Experienced Points: Cutscenes Stole my Thief Game

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Mar 4, 2014

Filed under: Column 55 comments

The more I think about it, the more I can’t escape the notion that most of the problems with this new Thief come from the overbearing focus on the story. The linear levels. The lack of a “jump” button. The removal of rope arrows as a general-purpose tool. The crescendo music when you knock a dude out. It’s all an effort to keep the player constrained and make them behave as “cinematic” as possible.

It’s one thing to waste money on features that nobody wants. (The requisite multiplayer deathmatch we get in so many games comes to mind.) But it’s another thing to waste TONS of money on something that requires you to replace beloved actors AND remove key gameplay elements.

And to rub salt in the wound, the story is broken, disjointed, thematically confused, and needlessly cluttered.

It’s heartbreaking. And the real shame is that the money-men will probably learn all the wrong lessons from this. Instead of realizing they’re not in the movie business, they’ll probably figure the audience just doesn’t want “old school” stealth games.


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55 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Cutscenes Stole my Thief Game

  1. Wulfgar says:

    New layout is little off on Opera with Presto engine. And links are “not blue enough” in my opinion. Maybe its my display settings.

    1. rofltehcat says:

      Yeah, I can’t say I like the new “last post” button either. It looks a wee bit obtrusive :(

      1. Thearpox says:

        My problem with the layout: wastes vertical space. Vertical space is a luxury on today’s websites for some reason, they are always so cluttered. I often just have to adblock half of the menus to have some vertical space. I would hate to see this place head in the same direction.

        There’s plenty of horizontal space, at least on my computer. AFAIK, the problem with people not using horizontal space has to do with people using smart devices, but really, this is just a shame. Or, we could go back to the way it was. (Please?)

        1. Humanoid says:

          Looks particularly weird in this specific case because the previous post it links to has a weird title, what with the two colons and the odd line break that makes it look like two links. I have the Diecast post open in another tab and it doesn’t look quite as bad. That said, if we’re keeping this change, then some slightly darker shading for the ‘buttons’ might be nice.

        2. allfreight says:

          Isn’t the amount of vertical space in a web browser technically infinite?

          1. Thearpox says:


      2. Cybron says:

        I agree, not a big fan of it. It jumps out a little too much.

    2. TMTVL says:

      Looks the same to me, using either Firefox or Midori.

  2. empty_other says:

    The color palette is pointlessly washed out, without using the color (or lack of it) to set a mood or show the change in the city over time. It’s just pale.

    Huh? Really? Except for the two maincharacters face and outfit (i miss the brown outfit) i wouldnt call it washed out. A lot of blue, but that is to be expected on a moonfilled night, or generally to show that it is night without turning the screen black.
    The game starts with a beautiful orange sunset, and end with a sunrise. A foggy sunless day on the island level, but not the ugly type of washed out distance fog thats so horribly included in games like Dishonored and Skyrim (and the reason SweetFX is popular).
    The one thing they did right was the graphics… To bad the levels were unneccessary small. And audio was always botched. And voice acting was botched too.

    1. X2Eliah says:

      The levels could probably have been bigger if not for the last-gen consoles.

      1. FRI says:

        Thief 3 was on xbox and had big levels.

        Also as Chris said, you can easily make levels WAY too big which (especially in a game based around set fixed level constraints) can make them lose focus. This occurs in the original Thief a few times.

    1. Shamus says:

      Yeah, I saw that pop up just after my column went up. 27 layoffs in a company of 500. That’s sad, but it’s actually a lot better than what I was expecting.

      1. Chris says:

        My fear is this is the quote-unquote “usual” adjustment for a post-project studio that is no longer finishing up a major title, and a bigger riff is around the corner once we have more than a week’s worth of sales figures and corporate decisions can be made at higher levels.

        1. aldowyn says:

          I’m thinking the same. Less than a week after release is a *little* early to start laying people off.

          I wonder if they have any DLC plans?

