I think one of my favourite franchises is Hitman. IO Software’s Hitman franchise has never let me down because it sticks to simple mechanics: here’s a map full of routes, weapons and obstacles to overcome on your way to an assassination, choose your method. There’s an enormous confidence not in leaving that freedom to the player (though more recent instalments offer more optional clues or guidance) but in knowing that each level can be replayable at different levels of self-imposed difficulty. On top of that, ‘Hitman’ is always hilarious, because much of its charm lies in the sheer seriousness and dignity with which it tries to show its black humour even with complicated systems where “make it look like an accident” becomes pure slapstick.
The veteran of stealth games, however, is Thief: The Dark Project. It’s a well-known story that it grew out of a project called Dark Camelot where the implementation of combat was proving so difficult for Looking Glass Studios that they opted to make their protagonist someone who, barely able to defend himself, had to rely on cunning and stealth to achieve his goals. Not that the game doesn’t have its sense of humour, like Hitman — in fact, its medieval/steampunk setting would fit right in with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It’s impossible not to be fond of Garrett, a cynical thief whose main motivation for stealing from the rich, churches and other powerful institutions is literally to pay off his landlord.
Its legacy has been reflected mainly in Dishonored (2012) and Dishonored 2 (2016) — the latter, sharing Stephen Russell’s fantastic voice in clear homage — as well as the first Assassin’s Creed or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. Together with Metal Gear Solid (1998) and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (1998), they establish the three pillars on which the 3D stealth genre is based, but with the particularity of their first-person perspective. Few games can boast such an influence, although the saga has not found its footing even after two sequels and a reboot.
I must admit that the first time I played it I didn’t know it had cinematics: the incompatibility of the video format is something that still remains in the Steam version, only fixed thanks to a patch from the fan community that, in turn, has some problems with the textures of some objects. The truth is that this mod community is very active, only at the level of DooM (1993). It should be noted that the most commercially widespread version at the moment is called Thief: Gold, which, in addition to including three new levels — ‘Thieves’ Guild’, ‘The Mage Towers’ and ‘Song of the Caverns’ — slightly modifies four others — ‘Down in the Bonehoard’, ‘The Sword’, ‘The Lost City’ and ‘Undercover’ — from the original 12.
Our main objective is to use our tools, coolness and cunning to infiltrate various maps undetected, steal down to the cutlery and complete small objectives, no certain surprises awaiting us. Difficulty levels add a number of differences, such as the minimum amount of loot needed to steal or its location, as well as something as important as avoiding harming enemies. It is a strength of the game to bypass combat this way, at best allowing us to knock our human enemies unconscious, but the easiest mode allows us to kill without mercy, as long as the terrible combat system doesn’t make us despair.
Clearly its appeal lies elsewhere. There is nothing quite so satisfying as, hidden in the gloom of a room, switching off the torch in a corridor and passing safely under a window to another corner, from which to watch the guard patrolling the instance, whistling nonchalantly. It is a game that, above all, rewards patience. I am not the only one who felt some disappointment on successfully completing the first level and finding myself in a second level where the first enemy consists of zombies. The reason for this is quite obvious: that sense of outwitting the patrolling guards is shattered when faced with creatures that, while magical, lack any illusion of intelligence. I don’t care if a zombie detects me, I won’t hear an alarming warning that I’ve been detected but a grunt that I’m indifferent to, and I’ll run past it towards my target without bothering to stay hidden.
It’s that reactive element of the enemies patrolling the maps that makes it so much fun. Listening on the other side of the door for someone who has heard a noise, standing very still in the darkness of a corner and watching them walk past until they lose interest in looking for us. There is a very pleasurable feeling in showing the courage to respond to these threats with all the caution in our power. It does not detract from the fact that the system has many flaws of, shall we say, “plausibility”: grass makes less noise than tiles, a guard is not alarmed by a door that has just opened next to him or one of those extinguished torches or the absence of some object that was right under his nose. But it has always been a question of illusionism. Nobody wants a game to be 100% “realistic”, but to be coherent and stable enough to maintain the fantasy. Just like in a dream.
The thing about Thief is that, like all good games so dependent on their mechanics, it needs to exhaust all possibilities. That means that as soon as we get used to how it all works and understand it, we encounter a new obstacle that obfuscates the mastery we’ve acquired. The evolution of the maps and different missions takes the rogue’s fantasy to the ultimate consequences: traps, betrayals and the need to be well prepared for any eventuality.
