Thief vs. AAA Gaming

September 29, 2019

Thief: The Dark Project and its sequel The
Metal Age often get lumped praise, usually in
regards to their gameplay mechanics, style and story. It’s a freeform stealth game series where the emphasis is on evasion, rather than aggression. It’s got a bold,
cohesive visual style that holds up today even if the Dark Engine’s technical
prowess doesn’t. The story’s mature and subtle. The world we
inhabit is creative and nuanced. But I still feel like that’s selling
Thief short. On the contrary, I feel like AAA games of today aren’t scrutinized as heavily as perhaps they should be. They’re let off the hook a little bit, I think. These days, we expect a level of streamlining, lower difficulties and homogenization,
but games are far more cinematic, non-linear and better-looking these days
right? Well, I’m not so sure about that. In fact I think behind the gorgeous,
jaw-dropping art direction these games present us, are often stale, tired, technically
restricting, mechanically simplistic creatively bankrupt interiors. Without focusing on the reasons why or how the industry’s reaches point.
Without focusing on the growing spectacle and the rapidly increasing
budgets or the questionable journalism in today’s
industry. Without, hopefully, relying on nostalgia or a sense of smug elitism, I’ll strip back the average AAA game and
compare it to what is a relatively humble small-scale video game and its sequel. Thief: The Dark Project is sixteen-years-old and is still the most advanced stealth game ever made and in many ways to one of the best
games in general but The Dark Project did so much right that generally only its
major attributes are listed as its triumphs. Its other assets to the industry have been forgotten. Let’s go straight past the immediate joys of
the original Thief games and onto some things less often recognized. To kick things off the original Thief
series recognizes that removing elements can be just as impactful as adding them. It’s a subtler, more mature way of
designing than the modern industry’s focus on cramming in as much content as possible
into a game. It infects every level of a modern game’s infrastructure “Disgusting” Thief (2014) is a good way of comparing the two time periods. It’s a brash overly simplified version of the
original Thief game containing its service features but little
more. To be fair, it’s not the worst thing ever It could have been an action game in
the vein of Assassin’s Creed and while it often comes dangerously close, It generally encourages stealth play.
The reviews been surprisingly mixed, considering how mostly similar games
are often so well received. Make no mistake though – Thief (2014) is a
AAA blockbuster through and through, with the same big, loud, dumb trappings
its competitors suffer from. And the original Thief series, with all the
innovations it presented, subtle and obvious, will be further forgotten
by an industry uninterested with progression. Thief (2014) follows this modern approach to game development with attempt to cram in all this content, in the hopes of appealing to
someone out there. the problem with this ideology isn’t just
that the individual game mechanics are watered down and the game becomes a sort of, jack-of-all-trades – master of none,
although this is certainly a major concern, A more pressing problem is that your game
loses direction and focus. Things will be thrown in for the sake of
filling out the product – For the sake of being cool and flashy. Take
the implementation of maps in the two games – The Dark Project and Thief (2014). In the former, in a way I haven’t seen
before or since, the map is a world building story
appropriate piece of paper, the player character – Garrett – has at the start of the mission. In the pre-mission briefing he’ll often tell you how he acquired it. In the low security mansions he robs early on, he’ll often have a near complete map, laid out with all the rooms and corridors.