          1. Humanoid says:

            Is it early or late? I’d say it’s not unreasonable to guess that layoffs are as much put back as much as forward due to release schedules, bad PR just before a product launch reflect much more poorly on the product than ones a week after, further feeding the development hell perception. “Hey everyone, Thiaf is such a mess that they SACKED all these workers before the game is even done!”

            It’s not hard to believe that in terms of actual work, it could have been done much earlier. It might sound a bit harsh, but some of these people may have actually been keeping their employment more for the sake of keeping up appearances than anything.

        2. rofltehcat says:

          I agree. And the chances are that the ones fired aren’t the ones responsible for some of the bad design decisions, just the ones that had to carry them out while working 60+ hour weeks..

          1. HiEv says:

            From what I understand, testers are often fired at the end of projects and later rehired in order to keep them from getting benefits that long time employees should get.

            1. The Rocketeer says:

              On the other hand, testers aren’t usually even considered real employees, and QA personnel/layoffs may or may not figure into that number whatsoever.

            2. Peter H. Coffin says:

              Testers are usually contract employees (“temps” to the rest of the world) and they simply get “your assignment has ended”, with or without notice, and it’s *not* even unemployment, as the temp firm is simply looking for a new assignment for them, legally. Especially bad if your temp firm is just you and more or less only exists to provide labor to that company a la “1099”. Such is modern IT….

    2. Jokerman says:

      Its hopefully they stick around as they are, they could do something with a sequel. Or make another Deus Ex.

  3. spades says:

    Would the drawn briefings hold up today in modern games? I really liked them in the originals but I don’t know if they’d be nearly as attractive to modern day audiences.

    1. spades says:

      Also, I miss the cool quotes we used to get in the old mission briefings.

      1. Flock Of Panthers says:

        I thought they were perfect in Gunpoint (2d stealth hacking noir).

        Briefings are entirely done as text messages with clients. Plenty of character, tense decisions and roleplaying, all without a single voiced line.

        It’s not AAA, but it is recent and I think it held up perfectly

        1. Karthik says:

          I remember enjoying the Gunpoint briefings, but only for being amusingly self-aware. For example, I can recall a list of conversation options at one point that went:

          1. To who?
          2. To whom?
          3. [Hang up]

    2. rofltehcat says:

      I guess it depends. For indie or mid-low budget games I certainly wouldn’t mind it but if you try to go AAA and capture every possible demographic possible then I guess you basically have to go for “high tech mocap cutscenes enacted by awesome actors!!!” even when they suck big time.

      And Shamus’ analysis in the article is interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the mocap used more often just because it is the new cool thing to do.

      1. The Rocketeer says:

        Well, I mean, aside from the fact that mocap isn’t new or cool.

    3. Ilseroth says:

      While I don’t want to put words into Shamus’ mouth, I think he is saying less that they should use the exact same system, and more that they should reevaluate the value of full Motion capture scenes in a game that is inherently focused on gameplay as opposed to narrative

      The Thief series has always been about the gameplay, and the story is hinted at. The new game plops it in front of you with expensive flourish. the problem is, if you are hinting at a story people can fill in the details themselves when necessary and can actually add depth to the game.

      It is kinda like the difference between an author that writes a whole paragraph to describe something that could have been summarized in one sentence. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes pontificating on details is important, when the book needs it. But when you are better suited to a gentle nudge and a hint and you spend page after page describing it, you are wasting resources.

    4. Sleeping Dragon says:

      I think they could work because they offered a really nice mix between background information with light lore and information directly relevant to the mission. Bearing in mind that I actually like the lore bits I would absorb it together with things like do I expect a lot of guards or secret passages or undead. And then I think there was also a text version if you wanted to skip the briefing cutscene itself.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Aaaand an email typo again, I hate the keyboard at work.

  4. Disc says:

    Well, this confirms it for me. If I’ll ever buy it, it’s from the bargain bin.

    1. Decius says:

      My recommendation for fans of the previous Thief games is to wait until it reaches 33% or 50% off.

      I like 90% of the gameplay more than I liked the second-worst Thief level. (Which one exactly that was is up for interpretation).

      1. Kagato says:

        “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve!”

