Crossing the Threshold ('98 Week)

Since you left us, you have been a stone rolling downhill. Now you must aim this remarkable momentum. - Thief: The Dark Project

Most games pander to an imaginary ur-gamer who subsists exclusively on swords-and-sorcery genre fiction and James Cameron movies. Their worlds bear little resemblance and no relation to my own. Their characters matter even less. But lately, more games have challenged my expectations in the most unexpected ways. But I have to say that even in a year that's been full of strikingly smart games, Looking Glass's Thief: The Dark Project stands out as a work of remarkable literacy and elegant storytelling.

Thief exists in a crossroads world. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be Alex Proyas' superb Dark City from earlier this year. Both take place in an anachronistic city of perpetual night. People go on with their daily lives while an unidentifiable dread presses in from the edges. They build their lives on a foundation of ignorance, oblivious to the machinations that surround them. In both Dark City and Thief, the protagonist gains power to change the world simply by becoming conscious of what is happening while the world sleeps. Both works create an intoxicating sense of otherness, a place that we recognize from the past but seems wrong and twisted even before the plot reveals anything.

But Thief's setting is expressed by far more than artwork and level design. Thief brings together the beliefs of its constituent eras. We meet the pagan gods, chaotic and wild, dogging the steps of a steampunk civilization that is erasing every sign of nature. These forest spirits have been abandoned for a single god of fire and steel, the woods have given way to the cathedral. This newer religion enforces law and order through the Hammerites, a holy order reminiscent of the Inquisition. The sign of their god is a cruciform hammer, and their theology is not of redemption but of forging.

But the enterprise is beginning to fall apart. Theirs is a religion of craft and art, and they are on the cusp of an industrial age. We hear them, in snatches of conversation, complaining about their dwindling ranks. Guards mutter to themselves in the halls of Cragscleft Prison, hissing that they are surrounded by incompetence, incompetence, INCOMPETENCE! For comfort, they turn to the parable of the Weak Foundation: "And The Builder said, 'If the foundation is weak, do you wail and gnash your teeth? Do you ask it to repour itself? Nay, you tear it down and begin anew. So shall it be with all My Children, whether they be stone or flesh.'"

Into this milieu steps Garrett the thief, modernity's emissary to this imagined past. He talks and thinks more like Philip Marlowe than The Highwayman. He's an irreverent cynic in an age dominated by institutions and faith. Garrett's mission in life isn't the acquisition of riches. It is to preserve his freedom and individuality in a society that grants neither. Like every quintessential noir hero, Garrett is pulled into something darker and grander than he ever wanted by the twin lures of money and a beautiful woman.

Garrett is also blinded by hubris. He brings all the skepticism and disillusion of the modern world to bear on a world where gods and magic are real. He dislikes his world, with its rigidity and cruelty. There are hints throughout that Garrett's cynicism is rooted in wounded idealism. He thinks he can live outside his world through sheer force of will. His friends might be killed for knowing him, he might encounter monsters out of legend in places out of myth, and yet Garrett still mocks fate. He chooses not to notice what is happening before his eyes, unwilling to acknowledge that he is not his own master. He meddles arrogantly and ignorantly in the affairs of gods and prophets, until he is finally forced to look the truth in the eye.

There is a wealth of ideas in Thief, but one of the reasons this game is so captivating is that it forces you to explore the world to learn more about it. The cutscenes show more than they explain, and keep you off balance as the story unfolds. Each level has a few conversations you can overhear, and in these incidental encounters you start getting a sense for how people in this city live and think. You unravel parts of the backstory by studying the paintings on the walls of a nobleman's house, or the stained-glass windows in a Hammerite cathedral. You uncover secret correspondence and mundane memos. Occasionally, you hear Garrett's thoughts about what you're seeing, his voice dripping with disdain for the wonders you've uncovered. Every aspect of this game complements the others. Character, story, and gameplay are not quartered off from one another. They are interwoven.

I hope games like this are a sign of what is to come. It leaves me giddy with the possibilities for what games will do if they embrace their power to transport players to other worlds. Thief stays with me, because I walked those streets and I haunted those hallways. I stood stock still, my heart in my throat as a guard passed by, unaware, and I forgot I was playing. I forgot I was anywhere but there, and that I was anyone but a thief. This game is more than fun. It is memorable. It inspires.

There is one moment in Thief that is simply unlike anything I've ever experienced.

You are tasked with robbing the mansion of a mysterious nobleman named Constantine. He will later play a major role in the narrative, but during this one mission, as you creep about his house, you begin finding signs of how strange he is. There are rooms turned on their sides, hallways with the floorboards on the ceiling and lanterns dangling upward from the floor. It all seems like eccentricity and jest until you turn a corner and come to a doorway that looks out on the night sky. You step through it ...

