The third of our fifteen-part series of articles examining Thief II’s level and mission design follows Garrett as he infiltrates the belly of the beast – Shoalsgate Station…
The third of our fifteen-part series of articles examining Thief II’s level and mission design follows Garrett as he infiltrates the belly of the beast – Shoalsgate Station…
Part I: The Sentimental Thief
Part II: On The Waterfront
Part III: Below…
Part IV: Coming Soon…
“I realise that breaking into Shoalsgate is like looking down a Burrick’s mouth with a lit match, but it would pay me enough to lay low for a while.”
Garrett is often his own worse enemy. Accepting a request to infiltrate the headquarters of the City Watch because he was “distracted” by a large bag of gold is never going to end up on a list of his smartest decisions. Fortunately, Shoalsgate Station presents one of The Metal Age’s more intriguing challenges: a heavily-patrolled building rife with secrets and a requirement to keep confrontations to a minimum.
There’s a clear theme to Framed, from the quoted text at the start of the briefing to the nature of the mission objectives. That theme is manipulation. In several levels’ time, when everything begins to make sense, it’ll become clear that the wood nymph Viktoria is behind Garrett’s trip to Shoalsgate. The means her messenger uses to “distract” Garrett is similar to the way she manipulated him into stealing Constantine’s Sword, an appeal to his arrogance and greed. The detailed map came from her sympathizer within the City Watch Lieutenant Mosley who, with Hagen out of the way, will be able to continue keeping the Pagans in the city out of the hands of Sheriff Truart.
After being dropped in at the deep end in Shipping and Receiving, Framed could be considered the point at which The Metal Age truly begins. Only the highly-detailed map could be considered as anything akin to a tutorial. Its presence makes sense within the fiction, even if the reasons are never explicitly explained. Lacking the variety of locations present in Shipping and Receiving, Framed is richer in narrative colour, its rooms teeming with clues and allusions to not only the main plot of The Metal Age, but the state of the City itself. This includes references to a number of characters you will either have already met, or whom you will hear more about in the future. Despite being the headquarters for the City Watch, Shoalsgate is really only at the periphery of the events of The Metal Age. Regardless, the actions Garrett takes tonight will soon have repercussions for himself and the City as a whole.
Unlike the previous two levels, there are no loot objectives to complete inside Shoalsgate. This is not common for Thief, but also not unheard of. It will become a more regular occurrence in subsequent levels of The Metal Age as the objectives increase in variety. Given the nature of Shoalsgate Station, the majority of loot is clumped together in either secret or secure locations, at least one of which – the Evidence Vault – will need to be visited for Garrett to complete his primary objectives. Lieutenant Hagen has become a problem for somebody he shouldn’t have. As such, he needs to be disgraced. Garrett’s services have been retained to steal a personal item from his office and swap it with the strong box from the Evidence Vault. With Hagen out of the way, Lieutenant Mosley will become Sheriff Truart’s second-in-command, an event that will turn out to have unfortunate consequences for the Sheriff.
If Garrett causes too much of a disturbance, the case against Hagen will be impossible to make, so even on Normal difficulty the objectives require a low-confrontation approach. Framed marks the first level of The Metal Age where ghosting is not only supported, but actively encouraged. As such, a few subtle design tweaks made to the routes and timing of the patrolling guards make ghosting this level slightly easier than others. The objectives also require multiple visits to Hagen’s office on the second floor to retrieve a personal item and then to plant the strong box. With a limited means of making safe any previously explored areas, negotiating the same stretch of hallway more than once presents a greater challenge than it might in a different level. It provides a similar tension to that offered by respawning NPCs, but within a more plausible fictional context.
Only available through exploration and discovery in the previous level, Rope Arrows can now be purchased before starting the mission. Though lacking the verticality of some of the later levels, purchasing at least one Rope Arrow will prove useful within the walls of Shoalsgate Station.
In what feels like a return to the level design style of The Dark Project, Garrett begins Framed on the streets outside Shoalsgate. The explorable space is small, consisting of a few buildings which can be looted for a rather nice bottle of wine and some supplies, along with an easter egg. It’s possible to mount an attempt at entry through the main entrance, but the Mechanist devices installed there will likely dissuade such an endeavour. The only area that can’t be accessed immediately is the utility building that stands between the start of the level and Shoalsgate Station itself; the locked door marking it as a location of interest.
