Sneaky Bastards made its way to E3 for hands-on time with Eidos Montreal’s Thief and a conversation with Producer Stephane Roy.
Sneaky Bastards made its way to E3 for hands-on time with Eidos Montreal’s Thief and a conversation with Producer Stephane Roy.
October 17 Update: Thief’s XP System Removed
Eidos Montreal has removed Thief’s XP system, and clarified its reasoning in a community blog: “…the E3 reaction was right, rewarding killing like that was wrong for a Master Thief.” http://community.eidosmontreal.com/blogs/Take-5-QA-4
Where to begin? Our first impressions of Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot, a tumultuous project that has spent years in some state of production and endured a number of resets, were positive. That was a hands-off affair, one in which Eidos Montreal walked us through a vertical slice; one in which we later learned the AI was apparently disabled.
This time, we played through a level ourselves, the AI definitely functioning. The mission played out in three distinct phases – distinct, by being separated by a loading zone masked first by mashing a button to jimmy open a window, and second by a third-person cutscene. The first phase took place in a manor courtyard, tasking Garrett with infiltrating the building to steal a large jewel. The second phase took place inside the manor, and was more puzzle-focused, with Garrett searching for secret rooms and switches. The third phase saw Garrett escaping the manor in the midst of a riot by crossing a bridge that itself was on fire – and collapsing. The above footage, courtesy of Machinima, is of the first phase infiltrating the manor. Publisher Square-Enix has not released any video of the burning bridge escape, so we’ve inserted a gameplay approximation below:
We are not exaggerating. The sequences is brimming with scripted events; first-person cutscenes in which something collapses in front of Garrett and then he makes a jump to safety in slow motion. At one point the camera cuts to third-person as Garrett climbs away from explosions along the side of a building. An explosion throws him free, he loses his grip and falls – when a quick-time event prompt appears to perform an “aerial save”, which sees Garrett throw is grappling hook at a grate, which finds purchase at the last second, so he can continue climbing. These are the “extreme situations; memorable scripted sequences with altered controls, camera and/or gameplay rules” that cropped up some time ago on a Thief developer’s now-edited CV.
Our first question to Producer Stephane Roy was what this sequence was doing in this game, at this point in gameplay.
“You’re not the first talking about it,” he began. “So, the high level perspective, the gameplay is ‘infiltration, stealing, escaping’. This section, the burning bridge, is really the escaping moment. It’s a tool for us, and the level designer, to give a rhythm to the game. Infiltration is just fun, playing with them [the AI], driving them crazy, it’s just cool. But if I give you ice cream every day… you know. We want to change the rhythm. The escaping moment is really where we have this adrenaline rush, and now you have to escape, shit hits the fan, you just have to save your arse. “That said… it’s not always like that. Escaping, for us, it’s not always like that. Escaping could be very quiet. Just get out. Nobody should see you. It should be like… ghost. So, for this one, we’re at E3, there is explosion everywhere, it’s USA… so, you’re right, it’s more over the top because there’s a big revolution, a riot, but there are other escaping moments that are really, you’re a Thief, you’re a ghost.”
We’re at E3, there is explosion everywhere, it’s USA… so, you’re right, it’s more over the top
Yet we still found this philosophy contradictory. The mantra for Eidos Montreal’s Thief has, from even before its GDC reveal, to offer the player the tools and abilities to play the way they want – moreso than the previous Thief trilogy. It is possible to play Thief aggressively – difficult, but possible. It’s also possible to complete the game non-lethally, or as a ghost. This was all true of the previous titles, but the difference here is that Eidos Montreal is baking in mechanics that it feels further supports each type of approach. Where the contradiction arises is in the game itself beginning to dictate a playstyle for the sake of rhythm, when players have the ability to define the rhythm at all other points in time. “I have the feeling that you think that I’m going to hold your hand for all the game,” Roy replies. “That’s really not our intention. For this franchise, Thief, the narrative is really, really important. All the background story, all this documentation you can read, and stuff like that. It’s really a story-driven game. So I want to tell you an amazing story. Where we’re going, where we really want to give you a lot of freedom, is in all these opportunities.
“So, this demo. Go in the manor. Crystal clear, no frustration. You know what to do. You know where to go. How you do it – this is where we want your freedom. A lot of opportunities. A lot of ways to play. Aggressive. Non-lethally. It’s up to you… it’s your playground. You had a bad day, last night, you feel aggressive, perfect. Use your arrows and have fun. So this is where we really want to give you all the tools. We’re going to build these maps, this universe, to let you figure out – all the ingredients will be there – what type of fun I want to have today.” Yet this spoke to our major concern with the demo – one far greater than the insipid, dated nature of the burning bridge sequence. The “ingredients” that featured within the level did not feel general-purpose and consistent. They were not systems; they were hand-placed, hard-coded points of interest. Case in point (no pun intended): rope arrows. Previously, Garrett’s rope arrow stuck to any wooden surface, after which a climbable rope would unfurl from its point of impact. Here, rope arrows only attach to specifically marked anchor points that have been placed by level designers – anchor points that seemed to exist when the only way forward was through the use of a rope arrow. “It’s a question of production choice,” Roy explains. “If I give you the possibility to shoot the rope arrow everywhere, I will have to cut something. I will have to reduce our intention for the narrative. If it’s everywhere, the cost of it is to block your view, because it’s still a console. It’s still tech. By having a smart level design, by making sure that feels natural that here you can go – not scripted, but you check and if you feel that you should be able to do that and it’s there, the job is done. If it’s not frustrating, the job is done.”
