Retrospective: Thief: The Dark Project

Thief the dark project

By the mid-’90s the PC seemed to have forged two paths for firstperson games: one was the path of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired RPGs, and the other was the path of adrenaline-rush shooters. But Looking Glass’s Thief: The Dark Project took another route – that of sneaking, silence, shadows, and stealth. Thief was such a powerful concept for a game that it shaped a subsequent generation of gaming, and invented much of what we see as stealth tactics in videogames today, casting a shadow over Hitman, Splinter Cell, Oblivion and many others.

Looking Glass was overflowing with ideas, and many of those who would work on the Thief project (notably Ken Levine, Doug Church and Eric Brosius) would forge considerable reputations in the years that followed. But the idea for Thief came a long way before the youthful team finally nailed down the adventures of Garrett, our miraculously shadowy protagonist. In fact The Dark Project originally started out (according to Church) as a ‘communist zombie’ game, an idea that was quickly vetoed by the team’s marketing department. It then became a concept entitled ‘Dark Camelot’, featuring an inverted Arthurian legend, with King Arthur as the main bad guy, Merlin as a time traveller from the future, and the player as saviour of Camelot, the traditionally unpleasant Mordred the Black Knight. Again the idea was transmuted by the needs of the marketing team and eventually, following much more brainstorming, became
Thief: The Dark Project.

By this time it wasn’t exactly Arthurian: Garrett, the thief in question, lived in a medieval city rife with elements of anachronistic technology – making the game an example of a genre that has been known as ‘fantasy steampunk’, or more recently ‘clockpunk’. Thief was mature and aggressive with its storytelling, throwing Garrett into a complicated tale of Byzantine intrigues and conflicts between the powerful denizens of his mysterious home city. As well as delivering strong narrative, Looking Glass was also keen on breaking conventions of firstperson games, and doing things no one had seen before. Thief would take on some ideas from System Shock and Ultima Underworld, but it was a unique creation: one based on lighting, and the idea of hiding in shadow.

Garrett was safe only when motionless in shadows, and was able to obscure himself almost entirely in just a small patch of shade. Snuffing out lights (often using water-filled arrow-tips to kill candles and lanterns) and moving on carpeted floors was essential to avoiding detection, while the FPS traditions of combat were relegated in favour of hiding and running away. If you were going to have to deal with troublesome enemies, the best method involved sneaking up and cracking them over the back of the
head, before hiding the body.

Visually, Thief isn’t nearly as complex as the leading lights of the era, with most 3D characters rendered in a basic style, but it makes up for this with its fabulous soundtrack, which is genuinely dark and often humorous.

As well as being stealthy, Garrett was also tremendously agile, able to climb ropes, lean around corners, and also clamber up on to ledges and low walls – actions you didn’t see in other games of the era. These abilities were pitted against large, complex level designs, which were often patrolled by eager guards, and filled with traps and puzzles.

What is most remarkable about Thief is the way in which it manages to instil a sense of vulnerability in the player. Garrett was weak: a single lucky swordsman could put him down, while the nightmarish sentinels that patrolled later levels were almost too terrifying to behold. The player came to rely on the mutterings of his enemies to figure out how alert they had become, and levels were explored tentatively, step by step, rewarding patience and fear. There was a real sense that Garrett could not risk being discovered, because death loomed at every turn; after just a few encounters a player knew that he could not risk any face-to-face encounters. The looting and the thieving objectives would have be done without witnesses, and in the dark. The difficulty settings for the game would make these esoteric challenges all the more exasperating by demanding that players avoiding killing entirely, and even opening up different parts of the level to make the routes travelled by the thief all the more dangerous.

Thief: The Dark Project was followed by two sequels, and remains one of the most discussed PC games in certain circles. Its significance can be followed through to its influence, and the amount of games that have directly benefited from the lessons learned in this singular, terrifying game.