How ‘Thief: The Dark Project’ sidelined action in favour of shadow-clinging tension

Eliciting genuine fear and unprecedented immersion, Thief: The Dark Project established a stealthier take on the FPS mould, while also spinning an engrossing gaslamp fantasy

For many non-gamers, it’s entirely possible that the mental image conjured when hearing the broad term ‘first person shooter’ (FPS) is something along the lines of a headset-wearing sofa-dweller, all-consumed by the likes of multiplayer military blaster Call Of Duty, furiously hurling insults at an eight-year-old in Fort Lauderdale and stubbornly avoiding doing the washing up. This artless impression of first-person gaming has sadly persevered, despite a great splintering into an assortment of sub-genres. The reality is, that players who favour originality over blood ’n’ guts have been extremely spoiled over the last twenty-something years. We’ve enjoyed the likes of cerebral comedy Portal 2, the recent time-bending thrills of Deathloop and the haunting tranquillity of the solitary Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Each of which differently illustrate how malleable the ’through-your-own-eyes’ concept can be, in the hands of imaginative, ambitious designers.

The root of the diversification of first-person games can be traced back to the late 1990s when FPS design was still slavishly in thrall to Doom. Variations of ID Software’s overpowered space marine, mowing down endless corridors of demonic entities with an ever-expanding arsenal of ridiculous weaponry abounded. Any sense of narrative would play second (or even, third) fiddle to visceral action. That all changed with two decisive releases, notably dropped in the same two-month period during the final quarter of 1998. The first, Valve’s revered Half-Life, had a prominent impact on gaming that has been widely documented. The other, came in the form of Looking Glass Studios’ stealth genre cornerstone; the all too often overlooked Thief: The Dark Project. While both games served as shining beacons of how to present players with interactive narratives, it was the latter that, we’d argue, pushed the mechanics of first-person gaming even further than Valve’s celebrated masterpiece.

Thief transgressed the firm rules of FPS design in at least three critical ways. Firstly, Looking Glass boldly spun the whole central appeal of the ‘shooter’ on its head – by making a game which demanded you work to actively avoid combat. The player’s roster of weapons worked less as instruments of death, and more as surface-softening, flame-dousing or rope-producing tools of the thieving trade. Should combat be accidentally triggered, either a hasty escape or an untimely end awaited, as the player character, Garrett, was woefully underpowered (particularly at higher difficulty settings). The second way Thief upset the apple cart lay in how it incorporated lighting and sound as manipulable facets of its game world. Hiding in the shadows and avoiding well-lit areas were (as in real-life…we imagine) crucial considerations when committing the perfect robbery, as was opting to not loudly parade up and down marble floors or quickly dash up wooden staircases, because Thief‘s guards could hear you, and they would investigate. This more sophisticated and realistic game-world, and its insistence on a delicate approach to each robbery attempt, was the astonishing innovation that many gamers didn’t even realise they needed.

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Thief Gold
Thief. Credit: Looking Glass Studios.

Speaking with Game Developer magazine, Thief’s chief programmer Tom Leonard explained that the use of sound wasn’t just to create obstacles to overcome, “[Sound] was the primary medium through which the AIs communicated both their location and their internal state to the player.” Leonard said, “In Thief we tried to design AIs with a broader range of awareness than the typical two states that AIs exhibit: ‘oblivious’ and ‘omniscient’.” The result of this nuanced programming meant that Thief‘s enemies seemed not only more spatially aware, but just generally more alive than any of the 2D demons or polygonal cannon fodder we’d been faced with up until that point.

The third crucial ingredient was how the game revealed its deep and original mythology. Set in a hybrid Medieval/steampunk city, Thief’s protagonist, Garrett, navigates a corrupt landscape of religious fanatics, lords, barons and oddball occultists. His initially simple quest is to gather enough sellable loot with which to pay his rent and make a (dis)honest living. As the game progresses, our wise-cracking kleptomaniac (superbly voice-acted by a wry Stephen Russell) finds himself at the heart of an ancient feud, and a devilish plot to reset the increasingly technological world back into a leafy, pagan ideal. Though the player is presented with a stylised video briefing prior to each mission, as well as a handful of plot-moving cutscenes at key points, the majority of the game’s detailed universe – such as the tenets of the mechanically obsessed Hammerites, or the arcane mysticism surrounding chief villain Constantine – is discovered organically; via reading parchment or books in libraries, studying plaques and art, or by leaning into doors and eavesdropping on conversations. At the time, this form of cumulative world-building was entirely fresh. It helped that the lore of Thief’s city was genuinely intriguing and had surprisingly depth.

