[one_third]Justin Keverne deep-dives Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot to determine whether its systems and level design stand on their own to craft an immersive stealth experience.[/one_third]
An examination of Thief’s systems design is useful in the abstract; we can examine the design priorities, understand the core fantasy and identify which systems were created to support it. As useful as this is it does not provide the whole picture, games are not experienced in the abstract. Even elegantly designed systems can be implemented in a confusing or inconsistent manner. By exploring the level design of Thief, we can examine how these abstract systems work in concert; how they shape the player experience across space and time.
The power imbalance underlying stealth games requires the existence of both a protagonist and a force of antagonism that can push against the player’s encroachment. The forces arrayed against the player can take the form of directly hostile NPCs, or the environment itself. It is in the space between the actions of the player and the resistance offered by the game where stealth play exists. With nothing to provide resistance, no force to threaten the player should they become exposed, there is no stealth; the concept of concealment is meaningless without a force to be concealed from.
Stealth plays manifests in the avoidance of confrontation, or in the creation of situations where any confrontations occur on your own terms. It is proactive (intentional) as much as reactive (improvisational). The composition of space and the possibilities this creates for interactions between the toolset of the player and the objects within the world defines the possibility space. The placement of objects through time and space defines not only the problems encountered, but the potential solutions available.
Whether stealing loot or assassinating a target, stealth is a means to an end. Even in Thief, where the physical act of stealing is enacted as more than purely a button press, it is still only the final moment of the theft itself. The path to and from the loot is where the heart of the act lies. Preparing the environment, moving through space to reach your goal, and then moving away again to ensure you remain undetected, this is the core loop of stealth play. It’s an act with its own arc, its own distinct pacing, and one that, if implemented properly, exists at multiple scales over the course of the game.
Preparation, Initiation and Escape; the three broad phases of stealth play apply just as well to a game focused on stealthy assassination as one built around theft. They provide a strong arc to both the individual acts of theft or violence, and the levels within which they occur. First comes Preparation, the probing at the edges of the problem, the discovery of points of ingress, equipping your tools and moving into position. When you’re finally ready to move, it’s time to Initiate; the lock is picked, the loot is grabbed. With the deed done, you now need to Escape, to return to a safe position from which you can start the cycle anew. From something as simple as stealing a goblet from a table, to infiltrating a manor house, this arc can be repeatedly experienced throughout a well-paced stealth game.
Entanglement is the degree to which current and future actions are impacted by previous actions
To promote intentionality, for your actions to have systematically meaningful consequences, there needs to be entanglement. Your actions at one moment need to impact the decisions you make in the future; your preparations reveal points of entry and lead you to select certain tools that will influence your available means of escape. Entanglement is the degree to which current and future actions are impacted by previous actions. Resources and resource management are the primary means of providing entanglement, of actions with medium and long-term consequences; if you use the Rope Arrow now, you may not have it available when you need it later.
Level design can support entanglement directly through spatial and temporal design. If you have unlocked a door in order to gain entry to a portion of the level, it might make your escape easier. A distraction you used earlier may have drawn a guard away from their standard patrol route into a position that makes entering the room you need to more challenging. Entanglement need not only lead to positive changes, nor do all the changes need to be ones planned for; it is simply a measure of the degree to which past actions impact future decisions.
Thief can be broken down into the three phases of Preparation, Initiation and Escape. At a low level, the pace at which you move through these phases, and the means employed at each, remain largely under your control. Should you choose to directly engage NPCs or carefully plot a path around them, you will have a different experience; the preparation stage may be the same, but the act of initiation and escape won’t.
We will consider how Thief supports the concepts of intentionality and improvisation through entanglement and pacing
Broader changes of pace in stealth games provide the most support for intentionality and improvisation when they derive from alterations to the construction of the space and the encounters within. Increasing the number of light sources escalates the tension evoked by a given area, as does increasing the number and type of NPCs. An area guarded by NPCs wielding swords is experientially different to that same area instead guarded by NPCs wielding crossbows. Artificial, scripted restrictions and constraints on behaviour don’t support player expression as organically; plans cannot be relied upon when the rules are volatile. Unfortunately this type of enforced pacing is something Thief falls back on several times.
We have already looked at the systems design of Thief. Throughout the following articles we will examine how these systems have been implemented in practice within the levels of the game. We will consider how Thief supports the concepts of intentionality and improvisation through entanglement and pacing, along with how the aesthetic design of the world reinforces or contradicts its functional construction.