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Thief (2014)

Thief (2014)

In an era of internet vitriol, AAA rebellion, and crowded release schedules it’s all too easy to make snap judgments about a title with some visible cracks. Too often we see those cracks enlarged, either out of context from their in-game appearances in contrast to other titles, or in grandstanding some larger underlying narrative for whatever malady is plaguing video games these days. Assuredly, I’m guilty of this as well; within the first 5 minutes of Thief, I was ready to quit. This review initially had several paragraphs dedicated to everything “wrong” with those first 5 minutes of gameplay, discussing player agency and what I felt were “dire” consequences to the game not allowing a player to fall from a ledge within the tutorial before realizing I wasn’t giving players enough credit myself to comprehend the drawbacks of falling on their own. This review has since been revised… twice.

Thief is more or less a lightning rod for some pretty heavy criticisms of the games industry. Some call it a cash-in; resurrecting a dead franchise to piggyback on the successes of Assassin’s Creed and Dishonored without enough ties to its own lore to justify the branding. Some call it a big-budget failure; struggling from an extended development history and exhibiting all manner of strange programming behaviors. Some call it an example of conflicting design philosophies and executive tampering resulting in limitations on player choice to provide intended gameplay scenarios. Some call it too dark and broody, while others call it too easy for its available player guidance mechanisms and lax requirements to completing missions.

I’m calling it my game of the year.

In fairness, there is some truth to each of the statements above. I’ve encountered my fair share of bugs and glitches; from guards walking in place, to characters shouting loudly through walls, to a rendered smoking pipe floating mid-air like some sort of accidental homage to Magritte’s Treachery of Images. I’ve gotten lost in the City on more than one occasion, likely attributable to its rather dull color palette. I miss the old Garrett and wish the old factions had a role in the main story (although enjoyed the quick references to the series past around the City, like the guard that questions what a “Taffer” is). Despite my general enjoyment of the missions, every so often I became frustrated when my number of available options were whittled down to one predetermined action; a linear escape across rooftops in mission 4 was particularly distasteful for me that I’d swear was the result of some guy in a suit saying “Garrett’s been sneaking around too long; what else can we make him do?”

I may have been able to shrug off these annoyances, but it’s also impossible to dismiss them entirely, and the breadth of annoyances did certainly add up for some people. It’s certainly not a game for everybody either considering the gamut of opinions surrounding stealth gameplay in general, in addition to one’s willingness to read through the many in-game texts and to adhere to a playstyle of their own volition. I would wager it takes a good deal of patience to extract enjoyment out of Thief; a virtue not easily bestowed in an industry constantly moving towards the next greatest thing, but it’s a virtue that the game seems to excel at rewarding. Anyway, enough about what other people might have to say about the game; let’s get into Thief and why I think it’s great despite its failings.

Like Clockwork

Up front, I can tell you that Garrett’s base of operations being the City’s central clock tower did a lot to assure me that I’d be enjoying this game. Not only do I share a general affinity for games featuring clock towers, but when you think about the metaphors at play, we can discern all that is good about Thief gameplay through the inner workings of a clock; flowing, cyclical, mechanical, predictable, and consisting of complex parts that further a common goal. One may interact with the clock by breaking it outright, or by tinkering with its parts, but may just as equally remain an impartial observer; watching the gears as they turn. Doubling as a tower also alludes to a mastery over its surroundings, presiding high over the environment below, able to watch over it with precision and care.

Time is a Thief

The goal of Thief games (I would argue) is not to be ‘immersed’ in a world as though it were a reality, but to retain knowledge of its artificial construction to observe and exploit the intricacies of its clockwork nature. I suppose that’s why I can find forgiveness for a few faults; different guards repeating the same lines of dialogue ad nauseam is simply the game’s comical way of saying “I’m a guard in mission __” to me, while glitchy behavior merely translates to “something’s wrong with the clock.” Immersion is overrated, and a game can be just as engaging without it. In playing Thief, a player will learn how much time a patrol route may leave for lock-picking a door, just as they may learn how a passing guard’s shadow might obstruct another guard’s view. They will learn which guards notice open doors; which turn their heads in addition to their bodies (allowing for micro-windows of potential activity), and learn which guards rush to turn lights back on (savvy points if you’re turning off switches with blunt arrows). They will learn to sneak past birds and distance themselves from dogs (or push right past them both with choke arrows), and be mindful of what additional sounds from the environment (glass, loud flooring, water, missed lock pin resets) may alert others nearby.