“An associate of mine was confined there and has provided me with the map.” This makes believable sense Other missions will see Garrett venture
into uncharted caves and tombs, so as one would expect, the map you receive
is sketchy and incomplete “The map’s pretty specific about where the
entrance is. Too bad it’s not as clear about where
the Hornet is. Felix did some scrounging before he left
and his notes say the horns is in the tombs of some nobles – the ‘Quintus Family’. Guess I’ll just have to explore.” Another
mission sees your city ruins Garrett’s managed to get his hands on a
very old map of the City when it was still standing. So the map has
a complete street layout but in the game itself, roads often blocked off or caved in so
while the map will serve as a general guide, it can only help you so far and it’s up to
you to figure out your actual bearings. Thief (2014), like so many games from its era just gives you a mini-map. It tells you precisely
where you are, where the objectives are located and how to get there. Of all the complaints
hurled at Thief (2014), I’ve yet to see this one. And that
makes sense. Of all the problems creeping to the surface, this is not the biggest. But this small detail can have such a huge impact on gameplay and perfectly encapsulates the different
ideologies of the two games. One game recognized that its gameplay need to be immersive maze-like, story-driven, believable and
isolating. The other game just did what every other modern
game does, instead appropriately tweak every mechanic of its game to suit the
direction. It’s a failure of design and has a
large impact on gameplay. You see, when you have a quest marker or mini-map, the player doesn’t take in the
game world They’re not playing a game so much as they’re
sleepwalking through it. It becomes a monotonous grind. There’s
nothing stimulating or exciting about it. Go here. Pick up this item. Go here. Talk
to this person. Rinse. Repeat. “Name’s Halek.” This applies to any game that uses a quest marker to structure its gameplay. The Dark Project’s map forces the player to
get their bearings, to work out where they are, to respect
the environment around them, to get a little bit lost, worried and isolated, to stumble upon things like gold, they might not
have found with a quest marker. And then to start learning the unique
elements of the level, to help them finally reach their primary goal. “Here we go.” By the end of the mission the
player knows, respects and cherishes the mission they just conquered. It’s a wholly different experience to one
with map markers. Quest markers are the laziest game mechanic I
can think of. The usual solution that develops concoct in response is “Well, just turn them off,” and naturally
Thief (2014) ships with this feature. Well, now I’m just completely lost, because the
game isn’t designed with this in mind. Basically, no amount of turning off quest
markers or mini-maps will bring back the sublime in-world maps of the original Thief games. Now, we haven’t even begun discuss the core
gameplay at all. If everything about these two games was
exactly the same besides the implementation of maps, The Dark Project would still be the far
better game. That’s what’s so baffling. Just about every single AAA video game
from the past five years implements the quest marker system, without the developers actually
understanding what effect it has on gameplay They have no idea how many things the
Dark Project got right. “You’re so in love with the old TV show, you know?
And in your mind it’s the best thing on Earth. And fifteen, twenty
years later you have a look on it and, and finally, it’s not exactly–” “Yeah. Nostalgia. A lot of it is nostalgia and I feel like that’s even more evident in games because they
have come so far just in such a short period of time.” All of these things the modern developer is
attending to fix up were deliberate design choices implemented by Looking Glass Studios at the time. But the industry just plows forward, blind and
oblivious without thought or care as to why the Dark Project
implemented them in the first place. “What makes a Thief game outside of Garrett?” “Uh, first of all, the point of view. It’s a first-person game.” Let’s take another aspect The Dark Project and The Metal Age excel at – level design. Except, let’s focus on an area that
isn’t talked about so much. In your standard corridor FPS fare, a level will be
designed for pacing and direct gameplay primarily. The result is something that feels noticeably
gamey The environment will be dressed in a way
that it looks like an engineering room, a plane hangar, a cliffside, an underwater tunnel, a bridge, on
top of a train, in a courtyard – whatever. But this is generally just dressing – a way to add a stylistic touch to the
product so that it separates it visually from other games on the market or just other levels in the game. Ultimately
though, a developer will place the appropriate number of bad guys and health and ammo pickups according to the pacing. About to enter a boss room? There’s most
likely gonna be a crate of ammo outside the room. Going even slightly out of your way?
They’ll probably be a minor pick-up to reward your exploration. The best example of the latter I have is
that item conveniently placed under the stairwell. You know the one. No one would ever leave
a crate of ammo under a stairwell, but the developers put it there to reward
the player for going off the beaten path. And that makes sense since and it’s a good idea
to reward the player agency – for paying attention. But it also feels gamey.
It feels like the developers are watching over me, making sure nothing
ever goes too wrong. The watchful eye of the developer recognizes
that a boss fight is on the horizon so they leave me a handful of goodies to get
the boost I need. Now, that isn’t to say the original Thief games
don’t reward you for going off the beaten path, but it’s handled more appropriately. In
the Dark Project and The Metal Age, you’re simply dropped into a mansion, with all the facets of a mansion – the servant quarters the Grand Hall, the kitchen, the large main doors, the
back entry, to guard quarters, the bedroom, the garden, library or the music room.
