As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it will contain spoilers for Thief.
A pretty good indicator of whether or not I’ll enjoy a first-person game is whether or not my character can jump. Jumping up and down is one of the most physically liberating actions there is. Given that these kinds of exuberant physical displays are not socially acceptable in real life, I relish the opportunity to indulge in them when exploring virtual worlds. Sure, there are terrible first-person games where you can jump all the time (e.g. the Medal of Honor reboot), and there are fantastic first-person games where you can’t jump at all (e.g. Gone Home). But for the most part, being able to jump – especially with a dedicated ‘jump’ button – is an integral part of what makes moving around in three-dimensional space with a first-person perspective fun.
Thief does not have a dedicated ‘jump’ button.
Here’s a list of stuff that Thief has instead:
- A completely pointless upgrade system
- A set of severely restricted movement and stealth mechanics
- Mediocre voice acting
- Awkwardly mo-capped cutscenes
- One of the most awkward and confusing maps I’ve ever used in a video game
- A bland art style that makes modern military shooters look like masterclasses in art direction
- Some of the worst audio ever featured in a AAA game
- Hilariously bad dialogue
- A nonsensical, difficult-to-follow plot
- Possibly the worst open-world hub ever featured in a video game
Yep, Thief has a mission full of lovingly-rendered nude female breasts, because cheap titillation was more important for the developers than actually making the game fucking work.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the lack of a dedicated ‘jump’ button and examine what it implies about the game’s mechanics.
Stealth games are at their best when they create a power fantasy for players, allowing them to feel like omnipotent, highly-skilled ghosts who use their environment to thwart and baffle enemies. A large part of that power fantasy involves making players feel clever by giving them the tools to craft unique solutions to overcome obstacles.
Thief doesn’t do that. Tools are useful only in very specific contexts. Rope arrows attach only to certain locations. Water arrows put out fires only in specific places and have no other uses. Fire arrows set fire only to certain objects. Moreover, the move set of the player character, Garrett, is extremely limited. He can only climb certain walls and objects (highlighted helpfully but irritatingly in blue – more on that later). He can’t crouch beneath desks or tables. And aside from specially-designated locations, he can’t jump.
These limitations have two major consequences. Firstly, they prevent players from ever feeling clever, because they leave players with only one or two ways to get around obstacles. Secondly, they make the game’s stealth mechanics totally nonsensical. Because Garrett can’t move freely about the world, Thief’s implementation of stealth had to be built entirely around his limited move set. Garrett can’t hide beneath furniture or up on ledges, so he’s limited to hiding in the “shadows,” or at best behind comically oversized crates. But Garrett needs some way of moving between hiding spots, or else the game would be too boring and/or difficult. So he can “swoop” from cover to cover; it’s what the spacebar does instead of making him jump.
As you might suspect, because they’re designed around unreasonable limitations, these mechanics have to break somewhere. That break comes in the form of enemy behaviour. Now, credit where credit is due: Thief has robust (if unimpressive) enemy AI. They are fairly good at hunting down threats and calling for back-up. Generally, they’re pretty good at coordinating, even if they sometimes try to fight you one at a time instead of all together. Occasionally, the AI will bug out and a guard will walk into a wall, but for the most part, Thief’s AI-controlled enemies are fairly intelligent. So why is their behaviour so weird?
It’s because their sensory perception is all messed up; they’re basically blind dudes with ultrasonic hearing. Because Thief‘s main hiding places are “shadows,” Garrett is often forced to hide in plain sight. But guards still won’t be able to spot him, because otherwise the game would be too difficult. So they’ll stare straight at Garrett but won’t be able to see him, because it’s too dark, even though any regular human being would be able to spot a man-sized lump in the shadows in front of him. The “swoop” mechanic also has weird implications for enemies’ sensory perception. It’s supposed to be a fairly silent, ninja-esque move, but guards can hear it with ease, even from a significant distance. Otherwise, the move would be far too overpowered, rendering the game too easy. Thief even has to have a loading screen tip reminding players that the supposedly silent “swoop” is not really that silent.
LEVEL DESIGN AND PLAYER CHOICE
As I mentioned in the previous sections, in most of the missions, Garrett has only a couple of ways at most of getting around obstacles. Even the missions with fairly open levels eventually funnel players down a couple of preset paths. This limiting of player choice ends up being frustrating, making it seem like the game is playing them, instead of the other way around.
