Very soon, a video game called Thief is going to release. A lot of people are nervous about it. Early accounts are pegging Thief as a disappointment; one recent preview told how the player was killed by the game, simply because he decided to try an alternate route. It's worth noting that the Thief franchise is one of my favorites. As you might have guessed by the headline of this article, I think it's one of the most exemplary series that gaming has to offer.
Think back to your favorite video game franchise. Has it got a stinker in it? Would you be happy if someone's initial exposure to the franchise you love was the worst game in the series? Say you're a Resident Evil fan, and you really want someone to try out Resident Evil 4. Imagine what would happen if the first game they picked up was Resident Evil 6. Or maybe it's Devil May Cry, and they go for Devil May Cry 2. Or perhaps it's Final Fantasy, and they go for Final Fantasy 8? You get the idea, right? Every series has a stinker somewhere along the line, a game most would decry as bad.
And Thief might be that game. As someone who venerates the series, I'd hate to see that someone gets turned off some of the best games ever just because the newest game ends up being a letdown. There's always the chance that it might not, but, hey, why not at least offer a word of warning and some praise for the original games before it's too late, and someone swears off the series for good?
Different people mean different things when they say "greatest of all time," and I'll be glad to acknowledge that, when there are so many genres, modes of play, and personal tastes, that it's almost a meaningless phrase. I'll do my best to explain what I think that means, and then I'll argue my case.
I've struggled with a lot of definitions throughout the years.
Most original? Nah.
Most technically proficient? Nope.
Most influential? Not exactly...
Games I think everyone should play? Hm. Now there's something. But let's tweak that a bit: how about "games people want to share?" That is, games that are so good, regardless of their imperfections, we feel that other people simply must play them? What are the games that inspire an altruism within you? What games drive you to say "you must play this!" to everyone who will listen? A game that compels its audience to share it; I think that's very close to what it means for something to be amongst the greatest of all time.
I could be wrong, of course. There are plenty of games I think are lacking in nearly all respects, buoyed entirely by audio and visual design and nothing more, their extremely positive reception merely the result of psychological triggers filmmakers have known about for years. Some of these games are more popular than Thief, a series that was once considered "work," by Warren Spector, the producer who left to produce Deus Ex.
But no other game on the face of the planet has given me as many stories as Thief has.
I remember this one time, I was pilfering a room, and this guard came in. I'd heard him in the halls earlier, but he'd gone quiet, and I thought that meant he'd left. Wrong. Turned out he'd just started walking on carpet, which, of course, meant I couldn't hear him. He attacked, and I died, of course, which meant I had to start over. Another time, I accidentally alerted a servant, so I quickly hid in the shadows. He walked towards me, closer and closer, until he was no more than a few inches from me—nothing hid me but the shadows themselves. I held my breath, audibly sighing when he decided I must be elsewhere.
A lesser game would have systemized that to some degree, requiring me to hide in a closet, or having some special ALERT ALERT ALERT sound go off when I was spotted, or something, but not Thief. No, the gamiest thing Thief did was use a light gem, which communicated my visibility. If someone saw me, he'd shout. Instead of having a Special Hiding Spot©, Thief let me skulk in the shadows.
Thief is a simulation of a fantasy world. There are no random XP pop ups. Inventory is unintrusive. The map is an actual map that you have to read. But, most importantly of all, Thief is a living, breathing world, and that means it has living, breathing inhabitants.
The first time I discovered a burrick, I freaked out. A burrick is sort of like a T-Rex with fur on; they're large creatures, taller than a man, stalking abandoned caverns, burrowing through ruins, and belching noxious gas at their foes. I managed to kill it, but only through careful management of my health. The next one I faced… well, I didn't feel confident, but I thought I'd at least give it something to think about. Just as my victory seemed assured, however, the burrick took off with a squeal.
That particular level's design meant I returned to the area a few times. Each time the burrick saw me, it would squeal, and run away. I hadn't beaten the monster enough to kill it, I'd just done enough to scare it.
I had taught it to fear me.
Speaking of teaching, games teach us quite a bit of things. For instance, most enemies in action games can't swim. If they touch water, they're probably going to die. Likewise, if people are imprisoned by bad guys, it's probably a good idea to let everyone go, and you'll get, like, points or a reward or something for doing it. We're supposed to hit all the buttons and press all the knobs, right?