And then it’s populated with the appropriate items and personnel.
So before you even begin to explore the mansion, you can safely assume there won’t be any
gold in the kitchen, because realistically there wouldn’t be,
even if gameplay-wise it’s a challenge to actually get there. But
you might find a note from the cook saying he’s stolen a piece of gold from one of the nobles. Now suddenly there’s a good chance they’ll be a fat chunk of gold hiding in the kitchen. A music room probably doesn’t have a whole lot
in the way of gold, but it might have a few valuable instruments. Already the player’s brain is doing real
thinking, using its initiative to problem-solve. It’s far more compelling than “Go here. Kill
these people. Pick this up. Move onto the next room.” Went into the side corridor instead of following the quest arrow? Good boy. Now get back to the arrow. It gets even
more interesting when player motivation plays a part in finding these items. There’s a mission where we quickly learn the
leader of the group of people you’re stealing from is paranoid of his own men stealing
his gold supply. What the player finds, unsurprisingly, is a majority of the mission’s gold hidden in the leader’s own quarters, locked behind chests. Now this isn’t necessarily the most mind-blowing thing ever but it’s a subtle change in design principle that makes a resounding difference. What an exciting moment for gaming. The ever difficult task of fusing story with gameplay is happening right here. Without leeching off the film industry. Without a single cinematic. Gameplay hasn’t stopped. The story hasn’t stopped either though. It’s organically being revealed to you as you play. And the gameplay is still running on all cylinders. This is something that the original Thief games implemented, but it could be taken far further assuming anyone took this approach to level design and ran with it. It’s too bad we’re all focused on accessible, frustration-free quest markers. This is what so greatly frustrates me about gaming today. Thief was never perfect, but it was a huge leap in the right direction for not only stealth, but gaming in general. But the industry just plows ahead, blind and oblivious. The modern industry says “Well, Thief was good back in the day, but we want to tell a much better story today, so we’re going to need a lot more cinematics and exposition.” But Thief was never a slouch when it came to storytelling either. It’s not loud, big or flashy but it was organic and mature. It’s subtle. An example of The Dark Project’s organic and subtle storytelling happens midway through the game. Narrative-wise, Garrett is a charismatic, cocksure, brilliant thief who fancies himself a challenge. He’s offered a contract to steal a prized sword from a mansion owned by a bit of an antisocial shut-in. When you first arrive, the house seems relatively straightforward. You enter through a back door. Guard quarters, food halls, carpet over marble corridors. This reflects Garrett and the player’s mind state – all is going according to plan. It’s business as usual. Bringing it back to the brilliant map implementation of the game, this area mission is clearly documented
in Garrett’s in-game map, but no one’s really ventured further to get any information for the rest of the mansion, so Garrett’s map reflects this: There’s just has a big blank space with question marks beyond. As you get deeper and deeper in, things get weird. Garden’s appear inside. Rooms are upside
down. Rooms get bigger then smaller. Rooms spiral and tilt. Booby traps start
appearing. Sounds of crazed laughter heard through the halls. And it’s easy to get lost. No map documentation and maze-like corridors ensure you’re frantically pacing up and down the level, in a little bit of shock. Once again the
mission reflects the mindset of character and player. No longer sure and confident, Garrett’s a little bit shaken. And this is all conveyed organically through
gameplay, thanks excellent level design, art design and sound design. We don’t need
to cut to a cinematic. The developer Looking Glass studios is
extremely confident in both themselves and the medium itself. Now, in the end it turns out the man
who contracted you in the first place to break in and steal the sword was
actually the weird shut-in that owns the mansion, and he was testing you to see how good you were.
So now we know him as a character too. Perhaps without the player even realizing it.
