Just in time for Thief (2014), it’s Thief (1998)!
It’s February, and that means two things. Thing one, we’re in the post-Christmas slump where major games aren’t really released all that often. Oh, there’s been tons of amazing indie stuff released since the start of the new year and I heartily recommend you pick some of those titles, but in terms of a big meaty major studio release there isn’t much doin’. Thing two, Thief comes out at the end of the month! Well, Thi4f. Thief 4. Or just… Thief… again. Whatever, the new Thief comes out. And with those two things in mind I thought now would be a good time to take a look at original Thief, one of the first stealth games and the progenitor of an entire genre!
Except that’s… not really true at all. The stealth concept had been percolating for years with titles like the original Castle Wolfenstein and the original Metal Gear, so it’s not like stealth originated with Thief. And Thief actually arrived last in the same year as Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu, and all three sort of jump started the stealth genre in tandem in 1998. So while I’m comfortable saying that without Thief we probably wouldn’t have, say, Dishonored, giving it credit for the creation of the whole genre is probably overreaching. Really the majority of western stealth games can probably trace their lineage most directly back to Splinter Cell, which sort cherry picked favorite concepts from all three 1998 games – the mobility from Tenchu, the light and noise systems from Thief, and the gadgetry of MGS. Actually, sixteen years on what’s really what’s notable about Thief isn’t how it laid the groundwork for modern stealth games, but how it differs from them.
For example, movement is handled in a fundamentally different way in Thief. In Mark of the Ninja or Dishonored, movement is a sort of freedom that the guards don’t have; it’s what allows the player their stealthy abilities. Blinking out of a guard’s line of sight just in time or hiding on ceilings and in vents is what it means to be stealthy in those games; it’s the nimble and quick that are invisible. But in Thief movement is a loud, reckless, clumsy thing. Some of that is because of the way the game handles player movement physics – the player character, Garrett, has a heft and momentum about him; he slides and pushes and bumps into things in ways you might not expect, and awkward control schemes exacerbate that sense of bumbling around the dark. But a lot of it also has to do with how movement raises visibility in Thief where it doesn’t quite so much in modern stealth games. Movement over a certain speed meant raised visibility to guards even in the dark, climbing on ledges and rocks means exposure and vulnerability;; jumping around means landing with an alarming thud. In Thief speed and movement aren’t a sign of power but of impatience. There’s a constant tradeoff between mobility and visibility, and the art of stealth was knowing when to run and when to double down in the shadows. In Thief it isn’t the nimble that are invisible, but those who know when not to move at all.
Speaking of shadows: Thief’s stealth systems remain somewhat unique, even today. Looking Glass tried to simulate detectability more than other forms of subterfuge. Metal Gear Solid usually toyed with line of sight and guard view fields, and in recent iterations toyed with camouflage as its stealth tool, Hitman has always focused on disguises, and Batman just needs to go into the rafters and hop around to become invisible. Even Dishonored, perhaps Thief’s most direct descendant, focuses on line of sight more than actual visibility metrics. But Thief tried hard to systemize what it meant to be invisible and unheard. Movement speed, holding giant clunky weapons, the type of surface you were walking on, standing in degrees of light – all of these things made you easier to detect, and you had to be cognizant of all of those variables at all times as you moved through the game’s levels. Its only real rivals in terms of simulating that sort of stealth are really just Mark of the NInja (which was notable for taking Thief’s light and sound model and making it work in two dimensions) and early Splinter Cell games (which have since jettisoned that system… and most pretense of stealth… and consequently largely any relevance…). And because so few games have adopted this particular mechanic set (at least at this level), there’s something still fresh and vital about Thief’s approach to stealth; there’s still a magic about cowering in a dark corner afraid to move but also terrified of staying put.
Thief also differs from modern stealth games due to its level design. Modern stealth levels are, for the most part, intensely designed affairs. I mean, level design is important in combat focused games, sure, but it’s even more so for stealth games where guard paths, player visibility, item placement, resource scarcity, and places to run and hide all have to be balanced while still communicating to players where they need to go and what they need to do.
Thief… predates that sort of design-oriented approach to levels. Thief’s levels are obscenely large and complex – labyrinthian even – with nonsensical architecture and oddly intersecting hallways that seem designed specifically to confuse players. Sparsely decorated rooms with the same base texture sets all begin to blur together, and the player is often given only a compass and a *very* rough sketch of the level to guide them. This does have some benefits: it ensures that there are multiple entrances and exits to just about any area which provides players plenty of places to hide or to run. It also rewards exploration, as curious thieves can find extra loot or items. And it allows for various approaches to most levels, giving each player a preferred path through.
