Thief: An Appreciation

Thief-Deadly-Shadows-J-For-Jetpack-300x225The recent trailer-that’s-not-really-a-trailer for the long-awaited fourth instalment in the popular Thief series didn’t do much to get me excited (it’s hard to get enthused about a cheap-looking live-action sequence featuring plastic pearls, accompanied by a slick Hollywood voiceover). Yet it did get me thinking about the previous games, particularly the last title, Deadly Shadows, and why it is going to be such a tough act to follow – but more on that later. Let’s start at the beginning.

The original game in the series, Thief: The Dark Project, was developed by Looking Glass studios and released in 1998. Its focus on stealth-based gameplay made it a huge hit in a market saturated with trigger-happy Doom clones. Players took control of master thief Garrett and had to guide him through twelve levels that ranged from richly-appointed mansions to gothic cathedrals, via subterranean tombs and caverns.

ThiefJForJetpackThief: The Dark Project sold two million copies in the first two years of release and influenced a generation of stealth games. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. Garrett was a smooth, smart-talking anti-hero with a fast hand and a faster mouth. The story that unfolded as the game progressed was fresh and inventive. The world that the game took place in was beautifully detailed and atmospheric; a city of gothic spires meshed with steam-driven technology – to simply label it as being steampunk would be a disservice.

Thief: The Dark Project was technically advanced, using lighting and sound to impressive effect. Most importantly though, the gameplay was fluid and absorbing. It was a huge amount of fun creeping through gloomy mansions, evading the guards and snatching loot from right under their noses. There were other ways of having fun too: dispatching a guard with a headshot from thirty yards never failed to satisfy, while it was also amusing to simply stand in the shadows and listen to the guard’s scripted conversations.

Somehow, Looking Glass had succeeded in making a game where it was actually more fun to try sneaking past a guard than it was to engage them in combat (which was deliberately designed to be clumsy and difficult). It was a watershed moment: the realisation that it was possible to make an enjoyable first-person game that didn’t involve killing monsters with big guns.

Thief Screen J For JetpackThere were a few flaws of course; a game with as troubled a development history as Thief: The Dark Project would inevitably end up with the odd glitch here and there. The AI of some of hostile NPCs was patchy (you could make a hell of a racket and have a guard come running, only for them to dramatically announce “Guess I imagined it!” when they failed to find you hiding nearby). The visuals were adequate but strangely lacked the finesse found in the rest of the programming; even at the time of release they looked a touch dated.

Perhaps the greatest flaw was the game’s habit of slipping into D&D territory with certain missions that sent you into the catacombs beneath the city, where you’d encounter zombies and other critters that you could only really deal with via direct combat – a strange shift of emphasis from the stealth elements that the developers worked so hard to focus on, and perhaps an indication of concern that more standard ‘action’ sequences were required to keep some gamers happy. It was no surprise that these sequences were the weakest in the game.

ThiefIIJForJetpackThese flaws didn’t stop Dark Project from being a huge success and to this day it is rightly lauded as one of the defining PC games of the 90s. The inevitable sequel that appeared in 2000, Thief II: The Metal Age, largely followed the same winning formula; aside from a few minor tweaks, the gameplay mechanics were almost identical to the original game. Pleasingly the developers responded to criticism from fans and placed the emphasis more firmly on stealth in urban environments, toning down the supernatural elements. Missions were larger and more expansive, the AI was sharper and the story explored the secretive organisations of Garrett’s mysterious world in more detail. The scripted dialogue from NPCs was more expansive and frequently amusing: “I’m telling you, the only stench heartier than your rotting burrick of a master is the liquor on his fetid breath. If he comes near Lady Van Vernon again, we’ll boil his knackers.”

Metal Age was another commercial and critical success, yet despite this Looking Glass experienced financial problems and folded in 2000. For a while it seemed that the series would come to a premature end, until Ion Storm picked up the reigns and developed a third instalment, Thief: Deadly Shadows (dropping the ‘3’ from the title in order to reach a new audience). The game was released in 2004 and marked the franchise’s first appearance on a console, the Xbox version being developed and released simultaneously alongside the PC version.

ThiefDSJForJetpackThief: Deadly Shadows was effectively a reboot of the series, reintroducing the character of Garrett and his shady world. Yet the development team – many of whom had left the doomed Looking Glass and joined Ion Storm – were careful to ensure a great deal of consistency with the previous games. The same voice artist was used for Garrett’s monologues and the  story focused around the same factions that appeared in the earlier titles.

Four years had passed since the release of The Metal Age, and Ion Storm took full advantage of technological advances. The result was a game that, for the first time in the history of the series, actually looked the part – the gothic grandeur of Garrett’s world had been successfully realised with beautifully atmospheric visuals. The overall emphasis was still very much on stealth, with numerous tweaks and improvements (such as the inclusion of a 3rd-person viewpoint) meaning the gameplay was more absorbing than ever before.