Just by playing the mission we understand this man is dangerous, strange, mysterious, more than he appears
on the exterior, possibly crazy, possibly powerful, a legitimate challenge for Garrett, and not someone to get complacent
with. Once again I have to stress that this is achieved through a natural
dialogue between player and game. No one says to you “this man is dangerous,
watch out.” He doesn’t tell us that. Garrett doesn’t else that. We don’t cut to a
cinematic presenting us with the strange man from the entrance to the weird
center. The Dark Project lets us, the player,
uncover it for ourselves through gameplay. It’s masterful in the game’s
ability to guide you, imply and tell a story in this mission
without ever holding your hand or feeling like you’re in a leash. But Looking Glass does have you on a
leash. Just as any impressive film, novel, song, or any piece of art does. They’re
dictating what you feel and know, and when you feel and know it. But it’s
done so carefully that despite this, you as the player are still free to play the
game. The mission is still just as open as the others. There are still multiple routes and
opportunities. You’re still presented with a challenge that must be overcome. All your weapons and gadgets are just as useful
as they always were. Nonetheless, the game communicate the
story no matter how you decide to tackle the mission. It’s shocking how much more seamlessly
Thief is directed here than a AAA game is. Take the
implementation of the rope arrow. In Thief 2014, the rope arrow can only be
used in context-specific locations that the game highlights for you. This has been a source of complaint amongst fans of the originals. But the
original Thief game also restricted the use of the rope arrow to context-specific locations. Just in a much smarter, more organic way. See, in Thief: The Dark Project, you can only use
them on wood surfaces, so if Looking Glass don’t want you climbing a
specific wall, they simply don’t place wood in the area. The player is forced out of using the rope
arrow but in an entirely believable and natural way that never feels gamey or patronizing. Even the idea that power and wealth are something to be feared is effortlessly communicated to the player
organically through gameplay. A torch, the basic light source in the
game, can be put out with a water arrow to give the player more darkness. Wealthier ares in the game will utilize
electronic lights, and these can’t be put out using a water arrow and are usually more numerous. Likewise, wealthier mansions will have marble floors installed, instead of regular stone. Marble is far louder to walk across. The
player feels more comfortable in the poorer areas where you can slip into the
darkness and race across stone and wooden floors. As
Garrett works his way toward the truly terrifying and powerful rulers of the
city, the gameplay will reflect that. Nothing is
more terrifying than a well-guarded set of hallways, all well lit and marble floored. You’ll be
frantically laying down moss arrows and scrounging for an inch of darkness just you
can collect yourself for a few more seconds. This also calls back my words from before:
the original Thief games removing or minimizing its features, not because have
time monetary or technological restraints, but to ensure a better product is
produced. This idea that the modern industry’s all but forgotten. One thing the modern developer loves to give players is choice. The choice to forge a character’s path.
YOU tell the story. YOU pick which missions to do. YOU pick what upgrades you take. You pick whether you’re going to stealth your way through or force in aggressively. You pick whether you’re good or bad. Now don’t get me wrong. All these things can work depending on
the circumstance and the direction of the game. But that’s really the problem, isn’t it?
It seems like developers consistently forget their direction and just throw it
all in. The above-mentioned fusion of gameplay
and story would most likely not be anywhere near as effective when you
start adding in these choices for the player. When you start giving the player more choice,
the developer loses sight of what the player is doing in the narrative will become
muddled. In the above level the developers rely
on the feeling of vulnerability to convey the uneasiness. They rely on the player to slowly dip themselves into this bizarre abyss, with only their wits and a few trusty
gadgets to get them out of danger. With the choice of aggression comes a
sense of empowerment. When empowered the player will never feel vulnerable. If they don’t feel vulnerable, that
emotionally-charged arc contained within the level will never take place. If it never takes place, then player will
never recognize the character progression in the contractor who hired Garrett. So
despite this initial joy you might get from a choice like this, it ultimately serves to impact the
experience negatively in a game like Thief. This brings up another point I’d like to
stress. Much of the original Thief games’ tension stems from the notion
that Garrett is extremely vulnerable. This is what makes him such a joy to play.
