Thief Autopsy Part 5: Change of Plans

 By Shamus Apr 9, 2014 66 comments

“Shamus, you’re just looking for things to complain about. You nitpick every little thing.”

I get that at least once during every one of my long-form write-ups / deconstructions. It’s that time again where I have to explain why we do this. So let’s get that out of the way:

This is not a review. I’m not ticking off points to justify my love it / hate it / 5 out of 10 stars conclusion at the end. This isn’t supposed to be comedy.

We’re beginning with the premise that the story here doesn’t work. If it worked for you, then fine. But that means that none of this applies to you. Understand that I’m not trying to make you dislike the story. I’m explaining why I didn’t like it. And I can’t boil it down to a single plot element. This story died the death of a thousand paper cuts, worn down by a constant barrage of cutscenes and dialog that failed to form a cohesive whole.

I imagine most of us have gone through a story and left with the impression that it was “off”. It didn’t resonate. It didn’t work. We never felt emotionally connected. Maybe bits of the story bother you later and you can’t figure out why. For me, it’s cathartic to dig down and figure out where the story broke. Where did I lose trust in the writers and begin tolerating the story instead of taking part in it?

Also, it’s worth noting that the writers spent incredible piles of money on these cutscenes. They devoured resources that might have been spent on other parts of the game. Maybe the levels could have been larger and more interesting if so much time hadn’t been spent shuffling them around as the story changed. Maybe we could have kept fan-favorite Stephen Russel. Maybe there would have been time to iron out the unforgivable mess of an audio system. Maybe the gameplay could have been more polished. Whatever. There’s a lot wrong with this game, and a fortune was spent making a movie the fans didn’t expect, didn’t like, and which didn’t even make sense. I’m not nitpicking “every little thing”. I’m nitpicking one massive thing. If the writers didn’t want us over-thinking the plot, they shouldn’t have spent so much time and money shoving it in our face.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get back into this game…

Garrett is on his way to rescue Jacob, one of Orion’s men. Jacob is in GreystoneA prison? (No, it's not.) The game hasn't explained what this place is, yet. but Garrett thinks he might know how to enter the keep. So we’re going to rescue Jacob in order to get the intel we need to rescue Basso.

Protip: Don't actually walk up to a peace officer and start yelling the kind of stuff in his face. Particularly if you live in a despotic police state and you're unarmed. Also, this peasant wants to "blacken" the city. Hang on lady, don't YOU live here?
Protip: Don't actually walk up to a peace officer and start yelling the kind of stuff in his face. Particularly if you live in a despotic police state and you're unarmed. Also, this peasant wants to "blacken" the city. Hang on lady, don't YOU live here?

On the way there we run into a riot. In this case, “riot” means five unarmed peasants shouting at three armed members of the watch. One of them is even a woman in quasi-Victorian garb who probably doesn’t pose much of a physical threat. Before now the town guards were a bunch of unaccountable thugs who could arrest or beat whoever they liked. Now suddenly these sad sacks show up and the watch is trembling in fear. I imagine this crowd was supposed to be a lot bigger in the design doc. Also, the peasants are pissed off about the Baron’s “machines”, even though his machines aren’t really a part of the city, barely show up at all, and have never hurt anyone.

The woman is giving a long, rage-filled speech against the watch, calling for violent revolution. The moment it ends she drops into idle mode. “I think a tooth is coming loose,” she remarks absent-mindedly to nobody in particular. The peasants continue to shake their fists at the oblivious guards while everyone stares at each other in complete silence. It feels less like a riot and more like a game of charades gone wrong.

That's the keep in the distance. The game doesn't explain what caused the explosion on the top floor like that.
That's the keep in the distance. The game doesn't explain what caused the explosion on the top floor like that.

About thirty seconds later we reach Greystone. It turns out Greystone is a plaza. Armed conflict has broken out, and there’s now violence in the streets. Or at least, there’s the sound of violence in the streets. We don’t actually see the fighting.