  5. aldowyn says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking that the story from the old thief games didn’t sound like it was exactly top-notch.

    Even aside from Thief, I definitely agree that a lot of games do focus too much on the story. Sometimes it works fairly well – Tomb Raider comes to mind as an action game with a fair focus on story – but if your story isn’t good it’s just putting a spotlight on something that doesn’t deserve it.

    1. Amazon_warrior says:

      Is this perhaps what happens when big AAA studios finally hear that “players want stories!11!!”? We don’t get better stories per se, just an uncomfortably tight focus on their usual hackneyed scribblings, made all cinematic-like because everyone wants to do cool stuff like in the movies, right?

  6. MrGuy says:

    One other thing about “full motion and facial capture cutscenes” is not just that it’s overly cinematic. Thief is one series where it’s potentially playing against the intended mood and tone of the series.

    This is Thief. It’s supposed to be dark and shadowy. You’re not supposed to see everything in crisp detail. That’s sort of the point – Garrett’s not always sure who he’s talking to or what they look like. There’s a reason he (and the keepers) wear hoods.

    I can’t seem to find the post in question (I THOUGHT it was somewhere in Pixel City, but apparently not) where Shamus had a really good illustration on why less detail and darker images can be a powerful style, letting the viewer’s mind fill in the detail. It’s a black square with two glowing eyes, and he points out how “hey – can you make it so we can see the creature better?” doesn’t actually make sense. It ruins the mystery without adding anything significant over letting me picture it.

    Thief is EXACTLY the series that can get away with shadowy, half-seen faces in dark corners and blurry motion seen out of the corner of your eye. Going to painstakingly detailed, lovingly crafted movements and richly rendered faces isn’t just a waste of time and talent, it’s a takeaway. No one spends hundreds of thousands on perfectly animated eyes and lips working together and hides them in the shadow under a hood. Nope – those shadows need to go!

    Near photo-realism has its place. Just not in a series where some mystery and letting us fill in the details with our minds works so well.

    Disclaimer – haven’t played the new game – just read the reviews. I’ve played the three earlier ones.

    1. AdmiralCheez says:

      Close. If this was the one you were looking for, it was actually under the Good Robot series.

      1. MrGuy says:

        That’s the one – thanks!

  7. MrGuy says:

    And the real shame is that the money-men will probably learn all the wrong lessons from this. Instead of realizing they're not in the movie business, they'll probably figure the audience just doesn't want “old school” stealth games.


    It’s actually a really hard problem to solve. There are so many factors that make each video game unique from every other game. There are so many things it has in common with others. It’s not just genre. It’s franchise. Graphical style. Storytelling approach. How the world is bit. Whether it’s gritty and realistic or non-sensical and fun. How was it marketed? What time of year did it launch? Was it similar to other games that launched around the same time?

    When a game fails, why does it fail? And why do other games that it has some but not all things in common with succeed? Which differences are the ones “responsible” for the failure compared to other games? And which don’t matter?

    It’s impossible to study scientifically, especially since “success” is dependent on timing and context relative to the industry.

    Fortunately, humans are really good at storytelling. We can weave any set of facts into a story that “feels” true, and other people will think feels true, as long as it’s told convincingly. Regardless of whether it’s right. It even has a name – the narrative fallacy.

    And a story about “stupid consumers claimed they wanted something but apparently they didn’t” is a heck of a lot less of a threat to high-level executive jobs than “the thing that we think is our special sauce and the core of what we think makes people want our games is actually not what people want” as a story. Guess which one’s being told at Edios right now?

    1. Most people in suits making decisions about gameplay strike me as people who miss the point of something they don’t understand.

      They appear to understand sports, since no sports game I’m aware of turns scoring points (even the final one) into a Qucktime event. Making key parts of a game lack player participation smacks of thinking that people playing a Madden game love watching a touchdown, ANY touchdown, and everything that leads up to it is just boring button-mashing.

    2. FRI says:

      You don’t seem to understand how businesses work, then attributed the already loose science that is economic theory to what little you knew.

