Invent

Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 8 – The Fall of Northcrest


Garrett returns to Northcrest Manor in a Thief mission that shows glimmers of good spatial design.


The Graven are on the march, heading across the bridge to Auldale and the home of the Baron. If you are to find out what happened to Erin, you need to get to him before they do.

Dropping over the outer wall of the Northcrest Manor, you need to find a way inside before you confront the Baron himself. The grounds outside the manor are made up of two patrolled gardens, leading to a path around the still intact north wing of the house. Two of the three possible ways inside can be found by taking this route, and the level is spatially laid out to guide you toward them. Follow the path as far as it goes, and you will reach a dead end where a hanging crate can be dropped to the ground, enabling you to climb up and through an attic window. Heading down the stairs, you pass along a path that will take you through a locked door into the basement.

There is a third way into the Manor, accessible from the starting area, but first you will need to shut off the flow of water to the entire gardens. The controls for this can be found in the small utility space directly in front of the house.

If you turn off the water the guard in the first garden area changes position to watch over the sewer entrance; if you’re careful you can creep past and through before he turns around.

If you turn off the water, the guard in the first garden changes position to watch over the sewer entrance. If you are careful, you can creep past and through before he turns around.

Entering via the basement door leads to a soft transition before you reach the interior, while dropping down into the sewers requires climbing up and over a series of pipes that slow you down enough to cover up the loading of the interior. This serves the same purpose as the soft transition, though in a more organic and less obvious manner.

The layout of Baron Northcrest’s manor is thematically and spatially in keeping with the exterior construction

Once inside, the entirety of the north wing is open to you, consisting of a half dozen rooms spread across multiple floors. The layout of Baron Northcrest’s manor is thematically and spatially in keeping with the exterior construction. There are guest bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and an apparently well stocked wine cellar. Exploration of this wing is non-linear, with many of the individual rooms having multiple points of entry. There are traps throughout, taking the form of either pressure plates on the floor, or rigged locks which will trigger when a door is opened.

Gain access to the Northcrest Manor by taking the stairs to the basement or by wading through sewers the choice is meaningless, you start the next section in the same room regardless.

Gain access to the Northcrest Manor by taking the stairs to the basement or by wading through the sewers. Either way, the choice is meaningless; you start the next section in the same room regardless.

You are never explicitly directed into the library, though your progress through the hallways of the north wing is restricted either by a large section of floor traps, or a pair of guards, depending on the floor you are on. If you choose not to engage these directly, the library provides a means of circumventing these obstacles. Organically connected to the rest of the building, the layout and arrangement of guards in the library is the strongest part of this chapter, despite being strictly confined to a small section of the interior. There are multiple levels of verticality to move around on, with guards and caged birds to be aware of and locks to pick in risky locations along patrol routes. The library also includes one of the rare examples of documents on a character’s belt that you can obtain by picking their pocket.

A purely aesthetic decision, the play of light across the stairs is functionally meaningless, no NPCs patrol this area so visibility creates no risk.

A purely aesthetic decision, this play of light across the stairs is functionally meaningless; no NPCs patrol this area, so visibility creates no risk.

Past the library and you are into the central span of the manor. Currently, the south wing is sealed off, but you can use this foyer space as a means of approaching the rooms in the accessible north wing from a different direction, avoiding some of the traps in the corridors. Proceed through the doors into the tower at the heart of the manor and you will be forced to move forward in a way that prevents any return to the north wing. You are restricted to this central staircase until you reach the Baron’s chambers.

As you climb the elevator shaft, there’s a switch to third person that sees you hanging immobile from the metal beams while the Thief-Taker General comes down in the elevator. A means of providing exposition as you overhear the Baron talking to a subordinate while the elevator cage descends past you, there’s no clear reason why this couldn’t have been achieved in a way that doesn’t so obviously limit your movement options. You are stuck in this space already, yet are further restricted in order to ensure you hear a conversation that has no bearing on your current activities or the plot.

A return to a location you first saw in the tutorial Prologue, the south wing now lies in ruin.

Upon a return to a location you first saw in the tutorial Prologue, you’ll find the south wing now lies in ruin.

During your cutscene confrontation with the Baron, the Graven break in and begin to ransack the Manor; burning, looting and murdering. Returning to the foyer, you find the north wing is now on fire, with only a small portion remaining accessible. Instead, the way to the ruined south wing is now open. There are patrolling Graven everywhere, and the floor is littered with broken glass. The environment is more hostile than it was before you reached the Baron. Despite being a more challenging, but less engaging, spatial design, this section is restrictive, and obviously so when explored immediately after the more open north wing.

After finding your way into the basement laboratory below the ruined south wing, you will need to manipulate the machinery there to free the Primal fragment that you are now after, despite having never been told that it was there.

The escape across the bridge that concludes this level is an obstacle course from one end to the other. More contextually appropriate than the much shorter and more heavily scripted sequence in Chapter 4, it features a few moments that allow you to express your and Garrett’s personality. Do you stay to pick the lock on the small chest while the fire grows ever nearer, or abandon the loot within to make a quick escape?

This smart design and object placement is undermined by a lack of NPCs

There are moments of smart spatial design throughout the Northcrest Manor, such as light streaming through windows and creating patterns of shadows across the floor that make it impossible to ascend the stairs while remaining concealed. There are locks to pick in illuminated corridors, and trapped floor panels that push you to explore side rooms to find a way around them. Unfortunately, this smart design and object placement is undermined by a lack of NPCs, the entire house is devoid of civilians and the City Watch guards are either stationary or confined to short and easily predictable patrol routes. The tension of attempting to pick a complex lock while standing in an illuminated corridor is stripped away when there are no NPCs who might detect you; failing is without threat when nobody will ever hear the sound of your fumbling attempts to pick a lock.

Heavily guarded from the outside, it’s possible to spend minutes wandering the rooms inside without encountering a single guard, and those you do are either confined to specific rooms or have patrol routes that are easily avoided. Aesthetically consistent, with a coherent and smartly designed interior rife with traps to avoid and secrets to discover, Northcrest Manor is let down by the lack of NPCs and an ending that feels like an intruder from a different game.


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

thief design analysis part 9

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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2 Responses to Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 8 – The Fall of Northcrest

  1. By Akracing, October 15, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Great insights into the construction of the game. Thank you for sharing. I did not know, many of those characteristics. I will try to notice more during gameplay, but sometimes it is so consuming, the graphics get completely lost in the background of my mind.

  2. By Rex de Vries, February 7, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    This is the level I enjoyed the most in the game. It’s got an openness to it that nearly matches the first three games in scope.

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