But even with those advantages, the levels on display here simply feel too large. It’s almost the opposite problem of Invisible War, really – the levels are so huge it’s easy to forget what the point of them even is; there’s no greater tension than the guard around the next corner. There’s not a strong sense of keeping your eyes on the prize or remembering your exact objective – only the minute-to-minute sense of finding loot and knocking out or avoiding guards.
I’ll give you an example – there’s a level that has you break into a restaurant. And that restaurant is a front for a secret casino underground. And under the casino is a maze of sewer tunnels that holds a thieves den. And there are two separate houses connected to opposite ends of the den. As Garrett, you have to break into the restaurant, sneak through the casino, find your way through the thieves den to the house that has the key to a safe, then sneak back through the thieves den and break into the house with the safe itself, then find your back way to the streets. And the kicker? This is complete filler. The level before has you stealing from Ramirez as revenge for trying to assassinate you, and the level after has Victoria contact you because of your success with the Ramirez job. The thieves den quest has nothing to do with the narrative, doesn’t add anything to the experience, and was just an hour and a half of “Game needed to be longer.” It’s a decent level and it does help establish that there are other active thieves than Garratt in the world who pay off the City Watch and we see why Garrett rejects that lifestyle, and I guess it works as a character building level in that sense… but c’mon. Surely there was an easier way to make that small world-building point than this sprawling level.
And I’m focusing so much on the levels because that’s really what drives the most and least enjoyable parts of the game. Thief is at its best when the level design works in favor of the core mechanics, with levels that have a tight focus on stealth and infiltration with maybe slight, minor diversions into exploration or puzzle solving for flavor. But too often levels become find-the-hidden-object games when you’ve completed story objectives but haven’t found the arbitrary amount of loot required to pass or vice versa, or when they become slogs through haunted graveyards that mix awkward combat with a downplayed emphasis on stealth. It’s as though the game wasn’t sure whether the stealth mechanics could stand on their own for a whole game, and so you seesaw between levels that still feel fresh and interesting and tightly designed even 15 years later, and levels that feel like the worst kind of confusing, objectiveless retro game levels. There’s a reason that people look back more fondly on the first set of Steampunk-heavy day-in-a-life-of-Garrett levels more than magical mage towers and dimensions of Pagan elder gods, and it has as much to do with the level design as the awkward theming.
Thief also stands apart from modern stealth games in its position on violent conflict. Your Human Revolutions and Arkham Asylums and modern Hitman and Splinter Cell games are all about sneaking around for the most advantageous angle to kill rather than ghosting a level. Even if these games offer non-violent options – and not all of them do – they’re framed as empowered player choice. You can go in guns-a-blazing or quietly, and both are valid! Yay player choice! In contrast, Thief never really wanted you to kill people, though it certainly gave you the tools to. Non-violence wasn’t the point of the game so much as a sign of highly skilled play and cleanliness on the part of the player. Combat, much like movement, was intentionally clunky and difficult. Killing all NPCs was never meant to be a viable way to play and higher difficulty levels outright forbid it. Thief was a game that allowed for physical combat but wanted both Garrett and the player to be better than that. It wasn’t an antiviolent game but rather a game that found nonviolence more difficult and therefore a mark of more highly skilled play. Stealth in modern games is an extension of the power fantasy, another tool you have to wield over your enemies. In Thief stealth was wasn’t a tool of aggression but a blanket, a shield, a defense you put up to avoid conflict all together.
But I think we often confuse the game’s values with those of its protagonist, and I sort of want to make sure we separate them. Garrett has, over time, been retconned as the perfect thief who blends into the shadows at all times, takes what he wants, and disappears without killing anyone or leaving a scrap of evidence… but that’s not how most players experienced the character, and not even the character the game itself shows us. Garrett kills a man in the opening of Thief 1 and Thief 2 – it isn’t until Thief 3 that they show a nonlethal job to open the game. Garrett is not a “good guy” or a noble thief, he’s a cipher for the player that runs the gamut from murderous home invader to invisible robber. We shouldn’t confuse the playstyle the game finds most interesting and challenging with the values of the character himself, lest we champion the values of a guy who clubs people in the back of the head for a living.
And while we’re on the subject of Garrett, let’s talk about the world he inhabits, as Garrett is more defined by what he’s not than what he is. So Thief takes place in The City, a steampunk citystate that so dominates the whole of Thief’s world that it doesn’t even get a name.
