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Hail to Thief: A tribute and some lessons

by Zubayr Bhyat (plut)  Posted Thursday, April 18, 2013 9:31:00 AM

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I remember once upon a time when the concept of sneaking around and avoiding a fight was barely even conceived. Then a little company called Looking Glass decided to turn the gaming industry on his head and created a four worded project called Thief: The Dark Project.

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If you've played the game you'll know how different it was, and how prophetic the design was to become. Just developing the concept was a gamble. It did pay off in the end though - and it paid off better than anyone would have anticipated and so the stealth game genre was born. 

For anyone who hasn't played this game - or any of its sequels for that matter - the character you played was a contrast. You were fast, silent and capable but infinitely weaker than you'd care to admit. These stark differences was what made Garrett, the protagonist you played, such an achievement in its time. 

Let's take a closer look at the different game mechanics that made Thief such a benchmark of the stealth genre.

Movement

Movement played a big part in what made Thief so special. Movement in Thief was one ingredient in what made the game so immersive. Your pacing, despite the PC's digital controls, could be controlled according to what was needed in the situation. So, if you needed to slow down and move at a snail's pace it could be done. If running, mantling and jumping over onto things was needed that could be done too.  Further movement improvements were included in Thief 2: The Metal Age as well.

Sound

Sound is another aspect of immersion that needed to be executed well in order to provide a player with enough stimulation to feel convinced they were really experiencing the world as a thief. In this game you felt like you were intruding on the world by making excess noise. You, as the player, were given control over how much noise you made - and this was counterbalanced by noises emitted by objects and enemies. The fact that any noise you made made your enemies make more noise simply added to the feeling that you didn't belong in the worlds you explored. Whether it was a a simple misstep causing a clank of footsteps on hard stone, or a broadhead arrow badly aimed and striking next to an intended target or even a deliberately aimed noisemaker arrow. Sound was also a tool in the world that was as much in your hands as out of your control. If you had an EAX capable sound card there was a definitely sense of realism in the environment that was not present before.This added to the next concept that made the stealth experience so great: Tension.

Tension

As you played the Thief you realised that not only were the situations you were forced into getting more perilous, but that your success in the game hung on your actions more than the actions of your enemies. Later in the game treading carefully became a necessity. This gave you, the player, a sense of fear and awareness that bordered on paranoia. You hung on every sound, checked your every movement and hit bodies away so well that you hoped that nobody would notice your movements. When you were noticed your care for your actions increased that much more. Later, when you visited a certain haunted cathedral, Garrett was shown to be weaker and far more fragile than experienced before. Weapons were taken away and enemies were far, far stronger than expected, not to mention frightening. This combination of demands from you and the helplessness against forces old and powerful brought a sense achievement I've yet to experience in any game yet. 

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If you've ever fought off an Undead Hammerite Swordsman and survived you'll know exactly what I mean!

Story

Now that I've spoken about tension, it's time to mention the story. Thief's story stood out because it was played out more than shown. Yes, there were cutscenes where missions were briefed and debriefed, but the real story was experienced through the changes that were forced on you. The further into the story you delved, the more your admiration grew for the human weaknesses of your protagonist. I won't give any spoilers here but Garrett was no man to be messed with. Garrett's real power was his ability to survive, and to take action when the situation demanded it. As much as the plan is made, we all know plans fail. This was something many developers of today could have learned from.

I always believe that the most frightening things we encounter are the most familiar things twisted. Thief had no shortage of these. Check out the spiders from Cragscleft prison. And - anyone who has emerged from the Maw of Chaos will attest to what I am saying.

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Then there were smaller details that elevated this game to legendary status. Thief was the first game I ever played where an unconscious body became a corpse if thrown into water. Or that water dispersed a swarm of flies when sprayed onto them.

These were the main points of brilliance that made this game great. Let's take a look at some of the frustrations I've experienced with the game.

Graphics

First, the graphics were substandard even for the time Thief was released in. The quality of textures and stiff model animations detracted from the experience. Lighting was something paid attention to however - and used very effectively at that. Shadows felt like shadows and lights were often painful in the wrong situations. This improved in the second installment but the engine still never delivered in the visuals department.

There were some quirks too. Some AI issues were prevalent. It was easy to die when trying a risky jump to reach some tricky areas. There were clipping issues too. 

Closing thoughts

Look, these were minor issues in the grand scheme of things. There are lessons to be learned here for new games currently in development. The level of sheer satisfaction gained surviving situations by showing creativity is not something that can be explained adequately to someone who has not tried to acquire the experience. I'm reminded of a time when commitment was rewarded more than spoon feeding, and that success was something earned more than shown.

There is a new Thief game forthcoming, you can check out "Thief returns to remain free in the city of chains", and "Thief announcement trailer: Out of the shadows". I don't know how it will turn out - I certainly have hopes for it - and I certainly wish that fans of the original games will be catered for in a way that respects the originals. My only wish is that the developers take risks and bear the potential fruits of it. 

Thieves always prosper, right?

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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd



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