This week Zero Punctuation has to be a sneaky bastard in order to review Thief: The Dark Project.
Once again, it's time to retrospectively review an old game I've actually liked. Breaking up the emotionally-draining output of cold, emotionless hatred, and giving further fuel for the construction of my psychological profile some years from now after the murders begin.
Today we're going back to the primitive days of 1998, back when the World Trade Center was still defiantly sticking two fragile fingers up at the looming threat of global insurgency, Bill Clinton was wholeheartedly regretting Monica Lewinski's choice of dry cleaner, and, of course, PC gaming still mattered.
As it does to this day.
A company called Looking Glass Studios, tired of making flight simulators that nobody bought, released Thief: The Dark Project. What with PC gaming still mattering and the brown glory of Quake having been pooed out two years previously, the FPS was riding high. But it was fast becoming clear that many developers had reached the limits of what could be achieved with putting the player on one side of a big, black, death cock and a succession of eager spread-eagled monsters on the other.
It would be some time before Halo would come along and revolutionize the genre with limited weapon capacity, regenerating health and being generally shit. So it was left to Thief to have strange and deviant thoughts like: What if there was a first person game where you were trying to achieve something other than genocide? Where even one or two measly deaths would have the game slap your hands away from the controls and yell, "What the fuck?!" And thus was born the Stealth 'em Up.
The philosophy of the Thief games was that barging into the enemy stronghold and repainting the lobby in spinal fluid was all very well, but a really skilled infiltrator should never have to kill. And ideally the enemy shouldn't even know they've been there, except that all the lights have stopped working and the whole place seems a lot less wealthy somehow.
The games have three great strengths that place them above all subsequent attempts at stealth gameplay: being constantly aware of exactly how visible you were, sprawling nonlinear maps that rewarded diligent exploration, and the fact that you could actually defend yourself if necessary. Unaware guards could be taken out with a cosh. But even if you buggered up the stealthing so hard your dick came out its nose, there was rarely an instant game over for it. Worst case scenario was you'd wind up having to fight off a train of sixteen sword-wielding thugs yelling made-up swear words. But if you were skilled enough to get through that, it would always still be quite possible to steal all the lord's ermine robes and stick his toothbrush up your bum before you leave.
People have said to me, "Yahtzee, you ordinary person! How can a stealth game possibly be fun when the gameplay discourages actively dealing with the hazards in favour of hiding under tables waiting for them to go away? Bleh, I say, bleh!" Well, this may reflect poorly on me as a person, but I found a lot of fun to be voyeuristic in nature. Don't tell me you've never had fantasies of invisibility, usually while simultaneously contemplating the nearest convenient changing room of the opposite sex. Not that a reasonable person can profitably ogle the guards and civilians in Thief. This was still early days of full 3D, so they all looked and moved like badly made origami polio victims.
But there was nothing more impishly entertaining than hiding in a shadow listening to a pair of thicko guards discuss nose picking strategies. Then when they heard your stifled giggling, there was nothing more tense then standing stock still, with breath caught, as the aforesaid thickos peered searchingly into the shadows, so close you could practically see their polygonal nostril hairs quivering, as you pray to a god you've never believed in that they'll turn around and facilitate a nice swift bop across the bonce.
Stealing riches in gameplay was fun, but it was the richness of the writing that kept me coming back (masterfully executed link). The developers understood that it takes a certain kind of person to enjoy this sort of thing and tailored the main character accordingly. Garrett, a misanthropic anti-social loner making snarky comments to liven up the dark, silent corners he hung around in. An appropriately unheroic character for the situation, the NPCs he pitted his wits against were generally bored, inattentive rent-a-cops loudly voicing their every slightest daydream, quick to dismiss suspicious noises and sights as the work of imagination or extremely large and resourceful rats. This may explain why Garrett has such contempt for them that he goes around wearing tap shoes that make loud noises when stepping on anything harder than a bathroom rug.
All these beautifully voiced and characterized tosspots live in a big pseudo-medieval fantasy city where natural magic and steampunk technology are constantly at war. A war that Garrett somehow keeps getting pulled into, despite being constantly determined to not give a shit. It seems even the developers themselves didn't quite believe that people would like stealth gameplay. So the first Thief game forced itself to include a lot of zombie and monster killing, neither of which responded encouragingly to bops across the bonce.
But Looking Glass proved themselves to be diametrically opposed to say, Sonic Team, and actually listened to the fans. The 2000 sequel, creatively named Thief II, was the peak of the series. Where the sneaking was the sneaksiest and the sprawly levels were the sprawliest. The third game, Thief: Deadly Shadows in 2004, was sadly over the peak and speeding downhill fast. In its haste to suckle at the teat of current generation graphics, it dropped the sprawling nonlinear levels down a flight of stairs and suffered for it. But by then Looking Glass Studios had already closed its doors, another drowned surfer in the treacherous, ever-changing tide of the games industry, sadly caught in the great big Eidos whirlpool formed by, amongst other things, the sinking of the SS John Romero. "A fate undeserved", you might say, but since the popularity of Thief led to the misguided trend for forced stealth sections in action games, I think we can call this one karmatically-even.
- Gorn to the bear pits tommorer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Once a guard saw me so I hopped back into the shadows and the guard yelled "DON'T THINK YOU CAN JUST HOP BACK INTO THE SHADOWS, BOY" which impressed both myself and my dry cleaner
- Guess it was nothing