The fact that there are no markers to indicate the objectives, but rather poorly drawn illustrations that offer vague clues as to what awaits us in each mission is one of its most notable aspects. These become more and more abstract until the final illustrated map (which has to be seen to be believed, really) and work on a design principle of subtraction: we know less and less and are forced to venture further and further. The absence of directions implies a greater capacity for observation to overcome levels in which we will spend at least an hour just trying to explore the boundaries that compose it and starting to grasp a small portion of the mechanics and layouts necessary for our goal… if we get to see our goal in these first few playthroughs and don’t have to rely on secret passages or trigger specific events to clear a path for us to follow.
The first map (after the tutorial, which includes a basketball court!) ‘Lord Bafford’s Manor’ is the most straightforward. Here’s a mission to break into. Steal a key from the drunken guard, enter through the underground shaft, emerge inside the manor’s cellar, advance carefully to the first floor and take a bejewelled sceptre as a trophy. Leave the mansion and you’re done. It’s a jump without a net, but a very clear and simple way to understand the game. It is also the first and last ‘conventional’ level because, from here on, no job will be as straightforward and the descriptions and objectives will change and evolve.
As I mentioned earlier, the second map, ‘Break from Cragscleft Prison’, revolves more around the fantastical. We progress through an abandoned mine (or rather, with zombies) and ascend to a prison where we have to find and free a certain individual, Cutty. However, Cutty is dying of pneumonia and he tells us about evidence in the guards’ barracks which is leading to treasure. Cutty dies almost instantly, but now we have to change our plans.
The search for that treasure leads us to the underground crypts of ‘Down In The Bonehoard’. This map is the one that introduces the traps and touches on something that the previous mission in the mines already hinted at: the total distrust of the drawn maps we start with, making us rely on the maps that we, as players, will have to make in our heads or with pencil and paper to understand the mechanics of each mission properly. Here, with a greater emphasis on climbing and jumping, as well as orienteering with our compass, is where the game starts to up the ante.
‘Assassins’ is a great level. You start selling the stolen items from your previous adventure when an arrow visibly pierces the shop and kills the shopkeeper. Outside, voices argue about whether you are dead. Garrett wonders who these people are who have come to kill him and decides to follow them. After a while of hiding in shadows and corners, the assassins enter Ramirez Manor. Garrett decides then and there: why not teach the owner of this mansion a lesson and steal all the valuables in the house? The mission has changed its objective three times, instead of starting with the main objective (rob a house) it has created a motivation that the player has experienced first hand. In addition, the challenge of robbing him instead of simply taking revenge by murdering Ramirez shows the rogue nature of the character and is more tempting and appealing to the player.
The most memorable map is ‘The Sword’, whose influence can be traced even in games like Dusk (2018) and its Escher Labs. It is a constant surprise where the dimensions and nature of space defy the logic previously presented: doors that lead nowhere, gardens that grow out of walls, corridors that twist, an upside-down room. An event similar to the appearance of SHODAN in System Shock 2 (1999) takes place here: after having solved half of the game and even particularly complex challenges, a plot twist leads us to rethink not only the story but the type of job we are participating in. But, in addition, this has a profound impact on the player, as in both cases the approach to what comes next becomes different. In other words, familiar with the environment and gameplay, the narrative development dynamites the ground beneath our feet and forces us to rethink how we are going to relate to the map during the second half of the game.
Of the maps that the Gold Edition adds, the most reviled is ‘Thieves’ Guild’ for its sheer length that forces the player to spend a lot of time in the sewers where orientation is more difficult, but I think it is another, ‘The Mage Towers’ that is the most boring. Firstly, because it requires a much more linear approach (each of the four towers must be unlocked in a specific order) and, once inside each tower, we must overcome a challenge related to a specific element (water, fire, air and earth) which are tedious.
‘Undercover’ is another particularly curious map, in that the infiltration and stealth element is, at first, left to one side: we enter the Hammerites’ temple in disguise, where we can move around relatively freely but not steal anything in front of the many party members walking the corridors and rooms. Our objective is the talismans that will open the cathedral in the next map (only one talisman in the Gold version) and here our level of roguery and observation is pushed to the limits. We have to find five switches hidden in a particularly baroque fashion, activate them all in under five minutes and stand on a platform holding a sacred hammer to extend a bridge that leads us to our objective, protected by a spell that can only be removed by reciting a text from a scroll. Once we’ve got our loot, we have to flee from the depths of the temple to the outside, with guards on the lookout.
