Game Pile: Thief (2014)

thief0I’m not angry, Thief.

I’m just disappointed.

To Catch A Thief

If Thief were simply a bad game there wouldn’t be much to talk about in it. A bad game has to be bad in interesting ways, and Thief isn’t a game so bereft of good ideas. Particularly, it’s a game that clearly has a deliberate idea about how it wants its own stealth mechanics to work. Thanks to the multi-path nature of videogames these days, stealth is often one option of many, and so often the mechanics for that stealth are handled as lower priority. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had this problem, for example. It’s rare to find a game where stealth is presented as an option but not as mandatory without handling the experience quite badly. The last game I played that handled this duality well was Dishonored. Some games even handle it badly on purpose – games like Hotline Miami.

What I’m saying is, at least on a mechanical level, Thief is probably better than Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 2.

If you’ve noticed how many games that aren’t Thief I’ve mentioned, so have I.

Stealth games operate usually on a handful of simple, easily remembered elements, things you internalise as you play. In earlier Thief games, it was light levels and the sound of your movement on floors. Avoiding guards was as much a matter of staying out of their sightline, and making sure your body wasn’t sticking out where it could be easily seen. The mechanic they used for this was flagging your enormous square hitbox with a light gem. You had a bit of reach for things you wanted to take, but mostly when you moved around, it was like steering a very large fridge box around, or, when crouching, a shorter fridge box.

The technology of this Thief game is markedly different in that regard, though. Garret’s body is a very tangible thing. When you open a drawer or a door, Garrett moves from his standing point to a place where he can play an animation of leaning forwards, and opening it, taking what sits inside, then he closes it again. Proprioception (the feeling of existing in a space) is clearly something they were trying for in this game. You cast a shadow, and it’s a really detailed shadow! It flickers and reacts, it visibly breathes and shifts stance if you stand still, it even has varied animations for the degree and speed of your turning. Seeing your own shadow cast on a wall before you as you creep forwards really emphasises how much they wanted you to feel like Garrett had a body. You can lean around (some) corners, impacts shake your perspective, and hear the sounds of your own footsteps vary distinctly as you move even over broken glass or through puddles. It’s pretty lovely stuff – and it also shows one of many, many jagged lines through this game between two systems butting against one another, badly.

See, Garrett has a body, but when you’re playing the game, you don’t. You’re not Garrett, you’re not in Garrett’s shoes, you’re steering him around. You’re wheeling him around when you’re not paying attention to stealth, but then you have to pull back and think a little more removed when you’re being deliberately sneaky. You start to feel a wee bit like he’s a marionette on elaborate strings, – you don’t open a drawer, you press a button, he moves to position and opens the drawer, goes through a programmed action, then closes the drawer again.This puzzley feel could even work – lord knows I’ve enjoyed clunkier stealth games!

There are three basic mechanical styles going on here, though. And they do not work well together. They could, but there’s no integration to make them work well. On the one hand, you have the freewheeling, dynamic and emergent stealth operation, where Garrett can swoop, lighting objects move around the world dynamically and chase sound sources. There’s the linear, stick-to-objects style of stealth which informs a more puzzlebox style of movement like you see in The Novelist, Invisible Inc, and Assassins Creed games. In this world, Garrett has to memorise guard movements, and locks to the edges of things to peer around them. He does quicktime events to open windows in a way that’s nothing like actually using a prybar to juke a window, and he treats enemy light sources as things to extinguish and move around. And the third style is when you go to climb a thing and then the camera – which has been so far trying its hardest to make Garrett’s body feel like your body – sweeps out of him entirely and hovers behind him at pre-planned climb points like it’s a Prince of Persia game! In this position you can’t see if you’re being observed, either, meaning that these sections have to happen in isolated ways and care nothing for stealth!

These do not work together and the changes between them are jarring. The swoop-and-sweep Garrett should be able to lean left and right freely, not based on the edges of crates. The careful planner Garrett should not ever click to lean around a crate and only see the other side of that crate because of the way the level’s designed to interact with the mechanics. And the third-person Garrett… well, he’s just a budget Ezio, then, surely.

All that said, the last word on the mechanics is that swoop is really cool. It feels like a nice no-magic style version of Corvo’s blink.

Garrett’s Own Fanfiction

And then there’s character. Good grief, character. Character can make or break a game. I’ve tolerated terrible games because I loved the people it let me meet. I struggled through Bioshock Infinite three times over because I liked Elizabeth. I struggled through the mess of Mass Effect because I wanted a world with Wrex in it. Thief could bring me into its fold, it could have made me a fan, even a defender of its flawed mishmash of pieces, if it’d just brought a single good character to the table.

Well then.

There’s a sort of game we play in videogame discussions where we try to come up with the best short, pithy smart-ass way to describe things. Really it’s like twitter poker. One liners as hands of cards. I’ve gone over this one a lot lately, and I think the best way I can put it is This Garrett is the Garrett that escaped from Thief 2 Fanfiction.

