Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Good Thief

Back in 1998 Looking Glass Studios released a game entitled Thief: The Dark Project.  I picked up a copy soon after trying out the free demo and played it to completion over a period of a couple weeks.  I want to say I enjoyed the game, but in truth I didn't really know what to make of my experience.  Thief is a weird game that defies easy explanation.  Sure, there are labels one could attach to it (such as steampunk, first-person, stealth-action-adventure, etc.), but much like the environments in the game itself these tags are little better that faint lights, pushing back the shadows in places, yet never giving a clear picture of the whole.

The inspiration for the game comes from a variety of sources.  The creative director, Ken Levine (who later went on to make Bioshock), has mentioned several noticeable influences.  Initially, he was intrigued by the idea of taking a game like Castle Wolfenstein or Diablo and fusing a strong narrative arc to it.  Originally, he played with the idea of a Cold War era parody involving zombified Soviet Russians, but soon ditched that in favor of a subversive take on the Legend of King Arthur entitled Dark Camelot.  The plan was to make it a first-person sword combat game, but while fiddling with some proof of concept designs the development team quickly realized that the stealth segments were by far the most exciting thing they had come up with.  Lavine particularly liked the idea of integrating certain aspects of submarine warfare into the overall design.  Namely, sound playing a key role as well as the concept of being very powerful when hidden, but extremely vulnerable when exposed.  Most of the game's 3 million dollar budget and two-and-a-half-year-long development was spend fleshing out the above elements along with enemy A.I. routines and line-of-sight mechanics.  It was truly a frankenstein creation, made up of disparate elements, that only really came together during the final few months before launch.

Calling Thief: The Dark Project a moody or atmospheric game would practically be an understatement.  This game oozes style and makes virtually no effort to explain its lore to the player in a clear or coherent way.  The closest it gets is with Garret, the protagonist, who delivers monologues that help bring context to the players actions.  They are useful, but the unreliable narrator trope is in effect here.  Everything we hear from the titular Thief is bent and blurred by his perspective on things.  Despite the player filling his shoes, very little is revealed about the character's life outside thievery.  He's an orphan, and was raised by a secret society (which he latter had a falling out with).  Again, like the world itself, the details are largely shrouded in darkness.

Cryptic in-fiction quotes appear at the beginning of each mission intro and offer hints as to what's going on, but they too are skewed.  The wider world is also a complete mystery.  The unnamed city in which everything takes place bears a lot in common with early victorian London.  However, there are paradoxically unremarkable bits of magic that pop up from time to time, whether it be undead or arrowheads infused with elemental energy.  Even "Burricks," burrowing theropods that belch noxious clouds of highly flammable gas, are treated with surprising aplomb.  As one poster put it on the official Looking Glass forums, "I have no idea what's going on, but it's awesome!"

If there's one place Thief does not shine, it's in the graphics department.  Technically speaking, the polygonal models were crude even by the standards of the day, and the load time could be atrocious for systems that only met the required settings.  To this day I find it really silly how guards always walk around with their swords about an accident waiting to happen...If I had to choose a game most deserving of a HD remake it would be this, especially when compared to the amazing visual work of games with a similar setting (i.e. Bloodborne and Dishonored).  Thief has three sequels, each of which marks a noticeable step down in terms of overall quality compared to the original.  That might sound like a controversial stance to take (after all, I'm sure Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows have their fans), but for me the first game was a vast and terrifying mystery akin to discovering some colossal abyss.  Rather than plumb the depths further though, the sequels chose to fiddle around with what had already been revealed, only making perfunctory glances down into the dark and shadowy places that lay beyond.  What treasures of the imagination remain hidden in those unexplored places?  A good thief would find out. 

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