Due to my now busy schedule I found myself unable to truly partake in the delight that is GameFly. I had two games out for the entirety of January and didn’t even make progress halfway into either. So those games have returned to GameFly, removing all distractions from the unfinished games stacked within my library (both physical and digital).
One of those games I had rented was Thief. I completed the second chapter, about a quarter of the game’s total length, and was actually enjoying myself quite a bit. I’ve never played the original games of the franchise so I had nothing more to compare it to than a game like Dishonored. In fact, it’s for that very reason that I feel like I didn’t really miss out on much. Thief, to me, felt like a version of Dishonored designed to make you really appreciate all the special powers you gain within the foggy and plague-ridden city of Dunwall.
I think part of it ties back into my thoughts on “informing the player”, as discussed at length in my recent Splinter Cell: Blacklist write up and first mentioned in my Mark of the Ninja analysis. The sound design in Thief is certainly a variety of “surround”, but noises do not travel in the same manner that they would in real life. Someone snoring two rooms over is not properly muffled. You might hear someone in the next room mumbling to themselves, only to feel as if they are right behind or beside you.
Technically Dishonored had this issue to an extent as well, though not nearly so drastically. What Dishonored had was the benefit of a vision mode that would highlight the presence of your foes, visual obstruction or no. Hear someone grumbling? Trigger Dark Vision, preferably from a high and hidden perch, and with a quick examination of your surroundings the mumbling threat will be revealed. Information and mobility are both provided with ease to the player.
I do not mind that Thief was limited in regards to mobility, but the poor sound design combined with the lack of available information certainly made it a bit difficult to confidently navigate environments. Unlike Corvo, Garrett is not a very strong or capable warrior. The combat mechanics in Thief are incredibly archaic, so clumsy and unresponsive that it feels as if they literally dug up an old combat system from the early aughts, perhaps even late 90’s, and duct-taped it to the game. If there is any reason to avoid the guards in Thief, it is to avoid those horrific combat mechanics.
In truth, I’d have preferred the combat be removed from the game altogether. I could already tell that the great irony about Thief for me was that it would turn into a lot less thieving and a lot more sprinting, escaping, and confrontation. At least, that’s my prediction based on how these games tend to go. Perhaps Thief would have been different and I’m merely a cynic. Either way, I was expecting a game that I’d seen potential in, but the execution was off. This would also sync up with the popular and common critical opinion of the game that I’ve been exposed to.
Perhaps this was more a cynical prediction based on what I was enjoying of the game. After completing the prologue and chapter one, generally linear levels that required the player to find a path to a specific destination, Garrett is dropped into a more open-ended hub world that leads to the remaining chapters. This hub world contained the game that I really wanted to be playing.
Scattered about the open-ended hub were a few homes that Garrett is capable of breaking into, relieving the owners of their worldly ties piece by diamond-encrusted piece. It was in this small part of the game that I truly felt like I was what the title claimed me to be. I snuck into one window, grabbed what items I could find within the drawers and cabinets, and then snuck back out onto the rooftops in the cover of night, seeking the next hit.
I understand that there’s likely some indie game focused on this, but I suddenly realized that I’d greatly enjoy a game focused purely on the act of thievery. No real story, no linear missions with scripted escape sequences, no predetermined pathways that the designers yearn for me to follow. No rankings on whether I killed soldiers or snuck past them all. No mandatory mutts to be concerned about alerting.
I am reminded of the 2008 version of Prince of Persia, a game that many players griped about and yet I loved (oddly enough, another title that I had not played the prior entries of). Was it an easy game? Sure, but more importantly it was relaxing. With my daily work schedule being filled with commutes, a more mentally demanding job, exercise and the cooking of dinner, I find myself struggling more and more to pick up the paddle and play games that are more demanding of my senses and reflexes. I want something I can settle into and just play. For many gamers, this may be an open-world title filled with explosive buildings and environments. For me, I’d much rather a setting I can simply explore with ease.
For just one evening, for one brief hour that Thief was in my disc tray, I had that game. I was a man lurking in the shadows not to kill, not to murder, but to simply sneak into a home and take the baubles of the rich or otherwise well-off. Personally, I morally object to this sort of thing. But in that moment it was simply a series of simple, relaxing puzzles and objectives that I could take my time and attend to, requiring just enough awareness out of me to keep from getting caught.
Then I jumped into the next mission, and the majority of my time was spent worrying about the placement of guards, the location of dogs, and how I was going to confront a group of malcontents so that I could retrieve a key. I intentionally avoided stealing certain items because the risk felt too great.
Which is why I do not regret sending Thief back before really getting a chance to play more deeply into it. Some of the game that I played was relaxing and allowed me to, for the evening, play the role of a proper burglar. The rest of that time was… well, trying to update an old franchise to modern times that I have no love or nostalgia for.