“If I give you the possibility to shoot the rope arrow everywhere…. I will have to reduce our intention for the narrative”
What Roy is referring to is the amount of environmental geometry that can be rendered in the player’s field of view at once. Modern console games use very complex, tricky methods to block and obscure enough of the geometry that the frames-per-second target can be maintained. If the player is suddenly able to travel beyond the extent of those implemented blocks – if they are able to elevate themselves and observe a far greater portion of the environment than Eidos Montreal anticipated – the game would suffer frame drop.
But this is something that worked fifteen years ago. Technology has advanced in the name of stunning visuals, which only translate to environmental density rather than scale – let alone the player’s freedom to explore that scale. Thief: Deadly Shadows even experienced this, bisecting its levels with load zones to fit within the previous console generation’s memory limitations. Exactly what Roy is referring to when he says the ability to shoot rope arrows anywhere would result in cuts to the narrative is unclear, but we’d hazard a guess that he’s referring to this environmental density, or the memory required for scripted sequences like the burning bridge which Eidos Montreal believes is some kind of storytelling. To reference Deadly Shadows again – Ion Storm couldn’t get rope arrows working in the engine, much to the disappointment of fans. But the climbing gloves created in place of them still allowed Garrett to scale any stone surface. “Here, we control the cost of production,” Roy continues. “It’s not just money, it’s also all the effort. If you can check everywhere, and the artist has to block everything, at the end we have an amazing sandbox and… that’s it. By controlling a little bit where we put the ingredients, it makes sure that we have a lot of variation, it’s not too repetitive, and if it’s well done it should be transparent for you.” Though this Thief is a new, different game, Roy is adamant that he and the development team want to respect fans of the series. We can’t fathom a harder slap in the face.
It is a design philosophy that ties into one of Thief’s major new additions: Focus mode. Key objects are highlighted in blue, whilst guards’ footsteps are visible through walls. It also ‘amplifies’ Garrett’s ability to pickpocket – stealing in Focus mode is far quicker, and allows multiple items to be grabbed in a single swoop. Roy is clear that Focus mode can be disabled for those who do not wish to use it. But its presence is still troubling, for much of the key information that should be communicated by the environment has been moved not just to this vision mode, but to the user interface itself. “It’s a good comment,” says Roy. “If you tell me that, it’s because we still have to work on that. Personally, I really like the Focus feature. Personally, I don’t think that you cheat by using it. It’s really a part of the answer to why Garrett is the master, and not just… another one. “You don’t have to use it. So what does that mean? It means that we have to work very hard to make sure that you’re going to be able to read the environment without that. In this demo, if your feeling is that, without the Eye, it would have been complicated, it means that we still have to work hard to make sure that, without it, you are going to be able to progress. But it’s going to be harder. The Focus is really linked with the story. It’s not a gimmick, like magic. That’s why we designed the game with it.”
Focus is a way to essentially gamify Garrett’s nature as a master thief; a shortcut to making players ‘feel’ like a master, rather than by having them master the systems and environment on their own. Why does Thief need this? “With the next-gen, with the smartphone, with the tablet, with the indie developer, it’s really, really cool because now we have a lot of different types of players. There is a type of people that like to have that kind of indicator, because… they don’t want to fight with all these mechanics. They enjoy the story, they want to progress, they want to feel that they are good, but at the same time they like to, you know, ‘let me help you a little bit’.
They don’t want to fight with all these mechanics. They enjoy the story, they want to progress, they want to feel that they are good
“We are working very hard to respect these different types of player. Honestly, it’s like, let’s say you are at home, you like to write, and you have a novel in your drawer that you would like to share. I’m pretty sure you don’t write for one guy; you want to make sure a lot of people would see the story. It’s the same thing to us. But we really want to be respectful to the fanbase. That’s why Focus, you can disable it. You can play this game from A to Z without killing anybody. You can even finish this game in a non-lethal way. All these layers will be there. But if it’s story and stuff like that, we’ll give you Focus, indicators, to just make sure that you enjoy the experience.”
A light gem is still one of those indicators. It’s tucked down in the bottom left corner of the screen, and exhibits three states: hidden, partially visible and fully visible. In addition to the light gem is the Shroud – a murky vignette that surrounds the edge of the screen, constantly undulating as Garrett remains in shadow. Leaving the safety of darkness causes the Shroud to flash brilliant white; an effect that quickly became distracting. We understand Eidos Montreal’s desire to move players’ attention away from the light gem, but the Shroud was one of the chief elements preventing us from ever feeling immersed in the world. “This is where our job is really complex,” says Roy. “Why? Because I can understand your point of view. But I receive other comments that this flash, people were really in love with it, because they don’t have to check the gem. Just having that flash, they understand ‘Okay, the situation has changed’. So now, they forget the rest, and when there is that small tick, they understand, ‘Okay, now I should swoop, and come back.’ But, let’s say it’s a jury with yes or no. It could be fifty-fifty. So here, this is where we have to trust our instinct and move forward. It’s impossible to please everybody, so we try to find the best solution.”
We thank Roy for his time, and his candour, and think back to the end of the demo, in which Garrett completes his slow motion vault to the end of the exploding bridge. We leave the room and head back into the fray – back to E3, to explosions everywhere, to the USA – feeling ill.