Following the advice on the map provided, the way to enter Shoalsgate is through the sewers. The locked front door, and the entrance via an underground water way, mirror the means by which Garrett infiltrated Bafford Manor – the first level of The Dark Project.
Despite the single means of ingress, once inside Shoalsgate, or at least in the spaces beneath, the level opens up with multiple means of entering the station proper. A Rope Arrow can be used to climb up the well and enter the unguarded courtyard. While the two accessible passageways both end in secret doors – operated by torches on the walls – that can be used to enter different parts of the basement. One opens onto a corridor to the holding cells, the other into an empty generator room. There’s little reason to explore the holding cells beyond the narrative colour they offer. There is also a suspect being “interrogated” – on what looks suspiciously like a rack – his claims of being a “veteran” one of several hints throughout the Thief games that the citizens of the City are living either in an at-war or post-war environment. Who that war was with, to what end, and who if anybody won, are all left unexplained.
At the other end of the holding cell corridor is an empty labratory and a morgue, where one very dead, and one more recently deceased, body can be found. The latter met his fate due to “Pagan worship” which seems ominously euphemistic. Was he a Pagan sacrifice or was he killed because he was a Pagan? Either way, Garrett will be able to put his money purse to better use than he ever will. The generator room is deserted and will stay this way until a later conversation is triggered. For now, it offers a safe way up to the first floor.
The main hallway of Shoalsgate Station forms a rectangle around the central courtyard, the majority of rooms occupying the space between this hallway and the outer wall. As with most levels in The Metal Age, the rooms themselves are generally unoccupied and sparsely patrolled, but it is the hallways that are the most heavily travelled. The routes of each of the guards are predictable, but their behaviour is not entirely consistent. Some will open doors, while others will turn around upon reaching them. A few will even take short cuts through otherwise unoccupied rooms. The lighting on the first floor is provided by electrical lights hanging from the ceiling that cast pools of illumination across the centre of the hallway, and from torches on the walls. The doors leading to the rooms off this main hallway are made from solid wood. Once closed, not only will any sounds you make be muffled, but you will be able to move unseen. Interconnecting doorways and secret passages mean large parts of the hallway can be avoided by staying within these rooms. The downside to these solid doors is that care will need to be taken when exiting these rooms; what hides you from observation also serves to hide the guards from you.
Interconnecting doorways and secret passages mean large parts of the hallway can be avoided
The doors between the various parts of the hallway are only half panel, the top half including a large pane of glass. Though this allows you to quickly survey the stretch of hallway beyond, it also forces you to stay low if you are to avoid being spotted, and doing so means you might fail to notice a guard on the far side of one of these doors until they are almost on top of you. They can still be detected by their footsteps, though if there is one constant to the soundscape of Shoalsgate beyond the pervasive alarm-like gong, it’s the sound of patrolling footsteps.
If you choose to rely on the map and avoid exploring the rooms on the first floor, there are a number of exits to the courtyard, which can be used to rapidly move between different parts of the first floor and avoid the various patrols. Symbolic of his infiltration of the corridors of power, Garrett is at his most safe when outside, in the open with the sky above. This is also where he is at his least productive. Unlike Running Interference, with it’s predefined route, or the storage bays of Shipping and Receiving that each require unlocking separately, the only enforced traversal in Framed is between the second floor office of Lieutenant Hagen and the Evidence Vault. Given the spatial density of Shoalsgate Station, the mission objectives are surprisingly light and don’t lend themselves to a particular route through the environment. The very similar visual design of the different hallways on the first floor, combined with the variety of secret passages, can lead your first encounter with Framed being a confusing one, as certain surreptitious routes can take your rapidly from one part of the level to the other, leaving you far from where you started yet in an aesthetically similar location.
There is little of direct value on the first floor. Reaching the main office will allow you to disable the alarms and open the side entrance to Shoalsgate, which can be used to exit the building once your other objectives have been completed, but neither of these are particularly necessarily if you are taking the minimal confrontation approach strongly encouraged by the level itself.