I think my main problem with ‘Return to the Cathedral’ is the sound: constant tinkling, mumbling and moaning zombies make it quite difficult to locate enemies with your ear if, in addition, your target in this mission occasionally whispers to you. The Eye, the main macguffin has a life of its own and is somewhat melodramatic, so it is of little help in what should be as simple as entering and exiting a cathedral only to find that you must go deeper and deeper into the cathedral. In a game where ambient sound is vital, this map gets really annoying, but I suppose it makes some thematic sense — after all, The Eye is the kind of Lovecraftian item that shouldn’t fall into mortal hands, and so carrying it around with you makes you want to shoot yourself and get it over with.
From this mission onwards, everything that follows is not just a spoiler, it’s also a turn of events where our abilities stop being really useful and we have to start interacting with the game in a different way. Unlike other games that design their final stages to be the ultimate test of mastery of their mechanics, Thief decides that, narratively, what makes the most sense is to be completely overwhelmed and for the player to stop relying on the security they got from staying in the shadows and going stealth.
Garrett’s change of attitude contributes a lot. Throughout the game we’ve seen ourselves in the shoes of this arrogant, individualistic petty thief who, as a matter of Fate (with a capital ‘F’), finds himself outclassed for the first time. All the skills that made him the best at his job have led to his downfall and now, wounded in his pride and his physique, a cinematic shows him terrified, in full panic attack, completely at the mercy of his enemies, used. A thief who has been robbed of his dignity. This is what the game has been about, from its origins in a bad combat system and a focus on being unnoticed: we are vulnerable and alone in the dark, surrounded by alien forces that overtake us.
It is here that the Dark Project of the title makes sense: a struggle between the pagan forces of Nature and the technocratic order of the Hammerites that our godfathers, The Keepers, observe from afar using us as just another pawn. It turns out that being “in the dark” is not a position of power, it is (also) a way of keeping us ignorant. In this conflict we are not stakeholders but forcibly involved, and furthermore none of the participants seem to have any sympathy for us, which contributes to the amoral condition of the story. Thief: The Dark Project is, after all, a fantasy film noir.
We owe much of today’s concept of “environmental storytelling” to this game and its map design and differentiation of zones and architectural styles that inform the player and force us to think about how to navigate the maps. Being a Looking Glass Studios game, the documents we find or the casual conversations of the guards we overhear are not just there for decoration. In many cases, it’s essential to understand what they’re talking about and apply it to take our objectives. This is not to say that some of the guard conversations are not just elaborate pranks to waste our time. I admit that the first time I played it, with a very limited knowledge of English, I found it impossible to appreciate the work they contain and the questionable (but charismatic) dubbing of the voice actors.
One of its main designers, Ken Levine, talked about the “active stealth” factor, a difference between the idea that the character simply waits for his opportunity and the fact that we are the ones who create the opportunities. To do this we have multiple tools at our disposal and it’s rare that you don’t need to use them all at various points in the game. The types of arrows, for example, vary from explosive arrows to those that generate moss on the ground to silence our steps or, my favourite, the arrow-string that allows us to approach many maps from a more vertical position and save certain situations. It’s not that the arrow-string is a game-breaking tool either, as they don’t stick to certain surfaces, which speaks to the level of attention to detail at certain times, limiting our approach to the game more and more as we progress.
The lock picking system also has its difficulty: two types of lock picks are required, sometimes you only use one to open a door or chest but more often than not you have to combine the two types, even repeating with one of them several times. It is clear that the intention is that it takes time and leaves us exposed while we do it, forcing us to choose well the moment in which we use the picks, but it also has a problem typical of the particular engine of the game where switching between tools is cumbersome and it is possible to open doors that are stuck because they have collided with our character, leaving them ajar and forcing us to close them again and reopen them while we change our tools, which wastes time that can be essential and creates problems in a game that clearly seeks some precision.
One thing worth noting about the treasures we steal or the loot you have to fulfil at different difficulty levels is that it’s not just a score. The value of what we have stolen is transformed into money that we will use to buy the tools we need for our next mission, but this money does not accumulate. In other words, the game incentivises us to steal lots of valuables on each mission, regardless of our goals, and then asks us to spend it all (wisely) on planning our next job. It’s a neat gameplay loop because it means we self-impose higher difficulty on each map in the hope that the next job will be easier… only to repeat the self-imposition again.
This, I think, is Thief’s greatest strength: it makes us enjoy taking on its challenges, to the point where not playing on the highest difficulty means missing out on much of its appeal, and playing on the lowest difficulty means tiptoeing around aspects of map design. Its attitude seems a defiance of the prevailing trend of 90s first-person games so influenced by DooM and that break, that need to let the player find his own way rather than direct him, to allow him to react rather than act without pause remains a defining virtue of the classic.