Inside The City there are three groups. There are the Hammerites, who stand for order, rule of law, and technology. They prize the machined and the intentionally designed over nature’s rough hewn fractals; they relish taking formless iron ore and blessing that ore with purpose in the forging of tools. Then there are the Pagans, or Folks of the Woodies, or Followers of the Trickster. This group is aligned with forces outside of The City, and while their human faction don’t factor heavily into the first Thief it’s clear they represent chaos, nature, and the forces of elder gods – basically anything outside of the world of humans. Also they talk kinda like Gollum. Finally there are the Keepers, whose job it is to maintain balance between the two other factions, between the structured and orderly world built by humans and the destructive chaos of nature and the elder gods.
And to that city of conflicting factions enters Garrett. Superficially, he’s a money-grubbing mercenary crossed with a stoic antihero. He’s Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds meets Batman or The Crow; the puckish rogue who doesn’t want to get involved meets the brooding rooftop savior. The key overlap between those two archetypes is self reliance and independence from anyone and anything. He’s not aligned with the Hammerites (“fanatics make unreliable friends”), dismisses the words of the Pagans, turned his back on the Keepers years ago, and even finds himself avoiding allegiance to any city watchman. It is, in a way, his lack of commitment to others that defines him.
But perhaps what makes him thematically interesting is his role as a thief. To the world of the Hammerites and the city watch, to the world of man, a thief is a source of chaos. He operates outside of their rules and laws, and causes havoc and trouble by upsetting the system. But even though he operates outside of that system, the fact that he steals valuables and recognizes their worth means he still respects that system in a way that, say, The Trickster God does not. He operates outside of yet is still dependent upon the systems built by men. So the Keepers use Garrett as someone who is a natural bringer of balance between Hammers and Pagans; as someone who simultaneously subverts the same system he’s advocating. This bringing of balance becomes even more apparent when you view Thief and Thief 2 together – the first showing Garrett besting the chaotic Pagan god intent on destroying the world of man, and the second showing Garrett defeating an extremist hammerite sect intent on destroying the world of nature.
And this is a bit of a tangent, but this science versus nature, individual versus society, order versus chaos thing has always reinforced this game as a sister project to more Irrational-y games in my mind. 0451 games, for lack of a better geneology. System Shock 2, which shared an engine and a few developer credits with Thief, had Shodan (who was purely technological and represented the tyranny of selfish individualism) face off against The Many (a purely biological antagonist that represented an extreme sort of socialist anarchy). The player, with their cybernetic implants, was a middle ground between the two – both biological and cybernetic, both an individual and member of society. And Bioshock had the failed libertarian empire that prized the individual, while Bioshock 2 was about the tyranny of a socialist matriarch who prized the collective. And, yes, you could carry this theme of middle-ground-i-ness forward into Bioshock Infinite, but at that point it becomes sort of insulting. I know I’m sort of reaching to connect these games, but I always thought it was sort of cool that they all were thematically related in addition to tracing close developer ties. If nothing else it highlights a trend of games arguing for centrism, which makes for an interesting contrast to games with moral choices trying to push players to extremes. Anyways.
Thief is a weird game. It’s full of beautiful little touches: I love how when walking your view bobs with the clatter of each footstep; it keeps your movement and your noisiness at the center of your attention to add to the tension of sneaking. Or how Garrett can only hold an arrow fully drawn for so long before his arms get tired. Fumbling in your pockets for the right key to open a door provides a simple but lovely source of panic that would be automated in most modern games. It’s the sort of thing that seems trite until you’ve snuck your way across a large room to a door only to realize you’re now standing in bright light with no idea what key if any will open it. And it’s a subtle touch, but I love how you can’t really save money between missions; it gives a sense that despite collecting all of this fancy loot Garrett is still struggling to get by (especially as operating expenses from his next job eat most of his profits from his last job). The game also employs a sublime emphasis sound, which is the only way to detect guards not in your line of sight. In an age of Splinter Cell optical cameras that let you look under doors and Dishonored or Batman style night vision modes that let you see through walls there’s something that feels more… I don’t want to say more real, but more relatable, more human about a having to stop moving and just listen for footsteps or the chatter of guards to determine if you’re in danger.
At the end of the day there really aren’t many stealth games like this built today, and that gives Thief a place and a relevance even after all of this time. Thief 2 and Deadly Shadows helped refine the game’s mechanics, but what’s there to love about Thief has been there since the beginning. So how will the new Thief reinterpret the old Thief and modernize its mechanics while still keeping the soul of the original? We’ll find out soon!