March 29, 2008

Stop/Thief

Consistency is trouble. No one is astonished when a great team produces a great game; in fact it's taken for granted. It's that attitude which retroactively strips Harvey Smith of any involvement in the first Deus Ex and instead hangs all the sequel's problems around his neck alone. Given the number of internal, external and sometimes unidentifiable factors that magically have to go right during the whole process, it's sadly not that difficult for talented people to make mediocre games. Conversely, the "wrong" people working on a title instead lends itself to often irrational suspicion. One of the best reasons to be optimistic about Fallout 3 is that doing so firmly entrenches one's nonalignment with a faction of absolute crazy people.

I feel like video games own more than their share of missed opportunities. Sequels that never were; franchises that are inaugurated with a press release declaring the upcoming (and likely doomed) sci-fi epic "the first in a trilogy!". Too many developers too often blow the last act of the first game before they get round to not delivering on the remainder of their promise.

You can't otherwise conceive of how satisfying it is, then, to be able to say goodbye in the right way, especially when all the odds are against it. It's difficult enough to produce three quality and creatively consistent games consecutively. It's a difficult title to launch in the first place when it fundamentally rests on taking the incredibly popular FPS and removing the S. Then when the studio shuts down and the property is sold, well, that is difficult.


It's kind of a miracle that Thief 3 found its way to Warren Spector's Ion Storm Austin, the only studio that was comprised of ex-Looking Glass employees; was in the business of making Looking Glass-style games; and wasn't so caught up in the idea of making their mark on the Thief franchise that they weren't willing to hire the former design leads of the cancelled Looking Glass Thief 3, Randy Smith and Terri Brosius, as project director/lead designer and writer, respectively. Those magical, unidentifiable factors? Sometimes you can identify them.

I mean, it was natural to be concerned. No franchise is comprised of such pristine, elemental qualities that it can be whored out to any number of development teams varying in competence and not eventually contract something deadly. "It's ________:," says the nervous fan, who's not jaded enough, "as long as they ________, they can't get it wrong." They get it wrong. Thief cannot sustain itself beyond the people who make it. They are all the difference. Therefore I don't mean to marginalise the rest of the Thief: Deadly Shadows team when I stress Ion Storm Austin's choice to involve Smith and Brosius (also Laura Baldwin, Stephen Russell -- not to mention Eric Brosius, then the full-time audio director at Irrational Studios, and who Irrational let work on the next game in this series whose distinctive sound he created.) Because for an industry that largely doesn't care about names unless they're Names, this was heartwarming.

Randy Smith, after having been a designer on the first two Thief games, was promoted to project director and initially assumed lead design responsibilities on Deadly Shadows. The lead designer position eventually went to Jordan Thomas, who co-designed (with Smith) the famously unsettling Shalebridge Cradle mission and later BioShock's Fort Frolic. A pretty unbeatable combination to be sure; the Cradle is a series high point. It's also the dramatic progeny of Thief I level Return to the Cathedral, designed, again, by Randy Smith. Smith's contributions to Thief I are all of a type: the haunted cathedral, the freakish escape level following the moment the game turns itself inside out. Smith introduced slow stealth to total terror and defined better than anyone the latter's permanent place within the Thief series.

Terri Brosius's career would be considered pretty strikingly diverse if her Looking Glass colleague Seamus Blackley hadn't rendered all other video game career paths forever mundane. A designer on Thief II, the iconic voice of System Shock's SHODAN and songwriter/keyboardist in the Boston-based industrial rock band Tribe (note Greg "Guitar Hero" LoPiccolo in the middle there.) Most relevantly, a writer on Thief one through three.

Thief is not a trilogy in the typically overblown sense of the word. It's not a continuing storyline and the final part does not resurrect the villain from the first game or introduce his vengeful brother. Thief handles the trilogy with class. There are only a few narrative elements that unite the game as more than a collection of three stand-alone thrillers. The three games tell one story each about one of three ideological factions, with the most mysterious saved for last. The Pagans, the Hammerites and the Keepers were played off against one another as early as Thief I: it only makes sense to extend that recurring trinity to the plots of the three games. Similar foresight goes into the character arc of protagonist Garrett. While Garrett's story is pretty simple it nevertheless hits all its marks at all the right times. It was very deliberately conceived and executed right from the start, it's not ad-hoc "character development" like the last two Back to the Future movies.

Garrett is the only thing to give this trilogy any finality. To be fair, the value of his arc to the trilogy could have been more pronounced and for that matter each game's plot is essentially the same. Which is fine. This is not a trilogy that lives or dies solely on its writing and needs romance and grandiose denouements to breathe. Thief: Deadly Shadows is an appropriately muted exit strategy that is consistent with what Thief's always been about.