The most considerable difference with Deadly Shadows was the addition of a free-roaming structure that allowed the player to explore Garrett’s city between assignments, which added a whole new level of depth. This explorable area was disappointingly small however, and the novelty of breaking into the same house for the umpteenth time soon wore off. It was a perfect idea imperfectly executed.

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Deadly Shadows received plenty of critical acclaim, yet the fan response was more muted (the limitations of the explorable city, and the return of the supernatural elements receiving the brunt of the criticism) and the game mostly failed to reach a new audience. Ion Storm folded a year later.

Deadly Shadows would most likely have faded into obscurity, yet ten years on it still lives vividly in the memories of so many gamers, and largely for one particular reason: the Shalebridge Cradle.

If Ion Storm deserve credit for one thing concerning Deadly Shadows, it’s for bringing back the supernatural elements that were mostly discarded in Metal Age. It was a risky move; the fanbase had always disliked the inclusion of the undead, and the previous development team had failed to effectively combine these elements with the series’ stealthy gameplay. The general assumption was that the two factors were simply not compatible.

The Cradle changed all that.

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“If there’s a way to cram more misery into one building’s history, I can’t think of it” – Garrett on the Cradle

The beauty of the Cradle is that it comes out of nowhere. You’re not expecting it. It’s practically a game-within-a-game, a level that in terms of atmosphere and gameplay is utterly different to the rest of Deadly Shadows – not to mention the previous games. It’s a total game-changer. And it’s the one time that the series’ supernatural elements and stealthy gameplay were woven together seamlessly.

The result was – is – one of the most brilliantly designed levels in the history of video gaming – a masterpiece of suspense and nerve-shredding tension that evolves into a deeply terrifying psychological assault on your senses.

The brilliance of the Cradle lies in the way it toys with you. You’re its plaything. The first stirrings of unease begin with the pre-level voiceover: Garrett’s monologue lacks its normal confidence. He sounds almost anxious, and this unease transmits to the player. You’re drip-fed information, learning that the Shalebridge Cradle – a sprawling, baroque mansion – used to be both an orphanage and a mental asylum, before it was mysteriously gutted in a fire.

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The level sinks its claws into you slowly, using the game’s lighting and sound mechanics to superb effect. Electric lights crackle into life, casting flickering shadows before stuttering out again. Distant echoes resound through the deserted halls, as if the very building is moaning with some forgotten anguish. Yet even more impressive is the psychology that is at work. For the first half of the level, nothing happens. The more you expect some nightmare to lunge out of the shadows, the more the game holds back. It keeps you right on the edge, stringing you along like a puppet. And all the while, the tension slowly builds until it’s almost suffocating.

Gradually you start to find items that reveal more about the Cradle’s dark past. A note written in a child’s hand reveals that the Cradle was both a mental asylum and an orphanage at the same time. This sort of chilling revelation is just one example of the level’s masterful storytelling. Rather than telling you the story, it gives you the ingredients to piece it together yourself. It makes for an immersive and deeply unsettling experience.

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Rather wonderfully, it’s when you power up the generator and the lights come on that the real nightmare begins – in a delicious twist of irony, the Cradle is even more terrifying in the light than it is in the dark. This is the point when you’re confronted with the inhabitants of the Cradle. Watching these masked, straight-jacketed monstrosities writhing in their chairs, illuminated by stuttering lights, is enough to shred whatever nerves you’ve got left. And that’s before they start chasing you through the Cradle’s warren of passages.

The further you delve into the nightmare, the more you realise that the Cradle is alive – that the evil perpetrated within the mansion’s walls has evolved into a sentient presence. The more you try to escape, the more it drags you back. And even after you finally do break free from the sickening miasma of memory and pain and suffering, the horror of it all stays with you.  Ten years on, I can still vividly remember one particular moment that left me physically shaking. I’ve never been more unsettled by a game.

From the subtle psychology, to the brilliant use of lighting and sound, to the absorbing storytelling – the Cradle is video gaming as art, and the main reason why Deadly Shadows stands – in my mind – as the most accomplished of the Thief games.

Whether the upcoming Thief 4 turns out to be a worthy addition to the series remains to be seen (although early signs are promising), but one thing is for certain: the designers will have to pull out all the stops to create something as chilling and memorable an experience as the Cradle.

Thief 4 official website is here.

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One Response to Thief: An Appreciation

  1. Good post! But I think you’ve missed out the crucial element that made Thief so compelling – the storytelling. It had those wonderful voice-over animated cut-scenes but what really sold it were the snippets of info you picked up over the course of the game – the discarded scrap of paper, overhearing a seemingly meaningless conversation or turning on a gramophone and trying to listen while wondering whether a guard could hear it and was sneaking up on you. That’s what made the franchise a truly compelling experience.

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