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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 5 – The House of Secrets


Our level design analysis continues as Garrett’s thieving sensibilities find him in The City’s red light district.


With the ring obtained and returned to Orion, you are now asked to locate a book. Its exact whereabouts vague beyond the conviction that it lies somewhere within the House of Blossoms, the den of opium and other earthly pleasures concealed below the streets of The City. Visiting Erin’s hideout in The City serves as a prologue; an introduction to the type of traps you will encounter in the Keeper ruins below the House of Blossoms, and a means of providing the medallion needed to enter them.

This chapter features the only level on the critical path whose location is explicitly defined within The City. Before you can start your search you first need to locate the entrance, hidden within the streets of Riverside. Chapter 3 is also the most thematically consistent; your exploration of the House of Blossoms and the ruins beneath builds, conceptually and aesthetically, upon the theme of uncovering secrets.

Your exploration of the House of Blossoms and the ruins beneath builds, conceptually and aesthetically, upon the theme of uncovering secrets

Having located the entrance to the tunnels beneath Raker’s Ditch, you will still need to find a way inside the House of Blossoms itself. Fortunately, a patron is already waiting to be lead down. The route he and his guide take is direct, but includes a number of areas where you can leave the path to explore or avoid environmental hazards. Though only brief diversions, each of these side routes converge at a later point, usually only a few feet from where you first left the path.

The House of Blossoms is full of sleeping and otherwise occupied NPCs, though these don't actually have a full perception model; they are largely blind and deaf to your actions.

The House of Blossoms is full of sleeping and otherwise occupied NPCs, though they don’t possess a full perception model, remaining largely blind and deaf to your actions.

Past the guards outside the main door, there are two ways inside the House of Blossoms. Both deposit you in the same room several meters apart; a distance you can cross in seconds by swooping. There’s no meaningful choice to be made here. Entering through the front door is no more risky than climbing through the caves and dropping down into an alcove off the main room.

The space within the House of Blossoms is full of smart arrangements of objects; candles positioned between NPCs and loot, and locks to pick within hearing range of guards. You need to be mindful of not just your own actions but of the environment around you. Caged birds limit your ability to move quickly through brightly lit or otherwise hostile spaces, while jars on the floor can be knocked over and smashed, potentially intentionally; the noise enough lure guards out of position. The level is protected by both static and mobile NPCs, their patrol routes taking them out of sight briefly so you can’t observe their entire path at once, forcing you to operate on partial information which leads to situations where you will need to improvise a solution to remain undetected.

The Man Behind The Curtain

There are few doors within the House of Blossoms. In their place, hung across the archways that separate one chamber from another, are curtains. Psychological barriers between the different spaces, these curtains serve to block vision but not sound or movement; you can still hear everything on the far side of a curtain (provided Thief’s sound system is functioning correctly) even if you can’t see it. Unlike doors there’s no keyhole to peek through to observe events on the far side. If you want to be able to rely on more than sound you will need to push forward, parting the curtains and risking exposure.

Contextually appropriate, these curtains require a subtly different approach than the standard wooden doors, with a modified risk-reward balance. An intelligent new object that hooks neatly into the existing systems, it’s disappointing that these curtains will never be used again outside the House of Blossoms.

The main space of the House of Blossoms is constructed of two chambers and adjoining rooms, additional space is implied at several points but there’s no way to access any of it, and no apparent spatial connection between these areas and those you can explore.

The main space of the House of Blossoms is constructed of two chambers and adjoining rooms. Additional space is implied at several points, but there’s no way to access it, and no apparent spatial connection between these areas and those you can explore.

Though the spatial and encounter design of the House of Blossoms is strong, your objective is vague and unfocused. Eventually your exploration will take you to Madam Xiao Xiao’s office. Opening the secret passage inside pushes you forward into the next section of the level with no warning and no way back. If you enter the passage before you are ready, you have no means of returning to the main section of the House of Blossoms.

The solution to the puzzle blocking your way forward requires looking through peepholes into three of the rooms abutting the secret passage. Notably, the only room that you are never required to look into is the one with the couple having sex. The rooms you can observe are unreachable, and it’s difficult to make sense of their position relative to the parts of the structure you have been able to visit. They are spaces that exist to be voyeuristically observed, not as part of a coherent location.

Once you have located the correct symbols and unlocked this door, a slide down a ramp beyond prevents your return to the House of Blossoms. After a soft transition, you emerge inside a long ruined Keeper complex.

Octagonal towers, a library, some of the spaces below the House of Blossoms are collapsing others relatively intact.

Octagonal towers and a library. Some of the spaces below the House of Blossoms are collapsing, while others remain relatively intact.

With some side areas to discover (including an opportunity to locate a Burrick corpse) and traps to avoid this section is pure exploration, culminating in an environmental puzzle and a glimpse of a creature that you’ll see no more of until Chapter 5.

Once you steal the book it’s time to escape. Reaching the surface again will not be as easy as the descent. There are guards in your way now having conveniently chosen this moment to open a way down into the ruins, a route you can leave through provided you can locate a rope arrow. The escape from the caverns below the House of Blossoms finishes with another third-person climbing sequence that lasts for seconds and serves only as a means of crossing a crevasse that need not be there at all as, within seconds of reaching the other side, you trigger a cutscene that shows another sequence of Garrett getting nearly caught by the Thief-Taker General.

Full of smart object and NPC placement, the House of Blossoms offers a tense and rewarding stealth experience

Full of smart object and NPC placement, the House of Blossoms offers a tense and rewarding stealth experience that plays to the core fantasy of Thief. You are an unwanted invader into a private space; a shadow spying through peepholes, discovering secrets and unearthing things better left buried. Even devoid of this contextual reinforcement, the basic spatial design of the House of Blossoms is strong enough that it is able to stand the rigours of Challenge Mode; a design crucible where pure repetition serves to expose any and all flaws.

These core strengths in spatial and thematic construction are let down by unclear objectives and a one-way progression to the final sections that forestalls further exploration. The ruined Keeper compound beneath provides a change of pace at the expense of removing any need to be stealthy, until the enforced escape sequence that concludes the level.

Preparation, Initiate and Escape: all three phases exist within Chapter 3, though, much like the previous chapters, their divisions at the high level are strictly enforced. Once again, a strong core section is diminished by the weaker, overly prescriptive spaces that surround it.


This post is part of Deep in the Shadows: A Thief Design Analysis series. Click below for the next instalment.

thief design analysis part 6

Or, you can click below to return to the Deep in the Shadows contents hub to find links to every part of our analysis.

thief design analysis contents

Justin Keverne

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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 6 – Architect of His Own Demise
Garrett finds his way into the Baron's stronghold in the most confusing and illogical Thief chapter yet.
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One Response to Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 5 – The House of Secrets

  1. By Still, July 30, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Just so you know, the image link to part six hasn’t been updated and still says “Return in three days for the next instalment”.

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