At the start of the last mission I thought Orion was just some kind of doctor / priest. If he had any followers at all, I assumed they were just the nurses tending to the sick. Then at the start of this mission the game revealed he has followers and I figured this was a small conspiracy of a few guys. Now just one loading screen later we’ve got a city-wide revolt going on. This isn’t just a few skirmishes with the watch; these folks are performing a full-on assault on the keep. From a distance we see an explosion rock the highest levels of the keep. Since the keep is supposedly impenetrable, I can only conclude the explosion was caused by something hurled as a long-distance missile. A trebuchet, maybe? I have to wonder where the rebellion got one of those, and how they managed to deploy it inside the city.

It doesn’t feel like this is a payoff of some earlier exposition. It feels like the storyteller forgot to give us important details about our surroundings.

Almost as soon as we start the mission Garrett concludes that Jacob is likely dead in the chaos. Therefore it would be smarter to visit the house of Eastwick, the architect who designed the keep we’re trying to break into. On one hand, this is a much smarter and more Garret-like plan than what we started with. On the other hand, I don’t understand why Jacob was mentioned at all. In the economy of storytelling, why have the protagonist formulate and explain a plan, then right away change his mind and go with something simpler? Why create this named character, only to have him die off-screen for no payoff? It’s like having a scene where Horatio Caine forgets his car keys and has to return home to get them. Sure, it’s realistic, but does it add anything to the story? Why did we sit through that long conversation between Garrett and Orion if most of it was going to be immediately rendered moot?

I can’t help thinking this business with Jacob is the leftover stump of some cut content. Perhaps there was another whole mission planned where we broke into prison to find Jacob was already dead. That would explain a lot. If we had another mission between Basso’s kidnapping and the uprising it might also help the revolt to seem less abrupt.


202020666 comments? This post wasn't even all that interesting.


  1. Ilseroth says:

    I’m going to go ahead and agree Shamus, chances are they didn’t have time or the budget left to make that content so they wrote it off.

    I actually picked up ESO and I am seeing the “cut/edited content” issues actually kind of frequently. I know about this cut content because I was actually in the beta and it is kinda interesting to see how messed up the story is.

    In the original version of the “tutorial island” of the Aldmeri Dominion you spawn on a beach in some wreckage post the beginning tutorial. This is referred to in conversation fairly frequently.

    In the second version you start on a boat, but otherwise it’s the same (they say they found you in the wreckage) and while this is later proven untrue it is explained away by another protagonist in a reasonable fashion.

    In the current version I played post launch you actually appear on a boat on a different island entirely (the island you go to after the tutorial island). One *not* currently going through shipwreck issues. Then, for some reason, a person tells you to take a ship (that arrives perfectly fine) to the original tutorial island.

    The issue is, people still talka bout how you were part of the shipwreck, even though you arrived from off of the island. Now the thing is, if you weren’t there in the semi-early beta you could just rationalize it by saying “well they are *assuming* I am from the ship wreck because it’s the only way I could be on the island right now.”

    But since I saw the shipwreck version I know it is weak excuses to cover for a previous version of the tutorial.

  2. papersloth says:

    The part about Jacob-related cut content has been confirmed in a recent interview.

    “The original plan was for Garrett to make it to Jacob in time and have a conversation that filled players in on the information they needed. Unfortunately, for poor Mr. Jacob, we had to kill him off before Garrett arrived.”

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “I imagine this crowd was supposed to be a lot bigger in the design doc.”

    Indeed.This is the most obvious in the hanging scenes,where you see this huge open square with a “crowd” of two people cheering.

    So what was it they were talking about new hardware improving realism?And unlike ai,number of NPCs you can cram in one place IS very dependent on hardware.

    • This is especially bad when you take it in the context of either Hitman: Blood Money or Hitman: Absolution.

      Both games have levels with massive crowds (Mardi Gras and Chinatown respectively). Since Garrett doesn’t even interact with these crowds, it would be even easier to give off the illusion of lots of people.

      Since IO Interactive is owned by Eidos and Square-Enix, it stands to reason their technology is as well.

      • Tom says:

        My first thought as well. After seeing those wonderful crowd scenes in the last Hitman, I expected everyone and their dog to jump on the gigantic-amorphous-crowds bandwagon, and was absolutely baffled when apparently nobody else adopted the technique. Is it secret code or patent protected or something?

        • It wouldn’t matter if it was, because IO Interactive is owned by Eidos, which also owns Eidos Montreal.

