Striking from the shadows: remembering the stealth gameplay in the ‘Thief’ series
With the release of Dishonored, my most anticipated game of the fall, I find myself thinking about the stealth genre. Ever since I first played a stealth-based game, I’ve considered the style one of my favorites. Anticipating enemy movements, manipulating the environment to find or create hiding spots, and gleefully eluding patrolling guards all provide a satisfying game experience without relying on the usual combat tools of game interaction. I find it curious (though not altogether surprising) that current gaming trends have relegated stealth-based gameplay to an optional gameplay path rather than using it as a principle focus for an entire game. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Metal Gear Solid 4, and numerous others use elements of stealth gameplay (often very well), but with the exception of the recently released Mark of the Ninja, it’s difficult for me to directly identify a purely stealth-driven game experience developed in the last few years.
It’s almost hard to imagine now a time when sneaking through a 3D game environment was an absolute revelation. Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake offered interesting stealth-based gameplay with a powered-down protagonist, but it wasn’t until I played Thief: The Dark Project that I truly felt like one acquainted with the night. The Doom clone-soaked landscape of the late nineties covered first-person games with a layer of testosterone-fueled sameness that Thief sought to disrupt. The game was not necessarily an overnight success, though releasing in the same year as blockbusters Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid certainly didn’t help copies fly off the shelves, but it developed a following in the subsequent years, eventually leading to two sequels: Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows (rumor has it, a fourth entry, titled Thi4f, is in the works).
Thief‘s position in the pantheon of gaming’s greats is well-earned, if not well-remembered. The mechanics are some of the most innovative the industry has ever seen. The use of shadow and lighting created a smart system (via a gem at the bottom of the screen) that showed the player if he/she was hidden in the darkness or visible to guards. Water arrows doused torches and gas lamps to create hiding places for Garrett (the game’s protagonist) or his victims–a new mechanic that allowed for fairly complex environmental manipulation. Noise, too, factored into the thief’s skill set. Guards hear a noise and react accordingly, searching for an intruder or attributing the disturbance to the normal sounds of a old, drafty manor or castle. For the first time in a PC game, the complex sound design allowed the player to gauge a character’s distance, and the enemies could do so as well. The blocky visuals, good but nothing spectacular for their time, combined with the excellent sound and shadow helped sell the bizarre world.
And what a strange world it is. Thief takes place in a time and place that mixes medieval Europe with steampunk sciences and supernatural magic. Populated with the destitute people of the City’s slums and the entitled elite of the aristocracy, Thief‘s twisted world of religious Hammerites and, secretive Keepers, and mystical Pagans makes front and center the themes of power and corruption, religious freedom, urbanization, and the ever-churning gears of modernity. But what really drew me into this world were the notes left by NPCs and the chatter of guards. As fairly terrible as the voice work was, the conversations NPCs had revealed locations of safes to be pilfered, rumors of monsters in the crypts, or patrol routes. The City was alive and dynamic, and it was mine for the taking…if I was good enough.
And all too often I wasn’t. One of my complaints about current stealth gameplay (and a maybe current-gen gaming in general) is that it gives too much information up front about where to go and how to get there, often limiting . Hell, even Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for all its “go anywhere, do anything” promises, was still confined to maybe three or four infiltration options for any story-based mission. Thief operated on a different philosophy. The objectives were vague at best. The player’s only map was an image scrawled on a piece of paper, and in later iterations the player could even make notes on the map itself about guard posts or locked doors. The game dropped you in a world of terrifying freedom and openness with limited advice and even more limited resources. The only way to play was to find your own way; you had to become a thief.
This anxiety was compounded by the lack of power and health Garrett had. Unlike the protagonists of Duke Nukem or Doom, Garrett lacked the weapons and machismo that had become staples of the still fairly new FPS market. Power fantasy gave way to vulnerability, forcing the player to use his/her wits instead of the sword. For the first time I could remember, I had to abandon the circle-strafe tactics I had been taught by every other first-person game. Shadow became a welcome ally; silence a reluctant partner. Gameplay became less about building yourself up to be a more powerful weapon-wielder and more about learning its rules–and its lessons were harsh. The game gave no quarter and asked for none in return. If you slipped up, got noticed, raised an alarm, a cadre of guards could kill you in a matter of seconds. You learned to retreat and cut your losses. You learned to isolate your opponents before knocking them out with a blackjack to the base of skull or an arrow to the throat. You learned how to time your steps, use carpet to muffle noise, hide bodies. The game made the player a better thief because it was so open and unforgiving.
Donning the cloak of a master thief also meant that the player must move outside the bounds of petty morality. Garrett’s creed, “What is locked can be opened. What is hidden can be found. What is yours can be mine,” offers the best description of the game’s underlying moral code: there is none. Killing guards is just as effective as knocking them unconscious. Stealing from the entitled rich can only help the player buy supplies. Even dispatching civilians yields no narrative or gameplay consequences. The Manichean architecture behind player morality that binds current games does not exist. You control an amoral character in an amoral world, and your actions only carry the thematic weight you choose to give them.
It’s a play style that resonates with me because it rewards patience, planning, and perfect execution, and looking back on the Thief series, I am amazed by the legacy it has created with so little credit these days. The cloak and hood of the assassins in Assassin’s Creed look similar to Garrett’s. The light gem that lets the player know if he/she is visible found its way into Skyrim. Many on Dishonored‘s team worked on the Thief games, borrowing heavily from the mechanics and atmospheric complexity that are hallmarks of the series. Perhaps its only appropriate that niche title like Thief should be marginalized, finding more comfort in the shadows of the annals of game history. When I play as one of the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim, a Renaissance assassin, or when I boot up Dishonored, I’ll return to the mindset of a master thief–efficient, self-serving, unforgiving, and at home in the dark.