In 1998, game developer Looking Glass Studios released Thief: The Dark Project, a PC game that was critically acclaimed at the time and that has held and grown a loyal, dedicated fan base since. The game drew inspiration from an earlier work of Looking Glass’, Ultima Underworld, but unlike that role-playing game, Thief had no role-playing statistics and mechanics at the forefront. Instead, Thief took on the more immediate, accessible design of an action game and, like Looking Glass’ other titles, added depth to this otherwise simple setup. Thief was dubbed a “first-person sneaker” at the time, as it was first-person and part of the game’s design was to sneak by the artificial intelligence (AI). But Thief was, and is, much more than a stealth game. Its level design, narrative design, and atmosphere make it a unique, unparalleled experience. This is the case not just for gaming, but for entertainment in general.
Key to Thief’s design is that the stealth gameplay takes a backseat. Thief is a great ‘stealth’ game precisely because its main focus is not on stealth. The requirement of players to remain undetected and avoid confrontation is used to complement and enhance the greater goal of the game, which is to explore and discover. This is a basic goal, as most games arguably involve exploration and discovery. But Thief does not just involve it to some degree—it executes the sense of exploration perfectly. The stealth aspect forces players into a ‘fly on the wall’ position, from which, lurking in the shadows, they can explore.
This design complements the narrative and story aspect of Thief. Thief’s story is formed through ‘narrative caches’ throughout the game’s missions. These are either journals or other ‘readables’—books, scrolls, letters, or pamphlets lying around—, conversations between AI that players can overhear, and paintings and other artwork on the walls. Much of Thief’s story is conveyed through paintings and other artwork, such as statues, that players will see decorating manor-houses and other buildings. The game’s subtle method of delivering its backstory adds extra weight to the game’s fiction. Rather than something directly fed to the players, the fiction looms in the background, part of the thick atmosphere that overhangs the entire game.
Thief does have ‘briefing’ cut scenes before each mission, narrated by the player-character Garrett, but these serve only to set up each mission. The backstory of the gameworld is conveyed through the aforementioned narrative caches.
The level design is excellent. Most of Thief’s levels are large and labyrinthine in structure, and allow players to explore as they please, in non-linear fashion. A few of the missions I highlight in these blog entries are like ‘mini open-worlds’.
The game series’ fanbase has iterated on all these design principles excellently in fan-created Thief missions, or ‘Thief fan missions’, created using the game’s editing tools, and distributed through Looking Glass’ fanbase (ttlg.com). (I consider many of these fan missions to be among the greatest entertainment and narrative experiences I've encountered, and will highlight some of them in this blog as well.)
The Thief series consists of four games. The focus of this blog will be on the first two: Thief: The Dark Project (1998) and Thief II: The Metal Age (2000). Both titles were developed by Looking Glass Studios, and are the series’ best. The third game, Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004), is a mixed bag. It was developed by Ion Storm and had technical limitations and design fundamentals that gave it a lukewarm reception among the fans. One of its missions, however, will be covered in this blog, as it is one of the finest segments of the Thief series and is Deadly Shadows’ saving grace. The fourth Thief game, a reboot titled only “Thief” (2014), was released recently and developed by Eidos-Montreal. This game is not very good, was ill received by fans of the series (who had anticipated it with much cynicism in the first place), and will not be covered at all in this blog. (Indeed, this blog’s author refuses to recognize this latest Thief as a Thief game at all.) The fan missions covered in the blog will all be for the original two, Looking Glass-developed Thief games. For the blog entries, Thief: The Dark Project will be called simply “Thief I”, and Thief II: The Metal Age just “Thief II.” Thief: Deadly Shadows will be called “Thief III”.
With the formal introductions out of the way, let's move on to the story specifics. In the Thief games, you play as Garrett. When players first meet Garrett in Thief I, he is a stray child, who, in his own words, had no parents and had to keep “running messages and picking pockets to keep [his] ribs from meeting [his] spine.” But Garrett runs into an old man one day who is a Keeper. The Keepers are one of the different sects in Thief’s fiction, a group who remain hidden, read prophecies, use the “power of glyphs”, and try to maintain balance in the City.
“The City” is Thief’s setting. It is always and only ever referred to as “the City” in the game—there is no proper name. Thief’s world is a blend of many different eras. There’s medieval, Victorian, and even some early modern flair and style all mixed together in a fantasy world decidedly flavored steampunk. Thief I is mostly medieval, with a ‘dark middle ages’ vibe. Thief II is mostly Victorian, with art-deco style throughout. Thief III returned the series more to medieval fantasy, toning down the Victorian style of Thief II. But in all, Thief’s setting is fantasy, and best described as a medieval-Victorian hybrid with a little steampunk.