Strangely, Thief takes the opposite tack with the design of its open world hub, called the City. It’s a sprawling maze of interconnected buildings and secret passages, with multiple ways to get from point A to point B. Sounds great, right?
In theory, yes. In practice, it might be one of the worst fucking aspects of this game. It breaks one of the fundamental tenets of open-world game design: between missions, getting from point A to point B should never be a chore. And oh boy, does Thief ever try its best to make it a chore. Instead of jumping across rooftops like a ninja assassin, Garrett is forced to trudge around on the ground at a snail’s pace, lest he attract the attention of the guards who patrol the city and attack him the second they detect him. (Why are they attacking him anyway? It’s not like there are Wanted posters for him everywhere.)
And if you try to use the map to navigate this sprawling maze, this is what you see:
What do the different boxes and lines on this map represent? Where’s the legend? How is this portion of the map connected to other portions? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO FUCKING USE THIS PIECE OF SHIT?
Thus, even trying to advance the story becomes a chore, and by the time you get to the missions, you have no desire to be sneaky and careful, because you had to waste so much time doing it in the open-world hub. Thief’s level design philosophy is completely ass-backwards. The slow, methodical sneaking of the open world should be in the missions, and the simple paths of the missions should be in the open world.
The obstacles you have to overcome in the missions aren’t that interesting either. They fall into one of three categories:
- Sneaking around guards
- Broken glass
That’s right, there’s enough broken glass lying around for it to be a category of its own. But more on that in a second.
Sneaking around guards is problematic for the reasons I outlined in the previous section. It involves the same careful movement and timing as other stealth games, but because the mechanics are so limiting, it’s an awkward affair of shuffling from shadow to shadow. Sometimes the levels arrange patrol routes in clever ways, turning environments into complex, stealth-oriented Rube Goldberg machines, but for the most part, sneaking around guards is straightforward.
Approximately every second mission features some sort of puzzle. They’re not terribly interesting, and they’re more fetch quest than genuine puzzle, but they do a fairly good job of varying the pace of the game. Only one of them is truly odious, but I’ll get to that one in a few sections.
And finally, there’s broken glass. So much broken glass. It’s supposed to present a nifty dilemma to the player: do I run across it quickly and make a lot of noise, or do I sneak across it slowly and risk getting spotted? In practice, though, this obstacle comes up so much that it merely evokes frustrated sighs of “Oh shit, not this again.” It also raises the question of why there’s so much fucking broken glass all over the City. Is there someone who just runs around town, smashing jars and shattering bottles? Broken glass litters even the abodes of the rich. Can they not afford to have someone clean it all up? Does no one in the City have a dustpan? Why the hell did the designers think repeating the same obstacle over and over again would be fun?
ART STYLES AND WORLD BUILDING
So we’ve established that Thief’s world is not fun to move around in. Is it at least nice to look at?
Hahahaha no. Thief has a boring, bland blue-grey colour palette, punctuated only by the orange of fire, and its character models are quasi-realistic. It’s basically Battlefield set in olden times, as far as art style goes.
It’s also an incredibly stupid choice of art style for this particular game, and it ends up interacting with the game’s limited mechanics in weird ways. Because everything is blue-gray, telling objects apart is difficult, so there are no natural visual cues indicating which objects can be interacted with and which ones can’t. So, scalable surfaces are indicated with unnatural-looking scuff patterns, and objects that can be interacted with get highlighted in dark blue. It looks as silly as it sounds. (It also raises the question of who’s scuffing up all these crates and walls.)
Thief could have resolved this problem in several ways:
- Using a different colour palette that would allow for more natural interaction indicators.
- Showing interaction using prompts on the HUD. (Remember Me pulled this off really well.)
- Using a stylized colour scheme so that the highlighting doesn’t look so awkward. (Mirror’s Edge pulled this off really well.)
- Not limiting mechanics in the first place!
The problem with a boring, ill-suited art style is that it makes the game’s world feel boring and not worth exploring. If nothing looks colourful or interesting, if everything is covered in the same blue-grey murk, then why bother taking the time to explore?
