Chris and I have both picked up the new Thief game, which officially launches tonight. Over the past week we’ve been seeing early leaks, sneak peaks, and even embargo-defying live streams of the game. This title has every indication of being shockingly awful. I guess I’ll find out for myself tonight.
In the meantime, Chris played through the original and broadcast an Errant Signal about it:
Thief is such an odd specimen in the history of games. Campster gives the game 15 minutes, and there are still a lot of things about the game that he didn’t mention. You could probably fill an hour-long documentary on the game if you set your mind to it. It was unique then, and it’s unique now.
This is a game where the creators knew their limits and designed around them. Thief was made during the heyday of FMV games. A lot of people (myself included) thought that FMV looked pretty cornball, even when it was the hot new thing. On the other hand, CGI cutscenes of the day, while better, were still stilted and awkward.
Thief took a really interesting approach to the problem. They used live-action actors in silhouette against hand-painted backgrounds. While it might not look amazing today, it’s aged better than just about anything else from the same time period.
Chris was right about how the game feels sort of timid with its stealth gameplay. They gave Garret a sword and there were spots in the game where combat was more or less unavoidable. The tutorial spent quite a bit of time teaching you how to sword-fight and murder people with bows. To the people of 1998, this game looked like a “first person shooter”, and I always got the impression that the devs were afraid of people getting bored if they didn’t get to kill something every couple of minutes. I think it’s pretty well understood today that players will happily avoid combat as long as the stealth mechanics are done right, but back then this probably felt like a huge gamble. In Thief 2 they finally embraced the all-sneaking approach, but it wasn’t until Thief: Deadly Shadows* that Garret finally stopped carrying that stupid gigantic sword around.
* Can we just call this Thief 3, since that’s clearly what they should have done in the first place?
I also really appreciate what Chris said regarding mobility. Other stealth games want the player to be as mobile as possible, letting you hop around in the shadows so you can ambush dudes. But Thief’s system of making you more visible when you’re moving forces the player to hold still and wait for foes to come to them. It’s one of the things that make the game so darn tense and scary.
Yes, the game really struggles in places. I don’t know that I’d indict the levels as “too big” but rather “too unfocused”. There are a lot of long featureless tunnels, nonsensical areas, and a few unfortunate spots of artistic overreach. Some of the things they were trying to portray (like the submarine in Thief 2) required more detail and complexity than their given engine could really deliver. The Dark Engine was fine for man-made spaces (the cities in Thief and the Von Braun sections in System Shock 2) and turned ugly when used for organic things. (The “woodsie” parts of Thief or the Bio-tunnels of The Many in System Shock 2.) There were a lot of areas of the Thief 1 levels that felt like mazes for their own sake: No loot, no detail, no lore. Just a lot of walking and arbitrary no-source lights.
Thief 3 solved one problem while giving us another. The engine was finally able to keep up with the twisting rounded spaces they wanted to make. We finally had focused places that were full of detail. Spaces made slightly more sense and the lighting was finally able to deliver visuals in keeping with the gameplay and atmosphere. At the same time, levels were ruinously small, smothering the gameplay and choking off player movement. It was tragic. For me the ideal Thief game would be Thief 3 with all the balkanized levels stitched together to remove the loading screens. That was a sweet spot visually, and I’d be happy to stick with those 2004 graphics but with 2014 memory constraints. It would give us the best of both worlds.
Sixteen years. If Thief was a person, it would be ready to graduate from high school next year. It’s a shame about how this reboot has turned out. As Chris pointed out, this series occupies an odd space on the family tree of games. It has one sibling (System Shock 2) and one real descendant (Dishonored) and little else. Maybe we could count Deus Ex as a second cousin. It’s always been more of a cult-following type game than a blockbuster, which means there isn’t a lot of room for it in today’s market of huge budgets, linear environments, and trailer-focused game design. It’s entirely possible that the Thief reboot was doomed before they wrote the first line of code. Even if the early buzz is wrong and the game is fantastic, I’m not sure there are enough people out there who want a tense, slow-paced game of un-empowered sneaking and bloodless infiltration.
Then again… Judging by how many people just want to rob everyone blind in Skyrim, it’s possible there’s a really large untapped market for open-world larceny.
EDIT: Rock, Paper, Shotgun has praised the game. RPS is a hard-core PC gaming site and they’re apparently longtime fans of the series. I hold their opinion in high regard, and John Walker has proclaimed the game to be Not Terrible, with occasional moments of Brilliant. So there’s hope.
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