Oops. Left for GDC and have been so busy working on the next video that I forgot to post this on the blog. So I’m fixing that now! Script below the jump.
So, the new Thief came out and to… shockingly disparate reviews. John Walker sung its praises on Rock Paper Shotgun, Kirk Hamilton was merciless on Kotaku, and scores on Metacritic range from a 90 to a 30. I actually took all of this as a good sign because it meant the game was, if nothing else, interesting. My fear was that the game would come out and be a piddling, milquetoast action romp that was in no real way bad nor good – those sorts of games are really hard to talk about. But a game that some people can praise loudly and a game that others despise? That sounds like a game worth at least taking a look at. So let’s start by looking at the game mechanically.
Now, I was under the impression that this was a reboot of Thief, going back to the drawing board and completely reinventing the franchise from the ground up. But at some point while playing I realized that it’s not so much a reinterpretation of Thief: The Dark Project. It’s more of a reboot of Thief: Deadly Shadows. I mean the color scheme has that desaturated oranges and whites cast against a dark bluish-purple tint thing going on. There’s a hub world that allows for incidental thievery and item purchases between missions. Levels are broken out with, like, a million loading screens that cut up the flow of things. There are occasional third person bits which were introduced in Deadly Shadows, and Garrett’s costume looks closer to the tight leather armor getup there than the more Robin-Hood-y outfit he wore in previous games. There’s even a level designed to be scary where we learn the secret past of a character, a clear nod to Deadly Shadows’ famously spooky Cradle level. Loot glint makes a comeback, and so does the lock picking minigame. Even Garrett’s protege, Erin, seems like she might be kind of a nod to the end of Deadly Shadows, where Garrett finds a young female apprentice. My point is that they didn’t go back to The Dark Project and completely reinvent the core Thief concept for 2014, they went back to Deadly Shadows and just tried to modernize it. And when viewed in that context a lot of the game starts making more sense and allows you to set your expectations accordingly. Deadly Shadows was after all the first Thief game ported to consoles, and 2014’s Thief aims to take that game’s foundation and bring it to a wider audience. And truth be told it doesn’t to a terrible job of it – mechanically, anyways.
For example, the lighting model is roughly the same as older Thief games. It’s designed to be a bit more modal, but in truth not much is lost. This Thief has three light states – pitch black, middle shadow, and visible white, which roughly correspond to the original Thief’s green, yellow, and red light crystal states. You’re still constantly monitoring your visibility and you still focus on moving from dark corner to dark corner. The only problem is that the yellow or middle shadow level used to be what took up the bulk of lighting conditions in previous Thief games, where here it feels far more black and white. What’s lost as a result are a few of those “can that guy see me or not?!” moments of tense uncertainty in dim but not dark lighting. While those were some of the more memorable parts of the earlier games the core of the lighting system remains intact.
Sound, on the other hand, has taken a bigger of a hit. The first two Thief games had a big focus on noise of any kind. You had to sort of develop over the course of play a matrix in your head of movement speeds and surface materials and how much noise each speed and surface combination generated to know how fast you could move without being detected. Even a slow walk on a metal grate would make loud noise while you could outright sprint on carpet almost silently. Here it’s a bit more simplified – running on pretty much any surface anywhere will generate attention, whether it’s on sheet metal or grass. And there are specific types of special surfaces – like broken shards of glass or pools of water – that always generate extra noise and require you to walk slowly on them. So that complex matrix of speeds, surfaces, and volumes gets boiled down to “Don’t run unless you want to risk attention” and “walk in water or on glass.” Again, the result is that the greyness and ambiguity is what’s cut out. In older Thief games there are scenarios where you find yourself inching along in moderate light conditions on a somewhat noisy surface unsure of whether the guard that’s 10 feet away and at a slight angle will take notice. This game plays everything a bit more modal; you know if you’re visible or audible or not. There’s not a lot of going back and thinking, “Oh, if I just moved a bit slower on that cobblestone” or, “Oh, if I’d just put my weapon away when moving in the light.” It’s a subtle difference, but it’s still one I felt going from old Thief to new Thief.
The sense that Garrett has a real physical body is maintained, and it’s something one comes to appreciate even more here than in the older Thief games. In a title so focused on whether you can be seen it’s important to feel aware of your body’s contours and movements, and this game carries that tradition forward in a really impressive way. Granted, it’s handled differently here – where The Dark Project gave you a sense of physical self by wrapping Garrett in collision boxes and bobbing the camera as he moved, this Thief emphasizes your limbs. You extend yourself to shut doors, lean over to extinguish candles, and bend up or down to open drawers or grab things off of desks.