It’s in the moments where the player’s interactivity and understanding within the levels are firing on all cylinders that this game proves its lineage, and moment-to-moment planning and execution makes up the majority of the experience, rapidly pushing from one potential thieving scenario to the next. That is, as long as you’re invested in following through on those moments when they present themselves. It takes patience to wait out the ticking clock, and Thief chooses to allow the player to pass through its missions with comparative ease to previous titles without any thieving quotas to complete them; meaning the majority of challenges presented in the game are entirely optional. Personally I’m fine with this even though it will likely put off others. I’m always more motivated to discover how to pick up a 1G coin without alerting the guard nearby than I am in reaching the next room as it frequently leads to some exhilarating risk/reward scenarios, plus the ability to speed to certain points in missions also yields additional benefits on replays when attempting to claim any missed collectibles without committing to a full sweep.

Avoiding detection entirely may be methodical, but when plans go awry, the game also proves equally exciting when reacting to guards that suspect (but have not been alerted to) your presence as you scramble to lower suspicions back down to “reset the clock” to what it once was, often with quick improvisation to distract or outmaneuver them. Occasionally your missteps even act as a benefit – in one mission I left a door open that caught the eye of a patrolling guard, but instead of breaking his patrol, checking that room became an extension of his route, leaving more time for me to explore elsewhere! Changing behaviors isn’t limited to the player’s interactivity either, as the game also does a bit of self-tinkering based on your progression, loosing a few hidden pendulums to catch you unprepared. In some missions and side missions, certain guards will change their locations and behaviors once you reach a certain point – both creating new challenges in certain areas while creating opportunities in others (some with lynchpin success windows as guards move to re-position themselves).

More often than not it’s the act of “breaking the clock” that proves the least engaging; this mostly presents itself within the “Predator” style of play where you focus on knocking out and/or killing the guards.  Physical combat with the blackjack club is lousy (a fitting punishment for being detected by the guards), and while stealthily taking enemies out through takedowns and arrow kills may be somewhat entertaining, it comes at the expense of removing any challenge from looting the environment, removing the game’s puzzles for easy room completions. The game attempts to talk you out of this behavior with Garrett suggesting early on that he thinks killing is wrong, but still there’s usually at least one knockout/kill side-objective for each mission awarding extra money to incentivize what in my opinion should’ve been actively avoided. I imagine this was the result of Eidos (or Square-Enix) hoping to throw a bone towards all playstyles technically offered, but I’d suggest anyone looking to fight their way through the game won’t really enjoy doing so. Thankfully, there are more than enough ways to avoid combat for the majority of the experience, and thanks to the game’s high level of customization, it can even be removed from the game entirely.

 It’s Your City

Saying you get to play a game “your way” is usually a nice way of saying a game doesn’t know what it wants to be, but in this case the game’s versatility in tailoring the experience to player preferences is greatly preferred. Thieving quotas aside, the series has always been accommodating towards multiple playstyles. Perfectionists may want to comb through levels with frequent quickloads, while others may wish to press on through shear improvisation. A commanding player may test the limits of their interactivity, while a more withdrawn type will wait to slip through as a passive observer. A hurried player would be directed to their next challenges, while others may survey their options to find challenges for themselves. Between all of these, there is no identity that is objectively incorrect; meaning that in the world of Thief, any stated mission objectives and goals should be considered secondary to the player’s own.