... And you are floating in space. The city, the grounds of the mansion, all of it is gone. There are only stars, silence, and that doorway leading back into the mansion. You scurry back inside, retreating in the face of the impossible to the merely irrational.

Comments

An excellent write-up for one of my favorite games of all time.

"I stood stock still, my heart in my throat as a guard passed by, unaware, and I forgot I was playing. I forgot I was anywhere but there, and that I was anyone but a thief."

That about sums it up. The game immerses the player so deeply. Entering Cragscleft through the mines terrified me the 1st time a zombie came up on me. "It's just a game!" I'd tell myself. Doesn't matter. I believe I literally yelped when a crayman turned the corner and charged at me when searching for the haunted cathedral. Few games can elicit that kind of emotional response.

Can't wait for Thief 2 to come out! =)

Goddamn Rob.

I really want to go back into the Thief universe now.

Every time someone mentions this game I start replaying it again.

One of my absolute favorite games of all time, bar none. Excellent write up, now if you'll excuse me I'll have to go find my Thief Gold disc.

Terrific write-up.

Damnit, now I have to play it again.

I'm goin' ta tha bear pits tomorra'...wanna come with?

Indeed, one of the best games to ever grace the pc. I have never seen its like for immersion and sheer tension. It is the only game I know where standing still is sometimes as exciting as moving around and exploring.

I just reinstalled Thief2 (using the tafferpatcher, very painless way to get it installed, patched, and fixed for modern systems), and the Thief intros are a perfect teaser for what's coming. Not a long plot exposition that you have to watch or otherwise you'll be lost, but a minute of mood setting, and showing what the game is about. Getting in quietly, evading guards (who will beat you up easily given the chance), getting some loot, and getting out.

Taffer.

Thank you Rob for an excellent article.

After all this time Thief is still number one on my gaming charts. I replayed the heck out of the first two and through many many excellent fan missions.

If I had to pick one reason why it had so much staying power for me I would have to say the pace. For the most part the game progresses on your terms. If you need time to study the target, to look for the proper entry, to look for the weak spot in the guards routine, to calm down cowering in a shadow after being surprised by a zombie, you can take that time. It is so satisfying to wait for the perfect moment and ghost past the guards to get the window.

I don't care what everyone else says: I like the zombie levels and I think the sequel suffered from their lack.

Yes. The zombies in this game really freaked me out. Zombie levels always set me on edge.

Shame this game came out when it did. Any other year and it would have been easily game of the year. Lots of competition in 1998.

One of my favorite surprise finds of all time. I played the demo and immediately went out to buy the game.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Yes. The zombies in this game really freaked me out. Zombie levels always set me on edge.

This is the reason I was glad there was only a zombie cameo in Metal Age. Not, as is the more common complaint, because I thought they were out of place in Thief.

It was all about the sound...

Justin Fletcher wrote:

It was all about the sound...

That's one of the best things about replaying it on a more modern system, it supports full 5.1 surround sound even though nobody had it back then. Eric Brosius is the best sound designer ever.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Yes. The zombies in this game really freaked me out. Zombie levels always set me on edge.

The sound the zombies make when they're on the hunt is unbearable. That labored shrieking gasp of theirs is utterly horrifying. Oh I hate them, and their un-killability.

The apparitions might even be worse. That buzzing, distorted chatter sounds like it is coming from everywhere, including inside your own head. Add to that they can be much nastier than the zombies, and they tend to spook me even more.

If there ain't a Jacknall's paw it ain't worth playin.

gewy wrote:

I don't care what everyone else says: I like the zombie levels and I think the sequel suffered from their lack.

They get a bad rep in the game, I think, because a lot of people thought you needed to suddenly start playing it like a traditional combat heavy game, when in actual fact you had thiefy ways of dealing with pretty much anything (even KO'ing Burrick's with your blackjack ).

It's the Hammer Haunts that got me good though - "Oh THANK goodness for that, a normal, everyday, run of the mill, totally still alive and not some sort of skeletal nightmare Hammer Guard. I know how to deal with those taffers...I'll just sneaksie sneaksie up behind him and..."

*thump*

*pause as he turns towards me. unphased by my attack*

"OHNOESSWHERESHISFACEGONE" :O

Which of course led up to....gulp.... Return to the Haunted Cathedral.

I've only managed to play through that mission once. and not on my own.
One of these days I WILL get that far through the game again and confront the terror that is that mission...then I'll run and hide until it goes away.

Sadly, I only played Thief once, and that was in a highly public and highly noisy environment. I only got to the second stage.

Dark City used to be one of my top 5 movies, but I found that it didn't hold up so well when I attempted to prove its greatness to some friends a year ago. Parts of it were somewhat uncomfortable to watch, and not because they were intended to be so.

