Think of stealth games and it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the classics. If you really want to explore the origins of the genre, you have to head all the way back to 1996. Here Ken Levine and his team over at Looking Glass Studio had an original idea to create a sword fighting simulator with a small story attached. It would be heavily influenced by Castle Wolfenstein and Diablo – two of the biggest gaming titles of the early 1990’s PC gaming scene. The game was dubbed Dark Camelot, with a plot was centered around the legend of king Arthur. However in 1997, Looking Glass Studio decided to drop the plot and the name, instead homing in on the stealth aspects which they’d been playing around with. It was a bold change in direction; one that led to the creation of Thief: The Dark Project. The game was released in December 4th 1998 and the rest as they say, is history.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the stealth genre and I’d go as far as to say that Thief: The Dark Project played a huge role in showing me what the genre had to offer. It’s a game that gets overlooked in the wider picture, yet its shadow still hangs long over an industry that owes much to its design.
The plot of Thief is filled with mystery and intrigue. Set in a metropolis known as “the City” where multiple factions wage a secret war against each other. These factions include the devil worshippers known as The Pagans, the idealistic Hammerites and the bringers of balance, The Keepers. That’s where the main protagonist, Garrett (voiced by Stephen Russell, who also voices Corvo Attano in Dishonored) joins this convoluted story. Garrett, once a Keeper himself, leaves the order and decides to use his talent and become a master thief.
As time passes – Garrett climbs the ladder to his ultimate goal and becomes involved with The Pagans; unknowingly unleashing a great evil upon the land. The Keepers believing that he will play a huge role in future events, demand that he sets out on a quest to get rid of this impending doom.
Thief: The Dark Project ultimately came to be the benchmark for stealth games and its easy to see why. The game leans heavily on classical first person single-player tropes while taking advantage of the new technology at the time; incorporating light and sound effects with precision. Unlike other stealth games, Thief demands that the player sneaks around, exploring the world with grace rather bursting in all-guns-blazing. The game actively makes that option suicidal at points; guaranteeing faster than you can say thief. Garrett as a character is weak and the developers made him as realistic as possible. He doesn’t have any special power and mostly relies on the tools of his trade to survive in this dangerous world. And let’s be clear, it is a dangerous world for our Garrett – get hit twice by a sword you’re pretty much dead.
Adding to this is Eric Brosius’s soundtrack – bringing this grim metropolis to life with his astonishing chords and twangs that perfectly depict every locale within the game. In modern gaming we take advantage of sound design – but back in the 1990’s it wasn’t the most obvious tool. What Thief does is elevate it’s ambiance, creating a sense of dark atmosphere that never lets up. Adding to the layers in which this game operates is the fact that walking on different surfaces emits different sounds – almost mind-boggling back in 1996 when walking through levels was still very much an act of necessity. Here you were punished for such acts of mindlessness – the game forcing you to consider every meek step. It was a different way of playing – and gamers loved it.
The key aspect of the game is patience and planning. At the beginning of each mission the player carefully plans his inventory. The Blackjack, sword, compass, lock picks and the map of the complex are always present, while other tools (water arrows, fire arrows, moss arrows and more) can be purchased with in-game money. As you traverse through the metropolis you will find that your biggest ally is the shadow. The developers emphasize the use of stealth more than confrontation, dark areas are everywhere and the game teases you with the invitation to explore every nook and cranny to find the best route. Helping you along is the on-screen indicator – which grants an insight into how well the protagonist is hidden.
Visually the game was stunning upon release, blending medieval steampunk world with hints of gothic horror. The game was released in 1998 so the graphics obviously haven’t held up as flawlessly as more recent Thief outings. In spite of this the game still manages to capture a sense of wonder and attention to detail that makes it inviting for fans of this retro style. The AI was also incredibly unforgiving. Besides the usual guards, the cast of character range from regular peasants through to mindless zombies. Heck the game even throws a curveball at you when you’re forced to face off at giant spider, easily one of the most creepy boss battles of time. What helps with this immersion is the way the AI behaves. Each group of characters have a personality of their own. Some will ignore you, others are less forgiving. If spotted; they will act hostile and attack – forcing you to change your tactics on the fly or face the cruel embrace of death. This gives the player an enjoyable challenge and the game rewards the player for his hard and patient effort.
Thief became a classic in the gaming world, and was praised by critics; defining a genre and setting the template for all that followed. Looking Glass Studio married their creation to the brilliant Dark Engine, which would later be was used to develop System Shock 2. So popular was the game that 1999 saw the release of the expansion Thief: Gold. The expanded edition added more levels, more enemies and improved graphics. You owe it to yourself if you’re a fan of Dishonored or any of the games that emerged in the shadow of Thief to go out and see where the genre really found its voice. It may not have aged gracefully – but it’s an incredible game that more than deserves the praise gamers heap upon it to this day;
Overview: Thief: The Dark Project isn’t the best stealth game ever made, but it is certainly the first that paved the way for future stealth games. Even today people love to revisit this cult classic because of its tactical approach. Some prefer the 2003 reboot and that’s fair enough – but for me – the original Thief is always going to hold a special place for me.