It’s in the realm of player guidance where the game seemingly oversteps its boundaries considering the onslaught of modern guidance mechanisms at play, from way-point markers, to “focus mode” (a “detective mode” surrogate that highlights objects to be interacted with among other benefits), to loot glint, alert meters, maps, visual supplements to lock-picking and button presses, and many other HUD-based extras that will tip you off to whatever is going on. I’d complain about how they make the game too easy, but each can be toggled on or off. That’s even better than having a reduced set of unavoidable mechanisms, for now players are ultimately able to pick and choose what they want to make use of (if anything at all) to find the experience they want. Myself, I found the alert meters to be helpful in gauging just how much I could get away with before being seen, but found focus to reveal environmental secrets too quickly and was all too happy to shut it down (although it’s worth noting there is a pretty neat focus quest in the City involving candles and fire arrows).

Some early decisions can help your overall experience

Further options can be customized in setting your game’s difficulty, which can tremendously alter not only the challenge level and how you play the game, but work to alleviate some of its pain points along the way. Remember the lousy combat? Turning on “stealth takedowns only” removes your ability to KO with the awful dodge/hit blackjack fighting, and “specialty arrows only” gets rid of your combat arsenal. You can even turn on “no kills or knockouts” and even “no alerts” that autofail your mission before even needing to suffer that combat in the first place (score one for the quickloaders).

In-game upgrades and boosts are also an area where you can invest some funds in, although personally I didn’t make use of them since I was targeting “Ghost” playthroughs. From start to finish, the amount of control the player is able to wield over the game they play is incredible without being overwhelming; offering guidance and recommended settings to those who simply want to just dive right in, but still flexible enough to tease out a winning combination for the more self-aware.

Stealing the Scene

Speaking of combinations, I think one area this game doesn’t get enough credit for is in how creatively the game toys with the player’s mind; both in how it hints at intended conclusions, and how it still works to surprise you along the way. For example, every so often (and at least once a mission) the player encounters a safe featuring a combination lock, often relying on notes and the nearby environment to reveal their codes. Codes are given through sound clues, context clues, read off specific objects in order, some applied mathematics, and a note from a fed-up guy who’s tried every number from 000 to 672 and won’t dare go one number higher (what that last combination lacked in difficulty, it made up for in charm). A nice touch is that while the clues are there to be discovered, they each make sense contextually within the game world due to how they get presented. To go back to the sound clue (which the combination is revealed through a rhythmic pattern), it was because prolonged exposure to the pattern got it stuck in the safe-owner’s head as he worked alongside it. The combination is there because of the pattern, and not the other way around; a detail that wards off an otherwise intrusive puzzle solution by way of quality writing.

While I don’t feel the game requires a believable world to function (again due to the inhumanly predictable guard behavior that would otherwise conflict with one’s immersion), I don’t mean to dismiss any attempts at world-building that occurs. The main story may be forgettable by itself with some pretty one-dimensional characters and an uninspiring plot, but the writing spread across the City in detailing events, rooms, and assorted documents is terrific provided you take the time to observe them; on par with similar attempts at environmental storytelling found in Bioshock, Gone Home, and even the recent PT. Often it’s when you’re completely removed from the main story that you can find these excellent moments lying in the shadows. One room I entered had a simple note on the bed from a husband to his wife, saying he’d left her a present in the closet in hopes that she never betray him again. Opening the closet finds a body; likely the wife’s secret lover, although if one had skipped the letter this body would warrant no reaction at all. While being “just another room” at face value, uncovering this little side story felt far more rewarding than the few trinkets looted inside.

Adding some extra flavor to the more passive moments of the game, the game also throws in a bit of mysticism and suspense with a few environmental event triggers (stand at x to release y), similar to how guards may get re-positioned after a certain point, but bearing no effect on your progression or (importantly) your stats. Many of these little triggers take place during mission 5 (which bears some similarities to “The Cradle” in Deadly Shadows) but they can be found in most every level. One of my favorites actually played into solving the safe in mission 2 where standing next to a robot caused it to casually turn its head in my direction. What I love about these little unexpected twists are how effectively they get delivered, making use of the level design and general player habit to lead you into triggering them while facing the right direction. One even occurs when players would naturally stop moving to read the location name as it’s prompted on the HUD. Eidos took what in actuality is a simple slight-of-hand programming trick, and turned it into a fun and rewarding tool to entice players to explore the game’s level design more thoroughly.

