Game Philosophy: Thief Deadly Shadows and Thief (2014)

“I’m going to the bear pits tomorrow. Ya wanna come with?”

“Nah, I’m off reading…”

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Today’s topic:
Thief Deadly Shadows & Thief (2014)

For those who don’t know, Thief Deadly Shadows and the Thief Reboot are generally looked upon as the lesser half of the franchise (Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age are generally considered superior for multiple reasons).
And in many ways, I DO agree. But I also think both games have been treated a bit too harshly too.

History of Thief

The Thief franchise is about Garrett, a Master Thief who had stealth training from the Keepers. The Keepers are the ones keeping the world in balance, since there are two warring factions in the city: The Hammerites and the Pagans.

The Hammerites are like Crusaders, they believe in a “god” whom they name the Master Builder and want to punish anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards.

The Pagans are like the Satanists, they worship a demonic figure named the Trickster and want to change the world back into their nature-esque ways by any means necessary.

With these two factions (and the Keepers as the third who keep things balanced in the shadows), the power over the city shifts constantly in each game.

Thief: The Dark Project is a 1998 first-person stealth video game developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Eidos Interactive. It featured the Pagans as the villains as they want to help the Trickster perform an evil ritual.

Thief II: The Metal Age is the 2000 stealth video game, also developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Eidos Interactive. This time the Mechanists (a splinter group from the Hammerites) are the villains as their leader Karras wants to transform humans into his mindless robots.

What’s interesting about Garrett as a character to me is how he himself always starts out NOT invested in whatever conflict is going on. Garrett is a very anti-social guy who just wants to live comfortably by stealing stuff and have enough food to get through each night.

But circumstances always END UP dragging him into the conflict. It’s somewhat interesting to me how he’s SO not interested in being the hero, but always ends up BEING one by the end.

The Black Sheep of the Trilogy

So why is Thief Deadly Shadows and the Thief Reboot generally considered weaker than Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age?
The problem is two-fold for both of them; concept and execution.

Let’s start with Thief Deadly Shadows.

The first two Thief Games almost make a beautiful harmony. One has the Pagan side represented as villains and one has the Hammerites side (or at least a splinter group of it) represented as villains. So the only direction Thief Deadly Shadows had was have some kind of in-between of the two extremes be about the Keepers being the kinda villains.

Two main problems with the concept.

First problem is the fact that the Keepers have been built up to mystic levels in the first two Thief games that the moment they become enemies and you’re meant to be able to WIN against them, you by necessity have to demystify them and even have to have them be WRONG (or worse, being stupid) about their motives to justify Garrett beating them. Basically it’s like if in a new Devil May Cry game you decide that Sparda is going to be the main villain now. It COULD work, but you’re gonna have to REALLY alter BOTH his presentation and his personality to do so.

Second problem is the fact that the Keepers don’t have (and never HAVE) had any desire to threaten the city, they’re keepers of the balance between the two warring factions that can never join together after all. So that means they had to add an additional villain to it that is unrelated to ANY of the previous concepts named “The Hag”.

This means that it’s not so much the Keepers truly being villains so much as them being TRICKED by “The Hag” to do stupid things (which in terms of presentation in fact ruins the Keepers way more than if it was their own choice in my opinion, since them being smart IS what was supposed to differentiate them from the Hammerites and Pagans).

So that’s the problem with the concept, but what about the execution?

Well, Thief Deadly Shadows also happened to be a bit of a technological jump in graphics compared to the previous two Thief Games. Think Sonic R to Sonic Adventure. But the problem with the jump is that to ACHIEVE those graphics, they actually had to sacrifice some stuff that were what the previous Thief Games were praised for.

See, what’s great about the first Thief Games is that the architecture of the levels (despite it’s aged graphics) have a real life logic to them. They feel like actual places that are lived in. A castle would of course have a kitchen, a throne room, a basement, etc. and thus the castle level would actually have all of those rooms in the area and connect them the way a true castle WOULD.

