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.