The true way to play of course is to completely ghost it and never let on to any guard or monster of your presence. But that's a little too tough and impossible on the higher difficulties. The top difficulty on one level tasks you with destroying every monster, not at all easy and you have no idea that you'll be asked to do this during the mission briefing so your inventory will be light on the materials needed for the job. Maybe I could try dropping heavy items on them from the rafters...

AUs_TBirD wrote:

Dark City used to be one of my top 5 movies, but I found that it didn't hold up so well when I attempted to prove its greatness to some friends a year ago. Parts of it were somewhat uncomfortable to watch, and not because they were intended to be so.

That makes me sad. Loved the movie, but I haven't seen it since it came out.

When I played Thief back then I got as far as, IIRC, some underground level full of lizard things. I remember more frustration than enjoyment, to be honest.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
AUs_TBirD wrote:

Dark City used to be one of my top 5 movies, but I found that it didn't hold up so well when I attempted to prove its greatness to some friends a year ago. Parts of it were somewhat uncomfortable to watch, and not because they were intended to be so.

That makes me sad. Loved the movie, but I haven't seen it since it came out.

When I played Thief back then I got as far as, IIRC, some underground level full of lizard things. I remember more frustration than enjoyment, to be honest.

Ah, The Bonehoard. Probably the source of a LOT of the undead/monster hatred. Some aspects of it were great (lots of traps and places to explore) but it was a BIG change of pace from pretty most of the other missions in the game.

Nowadays I just skip it and move on to the next mission (which is awesome). It's not like there's any major story stuff related to the main plotline or anything, you're realy just down there for loot.

***

oh, and I say it every time this game comes up, but if you plan on grabbing it from somewhere, make sure to get the trilogy pack that was released not long ago - it's patched to eliminate a LOT of the problems you get on newer PC's AND it comes with the GOLD edition of Thief, which includes three pretty awesome (and massive) extra missions - a thieves guild, an opera house and a mages guild - and a few tweaks to existing missions.

To the best of my knowledge I think that this is the ONLY place to get the gold edition legally right now (unless - fingers crossed - GoG ever gets around to picking it up).

AUs_TBirD wrote:

Dark City used to be one of my top 5 movies, but I found that it didn't hold up so well when I attempted to prove its greatness to some friends a year ago. Parts of it were somewhat uncomfortable to watch, and not because they were intended to be so.

I watched the Director's Cut* on Netflix not too long ago, and I thought it held up rather well. So did 2 friends who hadn't seen it before. When we were done one friend turned to me and said "yeah, now I see why you weren't that impressed with The Matrix."

*They got rid of the opening narration. The movie as a whole is about 10 minutes longer, but most of that is from extended scenes and extra small character bits rather than entirely new scenes.

Every time I read more about this game, the more I wish I had bought it back in the day.

Will it work on a modern machine or do I have to wait until GoG or somebody rejiggers it as a compatible version?

Rob - what a wonderfully evocative description of what gaming should be like - the total transportation of yourself into another experience.

Ritalingamer wrote:

Will it work on a modern machine or do I have to wait until GoG or somebody rejiggers it as a compatible version?

It will work, but you need to mess with it a bit. You need to install a specific codec to get the cutscenes to play (and they are awesome, you don't want to miss those), and if you have a multicore machine you need to set the affinity so that it only runs on one of those cores or it will crash.

Ritalingamer wrote:

Will it work on a modern machine or do I have to wait until GoG or somebody rejiggers it as a compatible version?

This version is the one I mention above (with the gold content included) and with a tiny bit of tweaking (see below) it runs just fine for me on a duel core machine with windows 7 64bit version.

The only fix I needed to do is that if you're running it on a duel core (or higher) machine you'll probably need to disable all but one of them for thief via the task manager after you start running the game. That takes all of a few seconds and is literally all I needed to do to get it working though.

*
I never had any problems with the video codecs on the above version. There's always the chance I may have installed them long before picking up the above version and forgotten about it, but I'm reasonably sure that's not the case.

This was my first mature game as a kid going to the store. I looked at the best buy website and they published the game as a Teen Rating.... So, we went to the store and when I got there the game magically had an Mature rating on it. I asked my dad if it was ok and he was fine with it and we took it home. I never got passed the Prison level which I think was the second. It had the zombies in it. But I played the first level a ton. I spent more hours on that level than any other because I couldn't get any futher.

Oh, this game was truly one of the greatest.

Erm... I mean. This game will be truly one of the greatest. Sorry, I forgot what year I was in for a moment.

I wish I could find my disc for this game. In the meantime I'm making do with the Dark Mod, there are some very good fan missions for it.