Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 11 – Big City Life
[one_third]The hub world of the City in the Thief reboot features some well-designed sidequests within confusing architecture.[/one_third]
When not forwarding the plot through the main chapters, you are free to explore portions of the City. Where the chapters are directed, built as a sequence of connected stealth arenas, the City is open and undirected to the point of occasional confusion. Rich with secrets and dense with objects, almost every building in the City is accessible, though some of them don’t appear so until you have unlocked the side content related to them. Unfortunately, even when are able to enter them, many of the buildings are composed of single rooms that require prying open a window upon both entry and exit.
You climb through the window into a room, steal the obvious items of loot and climb back out, with no risk or expenditure of resources. There’s no sense of threat or challenge to many of the City sections; once you have found a way onto the “Thieves’ Highway” above the streets, you can move around with impunity. As you begin to engage with the space vertically, you disconnect yourself from the elements of the game that require you to be concerned with stealth. Your time in the City is about exploration; fortunately, it’s here that it excels.
As you open up more sections of the City, environmental manipulation and puzzle solving becomes more important, with some of the unique or collectible loot requiring multiple interactions to uncover. With different sections becoming accessible as you complete chapters, there is a sense of escalation to your exploration of the City that is lacking from those chapters themselves. You start in Stonemarket, the merchant district, built from courtyards with most locations reachable using only your basic movement abilities; City Watch, and eventually Graven, patrols are light.
The areas around Shinsworth Lane and Muddler’s Row are some of the most open and vertically-orientated in the game
As you progress through the main chapters, you gain access to the South Quarter and eventually Riverside. This is a more directed section of the City; everything leads downhill to the river, which is denser with guards and objects, as well as being home to the vicious Eelbiters. The final part of the City to be unlocked are the streets abutting Grandmauden Road. Already on fire from the Graven riots, these areas feature a combination of elements seen in the other City sections. Spatially dense, the areas around Shinsworth Lane and Muddler’s Row are some of the most open and vertically-orientated in the game.
There are some sections of the City hub that feature just plain good spatial design, verticality, density, smart layouts, readable affordances, room for discovery, multiple links back to previous sections, and intelligent use of space that is not over-reliant on transitions. Sadly, some of the strongest examples of this City hub design appear only after you’ve completed several of the chapters in the main game, which include areas that are frequently more memorable for their frustrating constraints than for their level design.
Only accessible by talking to Basso are small jobs that task you with stealing specific items from buildings throughout the City. Though generally devoid of NPCs beyond those you encounter on your way to the objective, these little vignettes still manage to be some of the most thematically consistent. Theft is the focus, and often you need to bypass traps and locate hidden spaces in order to find the items you are looking for. Unfortunately, until you have unlocked these jobs by accepting them, the locations in which they occur are either entirely or partially inaccessible. This leaves sections of the City misleadingly barren. Platforms and ledges create pathways that lead to boarded up windows or sealed doors; these may become accessible later, but if you find your way up there just to reach a dead end, it can leave the City feeling sparse. Ledges don’t need to lead somewhere, but when so many form traversal routes through the environment, the ones that dead-end stand out.
One of the Basso jobs is a scavenger hunt through the home of a poet. One can lead to the discovery of a hidden crypt beneath the streets of the city. Another asks you to steal a piece of valuable loot from the belt of a roving NPC. They show a level of creativity too often lacking from the main chapters.
More detailed than these small vignettes of City life, the Client Jobs see you taking part in a sequence of narratively-linked levels for either Carnival owner Vittori or unsettling inventor Ector. Unlike the transitions to the main chapters, which can see you jump from one side of the City to the other, the Client Jobs are connected to the rest of the City in ways that consistently feel natural. Each location is presented as if it exists just beyond the door you used to initiate the level. They are small sections of the City parcelled off from the rest, but they don’t suffer from the sense of disconnection that the chapters do.
The Client Jobs are connected to the rest of the City in ways that consistently feel natural
Each of the Client Jobs occurs within a single level, and tasks you with stealing some specific item. Open in their spatial design with multiple routes through the area and dense with objects and NPCs, the Client Jobs, though short, provide the best stealth encounters in the entire game.
The Client Jobs, though short, provide the best stealth encounters in the entire game
From escorting a drunk back to his hideout in order to locate and liberate a jewel-encrusted talking skull, to exploring The Dreams In The Witch House-inspired home of an inventor known as Clockwise, each of the Client Jobs is unique and memorable in a way the main chapters struggle to achieve. There’s more variety in these Client Jobs, and the smaller Basso jobs, than in the chapters, which take the form of directed progression from start point to scripted escape sequence.
By focusing on a specific motif and building spaces to support that theme, Thief’s side content succeeds through elegance. These quests take place in spaces designed around the core fantasy of thievery. The overriding weakness of all of these levels is that their limited size means they can’t explore these concepts to the logical extent. Instead, they only serve as a taste of what could have been possible if the focus of Thief had been on theft.