I wonder if this blog would be more popular if I started smoking. I know for sure it won't be popular if I keep writing about Thief. But I don't care! I'll write about Thief forever!
I'm not qualified at all to offer up a critique on level design, but I think the Thief series would make for a great case study since each level should have a clear path through the architecture which the player will not actually take. I will leave that musing on the level design of a dead franchise to someone else (or more accurately, nobody) while I work in my weird story bias here solely to gratify myself. An interesting fact of the series' development is that Thief I and Thief II were built on mutually exclusive foundations: with the first, the missions were designed around the story and the opposite was true with the second. This is retroactively apparent: the story in the first is certainly more prominent and of tighter construction than that of the sequel, whose levels, in contrast, were open-ended and significantly larger.
In this dichotomous world where "story" and "gameplay" are completely separate constructs and gameplay automatically trumps story as the player's concern, Thief II is, as divined through cold rationality, the better game. Here's a shocker: I believe Thief I to be superior. I guess you can put my preference partly down to the writing, but my contention is that even Thief I's levels and missions top those of its sequel. Objectively, of course, Thief II has it all: pure concentration on stealth gameplay, bigger areas, less linearity... some of that's down to technology, but that's still a point in its favour.
What it lacks is subjectivity. I don't mean it fails to capture my subjective and arbitrary preference. I mean that, especially in comparison to its predecessor, Thief II lacks any kind of emotional quality. It's flattened out, every edge has been sanded off. Thief I is the quietest, tensest roller-coaster ever devised. It was scary, it was surprising, and it's varied: it had zombie levels which not everyone loved but which nonetheless kept players engaged. Above all else it was breathtaking to experience this kind of game for the first time ever. Thief II results from a design team refining the core experience to the point where while it's consistent, it's comparatively unremarkable and -- since Thief I proved the viability of the stealth thing as a formula -- takes zero risks. Thief II's highlights like Life of the Party, a breaking-and-entering excursion across city rooftops, are fun in abstract ways -- they're great concepts for stealth gameplay but they don't mean anything in the larger context of the game. Thief I is overflowing with freakish and unforgettable moments and it's clear at all times how your objective relates to the narrative. So, yes, it is all about writing, basically -- it imbues the missions with purpose whereas in Thief II it clings limply to a compilation of missions which are presented to the player as cool but similar ideas for a Thief game.
Thief I had a notoriously difficult development. Looking Glass was going through a major financial crisis, the team who began the game and the team who finished it were two entirely different groups of people, and the gameplay was totally broken until a couple of weeks before it shipped. Maybe I'm projecting -- who cares; I don't -- but I believe that that environment, however negative it was, translated positively to Thief I. The game ended up suffused with a nervy, fractious energy; the result of people who at the time had no reason to be secure in their jobs working on a type of game had never been attempted before. This was something entirely new and the only way to do it right was to give it everything they had, which wasn't guaranteed to mean anything. For the longest time the game wasn't working at all, but it always had the potential to be completely amazing. Thief I replicates those emotional peaks and valleys wonderfully. As they progress, the narrative and level design get weird and crazy, capturing the player's attention and investment and leading them to a conclusion that is so satisfying for the journey they've just been through.
Thief II doesn't do this, and it was the product of a development environment that was self-assured, confident in the franchise. This led to an emotionally and creatively consistent game that was altogether less engaging because it was fundamentally predictable and safe. It's an objective triumph but that's all it is.
That's it. Thanks for reading, sorry the pictures were so lame.