And you’ll be opening a lot of desks. The stealing on display in 2014’s Thief feels more like dumpster diving than hitting a ritzy joint for all its worth. Old Thief was all about snagging the major prize and then maybe getting a few clearly valuable trinkets like gold, gems, or expensive booze along the way. The new Thief is closer to the Skyrim school of looting every container. Level objectives, at least for the story missions, are usually tied to a narrative conceit like exploring a house or escaping a burning bridge. All the while the player is ransacking drawers, chests, cabinets, and more for random trinkets and seemingly worthless baubles. Garrett picks up knives, spoons, scissors, magnifying glasses, inkwells…just about anything that seems to be worth more than a gold or two. You feel less like a master thief pulling off a major heist and more like a kleptomaniac who’s just stealing things on the way to the next objective marker. This is largely mitigated in the side missions, though, and levels like the bank heist feel distinctively more Thiefy than grabbing doodads while exploring a hauuunted asylumn oooooo.
But anyways, mechanically at least, it works. It is Thief. Or Thief enough. Thief adjacent. Maybe more Deadly Shadows than reinvented Dark Project, and that will probably upset a lot of hardcore old school fans, but like I said in the last Thief video – there aren’t a lot of stealth games that emphasize this kind of environmental and situational awareness these days, and even if it’s a bit more modal it still feels like coming home.
So if it plays Thief-y enough what’s with the wild discrepancy in scores? Well, it’s no secret that the game was in development hell for a long time, and the final release bears the weight of that. First of all, there’s the obvious, shallow, polish-y stuff – the game is frankly a technical mess. The sound mixing is absolutely abysmal and music will drown out any other audio. Cutscenes end with a loading screen so abruptly and without any sense of closure that you wonder if you accidentally skipped something. Bystanders will speak loudly over your cutscenes. There are marketing materials and loading screens that show throngs of people rampaging in the streets, but the in-game versions of these events boil down to two guys looking up at a lynching. And then there’s just weirdly unfinished stuff like this. It sort of feels like playing an alpha build or first playable of a game – all of the mechanics are there and you can see what they’re going for, but a lot of what goes into making a game feel like a finished retail title is missing. And I’m not one to champion polish, I think rougher hewn games are viable, vibrant, and valuable. But the AAA assets and atmosphere building tricks on display elsewhere distinctly clash with the stuff that simply feels not done, and the results really do undercut the experience of playing the game.
But it’s not just bugs and glitches that belie the game’s rough development. Thief feels like it’s got two, maybe even three different stories cut and recut into a single nonsensical one (at least as far as I can tell). It feels like the game originated as a sort of Chris Nolanification of the first two Thief games. You know, remove the color-coded red/green Hammer/Pagan paradigm and super powered elder gods and steampunk robots, as all that stuff’s too cartoony for our realistic grimdark reboot. In their place are two charismatic leaders: one representing progress and technology and the other representing tradition and religion. And because it’s a Chris Nolanification thing we need to awkwardly cram class warfare in there like in Dark Knight Rises, so one evil guy is a high minded baron who hates the poor and the other is an Occupy Stonemarket champion of the people. Where the Hammers and the Pagans represented order and chaos with Garrett stuck somewhere between the two, here it feels like the two sides are meant to be progress and tradition with Garrett randomly doing each favors? But it’s all conveyed so limply and without purpose that none of it really matters. Thematically, I mean. Baron Northcrest, often referred to as the “iron baron,” is building improvements like electric lights and security machines and has an army of automatons that he’s going to do… something with. And Orion is building a ramshackle boat the size of an ocean liner to… escape… the city he just took over with populist riots. And both of these guy’s grand plans are shown and never talked about again. Which tells me either they didn’t get finished or they were shoved aside to refocus on the other major plotpoint: Erin.
Erin as a plot point is… eeee. How to talk about Erin. Well, her plot’s themes seem to be about examining Garrett’s interpersonal relationships: How does a thief who puts a value on everything and keeps people at a distance handle caring about someone? Which could have been a cool idea the game could have looked at – instead of an epic about chaos and control, make it a character study of Garrett himself. How would he handle a protege? How much of Garrett’s relationship with Basso is genuine friendship and how much of it is just that keeping Basso alive is good for business? Where does Garrett’s standoffish desire for isolation come from, and does being alone help him be a better thief or is he a thief because he’s already so alone?
