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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 9 – Sacred Ground


The second to last chapter of the Thief reboot returns to locations and lore from the original trilogy.


Thief’s penultimate chapter takes you to a Hammerite Cathedral in the City’s Old Quarter; a remnant of the “old gods”. Orion and the Graven are gathering inside. It’s where you’ll find whatever answers he may have, and hopefully Erin.

If you crawl under the road leading to the Cathedral and descend the wooden ramps on the far side, you’ll reach a pit that extends up to the ground level several meters above. There’s no way into the cathedral grounds from here, though you can fall down this hole from above. Despite providing a sense of continuity by linking different areas of the level together, this is a layout decision that doesn’t make sense from a play perspective. If you explore this pit from the top, you’ll fall to the bottom and need to traverse the first courtyard again.

The outer courtyard of the cathedral features an encounter so crammed full of different elements that its challenge stems more from simply not offering any space to move than from the relationships between the individual pieces. A fire has been lit in the centre of the courtyard. It’s too large to be dowsed, so it pushes you out to the edges of the space in the name of concealment. Here, bottles, caged birds, and patches of broken glass limit your ability to move quickly. Sleeping and standing Graven are positioned around the fire, while others patrol the courtyard. A further complication is provided by the lightning flashes that illuminate the area at irregular intervals, revealing your position. This density of objects is not helped by a bug that causes parts of the space to be lit in a way that makes the light level on the floor appear to be an inaccurate representation of how illuminated you will be if you stand there.

The collapsed tower is an example of how to enable vertical traversal without resorting to third person sequences and bespoke control schemes.

The collapsed tower is an example of how to enable vertical traversal without resorting to third-person sequences with bespoke control schemes.

There are two ways into the Cathedral. The front doors have been sealed shut, though one of the panels above is missing, and if you can reach the scaffolding in front of the door you can climb through into the vestibule. From the first courtyard, you can use a crawl space to reach a second smaller courtyard, and from there gain entry to the half-collapsed bell tower.

Falling apart, with the roof entirely missing in places, the Cathedral is patrolled by multiple armed Graven. The majority of their unarmed brethren have used the elevator constructed in the centre of the structure to descend into the ancient ruins below. In order to follow them down, you will need to reach the supply elevator.

Laid out asymmetrically around the excavation in the centre, this area’s spatial design focuses along the north wall. Here, the rooms and walls remain relatively intact and Graven patrols are frequent. Across the pit to the south is the supply elevator, with two ways to reach it. Before reaching the Graven to the north, a series of ramps leads down to the lowest level. Here, you can find a switch to activate the elevator. This route requires you to confront fewer NPCs, but you will need to trigger the switch and wait for the elevator to arrive. Head instead through the patrolled spaces along the north wall, and you’ll reach an anchor point for a rope arrow that will take you up onto the maintenance platforms above the two elevator shafts. From here, you can climb down and into the cage of the supply elevator without having to call it back to the ground floor.

Overhead transport lines run through the underground sections of the level, following them will take you where you need to go through their colouration and materials make them easy to miss.

Overhead transport lines run throughout the underground sections of the level. Following them will take you where you need to go, though their materials and colouration make them easy to miss.

The path from the elevator shaft to the Graven congregation in the hidden city is split into three distinct sections, separated by soft transitions through cracks in the wall. Vertically oriented and built from wooden walkways around a central shaft of crumbling brick, the focus of the first section is environmental traversal, requiring you to climb and jump across ledges and breaks in the path. Three Graven patrol the top of the shaft. Depending on the route you take, bypassing them can be challenging or trivial. With so much of this section built from similar materials, it is difficult to visually determine the different routes through the space to the top of the shaft; the path you take and your position relative to the patrolling Graven when you reach the top can feel accidental.

The path you take and your position relative to the patrolling Graven when you reach the top can feel accidental

Encounters with Freaks become more common as you move past the Graven, and the next section requires you to traverse a bridge while they stumble across it, making the direct route hazardous. There’s a way across to be found by dropping down onto the stone ledges that run along the sides of the chamber, and a convenient rope will allow you to climb back up on the far side. Through a large metal doorway, you will need to be careful of trapped floor panels as you begin to ascend once more. A ladder enables you to reach the final section before the hidden city proper. This space is more intact than those below and patrolled by a pair of Graven. Though restricted in size, there are enough side rooms that you can hide and wait for an opportunity to slip past and through a final metal door.

The hidden city has been constructed with an eye toward the same spatial design applied to the City sections above, but the restricted space and low object density mean it never coalesces into something that feels like a habitable space; it’s a street and the remnants of a building. Seen from the outside, the rotunda that serves as your destination is huge, the centerpiece of the hidden city. From within, it’s too cramped to fit even a small fraction of the Graven observed flocking towards it only minutes earlier.

Your first glimpse of the hidden city recalls the City above ground, though your exploration of it will reveal it to be little more than a superficial facade.

Your first glimpse of the hidden city recalls the City above ground, though your exploration of it will reveal it to be little more than a superficial facade.

Conceptually, a stealth “boss fight” has potential, but the implementation of your final confrontation with the Thief-Taker General is frustrating and often comical. He stands in the middle of the room firing flaming bolts at your suspected position, while you attempt to unlock the door by operating two cranks on opposite sides of the room and then picking the lock.

Your final confrontation with the Thief-Taker General is frustrating and often comical

As a journey through the layers of history that exists beneath the surface of the City, there is a sense of exploring the past in the aesthetic design of this chapter, but the limited space occupied by each discrete section, and the reliance on a limited set of materials with near identical colouration, undercuts this attempt at narrative through architecture.

Instead, Chapter 7 is a series of linked encounter spaces – not an exploration of a subterranean city. Coming after the open and undirected visit to Northcrest Manor, the artificial and inelegant way spaces are connected here stands out. Individually, some of the challenges encountered along the way are engaging, making good use of Garrett’s extended movement abilities and allowing for both intentional and improvisation play, but they lack coherence. An aggressively unidirectional sequence of discrete encounter spaces, this level also includes the use of the cliche “roof that collapses behind you” to ensure you always keep moving in the required direction and never consider exploring beyond the path laid out before you.


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

thief design analysis part 10

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

Further Investigation
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Conclusion
Our deep dive analysis of the Thief reboot concludes with a holistic look at its stealth systems in the context of the game's level design.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 11 – Big City Life
The hub world of the City in the Thief reboot features some well-designed sidequests within confusing architecture.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 10 – Cast Off
Thief's anti-climactic finale features easily-bypassed encounters within confusing and characterless spatial design.
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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.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 7 – Institutional Lies
Don't mention the Cradle, don't mention the Cradle, don't mention the... dammit.
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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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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.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 4 – You Can’t Take it With You
Chapter 2, the first non-tutorial mission of the Thief reboot, sees Garrett infiltrate a foundry used to dispose of The City's plague corpses.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 3 – A Tale of Two Masks
Our level design-specific analysis of the Thief reboot begins with a look at the Jewellers and road to the clocktower in Chapter 1: Lockdown.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Conclusion
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part

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