      And then somehow had this belief that you are also smarter than analysts who apparently can’t see through things as well as you can even though they’re paid 9-5 jobs with overtime to do this for public companies.

      1. Ivan says:

        So… would you like to do something productive and explain how it is then? I have to agree, the people in charge of these major decisions are obviously out of touch with their customers. That much should be apparent from the fact that they took a niche game like Thief, blew it up to AAA standards, and marketed it to the wrong crowd.

        The only other explanation is they were hoping to sell the game by mooching off the name recognition of Thief to lure in loyal fans, while at the same time trying to draw in the AAA crowd that is easily impressed by cinematic and flair.

        Either they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place, or they were just trying to trick as many people as possible into buying something they didn’t actually want. Either way this is no way to run a business.

  8. Diego says:

    This article is too much truth at once :~

    Poor Thief franchise, it will have to wait many, many years until it’s handled correctly.

  9. RTBones says:

    I think part of the reason the story gets focused on so much is that, in contrast to the previous three titles in the series, your movement is more restricted as you point out. As a consequence, you are focusing (no pun intended) more on the story and WHERE the breadcrumbs are leading you than you are in HOW you are following said breadcrumbs. The problem gets exacerbated because game studios these days have this “game.must.equal.movie!” fixation.

    In contrast, if we accept the argument that the story in the first three games was less than stellar, the flaws get overlooked because you have that freedom to attack a particular problem in pretty much any way you see fit. The story gets more of a pass because your attention is elsewhere. Put another way – the point of the journey was not necessarily TO arrive, but HOW you arrived.

  10. Stormcaller says:

    It’s odd…

    I’m really enjoying the game (on PC), it doesn’t feel that linear to me (there are often multiple paths to the same place). I am only (just) up to the third chapter, but have also done the bank heist mission. The first level (The fall?) was very linear, but it was a tutorial, and as such no complaints…

    overall it is a good follow on to Thief3.

    To be fair I guess, the other advantage from my point of view is it was the cheapest AAA game I have ever bought, it is <$50 on Steam… that is unheard of here in Aus, usually it would be ~$100-$120 on release.

    Oh and as a comment -the music peaks when you are spotted, not when you take someone out, at least that’s my reading of it.

    1. X2Eliah says:

      It gets somewhat worse in ch. 5/6, and downright bad in 7/8.

  11. Benjamin Hilton says:

    And the real shame is that the money-men will probably learn all the wrong lessons from this. Instead of realizing they're not in the movie business, they'll probably figure the audience just doesn’t want “old school” stealth games.

    What baffles me is that this same phenomena can be observed across the board in Game publishers. I understand that there is clearly a disconnect between these higher-ups and the gamer, and most likely the developer too.

    But do these people never read columns on the subject? Never actually look at what the consumer is saying? Is there not one plucky intern at Big Corp. Inc. that gets up the courage to point out the obvious?

    Do they think we are just to stupid to know what we want out of a game?

    I just…. I can’t…..my brain is full of fuck.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      I don’t think most of them do, and there’s probably some kind of marketing wisdom floating around that consumers don’t really know what they want. Another thing is that it does require a pretty serious investment of both time and actual brain computing power to get into what those columnists are saying. And video games are a difficult market, there is a lot of audiences that are often in disagreement with each other: broshooters, JRPGs, “casual games”, “artsy games” to name just a few are all to some extent polarizing, and not just in term of “do I like it” but in terms of whether some of them are games at all or if they’re aiming for what games “should be about”. It’s small wonder that people who are very much there for their business acumen have difficulty wrapping their heads around it.

      Also, to actually play a game often requires a time investment, the elements are introduced gradually and I wouldn’t be surprised if the higher ups were often presented with a similar scripted or otherwise pre-filtered content that we see at shows, at best they probably see someone else playing a sequence, and watching and playing are different things.

      On the other hand it is very easy for devs to be too close to the project, it is their lovechild, their baby, the work of months or years of sweat and tears. It doesn’t do wonders for objective judgement and they also often lash back at consumers who dislike their product (In the Guise of the Wolf or Mass Effect 3 anyone?).