SOMETIMES, THINGS COME TOGETHER
A restricted move set. Level design that boxes the player in. A grey, gloomy art style. That sounds like a recipe for a survival horror game. It’s no surprise, then, that Thief is at its best when it tries to be a survival horror game.
The mission set in an abandoned insane asylum is the only mission in the game that is genuinely great. Featuring very few enemies, it mainly involves walking around the asylum as various creepy noises – footsteps, closing doors, gusts of wind – play in the background. Garrett’s limited movement and resources generate a feeling of tension, and the grey colour palette contributes to the feeling of fear and isolation. It’s the one portion of the game where mechanics, environment, and design (and even sound, but more on that later) come together synergistically to produce something remarkable. It feels like it’s the only part of the experience where all the people working on it agreed on exactly the kind of game they were making.
But given how uncoordinated and incongruous the game’s components feel during the rest of the experience, it’s likely that the success of the mission is pure coincidence. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
THE SOUND AND THE MUSIC
Look, for all the shit I’ve thrown at the mechanics, the design, and the art, they’re not inherently terrible. They’re just badly deployed in this particular game. But there are some components of Thief that are unforgivably bad, no matter what game they would have appeared in.
Let’s talk about Thief’s sound for a second, shall we? Oh God, where do I start? It’s atrocious. A huge, bloody mess. Like seriously, what the fucking fuck? The only game I’ve played with buggier audio is Max Payne, and that’s because it’s a 12-year-old game that I was trying to run on a modern computer. Sounds effects play at random times for seemingly no reason. The audio levels aren’t based in any sort of real-world logic, with distant conversations at shouting volume and cutscenes barely audible. Spoken dialogue and subtitles are frequently out of sync, and sometimes, they don’t even use the same wording. Cutscenes sometimes cut out just before they’re actually supposed to finish, and the only way to find out what was supposed to have been said is to read the subtitles at lightning speed before they disappear. And sometimes, the audio gets stuck in a never-ending loop, and it WON’T. FUCKING. STOP. One time, when I was in the City hub, I heard the same conversation about Polly Adler the dock frock repeat itself TWO DOZEN FUCKING TIMES HOLY SHIT I’M GOING TO PUNCH A UNICORN. In fact, the audio is so buggy that I honestly can’t tell if the effectively creepy sound effects that I praised in the asylum level were intentional or just an artifact of sound mixing bugs.
I’m being charitable here and suggesting that the sound mixing in particular was buggy instead of just incompetent, because if the sound mixers genuinely believe that these were the right relative audio levels to use, then Eidos Montréal has the worst fucking sound mixers in the entire games industry. I’m not kidding. The sound mixing is that bad.
Bugs aside, though, Thief’s sound design just isn’t very good. Footsteps and cracking glass sound like stock effects, and aside from the asylum level, environments are strangely empty of ambient noise, which makes them feel both dead and artificial. As for the music, it’s the same dubsteppy electronic crap that seems to feature in every second video game. The only reason that it’s memorable at all is because it’s so incongruous with the environment, it’s laughable. Only the dissonant strings that play during moments of tension fit with the gameplay, but they’re so over-the-top that they become irritating by halfway through the game.
TELL ME A STORY (OR DON’T)
Now comes the part of the review where I talk about Thief’s plot, which is difficult, because I don’t really remember it, nor did I care much about it.
Look, you’ve seen this before: a career criminal gets sucked into mysterious conspiracy and ends up fighting for the good guys. That’s a story that has existed for as long as people have been telling stories. It might be clichéd, but there’s nothing inherently bad about it. The way it’s presented to the player, though, it’s nonsense, piled on top of nonsense, stuffed in between two slices of nonsense, resting on the nonsensical presumption that players won’t be able to identify nonsense as nonsense.
None of the characters receive any characterization; they’re little more than walking exposition bots, spewing out plot details. Still, the story manages to be confusing and difficult to follow. Characters speak so cryptically and information is doled out so slowly that it’s hard to remember exactly what happened and when it happened. The dialogue is downright awful, featuring clunkers like “To be alone, you must have something to be alone from.” GAH! MY EARS! And based on the number of times you hear people yelling about “The Primal!” it’s hard not to believe that it was supposed to be a running joke.