What the first floor does is offer access to rest of the building. There are two distinct portions to the second floor: the records hall, and the offices, both of which will need to be visited in order to complete your objectives. Two sets of stairs in the western portion of the building lead up to the offices, while a spiral staircase in the north eastern corner accesses the records hall. There are three alternate ways up to the second floor, the dumb waiter in the kitchen and a secret passage on the upper level of the training room provide a means of reaching the offices, while a secret passage hidden behind a vent in the main office provides a back entrance into the Records Hall, as long as you have a Rope Arrow handy.
The main portion of the second floor is made up of the offices for the various departments – vice, narcotics, homicide – those of the two Lieutenants – Mosley and Hagen – and the office of Sheriff Truart himself. Truart understandably has the largest and most ostentatious office in the building. Three guards patrol along the corridors on this floor, their timing meaning you will never be able to move through a completely unoccupied corridor, but waiting until each as reached the end of their patrol will give you the longest window of opportunity. Similar to the first floor, lighting is provided by a mixture of lamps and electric lights, with at least one light illuminating each of the hallways containing the various offices. The arrangement of the carpets on the floor can aid you in tracking the position of each of the guards by sound alone, the change in tone of their footsteps as they move from wooden floor to carpet providing an indication of how far away they are at any given moment – another possible reference to the upper floors of Lord Bafford’s Manor.
With the gas lamps on this floor dowsed, moving past the patrolling guards can be achieved by staying close to the walls, and crossing the illuminated patches while their backs are turned. It’s possible to be caught if a guard is too close, as each will walk slightly nearer to either the right or left wall on the return leg of their patrol, though this can easily be observed from a position of safety in a dark corner. It’s possible to use a Rope Arrow to suspend yourself above the guards and observe them from there, but it’s an unnecessarily dramatic move. Despite appearances moving through this corridor is no more challenging that moving through those on the first floor. The only difference being that due to the mission objectives, movement through the corridors on this floor is mandatory given the need to visit Hagen’s office at least twice.
Though on different floors, Evidence Storage and the Record Hall are aesthetically very similar. Sparsely furnished and largely empty, neither provide a particular challenge. Though the stairways needed to reach each are behind locked doors, there are secret passages that will grant entry to both. A key from one of the Lieutenants, either Hagen or Mosley, will unlock the Secure Records room inside the Records Hall. On the table within are the instructions for the Evidence Vault, specifically the code needed to turn off the Mechanist security devices that protect it. The secret passage from Warden Affairs is the best means of reaching Evidence Storage, avoiding as it does the guard waiting at the top of the stairs. Entering the third floor this way requires that you deal with a patrolling guard and a single security camera, in the form of a Mechanist Face. The empty rooms on this floor make avoiding the former trivial, and the pattern of the later is easy to discern, neither are likely to present any real problems. Without the code, the Evidence Vault will remain sealed, but once entered the vault’s contents, including the strong box, are yours for the taking.
Shoalsgate is a curiously anachronistic location. In places, it looks like something you would find in any TV police procedural, from the cubical farm main office, to the lineup, to the water cooler behind the front desk. The visual design of each of these locations fits The Metal Age aesthetic, yet they still manage to feel slightly out of place, being less appropriate to the world than the industrial docks and manor house of the previous levels. It’s another sign that the City is advancing technologically, though in this instance it can feel like a minor misstep. Externally, Shoalsgate is a fort, with a high exterior wall, and even a moat – albeit a shallow one. On the lower floors, the walls are stone throughout; only the upper storeys get additional partition walls along with the occasional roll of carpet. It’s a simple change of visual style, but it serves to separate the different floors and reinforce their relative worth; the more technologically sophisticated it looks, the more it’s worth exploring. There are signs of this merging of the old and new throughout the City; stone keeps and towers butting up against newer wood and brick constructions. More of this will be seen in the subsequent level, Ambush, and it becomes a primary aesthetic touchstone of Life Of The Party, where the metal of the Mechanist tower stands in stark contrast to everything around it.