          Unless their tech and this game’s engine are incompatible, there’s no reason not to use Hitman’s crowd technology.

      • ET says:

        Maybe the corps involved are so huge, that the subsidiaries don’t know what tech each other is using?
        Yeesh. ^^;

        • Joe Informatico says:

          This is an ongoing issue in the industry, isn’t it? I remember a few articles recently (most notably Leigh Alexander’s piece on the shuttering of Irrational Games) noting devs are scared to talk to anyone outside their studio. The phenomenon could be so pervasive, devs in studios owned by the same publisher won’t talk to each other without direct permission from someone with high enough authority.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            It is an issue,yes,but even when the devs talk at length about how they succeeded,plenty still dont listen.For example,valve talked endlessly about their play testers,yet doing such thorough research for your game is still a rarity these days.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Yah, it seems to be really hard to do crowds well, especially without tightly-scripted action. GW2 finally got it after about a year of work post-release to adequate (not ever good, just adequate) performance even rendering what fifty characters (player or not) were doing all in the same area. It gets horrible if they’re doing anything particle-fueled, but at least crowded areas can be properly crowded now, instead of having everybody beyond 15 yards away culled out.

        • Duffy says:

          What’s interesting about that example is that besides rendering you also have to worry about communication bandwidth. Most MMO limitations have very little to do with rendering and more to do with User to Server to User communication bottlenecks. Instancing/phasing is a huge part of what makes most MMOs even playable with the kind of loads they are seeing these days.

      • spades says:

        Neither Hitman game was open world

    • harborpirate says:

      Total Conjecture: Their horrible sound mixing bug(s) could be the culprit in some of these cases. As soon as they dumped an actual crowd of people in these scenes, the crowd may have kept drowning out the dialog so that you couldn’t hear it.

      At some point, it hit the AAA game ultimatum: Ship Right Damn Now. Perhaps the only way to “fix” it was to just remove everybody that wasn’t supposed to speak.

  4. I’m going to be honest, you were paying much more attention to the story than I was. Hell, I didn’t even notice the machines that everyone was complaining about it the one scene they do show up in.

    And honestly, by now I already kinda gave up on the story by this point.

    • Aeillien says:

      See, stuff like this is *why* Shamus does this. Yes, fr most people, a story like this kind of flies under the radar. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it or notice it on soem level. The game feels bland, they don’t feel engaged, the game becomes forgettable. Games have several hooks they can make you intersted by: story and gameplay are two. The gameplay from this game isn’t fascinating enough to work on its own, and the story for most people is just going to be like . Analyzing why that is is worthwhile.

  5. Thearpox says:

    This is completely offtopic, but I am wondering if other people can see this comment.

    My school has the weirdest internet problem, (not really a problem since Tor works #longstory,) but I have decides to load up Firefox out of curiosity to see if the problem persists. And now instead of just not working, half the sites load fine, and half just give no connection. This is REALLY weird, so I am just checking if I can post comments.

  6. arron says:

    On the contrary, I like to hear why things don’t work..like the story. Shamus tends to justify his comments with evidence and offer how it could be improved, which is the best sort of critique.

    That’s the difference between fan-boy whining and someone who offers an objective assessment how it doesn’t measure up and how to avoid the same mistakes in future. So..go Shamus. *waves supporters flag*

    • swenson says:

      Indeed. As someone with an interest in writing, including video game writing, I think seeing how things went wrong is often as useful as talking about what was done right. Shamus doesn’t just talk about the surface elements like dialogue and obvious plot holes, he digs into the meat of plot structure and character development and all that stuff that isn’t noticeable when done well, but really destroys a story when done poorly. And he talks about why it failed (and how it could be done better).

      Taking as an example the Thieves Guild questline from Skyrim… when playing through it, I had a feeling of something being off about it, but it wasn’t until I read Shamus’ posts on it that I really understood it, because he was examining it on a much deeper level than I was. It’s educational!

    • syal says:

      I’m of the opinion that the best response to people saying you’re just looking for stuff to nitpick is “Okay”. Even if you really are, by itself that doesn’t have any bearing on the value of what you’re saying.