All this is delivered via voice acting that ranges from serviceable to utterly tone-deaf. No character seems to be acting in the same story. Matthew Edison can’t stop chewing scenery as the Thief Taker General, but Vanessa Matsui’s Erin is played straight. Romano Orzari plays Garrett as smug and dismissive, which not only doesn’t fit with his persona, but also makes the protagonist completely unlikable. I have a hard time believing that Eidos Montréal chose a lot of bad voice actors, so I’m forced to conclude that the vocal directing is to blame here. It seems as if there was no consensus about the script’s tone, and the result is a disjointed mess.
EVERYONE’S A WHITE MAN
I’m not usually one to complain about a game’s lack of diversity. There are often creative reasons for why games are the way they are, and they’re rarely actively exclusionary. It’s true that more diversity is needed in the games industry; I’m just not sure that attacking individual games is the way to go about it.
That is, unless the lack of diversity is so apparent that it not only fails to meet external social standards, but stops making sense within the games themselves. Thief is such a game. It doesn’t just lack women; women barely seem to exist in the game’s world…
…unless they’re prostitutes! That’s right, most of the women you see in Thief work in a brothel, and quite a few of them are topless, probably for the purpose of cheap titillation. It’s a sad reflection on what the game’s creative team seems to think of their audience. They exist for sex and nothing more. (The looping conversation about Polly Adler the dock frock only serves to reinforce that impression.)
At one point, the game’s repugnant treatment of women, its rote puzzles, and its terrible audio come together in a perfect storm of awfulness. The puzzle in the brothel mission involves peering through peepholes to look at symbols that form part of an ancient code. And guess what’s on the other side of those peepholes? Yep, you guessed it! People having sex! And their bodies are purposely oriented to give you an eyeful of the female prostitute’s body while obscuring the male client’s.
It gets worse, though. While I was going through the puzzle, the audio from the BDSM sex scene kept playing on loop at full volume. I had to listen to a man repeatedly begging a prostitute to slap him in the face for five minutes straight. I almost smashed my keyboard in frustration and was on the verge of quitting the game for good.
But Thief doesn’t only fail in its treatment of gender; it also fails in its depiction of race. Every single character (except for Madame Xiao) is white. Every single one. No explanation for this is given. None at all. And since Thief doesn’t seem to be striving for any sort of historical accuracy, this strikes me as an egregious oversight.
THE EMPTINESS OF IT ALL
If Thief really is as bad as I’ve been describing, then why would anyone want to play it at all? I mean, its mechanics are restricted, its level design is mediocre, its audio is awful, and its plot is utter nonsense. What’s there to enjoy about it? Well, I’d argue that Thief isn’t really enjoyable, per se. What it is, however, is engaging. And it’s engaging in a way that reveals just how empty it is at its core.
You see, Thief, as its title would suggest, encourages you to steal. A lot. Most of what you steal is nothing more than scissors and pens – Garrett has a black market stationery empire, apparently – but it’s addictive nonetheless. Seeing that glint of loot in the corner, reaching for it, watching it disappear in Garrett’s hands as its value flashes on screen, that satisfying “clink” sound effect… it’s all part of a feedback loop designed to make you want to collect all the loot you can find. In fact, Garrett is so eager to get his hands on loot that his hand animations make him reach into drawers before he can see exactly what’s in them. Stealing all this loot isn’t even really enjoyable. But the feedback loop it generates appeals to players’ rat-brains, and it sucks them in, even as everything else about the game crumbles around them.
With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to realize that Thief is what a AAA stealth game made by Zynga would look like. It’s all there: the shallow gameplay; the pointless upgrade system; the reward loops. All that’s missing is the microtransactions. At the end of the day, Thief is a game where you grab all the loot you can, and then you do some boring shit to advance the plot before you can grab some loot again. It’s not coherent enough to make an artistic statement. It’s not enjoyable enough to serve as entertainment. It’s not interesting enough to merit deep analysis. Heck, its mechanics are so limited that it doesn’t even have a ‘jump’ button, so it’s hard to screw around in when it gets boring. In short, Thief has no real reason to exist. It’s nothing but a mediocre product designed to exploit the nostalgia that gamers feel for the Thief brand, and when all’s said and done, it ends up being just as empty and soulless as the industry that spawned it.