Unlike the Rampones, it’s clear Sheriff Truart has a better understanding the Mechanist’s work and what exactly needs protecting; no more cameras placed mere paces from their control mechanisms. There’s even a Mechanist Worker on hand to ensure everything operates as intended. That the first actual Mechanist we see is a Worker, not an armed guard, and that he is inside the headquarters of the City Watch, is a strong indication that despite not being mentioned in the first level, their presence is clearly much more prominent than it might have initially appeared.
Listening at keyholes
Various conversations can be overheard while moving through Shoalsgate, these serve to add context, helping to solidify when this mission occurs in relation to the others and what is happening in the background while Garrett is otherwise occupied.
Lady Rumford can be found in one of the interview rooms giving a statement about the disappearance of her chambermaid and is the first person in the game to mention Father Karras by name. This goes some way to dismissing the idea that the “hidden shrine” was in any way related to the Mechanist, if that in fact is what it was at all.
The first Mechanist we see in the game is a Worker near the front desk. He can be overheard talking about the security systems and the Secure Records room. His attempts to explain the system to a guard provide a clue as to where the “instructions” for the security system are, including the code for the vault.
Two guards can be heard reminiscing about their former careers as spotters for the Downwinders Thieves Guild. Clearly Sheriff Truart is not above employing criminals himself.
Mosley is a Pagan. If this isn’t clear from the plants and moss arrows in her office, it is reinforced almost heavy-handedly by the repeated missives referencing her inability to deal with the Pagans despite her exemplar performance against other parts of the City’s underworld. Despite this, she is also considered by the rank and file of the City Watch to be “the only one any of us can trust”. Hagen is greatly disliked and his own journal makes clear his almost cult-like devotion to Sheriff Truart. His disgrace, even if it does seem suspect, is unlikely to be questioned by the rest of the Watch. Hagen’s willingness to do anything and everything Truart asks of him, compared with Mosley’s reluctance to deal with the Pagan threat, heavily implies that Viktoria is behind the plot. The benefits to both of them are clear, but unsurprisingly there is even more going on beneath the surface.
There are a number of other narrative threads to be found running through Framed, the significance of all of which will remain mysterious for some time. The Warden Affairs department is involved in something; whatever that is, they are keeping it secret from the rest of the City Watch. Truart himself is up to some things that don’t seem entirely legal either; his schedule details an appointment with one Madame Volari, a brothel madam that the Vice department have been trying to convict for some time. Reports in the Secure Records room detail potential blackmail targets, including one Lady Van Vernon who’s exploits you’ll hear more of during Life Of The Party. The information for these blackmail threats possibly comes by way of Madame Volari’s establishment.
Another element about Sheriff Truart that it is easy to miss the significance of are the two large Angels flanking the fireplace in his office. These are smaller versions of the huge statues adorning the Mechanist tower in Dayport and from which its name is likely derived – Angelwatch. It would seem that Lady Rumford is not wrong in her belief that the Father Karras has a great deal of “influence” with the City Watch.
The co-opting of space is a recurring theme of every Thief game. Whether it’s the use of an enhanced move set (Mantling, Jumping) to modify the usable space of a location, the application of elemental arrows to change the properties of an environment (Dowsing torches, covering floors with moss), or the discovery of alternate routes through the physical space, Garrett is not so much a master of thievery, but of movement through a hostile space.
Garrett is not so much a master of thievery, but of movement through a hostile space.
Each of these facets of Garrett’s environmental mastery will be exploited over the course of The Metal Age, with their possibly highlight being the superb Life Of The Party, where every tool available will need to be used to infiltrate a location even more hostile than the home of the City Watch. Within the walls of Shoalsgate Station the most obviously manifestation of this form of mastery can be found in the myriad secret passages that open up direct routes between previous disparate parts of the building. If you know where you’re going they can make this level, despite its spatial density, one of the quickest to complete.
Garrett enters the headquarters of the City Watch, the perceived heart of the City, and uses the spatial complexity of their own building against them, turning their private space to his own advantage. It’s a power relationship that is neatly inverted in the next level, Ambush, where the public space of the City, the location you have always been escaping to, is itself turned into a hostile environment…