  7. Disc says:

    It’s good to know I’m not missing anything worth experiencing for myself. It’s a bit depressing too that there doesn’t seem to be much redeeming qualities to the story. I’m not even sure anymore if I’ll pick this up even from the bargain bin. Maybe if there’s a Steam sale for under 10€, but definitely not for more than that.

    • ET says:

      Meh, I wouldn’t even pick it up for that much.
      I bought each of the Hitman games for something like 5 USD each on a sale, and I was already disappointed with those stories.
      Stories, which although kind of cliche and contrived, were actually reasonably competently executed.
      Thief sounds like something that I’d hurl into the trash can after an hour, regretting my purchase.
      It’s a real shame too, because I absolutely loved the second game.
      I got it for free with my graphics card.
      Remember when people used to do that? :O

  8. This was one of the parts I played through on a friend’s copy. When walking past the riot, he pointed out a plaque on the wall besides the house. So, naturally, I went to unscrew it.

    All hell broke loose: the guards started chasing me – abandoning their post in the face of a riot – and the peasants – apparently scared of the idea of actual resistive actions – all ran away. Which is fine. It makes no sense in context, but you can see how it would happen from giving the same reaction coding to all guards and peasants throughout the game.

    What shouldn’t have happened was that, exiting and re-entering the area, only two of the peasants had gone back to rioting, and the other three were nonchalantly walking the streets. Does that happen if you don’t nick the plaque? Otherwise I’m rather baffled as to how they coded in the riot.

    • Naota says:

      I tried this very thing, had this very result, and came back three more times to scowl uncomprehendingly at the giant shiny piece of loot hanging right in the open under bright lights, watched by a literal mob. Around Chapter 6 they finally moved off when there were no more guards to hassle, at which point I immediately stole the damn thing before the game could put… I don’t know… a horde of zombies, burricks, or zomburricks in that location after another abrupt jump in timeline.

      • I got lucky, and managed to escape with the plaque alive first time. I think there’s a dim area right next to the plaque you can leap into, so nothing kicks off until you start screwing out the plaque, but my memory’s a bit hazy.

  9. Alec says:

    Call it nit-pick or long-form deconstruction.
    Either way it’s why I come here Shamus.

  10. Hitch says:

    I haven’t played the game, but it sounds like from your description that the game at one point included a “rescue Jacob” mission and they created the cut-scene to set that up. Then when the mission was later scrapped, they decided they didn’t want the budget for the cut-scene to go to waste, so they left that in with a bit of dialog to explain why you never do that mission.

    Which is why bigger budgets and fancier story telling with things like fully animated cut-scenes and voice acting don’t make for better stories. If the dialog and back-story were just text on a screen it would cost next to nothing to rewrite a segment like this to make sense. Then the money could be spent on improving the actual game-play segments. But that won’t sell these days. Or so we’re told.

  11. Tizzy says:

    About Orion and followers: it’s too bad. I think it could make for an interesting story to interact with someone and then find out later that they have an important following and are much more influential and dangerous than initially assumed.

    But the story has to support this, of course, not simply dump it on you, or it will feel like: “oh, yeah, we forgot to tell you earlier…”

  12. rabs says:

    There is a recent article on Polygon about the role of editors in games. It looks very similar to the analysis you are doing here.
    This game was missing someone like that, though it may not have been enough to fix what seems to be a rushed butchering.

  13. Decius says:

    It seems like the big problem here was scheduling: The plot had all of these levels that it needed, but the level designers didn’t have time/money to make all of the levels.

    Out of all of the things that one might underfund (in time or money), level design in a Thief game seems to be the second worst. Right behind AI.

    • modus0 says:

      It seems to me to be more an issue of the plot constantly being rewritten, changing what levels were needed, resulting in the team eventually having to just work with what they’ve got.

      The result was a disjointed hodgepodge with a lot of little necessities being cut due to budget/time constraints.

      If they do another Thief game, they need to ensure that there is ONE complete story/vision that never gets significantly altered by anyone. Also, they need to include a non-context sensitive Jump.

      • Decius says:

        The context-sensitive jump was clearly a choice made to make level design easier- you can’t jump around things unless explicitly permitted to, so the waist-high fences are guaranteed to work.