So often, far too often, we see AAA games marketed and developed with the
idea of empowering the player. “Can you imagine what it would be given have superpowers? Never has it been so fun, so rewarding to be a superhero. Infamous seamlessly combines powerful
moral choices with incredible freedom of movement, and a kick-ass combat system, making you feel like the
most powerful man in this crumbling world.” It’s frankly staggering how often I see
this happen. As though developers or the marketing team of these games don’t have
the slightest clue about drama or tension. For any kind drama suspense to exist
in any kind of medium, there needs to be a balance between the forces
of good and evil, or winning and losing, or some kind of goal. They need game something they don’t have. A tug-of-war. The suspense stems from an unknowing as to how the moment will play
out. Or a sense of danger because a character is perhaps not as equipped as he
should be for this situation. You make the game too easy and you’ll find yourself
sleepwalking through the levels. The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t set up
the fight between Luke and Darth Vader as an easy, straightforward chance for Luke to
show off his massively over-the-top powers. “Force Grip can be used to take down AT-STs. A Force Push can be used to take down an entire group a storm troopers and literally just send them into orbit. I mean, that was just a tap of force push there.” Because that would take all the tension
and suspense out the fight. No, you present it as a huge challenge for Luke.
He’s massively underpowered against the superior Darth Vader, and we can only hope and cheer for him as
he stands toe to toe with his nemesis. Now, with this in mind, it’s mind-boggling
that we’re actually being marketed to in this way. Is this truly how we approach our choice of
games? As to how flashy or powerful the player character is? Sure, Garrett is nimble, fast and can be
quiet, but barring this it’s almost confronting how regular he is, physically. He can be killed in two blows from a sword, and stands no real chance with guards.
He doesn’t have any physical abilities barring the mechanical eye he’s gifted with later on. He’s not even that quiet. Walking on any
kind a marble surface will quickly get you into strife. No, in The Dark Project and The Metal Age,
it feels like only through the hard, patient work that the player puts into the missions, will one yield positive results. This gives it that tension that something like say, Dishonored lacks. In Thief, as I sweat in the corner of a dark room as a guard draws ever closer, there’s the understanding that if I get
caught, I’m as good as dead, or at least I’ll be running for my life. In Dishonored, I have a vast array of
deadly weapons at my disposal, all of which will cleanly slaughter my
enemies in a number of satisfyingly gruesome gruesome ways. Getting caught is rarely a problem. There’s
always the backup option because the player character hasn’t been rendered as vulnerable in any way. He’s been rendered as an unstoppable killing
machine. The player has to create their own artificial limitations in their head for
any real tension to exist. To further drive this point home, not only
do these AAA games present the player with this ridiculously overpowered character to control, but often enough, the real powerful
stuff isn’t even really done by you, the player. You’ll just be clicking a button and on-screen your
characters has just slaughtered three people in a single move while winking at the camera. “That was just a tap a Force Push there.” This makes it easier for a player to get sucked into a
game and see all the cool stuff without having to invest too much time in it. Think about the Arkham Asylum games’
combat. The core fighting boils down to pressing two buttons. On-screen, however, Batman’s literally
jumping all over the place. He’s doing flips, leaping from bad guy to bad guy, efficiently taking them down one by one. And it’s pretty cool to see and you do
feel empowered for a time. But there’s a mismatch there between
player and character. The incredible moves Batman’s pulling on-screen don’t
correspond with the comparably small amount of work you’re putting into
taking these guys down. You haven’t achieved anything to satisfying
or challenging. In The Dark Project and The Metal Age, at
first you’ll be a bumbling, clunky burglar. There’s a learning curve, sure, but give it a
few missions and all of a sudden you’re a master thief. You’ll confidently stride over areas you deem
low-risk, put out lights specific to your needs. Your ears will be finely tuned to the sounds
of a guard coming and you’ll know where to run when you do hear one. You’ll remember to lean around corners and scout your surroundings. You’ll stop bothering to black-jack your enemies and instead just sneak right past them without leaving a trace. It’s a fantastic feeling because you, as
the player, are achieving these things. Garrett’s just a vulnerable, regular joe by himself, but when you’re controlling him, he can become a professional. Now, to even further drive the point home the AAA game not only presents
you as an unstoppable killing machine, but gives you a huge variety of ways to
do it, all of which aren’t really any more useful than any other. “You know, Force Push, Lightning, duel-wield lightsabers, Force Push. Hit a zombie with an axe, a chainsaw, a baseball bat, a dildo, whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. There’s no more gameplay depth by adding in these new weapons. They’re all just thrown in