      1. Benjamin Hilton says:

        I suppose you’re right about this. I know that it’s really a matter of perspective.

        It just seems that perspectives such as those offered on this site are both numerous and obvious enough that I find it odd others don’t see them as well.

        Then again I am fully aware that I could just be spending time in an echo chamber.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          It is a bit of that, especially here, check the official game forums, the game’s Steam forums, Reddit or even Escapist forums. Sure, it is pretty easy to find like minded people but I would probably call it a minority. I’m not even saying that “rampant fanboys are taking over” or anything like that, it’s just that we tend to go more in-depth in our analysis of the game. And while you could argue that this is what would actually make it worth it for the corporates would you trust a couple hundred strangers on the internet nitpicking at the game (that’s assuming you’re even aware of them) that pushed several milion units, or the people you know you employ for their marketing and business degrees, acumen and experience together with people who actually made the product?

  12. I was going to say that in a major release, modern audiences would not accept 2D-rendered cutscenes that basically amount to paper cutouts talking against hand-painted backdrops. That the gaming community is very different than it was back in 1998, and that our standards of today would not accept it.

    But then I remembered another, newer game: Mirror’s Edge. Mirror’s Edge had cutscenes between missions that were basically paper cutouts interacting in a stylized 2D backdrop. That was just five or six years ago, and while the game got a lot of flack, I don’t recall much of that being for its cutscenes being relatively lo-fi.

    Standards HAVE changed since 1998. I’m glad you pointed out that NewThief’s story wasn’t all that bad compared to the originals, because I’ve kept reading about the original Thiefs being these timeless classics of storytelling and I’ve played them thinking, “Where is all this amazing storytelling? I don’t see it anywhere!”

    But I do think that NewThief could have used 2D cutscenes and been accepted by its audience today. I don’t think that would be too much of a stretch.

    1. Peter H. Coffin says:

      GW2 does cardboard against a backdrop for exposition, and it’s out for 18 months. Different kind of game, of course, but..

  13. Uh…correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t this the first in the series to have fully developed side missions – quite a few if I’ve heard correct – that are completely divorced from the story? Just sayin…

  14. Tudor says:

    After playing the first 3 in the series and reading the latest discussions regarding the game, I eventually ended up in spoiler territory and found out that the new Garrett is not the old Garrett.

    Now, after digging up more info, my personal opinion is this: Early in development, the game was suppose to continue the events after the end of Thief 3. But somewhere along the way when they decided to make it a Reboot, they threw everything overboard and said that what happened in thief 1,2,3 was 300-400 years ago. So we have Garrett, a master thief that has the same training as the old one[but now he got it from thin air, not from the keepers] a sidekick that he met just like the old Garrett did. Maybe that is why the whole story is mess. If they had continue from where Thief 3 left off and build up in the same timeline, it might have made a lot more sense. They had a giant opportunity to make a better story than any of the other 3 previous games. And they…blew it :(

    Like many others, I am not of the opinion that the stories in Thief were the pinnacle of storytelling. In my view, when it comes to story Coherence, my rating would be Thief 1<3<2. Metal Age had the most coherent story, but its partly because they could focus on Karass and the Mechanists being the main bad guys. Although I could never forget nor forgive Viktoria’s hypocritical behavior when she says “You know nothing of suffering, you pathetic man-fool!” – “Erm? You took my eyeball out, decided to use it to invade the city with man-rat-monkey beasts, and I stopped the whole invasions, solo[and with one eye]. And you try to tell me about suffering?”

    Regarding the cinematics, I loved the cut-scenes from 1 and 2 more than the one from Deadly Shadows. They could have gone the route of Blizzard, who had excellent cinematics with Warcraft 3. And that was out for quite some time, so they could have used the same technique. But..they didn’t :/

    1. Amazon_warrior says:

      Although I really enjoyed the Garrett/Viktoria dynamic in T2, you did just make me giggle. And it’s true – it’s very odd that Garrett in T2 has apparently forgiven Viktoria for what she did to him in T1. He really doesn’t seem the forgiving type. Maybe having that nifty mechanical eye helped him get over it.

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