Thief disabused me of that notion; early on in the game, players are required to break into a prison and rescue a friend. Unfortunately, the prison is guarded by Hammerites, tough opponents who are best avoided. I made the mistake of being caught by one, so I did the perfectly normal thing, ran away, jumped into the river, and started swimming, chuckling at him for being so silly. Surely, he'd forget he ever saw me, revert to his normal guard pattern, and I could try again.
I was wrong.
He started screaming at me, from somewhere directly behind, rather than on the river bank. I turned around, momentarily curious, and he almost hit me—because he was running along the river bed, chasing me. This might be an embellishment of memory, but I seem to remember his voice sounding sort of gurgly, distorted because it was underwater. Eventually, he drowned.
A normal game would have deleted the Hammerite the instant he hit the water. Thief let him carry out his behaviors—pursuing suspects—but it also knew that oxygen-breathing creatures couldn't live underwater, and, of course, that ended up being his undoing.
Thief is, in many ways, a game that exists independent of you. It's not about you, it doesn't exist to cater to your whims, to reward you with meaningless trinkets for doing exactly what it wants. Instead, it's a living, breathing world, and it gives the impression that it always has been and will remain a living, breathing space long after you've left. It's not there for you to inhabit, you're merely passing through.
So when I released an insane, psychotic murdering wizard in prison, there was no quest pop up, no XP, no hint of any sort of game reward. The man I had come to save crumpled under a fire bolt, and I failed the mission, which didn't mean that I had broken the game and would need to start over; instead, I had to find my way out of the prison on my own.
I pressed a button because poking and prodding and interacting with all the interactible things is something gamers are supposed to do, but Thief works on logic. Things happen in Thief's world because that makes realistic sense. Follow the rules of its reality, and remarkable things will happen. Treat it like a 'game,' like it's got game rules, and not metaphysics, and it'll let you pass by, but the enjoyment—the real, true, pure enjoyment comes from treating Thief's world as if it's a real space. It's what the designers crafted, after all.
When I finally understood this, Thief changed for me in an incredible way.
Thief's world has zombies, but they're not what you think. Instead of being easily-killed, mindless fodder, Thief's undead can't be killed through violence. Hack them up, and they'll wait a few minutes before returning. You can outrun them, but if you're not careful, they'll gang up on you. If you want to kill a zombie, you're going to need holy water. Unfortunately, it's not the most common of items, and the best way to put holy water on zombies is to use it in your water arrows, which tends to be expensive.
One of the game's levels has about twenty zombies roaming a massive chamber. I died a few times trying to take the zombies out. It was too easy for them to spot me and gang up (I'm not the most patient person when it comes to stealth, I must add), and I didn't have enough arrows to take them all on. I had to do something about it, so I came up with a plan.
When a zombie notices you, it groans. This alerts other zombies.
Water arrows have a splash effect when you shoot them.
One of the rooms in the map, where a few zombies lay dormant, was fairly small. I could, I was fairly certain, attract a few zombies to the room, then use the splash damage to kill as many as possible.
I sneaked through the level, climbed my way up to a vantage point, and used a regular arrow on a zombie. It groaned. The other dormant zombies got up, groaning. A few zombies shuffled through the door after a few moments.
I was ready.
And then some more zombies shuffled through the door.
And some more.
I couldn't believe my luck, used the holy water on my arrows, and started firing. The splash damage, I discovered, stacked, meaning I wouldn't even have to aim at zombies. One by one, and sometimes two by three, the zombies exploded as I drenched them. By the time it was over, I had killed all but one of the twenty or so zombies in the level!
This is why I think Thief is one of the best games ever made. It's a game that continually subverts my expectations, that operates on rules that approximate real-world logic. It's a game that doesn't pander to me or treat me like I'm an idiot, but instead presents me with problems that I have to use my brain to solve. Unlike the new Thief, which apparently kills people for deviating from their set path, the original Thief said "hey, there's a logic here—real logic, not just pattern memorization—and if you can figure it out, you'll live. If you can't, well… tough luck."
Thief is one of the only games that is content to trust me to play it well. It's one of the only games that lets me author my own experience, rather than consistently attempting to interrupt and curate my play. It's weird, it's strange, and it's beautiful. Of course it's got faults—the default key bindings are terrible, the graphics were bad, even for 1998—but the faults are nothing compared to the brilliance of Thief.
If you play it, you'll find yourself experiencing things no one else has. You'll be able to share stories, tell people new things, and be engaged in ways you've never even dreamed possible.
Oh, and it's currently available for free, so you should get on that. Amazon keeps breaking my link, so google "Amazon Thief Mod Competition." Or try this:
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.