Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 4 – You Can’t Take it With You
[one_third]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.[/one_third]
Find a man and steal his ring. Straightforward enough, right? But there’s one problem: the man is dead, and he’s being carted off to be incinerated along with masses of other plague dead. You have a simple objective, with an unsettling and thematically appropriate complication. Though Thief will struggle to concisely explain what your goal is over the course of the subsequent chapters, this is a conceptually strong start to the main portion of the game.
There’s ash everywhere, drifting through the air and piling across the floor; they have been burning bodies here for sometimes. It’s difficult to tell if it’s day or night, the clouds are thick above but there are still patches of light in the sky.
The yard you begin in is flanked on both sides by brick structures, but only those on the far side are accessible. Predominantly made up of tunnels running just below ground level, fully exploring this route requires that you have purchased the wrench; without it, only a small part of these tunnels are open to you. The low wall to the next section of the level is on the same side, and once you have climbed over you will not be able to return to the starting area. This is a common conceit in the reboot; in only a few instances are you granted the opportunity to return to previously explored sections.
Over the wall, the foundry stands ahead of you across a barren patch of ash covered ground. Crossing this will trigger a violent vision of Erin. Though not directly relevant to the events within this level, these flashes become more frequent in the following chapters.
Approaching the foundry there is no clear way inside using the abilities available to you, though one of the pipes attached to the wall shimmers with the blue highlight that indicates it is an object you can interact with. When you start to climb it, the camera abruptly pulls out and up. In order to reach a point from which you can enter the foundry, you will need to climb the facade of the building in third-person using a movement set and tools that you are only given access to under specific circumstances.
[message_box title=”Out of Body Experience”]Third person climbing sequences occur in all but two of the following chapters. Your path is always indicated by objects ahead and above you shimmering with an artificial blue glow. Only in one instance are these sequences optional, and only in the final level do they begin to develop in complexity. They serve to show Garrett’s athleticism in a way that highlights how relatively limited your movement abilities are the rest of the time. Confusingly, sometimes these sequences are your only means of traversing a space that you could ascend with a rope arrow, or your standard climbing abilities, in less time.[/message_box]
The inside of the foundry is a series of spatially dense stealth encounters connected by sections that serve as soft transitions in ways that feels obviously restrictive. The main objective calls for you to “follow the conveyor” when it means for you to hook onto it and let it carry you where you need to go. Going forward, Thief will use a variety of means to conceal the streaming transitions between areas, though it’s rare that they will be as obvious as in this chapter.
This conveyor line running through the building provides a strong thread to follow. However, despite exploring what is presented as a large portion of the building, you never see where they hang the bodies on the conveyor or where they take them off. The bodies exist either hung on the line or as corpses on slabs being prepared for incineration.
Past the first conveyer ride, the second interior section is more open than the first, featuring a range of NPCs and paths to discover. This area still feels tutorial-like, with red lights over grates and some heavily-signposted secondary routes.
Within the space of two rooms this level sees the introduction of a new environmental hazard that it then undermines by using in a space where a lack of NPCs renders it inert. Broken glass, and its effect on the sound of your footsteps, is introduced shortly after you detach from the conveyor for the first time, only for there to then be a patch of broken glass in an empty room beyond the next door. When traversing broken glass you need to be mindful of the increased sound of your footsteps. This is only a concern if there is an NPC close enough to hear them. In an empty room, broken glass on the floor is meaningless in terms of the impact it has on the world and your likelihood of being detected.
Too frequent are the examples of systems operating in isolation, stripped of tension and threat by being rendered systemically impotent
Visibility and audibility – these are your primary inputs into the systemic model of stealth. Governed by your choice of where, when, and how to move you alter the degree to which your are detectable. These inputs are processed by the antagonistic force within the level that then reacts with identifiable outputs: NPCs move to investigate suspicious activity or, in extreme cases, to attack. With no antagonist to process and respond to your inputs, there is no system; your actions are without consequence. Too frequent are the examples in the subsequent chapters of systems operating in isolation, stripped of tension and threat by being rendered systemically impotent.
One of the unique loot items in this level requires locating the combination to a safe within an abandoned office by finding the numbers stencilled on the heads of three automatons that can be found scattered throughout the office and nearby rooms. These automatons are an element that is used briefly in a number of chapters and never fully explored. They, along with the Thief-Taker General, feel like elements that once played a much larger role in the narrative.
This is the only example along the critical path of an objective that can be completed by picking the pocket of an NPC
Progress further into the foundry interior is blocked by a locked door, the first example of a door with an actual key needed to unlock it. Additionally, this is the only example along the critical path of an objective that can be completed by picking the pocket of an NPC. It’s also possible to find the key inside a locked chest, which requires you to avoid the broken glass on the floor lest you wake the guard sleeping nearby. This is a clear goal with multiple solutions that require intelligent use of your core abilities; a simple problem, but a smartly designed one.
Another conveyor rail ride and you are transported to the final section of the interior. This marks the first appearance of the Thief-Taker General outside of the prologue. A pantomime villain, instead of coming across as menacing the “kick the dog” approach to his character development erodes any sense of threat he might pose, making it difficult to take him seriously as an antagonist. After he has left, you are free to make your way to the office beyond the furnace and locate the ring he took from the body. There is little scope for exploration here; the sharp flashes of light every time the furnace door opens create tension, but each of the tables arranged in front of the furnace are a swoop’s distance apart. Getting through this area undetected is a matter of timing.
For no reason that is ever explained, the ring is locked in a chest that requires you to solve a block rotating puzzle to open. The moment you grab your prize the Thief-Taker General appears forcing you to make your escape into the backyard of the foundry. Dense with guards and spatially constricted distraction, or direct engagement, prove the best means of ensuring your escape.
Rooms connect to others for reasons not governed by the logic of how such a building would have been constructed
With a floor plan that covers only a portion of the building interior and no clear functional purpose to the locations you explore, the spaces within the foundry are hard to parse. Rooms connect to others for reasons not governed by the logic of how such a building would have been constructed. A room aesthetically presented as an office with desks and filing cabinets is reachable only through a vent with no reason presented for why this space is otherwise inaccessible.
Built to a structure that supports all three phases from Preparation to Escape, the divisions between those phases are enforced by the game and remain beyond your control. There is no action you can take that will prevent the Thief-Taker General spotting you and eventually sounding the alarm. Still, the new concepts introduced in this chapter, such as keys hanging from belts and glass strewn across the floor, provide options for engaging stealth problems. Unfortunately, these concepts will either be implemented in an undeveloped fashion, or completely abandoned, in the chapters that follow.
2 thoughts on “Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 4 – You Can’t Take it With You”
My theory about this level: the foundry was originally supposed to feature hanging robots, not people. Since the robots are featured in this level, yet don\’t really serve a purpose, they feel like an element that was removed from the plot at the last minute.
I guess it either took too much work to show a robotic assembly line, or the plot changed at one point or another.
Yeah, I think the development process was pretty much a mess.
Would the story have been thought out and pulled off the way it originially was supposed to be, and would the level desing be more clever and open to provide the player with multiple options for every situation and actually impose the feeling of threat instead of just giving him (often) only empty rooms and semi-exciting encounters I think the game would have been brilliant.
The things that bugged me the most in Thief were:
1. The mostly linear level design
2. Enforced encounters and detections beyond player control
3. A messed up story
4. Not enough freedom of movement, especially in terms of jumping, climbing and the limited use of objects like the rope dart
Would those 4 points not have been I think Thief – despite minor other issues like sound problems and loading times – would have been an excellent game.