The problem is… well, you only really get to know Erin in the prologue. And in those twenty-ish minutes she kills guys for no reason, antagonizes the player, ignores Garrett’s advice, and basically goes out of her way to have no redeeming characteristics. Then she gets killed and becomes our woman in the fridge to motivate Garrett. Throughout the game she communicates in flashes to complain about how you used her in ways that are never really specified or make sense, and it’s hard to understand what the context for her anger is. Or care about it, for that matter. She shows up, is generally loathesome, then disappears only to come back at the end of the game and scream to you about how you used her. Which, Garrett actually hasn’t done in the plot that got released with the game. I see how it could have happened – she’s infused with the primal, he’s a thief who might want to make money on the primal stone without knowing he’s hurting Erin, and by being obsessed with money he’s hurting his friend unknowingly. Seeds for themes that, if developed, might have amounted to something but instead just seem nonsensical and out of place. Again, it’s empty. Hallow. Like The City itself, you can see the lairs here, each one built atop the last and resulting in an ugly, nonsensical hodgepodge.
And that doesn’t cover a million and one other minor things that make no sense. The sickness of The Gloom is a plot point that pretty much goes nowhere and does nothing but draw awkward comparisons to Dishonored. And Erin’s keeping a key in her hideout to what is obviously an abandoned Keeper library protected by glyphs in the bottom of a brothel. No part of that sentence makes sense, even in the context of the game. The Thief Taker General is handled so poorly that every time he shows up that it’s just comedic, he’s like Elmer Fudd meets Javert. Aaaaa, I’m hunting gawetts. And Garrett’s eye gets the magic focus power because he looked at the primal a little to the right? And I love fact that the Crippled Burrick is referenced, but does that make sense if there are no burricks in this universe? Then there’s this bit of the ending of the game, where we save Erin who is backed into a wall, then cutscene aaaand no wall and she’s hanging off the side of the building. Also, it’s nighttime and raining, then an explosion aaaand it’s a sunny dawn. Every one of these things chips away at the good will the mechanics have earned themselves. It’s not even so bad it’s good, it’s just nonsense.
And that’s why the game is getting so poorly reviewed in so many places. It’s just not finished, and a franchise generally enjoyed for its hammy but still thematically dense narrative is now a mushy pile of meaningless pap. And what frustrates me about this is that we so rarely get a glimpse into what went wrong, about why the game ended up this bad. What happened at Eidos Montreal may be the most interesting narrative to come out of this game. Any number of problems could have been the cause here – mechanics that didn’t work after lots of prototyping and vertical slices, technology issues that couldn’t be resolved or resolved properly, the game didn’t test well with audiences and developers were told to redo things, creative conflicts about where to take the story or gameplay, general management problems, or any combination of the above. But it’s likely we’ll never know. The games industry is so built around the control of their product’s image that it’s rare that we can find the truth about how our favorite games are developed. I’m certainly not advocating for the airing of dirty laundry at the first sign of trouble, but I think we err too far on the other side of We pretend that everything is hunky dory and putting on a happy face to ensure that the bullshit hype machine gets to keep making bullshit hype uninterrupted by the realities of development going on behind the scenes. It’s the sort of silence that shrouds Irrational’s shutdown in mystery; the sort of behind-closed-doors disfunction that becomes self-propagating because no one wants to or can talk about it in public. And because we can’t talk about what went wrong we can’t fix it or prevent it as developers and it becomes difficult to properly contextualize games as critics. And as Leigh Alexander’s piece on Irrational’s closure suggests, we ensure those going through similarly nightmarish projects feel alone. GDC is this week, and while all sorts of engine tricks, API secrets, and cool rendering technologies are going to be freely shared, I worry that “How to prevent a Thief” or “How not to become Irrational Games” aren’t going to be topics of open discussion but whispered gossip in back rooms. We are, in a very real sense, letting PR firms dictate the history of how games are made by preventing those who actually made them from telling their story.
And there’s enough goodness in this Thief that the story of its development deserves to be heard, so we can understand and contextualize its failures. I found myself enjoying playing through Thief. Much like Garrett himself, the game that could have been is shrouded in darkness but it is visible if you’re looking close enough. When the game works it works well, asking players to traverse spaces unseen for riches untold. The game was clearly made by people who cared about the original – Basso and Geneviere are together, kinda. Locations like Market Street, Stonemarket, and the Crippled Burrick show up. And the Baron’s safe combination is the release date of the original Thief. This isn’t some crass cash-in or slapdash rush job, but a game made by people who clearly wanted to carry the torch of the franchise forward. It’s just frustrating to not know what prevented the team from doing so.