light and sound as a central game mechanic.

Stripped of ones usual bag of run n’ gun tricks, some must have pushed themselves away from the PC in disgust. The learning curve was steep – but once you had it, you learned to use shadow and silence as conduits to navigate from objective to objective. Soon a player realized the value of stealth and this new world of sneaking around your enemies to steal treasure out from under their very noses became vastly more delicious than simply splattering them with guns on the way to the door.

I loved Thief, as well as it’s sequel Thief II: The Metal Age. I also loved its cousins: System Shock and Deus Ex. I was a total fanboy of the whole looking glass tribe, and as an aspiring game designer myself, I really took the time to savor and study these titles.

Spin ahead to 2014 and EIDOS Montreal together with Square Enix have just released a series reboot entitled simply THIEF.

Do I love it? Yes I do! Completely, and unreservedly. After having finished the game I immediately nerded out and painted a portrait of Garrett, the main character in whose shoes you go a-sneakin’ about the streets of the city.

Garrett
Garrett the Thief. He’s got a bit of an eye condition.

Finding secrets and completing side missions were particular joys, since you really had to study the environment hard to find any clues. The environments were superbly well crafted and lit, and worthy of the in-depth scrutiny the game forced you to run them through. Sometimes even the most frustrating task felt like being forced to stop and “smell the roses”.

But rather than write a full summary here, I’ll simply point you to this trailer that actually does a pretty honest job of describing what the game’s all about.

I think I have only one criticism of the game. Maybe two. Maybe just one and a half. Let’s see…

1. Window prying: One thing you have to do a lot of in Thief is housebreaking, and in order to do that you need to either pick the door lock or pry open the window. More often than not, there’s no door access to a given residence, so you have to dig out the old pry bar and wedge open the window. The problem is that you have to do this manually every time by repeatedly tapping the action key.

That was really cool and immersive the first few times. After that it was a chore.

One simple fix would have been to throw a few unlocked windows into the game so that you didn’t have to pry absolutely everything open (especially those well-travelled windows that took you from one street to another). A slightly less simple fix would have been to allow Garrett to upgrade his pry bar in the same way that he upgrades the rest of his tools. This way he could crank open a window with a couple of taps with a primary upgrade, and perhaps bypass the tapping altogether with a secondary.

2. Navigation: If you’re used to open world games like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed, you might find it jarring to be thrown back into a closed world space made of individual zones strung together along different pathways.

This is my half criticism.

Much as I found it a little claustrophobic at first, I really learned to embrace it as part of the game’s character. The developers were careful to try and keep it seamless, and in linking different streets together via secret tunnels and through different apartments, it showed how a Thief like Garrett would have to rely on his memory for short cuts and odd pathways to get around a densely packed city under lockdown.

Yes, I got lost a few times, but now I know the city like the back of my hand.

Would the game have been better for being more open? I don’t know. I don’t think so. By containing different streets and neighbourhoods the way they did, it kept the action and narrative localized in a way you don’t find in bigger world games. It narrowed the focus, as it were, and once you were in that particular thread of narrative, it really didn’t need to be any wider than it was.

In any case, I was satisfied with the experience that the game gave me (even if the story didn’t quite match the game play in the end), and I’ll definitely be revisiting Thief on a gruelling difficulty level on some of the darker nights next Fall.

Until then, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite songs that somehow kept playing through my head while sneaking around in Garrett’s shoes.

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