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

Hot damn, this game is one of my absolute favourites. The extra missions in the gold version are absolutely fantastic. I love having the four talismans back in their separate places instead of picking up two at once. Thief 2 is looking like it's going to be just as awesome as the first. I hope they don't make a third one, though. I bet they would change a bunch of stuff and it wouldn't be as good. They'd probably do something stupid like break up the levels into two separate parts so you hit a loading screen part way through and totally ruin the immersion. Plus, it would force the levels to be designed with choke points where the loading takes place. They should totally let the fans create their own missions. I bet that would be so awesome.

gewy wrote:

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

I agree. I've read in a few places that they were cut from the sequels because of player feedback. People didn't like that so many of the missions deviated from the central premise of being a thief stealing from the aristocracy. Locations like Lord Bafford's manor were used as templates for future installments rather than areas like the underground city. However, part of the power of the first Thief game is the way the story has Garrett caught up in things much larger than himself. The sense one gets isn't of a man prepared for the things he encounters but, as with Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, of a man forced to use the things he knows in new and unexpected ways.

I would love to play this. Hopefully it'll turn up on GOG sometime soon.

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.

Thanks for a brilliant article on my most favourite video game, Rob.

gewy wrote:

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

100% agree. The zombie levels terrified me in Thief 1. I don't think I've ever been so freaked out by a game as during Return to the Cathedral. That place was infested with Haunts...

Switchbreak wrote:
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.

Thief was the first game I remember that used EAX in a way that affected gameplay. Sound in Thief was so important and that EAX allowed it to propagate correctly around corners and through closed doors was a huge step forward.

complexmath wrote:
Switchbreak wrote:
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.

Thief was the first game I remember that used EAX in a way that affected gameplay. Sound in Thief was so important and that EAX allowed it to propagate correctly around corners and through closed doors was a huge step forward.

Thief was actually one of the pack-in games with the SoundBlaster Live card I had bought, meant to show off EAX, and that's how I originally discovered the game. I came for the environmental sound tech, I stayed for the sublime stealth gameplay and world building.

You're forgetting A3D which was proper wavetracing and occlusion for sound placement beyond the HRTF in DirectSound3D. EAX is reverb effects applied on top of the sound depending on the environment.

Ah, you're right. EAX was the thing that never worked right Either way, I remember looking at sound propagation maps and being quite impressed.