A major vehicle for why I initially ran off the rails (which I still hold against the game) is the first-person stealth. There’s nothing (that I’ve ever played anyway) that even comes close to matching Thief’s illustration of stealth, but even at its own pinnacle, the title fails under my own subjective rules; which are both to its credit and my detriment (as well as vice-versa).
I’m hyper-critical of first-person games in general because of the intimacy I associate with the perspective. Everything from how movement is handled to whether or not I can see my own limbs is constantly under intense scrutiny on my part and is a personal nitpick I’ll probably never be able to ignore. What Thief got away with here is extremely admirable because stealth games rely upon that intimacy even more so than other games; particularly they are extremely reliant on patience, subversive thematics, and a methodical use of weaponry.
What Thief absolutely excelled at is however, is what I imagine was Looking Glass’ goal to begin with; an immersive first-person stealth adventure. Its main muscle in that respect was the title's use of its light mechanic. The gem meter at the bottom of the screen is initially just another meter, but as the game draws on, the design actually incorporated it into my own mental dexterity. This means it (being aware of the yellow-to-red gauge and light/dark areas) was actually as much of an action to me as raising my bow was. It was an effective band-aid to cover up the fact that I am pretty hostile towards the first-person natured game in the first place.
Also to note is the sound, which while not overly-sophisticated, provided enough temperament for me in order to always have my hand on ‘F’ or ‘S’. It complemented the strength of the light mechanics by actually welcoming my own obsessive acuity in the mix (e.g. stepping on metal grating was like nails on a chalkboard for me).
My most favored design aspect of this game though, is what I have and can only describe as ‘free stealth’. This game is not one to which the term linear applies to in any fashion. Of course there are some criticisms I could make left and right on the nature of some of Thief’s level design, but for the majority of the game I found myself consistently being presented with a type of freedom most will wantonly write off as ‘open-world’. The world of Thief definitely came alive tenfold from being able to genuinely explore and take in some of the levels from a personal standpoint; it requires both commitment, a sense of methodical observation, and most importantly --- a lasting impression in the end. I was told very specifically by Justin Keverne that the trying to dress Thief’s play in wrappings of ‘open-world’ would melt away after a certain point. That statement became more poignant that even he may have realized once I came back to the game after taking a break. The most crucial aspect regarding this issue was epitomized by a very specific thing, Thief’s own narrative content.
Thief manipulates a steampunk/medieval dystopia in which groups such as Hammerites (hostile theocratic activists) and Keepers (an extremely secret guild of observational scholars) populate and propagate. Garrett (the player) was raised and cultivated by the latter, which saw potential in him from a very young age. The Keepers partook and trained him in the eponymous thievery, which is what Garrett naturally seemed to excel at; even to the point of arrogance. This leads to him becoming a sort of independent thief on his own terms, which is how the player first comes under his control (or vice-versa depending how you want to look at it ;D).
The problem I had with Thief’s narrative was mainly due to how it incorporates fantasy into its world. Usually I pass out praise graciously when a game acknowledges and obeys its own world, but that didn’t happen with Thief. Actually, the game kind of slapped me in the face with tropes of nerdish troupes (e.g. zombies, large animals, and certain settings of the game). By the end it wasn’t much of a problem due to the main antagonist exerting his force, but it was just plain odd during that first third because the game didn’t make any active acknowledgement to its own world; that is something which will always throw me off.
The cognitive splinter in the game’s narrative for me was the cynical Garrett, who is set up for someone like me to love, but remained someone I couldn’t quite connect with in the end. I made some commentary on ‘garrulous Garrett’ before, but I remain staunchly placed in my opinion that Garrett simply didn’t open his mouth enough. This is however, coming from someone who still obsesses over the loquacious Metal Gear Solid games, but I always found myself nearly demanding Garrett make some more --- ANY more comments beyond quick cynical quips on his surrounding (which were few and far in between). Something to color him more as a character, especially since the game clearly states that he’s an arrogant ass who is working on his own by choice. Nope, I’m not asking for long-winded soliloquies from the guy, but I was told by multiple people that I should enjoy the character and you assholes raised my standards, therefore I’m demanding more from him now --- blame yourselves. =)
In the end, I’ve enjoyed this game more than I have any other stealth title. The exceptions here of course, are the Metal Gear games. This is because I always got the distinct impression that Thief was constantly teasing/insulting me with everything it did well (almost to the point of it being actually ‘conscious of it’). Be it Garrett as a character himself or the reliance and dare I say brilliant use of sound and light in such a dated game, it succeeds.
The world of Thief is actually pretty damn fascinating, but the cocktease formula permeates this presentation as well. This is also an influence in why I kind of fell off the grid playing it earlier. The way its world was presented to me just didn’t mesh with where my own head was at the moment, so a lot of its own fortes were simply lost on me.
Actually, now that I think about it, Thief is a lot of ways the anti-Metal Gear. Its focus and story is always hovering around an indirect and elliptically told narrative. This doesn’t JUST come from the scrolls and such, but what the player is meant to infer from things such as the mission briefings and the like as well. The overall take away from the story can be missed by anyone with even the slightest tendency to overlook some of its more subtle thematics (I’ll even admit having to go back to a few things myself). Because I was exposed to the world of Snake and his ilk long before Garrett, it’s likely that I will never be able to allow the latter to surpass the former now. Five-hundred years from now, who’s really going to care though?
What is cool however, is that I forsee a very long and orgasmic rivalry in my own creative enjoyment of this series. This is because the nature of my hostile take on the FFPI (Failed First-Person Intimacy) will always be a presence in playing the games (Though Deadly Shadows could hold some surprises for me). That and seeing through the eyes of the game on ‘the other side of the spectrum’ allows me to achieve a sort of balance for myself; though like I said, I will always be tipped --- no matter how little in favor of the more perversely and self-obsessed world of Metal Gear. Thief is a mystical ‘other’ in which I see another portion of what would compose the golden genome for my own personal perfect game.
As the future 4th installment of Thief draws near, I intend to juxtapose the two series (Thief & Metal Gear) to the most infinitesimal levels regarding their individual capabilities. An experimental conflict I’m going to keep drawing parallels towards is the relation that Thief has to Metal Gear Solid from my perspective specifically. A war of attrition for stealth games if you will…Interesting things to note here:
There’s also three aspects which I purposefully avoided discussing in hopes that they (along with other things I’ve discussed here) will be addressed in the two sequels I’m now intrigued to get into.
“The designers stated that unlike the original game, whose levels were developed to suit the plot, in Thief II the levels were designed first and the plot retrofitted to work with them. In general, the levels are much larger and less linear than those of its predecessor.” --- Thief 2: The Metal Age’s Wikipedia page.
*[That comment scares the hell out of me and is making me question whether or not to jump right into playing The Metal Age.]*