Of course, this meaty context could be ignored, if you so wished. A player could just get by on the cutscenes and mission objectives, and still enjoy a thrilling shadow-hugging experience. But what Thief really wanted you to do was to wallow deeply within it (as myself, and the majority of the game’s devotees did) and scrutinise every square inch of every room to gather greater knowledge. It was almost like having two versions of a novel, one a flimsily thin description, the other a hefty 1200 page doorstop. This hypothetical novel’s size was wholly down to how much time you put into studying the game’s minutiae.

Thief Gold
Thief Gold. Credit: Looking Glass Studios.

A more demanding take on storytelling perhaps, but it was entirely consistent with Thief’s central modus operandi. Here was a game that insisted players assess and judge every single moment, whether that’s fathoming methods of avoiding a guard patrol, a way of crossing a brightly lit area to reach the room containing your goal, taking note of conversations that reveal pertinent information or piecing together related documents (from memory mind, as the game offered no database) that illuminated the events and broader backstory of this world.

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Though the game was met with acclaim at the time, where Thief did receive criticism was for its injection of supernatural adversaries. While the marvellously designed opening mission Lord Bafford’s Manor and the satisfying revenge-theft Assassins were flagship examples of the archetypal Thief experience, missions like the perplexing Down in the Bonehoard and the subterranean The Lost City squared Garrett off against lumbering zombies, characterless fireballs and the comedic dinosaur-like Burricks. Though these missions in particular traded in the shadow-darting tension for a spot of Indiana Jones-esque adventuring, the supernatural elements are woven into the game’s broader mythology tightly. In fact, in the context of a well-designed mission – such as the petrifying Return to the Cathedral – they, in conjunction with a masterfully-sculpted map, were capable of wringing absolute dread. Particularly as the under-weaponed Garrett just wasn’t capable of taking on ghoulish fiends such as the menacing Hammer Haunts head-on.

In response to the criticism, the game’s solid sequel, Thief 2: The Metal Age ejected the supernatural elements entirely in favour of ramping up the core stealth experience. In hindsight, we’d argue that the gameplay balance and the feel of the original was much more tantalising, with those surprising supernatural elements playing into a wider ‘science vs magic’ theme.

The series’ third instalment, 2004’s clunky Thief: Deadly Shadows sported an entirely new engine that has seemingly dated faster than the original. That being said, the lacklustre third entry contains one of the most pant-wettingly terrifying missions in the entire history of the video gaming medium. Embracing the supernatural once again, Robbing The Cradle is a masterclass in game design. Using just ambient sound and level design in its first section, the quest into the heart of an abandoned orphanage-cum-mental asylum puts the player through near-unbearable levels of tension.

While other gaming franchises have seen remastered treatment to upgrade core entries for newer generations of gamers, and resultantly attracted fresh interest in continuing their stories, the original Thief: The Dark Project and its sequel have sadly passed on into legend for most but the most dedicated of Taffers. Understandable, due to the dissolution of Looking Glass Studios, and the frustrating (but worthwhile) trials needed to make this late 90s gem play well with a modern PC. Though stable-ish versions are available on GOG.com, you’ll still need to scale your OS and graphic settings accordingly. An attempt was made to revive the franchise in 2014, but the less said about Eidos-Montréal’s atrocious reboot the better.

While gamers are oversaturated with stealth-based games and missions these days, Thief not only invented the very idea of avoiding instead of massacring your adversaries, but also implemented the concept far better than even many contemporary games. We’re looking at you, modern action-adventure games with a penchant for injecting arbitrary ‘avoid detection’ objectives, when we all know full well that the player character would have no trouble breezily painting the walls red. Back in Thief, our perspective was fused with Garrett’s. Immersing ourselves in his world, and seeing out through his eyes, we understood why wanton murder is both bad for business, and simply unsustainable as a tactic. In the words of legendary fantasy author (and passionate Thief fan) Terry Pratchett; “I get edgy in games that require killing as an objective,” the Discworld scribe said on a Google Groups thread in July 2002. “But being able to hide from guards who appear to have amazing acuity sometimes is a talent in itself.”

Thief Gold is available on GOG and Steam and includes Thief: The Dark Project

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