How ‘Thief’ changed storytelling in games
By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
Thief II comes from a simpler time. Its in-game graphics are frankly hideous, even for a 16-year-old game, and the pre-mission cutscenes are a mix of hand-painted slideshows and live actors in silhouette. But its incredibly complex level design, robust sound engine, and subtle world-building techniques shine past its modest exterior. Together they create an inviting playground ripe for emergent gameplay, and put you in the shoes of the world’s greatest thief, Garrett.
Garrett’s (voiced by Stephen Russell) motives are simple: steal stuff and get paid. This Philip Marlowe-esque attitude helps make the game’s fantasy world feel believable. He’s a loner, but always gets unwittingly swept up in the world’s larger conflicts. As such, the first few heists aren’t connected to the overall plot, but they communicate lots of information during gameplay that subtly foreshadows the coming conflict. This stands in sharp contrast to games that immediately and artificially connect the player character to an external conflict, like Desmond Miles in Assassin’s Creed.
Since Garrett is always sneaking around, most of this information is delivered through conversations to eavesdrop on or secret notes to read. The guards are especially funny, coming off as bored, underpaid thickos. They can still kick Garrett’s butt in a stand-up fight though, and killing them would just make a mess anyway. Such limitations produce an incredible sense of immersion—the player is thinking like a thief and witnessing vicarious storytelling. This optional content builds smaller stories within the level you are playing, making it feel alive.
Contrast this with “cinematic” Triple-A games today. They usually feature lengthy scripted events within the game that are designed as attractive images for the trailer, many of which take control away from players without warning in order to play out in a specific way for the sake of the plot. Ironically, these things are done to increase immersion, when really they accomplish the opposite by treating the story like a commercial break. Games like Uncharted and Call of Duty have made billions abiding by this method.
Detailed level design is the cornerstone of immersion. Rather than simple “levels” disguised with impressive skyboxes—like, say Battlefield—Thief II presents complex nonlinear buildings with countless secret entrances and passageways to discover. Without condescending waypoint markers and mini-maps, you must dodge guards and nick loot by the seed of your own wit. Aside from gold, you will discover lots of hidden story details. This leaves you to decide how immersed in the story you wish to be, and explore your surroundings accordingly.
Without the tense stealth gameplay, the exploration would be boring. Together, they complete one another. The tension of risk-versus-reward drives the game. Garrett has no stealth mainstays like night vision goggles and soliton radar. You must use your eyes to scan for threats or shadows to hide in, and your ears to suss out approaching dangers. Your own senses are involved in the game on a very focused level. Thus, each step outside the dark is a risk, and you must decide if the apparent danger trumps the loot—or story—you may find by braving it. In this way, gameplay and story are unified.
Today, many games present themselves as lengthy CGI films where the player is occasionally prompted to select a dialogue option or make an action input. In most cases, the only punishment for failing these tests is to try them again. Though this sounds antithetical to the idea of a game, this format has become very popular in recent years. Just look at Telltale Games’ entire library. A clearer rift between gameplay and story does not exist.
I’m not disparaging people’s tastes. If you like cinematic games, good for you. I just feel that games should try to tell their stories by interacting with the player, rather than imitating film techniques. The ability to explore an environment, interact with it, and take action based on what you observe is the basis of emergent gameplay—those things that “just happen,” and never happen the same way twice. That’s what makes games worth playing, and nobody knew that better than Looking Glass Studios, and their magnum opus, Thief II.