        I don’t think the plot was rewritten so many times that level design had trouble keeping up. I think level design failed to deliver on schedule (which is the SCHEDULER’s fault), and the plot was hastily rewritten to fit all of the levels that were going to be delivered.

        It’s pretty clear that there wasn’t one person in charge of all of the level design, simply because there is so much variation between levels; some of them exemplify multiple paths, while others exemplify linear design with several clusters but only one connection between clusters. (Ask yourself how many ways there are from THIS side of every given doorway to THAT side; if the answer is “one” for more than a couple of doors, then you are in a clustered level). And a few levels are so linear that it’s not even funny.

        • Naota says:

          It’s not just the linearity that varies, either. Some of the basic design tenets and goals seem to jump around at random as well. There are some missions where there are stationary guards under bright lights looking directly at the only way past, or standing literally with their backs to things like trap panels or tables full of loot. Other missions are entirely normal patrols, with space to sneak through, not requiring a water arrow or distraction bottle.

          Some missions are clearly designed intending you to blackjack guards, with the loons speedwalking circles around a pillar two feet from a safe the player is supposed to open. Others are completely fair about this, and will let you ghost through them and get all the loot.

          Some missions are tough and well lit, but let you water arrow some tenuous path through them if you’re feeling bold. Other missions have nothing but shielded lights everywhere, especially near stationary guards, leading to dead stops and impossible areas which nonetheless have loot in them.

          Oh, and the bottles. Some missions have breakable trash bottles placed near every corner for no apparent reason in or out of canon except somebody on the development team thought it was really cool you guys to imagine the player knocking them over and getting caught.

  14. Eric says:

    Thanks for the analysis Shamus. Your insight is always appreciated when it comes to game storytelling.

  15. andy_k says:

    I haven’t completely finished reading the article yet, or – for that matter – actually played the game, but I am going to publicly tell you exactly what I think about your article and the game because that is my right on the internet.

    I like your writing in general and think your write-ups / nit-picks / deconstructions of games are awesome.

    :)

  16. “Also, it’s worth noting that the writers spent incredible piles of money on these cutscenes. They devoured resources that might have been spent on other parts of the game.”

    Did they? I haven’t heard anything about this. Was there an article on the issue I’m not aware of?

      • I’ve seen that one. It never mentions anything about the budget allocations for the game in any way. It doesn’t even infer anything about how the game was budgeted.

        • Naota says:

          I don’t think anyone actually does, and this goes for most games out there. All we can do is make an educated guess based on what we know of the amount of time and effort required to put these things together. If making cinematics was cheap, the game wouldn’t reuse ones from earlier iterations of the story that don’t quite work, then fill in the blanks with extremely cheap still images run through a filter.

          It’s obvious though that a lot of time and money went into Thief’s cutscenes and scripted sequences. It’s the justification they used to shrink levels, restrict rope arrows to almost nothing, and constantly cut the player off from the loot they want behind one-way drops or windows. About the only thing we do know about the development hell Thief went through is that not too long ago (something like 10 months before release if I’m remembering right) they had the script, voice acting, cutscenes, and scene assets in order but no actual playable game, AI, or levels.

          If you consider that you basically need a small CG movie studio on hand to make the things, and they’re something the core audience of a Thief game doesn’t necessarily want or care about, plus the fact that they’re done so badly despite all of this… it’s not hard to consider them wasted resources.

          Also: full body motion capture is extremely expensive. It’s such a lavish and novel thing in the industry that the studio can basically charge whatever it wants to any prospective clients. Ubisoft has one here in Toronto, and along with its counterpart in Montreal it apparently services basically the entire country. The staff is gigantic; basically a whole other development studio unto itself.

          • Again, ya gotta source for any of this, cause there aint nothing I’ve seen of the cutscenes in Thief that indicate it took up more resources than any other standard AAA release.

            • Shamus says:

              I don’t have a source. If you want to argue that full-motion capture (where you have multiple actors performing on stage movie-style) isn’t any more expensive than what we were doing 4 years ago, then I can’t PROVE you’re wrong. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect this thing which sounds more labor-intensive, complex, which requires more people, and which was used to make more and longer cutscenes, to have eaten a significant portion of the budget.