As important as the story was in giving Thief I the edge on its sequel, the series was always about the gameplay. For three games it dared to underpower the player in a medium that was getting increasingly generous with positive reinforcement and players becoming superheroes. But Thief was never oppressive, punishing or unfair; it wasn't System Shock 2 keeping the player under its thumb with broken weapons and respawning enemies. The game disadvantaged the player in ways that were perfectly reminiscent of real life. Garrett was almost always outmatched and combat would get him killed. He never had a romance subquest and whatever good he did went unrecognised. It worked because the rules were instantly familiar. Thief tapped into a basic human impulse: not stealing or self-aggrandisement, but survival. Garrett was no one really special. He wasn't a hero. He wasn't a crusader. Events in the world of Thief conspired to control him and he quite reasonably wanted no part of it. He was surrounded by excessive ideology at a time when all he cared about -- and what nobody else did -- was his own problems.

For a game about thievery, Thief is strangely life-affirming. Wouldn't it be great, it says, if you didn't have to worry about the shadows and the silence and hiding in stark terror from all these things so much more powerful than you. Without even trying, Thief taught players to appreciate the gratifying heft of a shotgun like no other game. Unlike everyone else, who can brazenly strut around in the open, talking as loudly as they like and with swords at their side, ultimately you will have to go it your own way. Life is difficult, Thief says, but you can do it. In the end it will be worth it.

That was the message and it never really wavered. That was Thief, one, two, three.

Eventually it's over. Three games in six years and all their missions, their dialogue, their problems, they all lose their clarity and coalesce into sensation and nostalgia, which tell us what was really important. Visually, we forget the graphics, more dated than a prom queen, and we remember the arresting, timelessly stylistic cutscenes and the strange curves of the architecture. We remember the experience over the mechanics. Not loading zones or A.I. exploits. We remember the self-satisfied exhilaration of the getaway and we remember those moments of pure adrenaline and of gut-wrenching horror, of lying still, lying quiet in the dark, eyes locked, never blinking, on a guard who'd kill you if he found you, who's out there looking for that small sound he heard somewhere in the shadows. The moments, transcendental, of watching this creature -- something inhuman or human once -- stumble down the halls, crying out in animal shrieks and moans, on his way past you, hidden but close enough to touch -- and you with your dagger in one hand, held slippery in clammy palms, heart stopping in your chest, no room to move, so close now, can't breathe, everything silent.

Then they're gone.

6 comments:

n5corp said...

Thank you for afirmming my love and nostalgia for the series; you put it so well; just makes me want to break out the games again and go for another midnight run through...

kastanok said...

Very enjoyable article. It brought back so many memories and made my pulse race, lost in the moment.

I'd never considered Thief to be a trilogy but now I see it is a more subtle form.

Komag said...

Good read for a great series. But Thief if not just nostalgia, but has the most engaging and professional quality mod community of any game series ever! One team even made a full game-length "add-on" pack, and there are dozens of other high quality multi-mission story-rich campaigns to download and play through, some of which are just as engaging and masterful as the original games.

If anyone wants to try some of these Fan Missions, visit www.KeepofMetalandGold.com, www.ShadowdarkKeep.com, www.Thief-TheCircle.com, www.SouthQuarter.com, and there are some other good sites as well.

Chris said...

Very well written! I just wanted to jump in here (a little late, but what can I do?) and comment on the notion that all that's left of Thief is nostalgia.

Thief still has a fairly active fan community (see the sites KOMAG mentions above), and one of the things those fans do is create missions of their own, thanks to editors that were released long ago. What's more, it's not hyperbole when I say this: a fair number of the missions made by fans are actually better than the ones in the original games, from graphics to architecture and even story!

Anyone who enjoyed the Thief games owes it to themselves to try some fan missions. Not all of them are good, but the best ones are masterpieces.

Edit: KOMAG beat me to the punch by three minutes!

Kamyk said...

I would also like to add that there is a very thriving community for modding Thief, and I don't just mean some occasional comment on the forum, or a mission once every few months either. The forum has upwards of 1000 posts a day, and not a month goes by that two or three new fan missions aren't released, and many of them are simply amazing.

Check ot the links above and go to www.ttlg.com for the modding community. Thief is far from a memory.

Chris Petersen said...

Your archive readers may be interested in this:

http://blackcatgames.com/thievery.html

and this:

http://blackcatgames.com/nightblade.html

(though, I admit, Alien Swarm is my favorite of their mods)