In Thief 2, Garrett was the least of all assholes. Sure, a petulant and cranky little git, someone who hated and disdained everyone he dealt with… but that’s because everyone he dealt with was even more despicable. Garrett lived in a city where there were scummy nobles and scummy crime lords, and since they had money, he was happy to filch from them, and that was basically it. Imagine Bugs Bunny standing by Daffy Duck, looking at you as if to say Get a load of this asshole. Garrett was a thief – he needed to be part of society for his theft to have any importance, and he kept dealing with people who wanted to destroy society entirely. Heroics, such as he dealt with them, flowed out of preservation and self-advancement. Also, he was eminently practical and pragmatic; he made big heists, then spent all the money – and moved on with his life. Unlike the illusion we as gamers clearly have cultivated, he wasn’t beyond killing or violence at all – in cut-scenes, Garrett offed guards for conveniences’ sake, and between missions, all the money ran out, starting from scratch each time. That Garrett was weirdly likable – someone I’m fond of, in part because he was very human, because of the ways in which he was deeply imperfect.

Then we get the new Garrett.

Hokay, deep breaths here.

New Garrett is kinda just an asshole. Part of this is because he lacks character of his own. There isn’t much of him that feels very genuine. He has a trophy case collecting stuff from missions, which is at odds with my memories of Garrett hocking everything between missions and starting a new mission because he was flat-ass broke. There’s this relationship with Eryn, which could be pulled from a big list of cliches.

Oh, Christ, I forgot about Eryn. Okay, quickly here: Eryn’s entire place in this plot is bad. It’s badly written, badly constructed, a mangled pile of half-burnt cliches that sway between awful Dad Narrative and incredibly creepy Jilted Lover. My only hope here is that this mangled mess of a non-character exists because nobody cared about her, rather than the worse option, that someone really thought they were making something good here. Her story jumps from the tale of an out-of-control protege, to a hatefilled siren who gives you dream visions to your key to access sex worker spaces (because there’s always a brothel level). It’s this mad-lib construction where clearly no editor ran over the whole list to see that the story beats actually connected to one another. If the story was worth it, you could have a fun time charting what Eryn was meant to be to the story at different points…

But it’s not.

Then there’s the Thieftaker general, whose introduction is as if someone learned the idea of informing through character design and went bananas with it. A big-nosed, red-right-handed, twirly-mustached bald-pated obssessive, he introduces himself by chiding someone for a reasonable mistake that only a freaking telepath could possibly have anticipated, then murdering the person who committed the crime of not being magical.

And this is our cast.

Garrett is basically a cardboard cutout surrounded by stereotypes, all mangled and cast together in a disorienting, confused mess of bits. There aren’t just cracks between the story and the game, there are cracks between the story and the story, in the same way the game has cracks between all of its pieces.

For Want Of A Wrench

In the end, though, my feelings about Thief are summarised not by technical conversations, but rather, about a feeling. A feeling that lurched upon me when I found a wrench.

Throughout the game world, there are porthole covers. You need a wrench tool to open them. You can buy this wrench at a vendor, between missions. It costs money and that cuts into your score. No big deal, this sort of key-and-door design is relatively common – you can use a resource to ease progress through the game, like spending money to buy better guns rather than spending that same money on repairing your injuries sustained through longer combats. Plenty fine with that mechanic.

But then, as I was creeping through the slaughterhouse, I stopped short and saw, sitting on the countertop, a wrench.

Ahah, thought I. This is a way to introduce the players to the idea of the wrench. Good basic design; it shows them how handy the device can be, and encourages them to buy it later in the game. I walked to the wrench and hovered my mouse over it, waiting for the prompt to pick it up.

Nothing.

I double checked. I wiggled a bit. I bucked around, testing to see if I’d hit a bug.

Nothing.

I quit, I reloaded, and I looked again.

Nothing.

It wasn’t a wrench. It was a ‘wrench.’ It was a ‘wrench’ that was put there on a table as a random piece of decoration, a non-interactive non-object, some errant BSP designed to make a piece of the landscape feel like it was more peopled than if they’d put a bottle or a bag there.

This was pretty annoying. I guess they didn’t really think of those portals when they put this decoration in the game. Then I turned around.

A wrench portal was right there.

I thought about the game I was playing. I thought about how the game wanted me to feel like I had a body, then made me carry around literally dozens of single stolen forks and spoons. I thought about how I had broken into a Jeweler’s house that I only knew about because I had heard two guards talk about from a hundred meters away, in the middle of the rain. I thought about how Garrett wasn’t saving for rent money or consumables, but instead brooding in a clocktower and saving trinkets of his thefts. I thought about the way that random quest objectives were mentioned to me from other rooms by two people talking in stilted, ridiculous dialogue. I thought about how prying a window open works, and how it doesn’t feel like tapping a key a lot. I thought about how whenever anything went wrong and I had to reload, this game made me sit and watch a 30 second loading screen. I thought about how all this came together and somehow someone put a key and its lock right next to each other and nobody seemed to notice they didn’t interact.

Then I closed Thief and wrote this article.

Verdict

You can buy Thief on Steam, Humble, and through Square’s own website, and chances are they’re going to put it on sale again. Again again.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You want to twiddle with the difficulty ratings on your own accord, and go for challenges.
  • It’s on sale for single digit values.
  • You’re interested in examining broken things to see why they don’t work, and think of ways they can execute them better.

Avoid it if:

  • You liked Thief
  • You liked Dishonored
  • You liked Deus Ex: Human Revolution
  • You liked Monaco
  • You liked Stealth Bastard
  • You liked Gunpoint
  • You liked Mark of the Ninja
  • You like yourself.

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