Saturday night – 3 AM. I’ve been feeling an irrational urge to play the new Thief. I could not tell you why. I’ve heard that the level design is very good. Sadly, I’ve also heard that the rest of it is a bland, soggy porridge of directionless conspiracy film tropes and cloying AAA panache; caught in the middle, in other words, its various stakeholders unable to decide whether to seek the tone of its predecessors or ape whatever marketing trends were big back when the project hit preproduction. I’ve seen first hand how this happens: The masters of coveted IPs are often better at policing the surface elements of a project (the plot; the art direction; the marketing) than they are at policing the videogame stuff. Thus as a developer you become fixated on pushing a reasonable game design through even if you’ve been ordered to make Garrett into a Vengeance-Driven™ Cool Videogame Anti-Hero™ with a Dead Girlfriend™ standing resolute against a Plague-Ridden Cityscape™. I confess my urge to Twitter in hopes someone will convince me not to buy the thing; @fengxii mistakenly assumes I was talking about my desire to play the original Thief, and implores me to give in. Hmm. That sounds like a better idea.
I’ve played Deadly Shadows before, but never The Dark Project. Its age doesn’t faze me. I pride myself on my ability to jump headlong into ancient videogames, and 1998 is hardly as far back as our medium goes. 800×600 on a high-res 16:10 monitor? Fine. Glaring mouse lag? Okay. Muddy late ’90s textures mapped onto Quake-era BSP trees? Perfect. I could fix all of these things if I wanted to, but that would destroy the original context. I find myself enamoured by Dark Project’s chunky walls, which feel more solid than the elaborate trickery we use today. Here there are no invisible collision volumes warding us away from some bit of twenty-thousand polygon street junk, placed more to afford realistic screenshots than to produce an actual physical environment. There are no normal maps to create the illusion of depth along its brick walls even if, in truth, they are flat. Dark Project’s walls are walls. You can touch them.
Garrett’s first job involves breaking into a place called Lord Bafford’s Manor. Like Bafford himself, the place is small-time; sparsely guarded, and dimly-lit. A stepping stone. The game establishes tone right away. Outside the manor’s main entrance we observe that half the guards are drunk, mumbling unintelligibly, discarded beer bottles dotting the ground around their feet even though they’re standing straight up. At regular intervals they break awkwardly into a wooden idle animation; occasionally they wobble as if announcing their drunkenness to the deaf. If there’s anything I hate in a hired goon, I’d cite a lack of professionalism. But then, I suspect Lord Bafford is accustomed to getting that for which he pays.
We sneak in through a sewer entrance; the lone watchmen is, of course, passed out on his feet. The manor is huge, and its symmetry gives it a maze-like quality. I can never tell which side I’m exploring, and often find myself doubling back. There is a library full of books no one reads, but which Bafford has his servants maintain in hopes of fooling no one in particular. On the walls are many paintings: Of skulls, of well-dressed women, of sorcerers consorting with winged demons. They look vaguely biblical, the human characters posing awkwardly to point their bodies outward from the canvas while gazing inwards at its central axis. Their hands gesture extravagantly in this direction or that; their wrists contort a little. Lord Bafford, like everyone else in the Thief universe, is into some weird shit.
As we explore the winding passages of the manor, it becomes evident that the character of Thief’s storyworld evolved organically alongside its mechanics. First we observe how the manor is built to allow us places to hide. Its hallways are full of little loops, side halls separated from the main passage by naught but a thin curtain and containing literally nothing except fine carpet and featureless wallpaper. They serve no apparent purpose but to let us hide from the guard who patrols the lower level. It must be strange to live in a house full of hiding places, never certain of what might lurk behind its countless curtains and corners. Upstairs we find a complicated structure of balconies layered atop one another, interconnected by sharply-wound passageways and all overlooking the manor’s ostentatious central reflecting pool. Again these structures serve no immediate purpose other than to make the environment feel complicated, interconnected and sharply-wound. I suspect the central idea behind Thief, though, is that these qualities are worthwhile purposes in themselves. The balconies suggest that a world built to accommodate one protagonist’s secrecy is a world that breeds secrecy amongst all of its other inhabitants. They provide a perfect place to shirk one’s duties; to speak in hushed tones of a secret night-time gathering; to plot against the master of the house. Perhaps some wide-eyed young servant experienced the best moments of their life on that balcony, quivering beneath the hands of a more experienced partner. Perhaps some jealous guardsperson was watching from the other side. Lord Bafford, for his part, may well have spent these moments frolicking in his pool below, demonstrating what he imagined to be his athleticism for all the hired friends whose meagre lives, he felt, should orbit about his own portly figure.
We complete the job by seizing a gaudy-looking sceptre from a shelf on the wall of a tiny throne room Bafford built for himself; Garrett scoffs at the notion that a minor noble like Bafford should have a throne room in the first place. We then escape back into The City, now thoughtfully established as a labyrinth of twisting alleyways, dark corners and endless shaded balconies. In Garrett’s day it stands as a breeding ground for secrets, though none can say whether it was the inhabitants or the architecture that first made it so. A city in which everyone has something to hide is the perfect place of business should you happen to be a master thief; this, I believe, is what makes The Dark Project so compelling.
1998 was a good year for videogames. The production budgets were low enough; the profit margins were manageable enough; there were few enough strings attached to the money. In many ways it represents the apex of the AAA industry, epitomizing an era in which the biggest studios we had were free to produce imaginative, largely-uncompromising work that managed to actually feel like and be about things rather than merely containing them. In 2014 we can look at two videogames, both entitled Thief. One of them we remember fondly for being about secrets, and for feeling transgressive. The other one, by all accounts, has some stuff in it. 2014 is a miserable place to be.