there for more variety. This idea that you’re just giving players things to do like toys in a toy box is simplistic and juvenile. What usually ends up happening is the
player will ultimately pick a single weapon that they like the look of, or just figures
that something works better than everything else in the game and they’ll stick with that for the rest of
the runtime. So this attempt to add variety to the experience has ironically backfired. The game has become more repetitive a result. Once again the original Thief games are an
exception. Looking Glass craft specific weapons
designed for the game and for the game only, and it’s up to the player to recognize when and
how to use the weapons appropriately. It’ not a matter of picking up a preferred one. Every weapon is going to be used and it’s up to the player to react to the
challenge the game presents them. A water arrow will put out flames to add darkness to hide in. Moss arrows will soften footsteps. Noisemaker arrows can be fired in the opposite direction to distract guards. Rope arrows can be used reach areas
otherwise unreachable. Every weapon has its own purpose. It becomes more than just a toy box full of neat tricks. It becomes a game, with action and reaction, challenge and payoff. “Don’t think you can hide for long.” Once again I’ve got to stress that every mechanic I’m bitching about here has a place and purpose. But it’s important to recognize what
fits the direction of your game specifically. How will adding or removing the specific
element enhance your story? Will it make the game harder, more terrifying, empowering, belittling? Are you putting in this element because the game suits it or are you just lazily following trends? Have you thought through every element of your game? The most disappointing thing about all
this is that Thief wasn’t perfect. The entire video was never intended to be
pandering to a time gone by or a love-letter to the great era of 90s games. Thief, along with a number of other titles at the time, were doing some incredible things. There was some real gutsy genre experimentation and interesting game mechanics being introduced, no doubt. But they were never perfect, and only hint at the massive opportunities games had in store for them down the road. This was to be the tip of the iceberg. The spark set to ignite the behemoth of flames to come. What’s so disappointing is that where the
games industry could have been this exciting groundbreaking medium set to rival any other medium creatively,
it’s only regressed and stagnated. What’s so disappointing is that gamers know this, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. There was always an understanding that Thief 2014 wouldn’t be anywhere near as complex as the originals, but that it could still be a bit of fun, a great deal of fun, even. That, to me, is a
major concern for the modern industry Just right out of the box, before
anything has even really been revealed, there’s an unspoken understanding amongst gamers that there’s no way this game will exert the complexity of the originals, simply because of the era the game is made in. And whether gamers care or not is another matter, but someone who’s educated in the trends
of the industry knows this game won’t be is mechanically
complex as its predecessors. And that’s disappointing. In some ways,
games have advanced massively. Just think about how far technically
games have come over the past 16 years. Compare the visuals of Thief 2014 to the
original Thief games. There’s obviously a massive improvement
technically here. So how then, is it not mind-blowing that the gameplay
itself is only regressing? How can developers justify the stark contrast between the improvements over the past 16 years made within the
technical and art departments compared to the creative and storytelling departments? While texture resolution is massively
increasing, with new shaders and lighting techniques constantly being bettered, with animations more seamless, more
realistic, what’s going on with the core gameplay? And why is the average AAA story worse
than Transformers? How is this possible? How can you suck out all of this creativity and hard work? How could Thief have gotten so much right
and so little has come of it in the following years? And obviously there are very real, very
broad answers to these questions that I have no time to focus on here, and so I’ll leave it at that. But I think
the most important takeaway here is to never stray away from the direction of your game. That’s your main focus. And everything in the product, be it the story, the gameplay mechanics, the art direction,
the sound design; it needs to draw from this. It’s not enough to put things in because
they’re fun or because they’ll fill the game out. Or because those are the expectations of
genre. Defy expectations. Appropriately tweak your game to the direction’s needs. The Dark Project and The Metal Age excelled at this and it’s worth studying them and following in their footsteps. Be your own game and consider what effect each element has on the player’s experience. Create something unique and relevant. Tell
story through gameplay. And please, don’t use quest markers.

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