In the past I’ve made a few posts (here, here, and here) about funny or amusing moments in Thief 3. It might sound like this game is silly, but that’s only because I’m highlighting the weak spots. In truth, Thief 3 is the most frightening game I’ve ever played. I’m not kidding. This game can be truly alarming and terrifying in one or two spots.
One of the reasons for this is the nature of the game itself: You are supposed to hide from stuff. There is something primal about hiding in the shadows and trying not to move as a foe passes by. They are going to get close enough that you could reach out and touch them, and you know that discovery means death. There are foes that you cannot beat in combat. There are foes you are not intended to fight. There are undead in the game that act a lot more like the movie undead and less like the Doom-style target dummy zombies. They are tough and hungry and tend to keep getting up. Your only hope is to hide from the suckers.
This is very different from games like Resident Evil or Doom where you have to fight things. With a little meta-game thinking, most players realize that anything a game throws at you is something that you can defeat one way or another. You have one form of interaction: You shoot it. Guns make you feel safer, even if they aren’t very effective.
But there is one point in the game that really pushes the experience over the top. Suddenly, the game changes gears and throws you for a complete loop. The result is amazing.
Part of the reason this section of the game works so well is because this isn’t a horror game. It isn’t trying to scare you all the time, so when it happens you aren’t desensitized. It’s unexpected.
Spoilers follow. If you think you might play someday, don’t ruin it for yourself.
For most of the game you are dealing with guards and thugs. They are tough and dangerous, but they’re human and you know how to deal with them. Things can get a bit hairy if they start searching for you, but it’s nothing like the trip you take to the Shalebridge Cradle.
The Cradle was once an orphange. Then part of the building was converted into an asylum / hospital. Later it caught fire and a lot of it burned down. In the words of Garret, “If there’s a way to cram more misery into one building’s history, I can’t think of it.”
It has a bad reputation among the townspeople, and at some points I heard them telling each other spook stories about the place. Then the game actually sends me there. The building is stone and iron, so the shell is still there, and parts of it weren’t fully consumed by the fire. Still, I have no idea what to expect. Certainly there aren’t guards inside.
It builds slowly. I get there and it really does seem deserted. I spend half an hour exploring the outer area, sneaking around. The game has me rattled already and I havn’t seen a single threat. I hear movement and knocking, but it always seems to be coming from around the next corner.
Rainwater flows freely through the ruined structure, filling the place with rot and mildew. The Cradle itself has a malevolent presence. The buildng is a house of suffering and horrors, which have taken root and grown over the years. There are dreadful rooms in there. Rooms of bars and spikes and chains and cracking plaster. Places where the doctors tried to come up with new treatments for their insane patients. Wrapping people in scaling towels. Restraining chairs. Electroshock. Prison doors. Lobotomising proceedures. Cages. Skull-drilling. Restraining tables and rust-colored tubs.
Former patients roam the hallways. They wear rotting restraints and sacks are tied over their heads. Are these animated corpses? Ghosts? Or are they just just part of the bad memories of the cradle that I now inhabit? What am I supposed to do with these things? I don’t even have the nerve to get close enough to try and knock one out. Not that I expect that to work. The metal “medical” gear affixed to their heads looks more painful than anything I might do to them. My only choice is to hide.
As I crouch in the dark corner of one of the treatment rooms, I think about what a long way I am from the silly castles and noble houses I’ve been robbing. I want to go back. I want out of this place.
I find what I’m looking for, which is good because I’m keen to get out of here. The Crade really does seem to be alive somehow, and as I’m sneaking around, avoiding the nighmarish inhabitants, the Cradle is watching me. It wants to keep me.
Then things get really weird…
The longer I stay in the Cradle, the stranger things get. Eventually I find myself in the “memories” of the building itself – in the past. Before the fire. I can see the Cradle as it sees itself. I can enter old areas that have long since been reduced to rubble. I become like the other inmates, and no longer have my weapons or tools. Unarmed and helpless, all I can do is hide and run from the strange, shadowlike ghosts of the former staff.
It’s amazing how well this works. It’s far more frightening than anything I’ve seen in Resident Evil. It’s worse than Doom3, which had huge, loathsome beasts. But facing huge monsters with a shotgun isn’t nearly as as frightening as being defenseless against the unknown. Being in “hell”, surrounded by goat heads and spikes isn’t as disturbing as being in a very plausible approximation of a mental asylum that uses middle-ages era “medicine” on the patients. And combat is less terrifying than being weaponless.
You couldn’t make an entire game out of this experience. It only works because the player has spent the last twenty hours of gameplay dealing with more conventional dangers. If I spent twenty hours in the asylum, by the end the inmates would be more annoying than anything else. They would be roadblocks on the way to whatever puzzle I’m trying to solve at the moment. You can’t keep the scare-o-meter cranked to 11 for an entire game, and you shouldn’t try.
There is a lesson here for people who want to scare the audience. I hope they catch on. I’d like to see more games with this much skill at setting the mood.
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