So you’re Garrett, in the City, and you learn from Thief I’s intro that Garrett got invited into the fold of the Keepers through the coincidence of bumping into one of them. From the Keepers, Garrett learns the “art of not being seen.” This learning process is the setup of Thief I’s training mission. Garrett could use this “art” of the Keepers to…be a Keeper. But he decides to ditch the shadowy organization and go out on his own, using the ways of the Keepers to be a thief. Thus begins the story of the Thief series.
Throughout his adventures in burglary, Garrett will deal with all the wonderful people of the City. One large organization in the City is the Hammerites. These are the religious people of the Thief universe, their order, “The Order of the Hammer”, being, essentially, the Thief world’s Catholic Church. They’re like technophiles, worshipping the ‘Hammer’ and all the tools for building and constructing, praising their “Master Builder” for delivering them from humanity’s dark, wild past. They wield huge, heavy hammers, which they will use to swiftly crush Garrett if they catch sight of him in one of their temples.
Opposite the Hammerites are the Pagans. In Thief I, players never see Pagans, though they read of them many times (and their mystique of ‘being unknown’ overhangs the atmosphere). In Thief II and III, players will see and interact with Pagans. They’re enemies to the Hammerites, as Pagans loath the constructs of civilization and prefer, instead, to live wild in the woods. As the Hammerites practice technology, the Pagans practice magic. They worship “the Woodsie Lord”, an ancient god whom the Hammerites call “the Trickster”. The Trickster is basically Thief’s devil.
It’s important to note that these two groups, integral to Thief, and especially Thief I’s backstory, are introduced gradually through the afore-described narrative caches. And it’s never cheap, because players never pick up a book titled “An Introduction to Hammerites”. Indeed, players are first introduced to the Hammerite vs. Pagan dichotomy via a painting in Thief I’s first mission. At the time, players don’t even know it, as they don’t know anything about Hammerites or the Trickster in the first mission. It’s an early, subtle introduction.
In addition to the Hammerites and the Pagans, there’s the star of the show: the City Watch and private guards. These guys are the guards players will see and hide from in most areas of the game. The City Watch patrol the streets, and private guards patrol manor-houses. Private guards and City Watch look and act very similarly. There also appear different ‘characters’ amongst the guards who serve as the game’s humor. There’s the slow, stupid guard; the straight-talking guard; the drunken guard; and others. All the guards and their dialog serve as comic relief. It’s amusing to hear guards mumble “must’ve been rats” or “just the wind I guess” whenever the player makes a noise, alerting them, but the guard gives up the search. Guards will also mumble to themselves things like “I haven’t had a thing to eat in days, when will they bring me my dinner” or “Someday I’ll show them all…someday they’ll get what they deserve.” One comic guard, named “Benny” by the fans, has some particularly funny dialog. Some guards’ conversations are done in classic straight-guy / funny-guy style, as one is from the very first mission of Thief in which two guards discuss going to “the bear pits.”
Then there are the already-introduced Keepers, who players don’t run into much, but who do get in touch with Garrett every now and then. They play their biggest role in Thief III. They have their prophecies, their glyphs, and their dedication to maintaining ‘balance’ in the City. They also always keep their eye on Garrett.
Thief II has a unique group, the “Mechanists”, an outbranch of the Hammerites and, as far as the Hammerites are concerned, outright heretics. I guess you could see the Mechanists as Thief’s Protestants. It’s thanks to them and their mechanical inventions that Garrett has to deal with security cameras and robots in Thief II. In the style of the series, these security machines are not just for gameplay—in all of the Mechanists’ devices there is evidence of their crazed religion, with the security bots spouting Mechanists’ “propaganda” and scripture, all recorded by the Mechanists’ founder himself. In most other games, security bots don’t say things like “blessed be the children of metal” as they patrol around—but this is Thief. Story and gameplay always intertwine, the two supporting each other; and hardly, if ever, in conflict.
Garrett, the player-character and “master thief”; the shadowy Keepers; the zealous Hammerites; the mysterious Pagans; the humorous guards; and, in Thief II, the crazed Mechanists; and also the City itself are the major characters of the Thief world. Throughout my blog entries, how the games introduce these groups will be an area of focus.
Lastly I want to briefly describe how a typical Thief mission begins. First, there is a mission “briefing.” No one is briefing Garrett—only Garrett speaks, talking either to himself or the player. Following this is the screen listing the mission objectives, and the option to change difficulty setting and to see the differing objectives for each setting (Thief’s three difficulty settings are ‘Normal’, ‘Hard’, and ‘Expert’). Following this, in most cases, is a menu that acts as a store—as if Garrett is buying equipment. You can either buy or ignore any of the equipment available, and how much money you have to spend depends on how much loot you got in the prior mission. After this, the mission starts. Throughout my project will be gameplay recordings and videos of the mission briefings.