Don’t forget to check every keyhole!

Just like the gameplay itself, each of the above require a bit of patience to experience to their fullest. One may need to be willing to read notes as they are picked up to benefit from environmental context, or willing to stand in one position long enough to realize something across the hall is moving; just as some players may wish to skip the safe puzzles entirely (or worse, look up their combinations online!). They are however, each representative of the type of reward scenario I wish to see more of in games; prioritizing knowledge and understanding over anything physical. After all, what’s really the more lasting reward to the player; the money in the safe, or figuring out how that safe was opened? I’d like to suggest it’s the experience that should be the driving force behind player motivations, not the payoff; and that this mentality should present itself in a game literally based on the concept of looting is pretty encouraging.

Conclusion

As mentioned in my introduction, I don’t think Thief is a game for everybody. It’s not perfect by any means; marred by some wonky volume control and a penchant for occasionally breaching player agency to force-feed a required sequence (I mentioned the rooftop running, but there are also a few pipe-climbing sequences, and a few puzzle sequences necessary for level progression). There’s also two boss encounters that feel out of place (although they do both come with non-combat alternatives as well), and as much as I do enjoy exploring the City on my own, an option to restore completed objective markers would’ve been a nice inclusion for easy navigation to the missions/side jobs for replays.

Regardless, the game places a commanding level of trust in players to dictate their experience with the game, from the actions they complete, to the parameters of their game settings, to their overall interest in the world around them. It has an audience (or rather an audience of audiences), but it is an audience outside the stereotypical confines of what may be understood as the average gamer. Thief is a slow burn, with the player conceding time and patience to learn its various inner workings instead of rushing ahead, playing to complete a checklist of achievements, and otherwise taking outward appearances at face value.

To go back to the beginning of the game, there is a rather awkward moment up-front where Garrett says “It’s not how much you steal, it’s what you steal,” which for a long time seemed to be a bit hypocritical to me coming from someone who just grifted an Ink bottle. After about 50 hours of play, I watched the intro again, and for me at least the line took on a new meaning. First of all, I’d forgotten that his protege Erin immediately follows up with the tagline “…and how you steal it,” which I think is pretty important; not only reflective of the role of options and player choice in the game’s thievery, but also for a potential glimpse into the mentor/mentee relationship she retains with Garrett (arguably she either interjected to cut him off, or Garrett let her finish the line for him). Secondly, when the tagline is rolled into the sentence, we see that same shift in value that was found in the distribution of player rewards. “How much you steal” is a supposition of value toward the physical rewards the game offers, whereas “what you steal, and how you steal it” is the experience to be had; regardless of what monetary gains they may bring. One could steal a few easy-access items repeatedly by replaying early missions and side missions for cash, but that experience lacks the excitement of lifting all loot items in a single playthrough with no knockouts or alerts. Garrett’s not a thief for money; he’s a thief to be a thief… it’s what he does, and that’s what we want.

We try not to place too much emphasis on a rating system for overall score in our reviews here and this game is a pretty good example as to why. There’s good, there’s bad, and Thief has examples of both with enough good to offset the bad, but with a lot of what’s good or bad up for dispute when considering their impact within the context of their appearances. So that’s a 7.5 and we’ll call it a day, right? No; it takes patience to get enjoyment out of Thief and we can afford more patience in assessing its quality. I think it’s a worthwhile game for the right person, and I happened to be one of them, but even beyond the bugs I can’t say the industry is exactly filled with “stealth, non-combat, completionist” enthusiasts.

The best I can say is that Thief surprised me before I was through; what began as 5 minutes of intense hand-holding across dull scenery devoid of any interactivity or personality whatsoever eventually morphed into a breeding ground of personal accomplishment with many hidden and divergent behaviors to be discovered, and deep down underneath its crusty modern-day grime was a game ultimately reflective of the same charm and good humor found in titles past. Those that may have timed out too early for this game may benefit from a rewind to see what exactly makes this clock tick.

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