              In any case, I was comparing to the old games, where cutscenes were short and produced on the cheap.

              • Yes, but it’s disingenuous to the say least to frame it as the cause of the game’s faults without evidence. Again, there’s nothing about Thief’s process that doesn’t sound bog-standard for the industry. Plenty – if not most tripA releases – use the exact same kind of resources to make their cutscenes without falling apart.

                In any case, it’s a weak justification for nitpicks, but it’s also completely unnecessary. This is your blog Shamus, you don’t have to qualify anything you put on it and your justification need not go any farther than, “This is my blog and I’ll nitpick if I want to.”

              • Starker says:

                Ironically, those cheap short cutscenes have stood the test of time far better than the fully animated Deadly Shadows cutscenes.

                It just goes to show that all the fancy technology is worth nothing when you fail to engage the players in the first place.

              • Scimitar says:

                There isn’t a whole lot of hard data I can find in a brief 5 minute google search on this, and definitely nothing about the specific costs for Thief, but this:

                http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/furniss.html

                mentions that “based on Nickelodeon’s model, a half-hour motion capture animation program could cost as little as $200,000 versus a minimum of $400,000 per episode for a traditional ccl animated half-hour program… Medialab… estimates that a ‘full body’ character can be animated for as little as $1,000 per minute; over a series of shows, the price can go even lower… She explains, however, that “these prices don’t include other production elements, such as backgrounds”; presumably, they also do not include post-production enhancements to facial features and other character movements. Also, most prices quoted are for the capture of a single character- typically a host on a children’s show who has no physical interaction with other characters, since it costs more to do that.”

                So, we can at least guess that at minimum it’s $1000 per minute per character, although probably more once we factor in things like backgrounds, interactions, etc.

  17. ZylonBane says:

    At this point I have to assume that you keep spelling “Garrett” wrong on purpose.

  18. Unbeliever says:

    Shamus:

    Are we going to get any more of your thoughts on Thief? It’s been awhile and I’d love to hear your take on the rest of the game…

    • Seemore says:

      Agreed! I have massive feelings about this game (mostly of disappointment) and I absolutely love your commentary. You’ve put into words almost my exact inner monologue as I played it.

      More please!

  19. D500 says:

    Yeah I’d also like to read more.
    It’s a good general analysis, even if points reaching even further (partially into the art and the storytelling 101 area) are not that explicitly applied you still manage to point out a lot of the major points that made the games storyline the mess it is at the moment.

    Many games suffer similar issues and have similar problems of the narrative dictating the gameplay or taking resources away from gameplay in an effort to improve the player experience despite the fact that the game does not manage to get the player immersed in the first place making the measures redundant.

    Splinter Cell Blacklist had a mediocre Storyline depite good gameplay and partially good level design, Hitman Absolution – despite having a good story – shoved story over gameplay, ignored crucial aspects of both the franchises core (in story and in terms of gameplay) and made several mistakes.

    But despite slight problems in those games mentioned above I have never (I mean really NEVER) seen a game that justified it’s gameplay restrictions (rope arrow, contextual jumping) with the point that “otherwise the story wouldn’t be so interesting/intense and the story couldn’t be told that well” and then manages to present such a clustered, broken and inconsistent story with a lot of loopholes and semi-contradictions as well as immersion-breaking scenes (which probably cost a lot, at LEAST as much as gameplay improvements would have costed instead), not managing to really immerse the player into it’s story, or even in it’s world whatsoever (almost no lore, just “mysterious” implications).

    So yeah, keep up the good work, I really like your analysis.

    A game can live with a mediocre story, the problem rises if the story is completely disjointed and not having a point and the gameplay is not good enough to make up for that inconsistent pile of information that can only be called a mess (sorry for my harsh words).

  20. Tim says:

    Hi, Shamus. Very interesting read thus far. Are you going to continue this autopsy?

  21. bob says:

    So did you end up like most?… Find the ending of mission 4 so unforgivably bad that you could just about muster the will to try mission 5 then stopped playing the game so no more autopsy posts???

    I would like to see you finish this series of posts….but for the sake of your own sanity I strongly urge you to prepare yourself for the shambolic shit that is mission 6.

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