This in comparison to most games where they may DRESS UP those level settings, but in PRACTICE are always more of a line of obstacle courses that simply get contextualized to BE said room even when it doesn’t make as much sense to have a kitchen next to a music room for example.

The point is that the levels in the first Thief Games felt like they could be real buildings you would explore in a seamless manner as you would learn the layout of the building you’re in in a logical manner without interruptions.

Thief Deadly Shadows by comparison had to add loading areas in each level because otherwise the game wouldn’t be able to handle the graphics (you have to imagine this is WAY before games like Grand Theft Auto 4 was possible with constant streaming of the open world).
This in turn also made the levels a bit more linear. Not to the point where there’s only one path per level (far from it, there are more than enough ways to tackle each level) but there will definitely always be that SOMEHOW you’re going to be railroaded to pass through the loading areas and enter the “second half” of the level. It is less a building you explore and (indeed) more of an obstacle course of one room to another.

Just as a comparison here’s a map from Thief II The Metal Age:

And here’s a map from Thief Deadly Shadows:

The Reboot

But if Thief Deadly Shadows had some problems in the eyes of fans…
then HOO BOY does the Thief Reboot have it worse.

So you might be wondering how the story of the Thief Reboot fits with the previous three games? What KIND of reboot is it?

There are three kinds of reboots in my mind:

  • Continuity Reboot
  • Revival
  • Canon Reboot.

Continuity Reboot is the reboot people generally recognize, you simply start the story anew. The characters in the reboot are NOT the same as the characters from the originals. Examples include the Robocop Reboot and the Amazing Spider-Man movies to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies.

Revival is the reboot that DOESN’T remove the continuity of the previous entries, but may or may not kind of distance itself from the previous continuity (either through a new main character or simply taking place long after the events of the previous one to justify new circumstances).
Examples include Doctor Who and the Force Awakens.

Lastly the Canon Reboot has an actual CANONICAL reason why things went back to the beginning. These tend to be time travel related. Examples include the Star Trek Reboot and Mortal Kombat (2011).

The Thief Reboot is a bit interesting as it starts out LOOKING like it’s a Continuity Reboot until through details is shown to in fact be a Revival. The Garrett in the Thief Reboot is NOT the same Garrett from the first three Thief games but either a descendent or a reincarnation (it’s not outright revealed which in the game proper it is since this is not what the story is about, maybe in a sequel they’ll dive deeper into it).

In Chapter 5 it’s revealed that the Thief Reboot actually takes place around 800-900 years AFTER Thief Deadly Shadows.
So, what happened to the Hammerites, Pagans and Keepers during all those years?

Well, long story short, through the years all three factions kinda died out, making way for two new factions to war against each other; the Watch and the Graven.

The Watch is headed by the Baron, the guy in charge of the city. He has unlimited amount of guards that put the city in lockdown after a sickness called “The Gloom” started spreading (which the opening reveals that it spread in the first place because of the Baron’s ritual Garrett and his disciple Erin accidentally botched… horribly…).

The Graven are a group of people led by a man named Orion (who later turns out to be one of the people who HELPED the Baron in the ritual in the first place… and also happens to be the Baron’s younger brother) who want to rebel against the Watch.

It’s basically a rich vs poor people fight.

Yet again, two main problems with the concept.

First problem is… you practically killed off the two factions that made the world of Thief so memorable in the first place JUST to replace them with less interesting alternatives. Instead of two warring idealogies that have been going on since the City’s birth, now it’s two factions that split because of a single recent event (the botched ritual). This means that unlike the Hammerites and the Pagans, after you solve the plot of this particular game… they’d both stop having a point in existing anymore. They ONLY work as the warring factions in this ONE game.

Second problem is… these are two groups that don’t really relate to ANYTHING in the original Thief Games AT ALL. At least with Thief Deadly Shadows the Keepers are an actual existing faction that was in the plot since it’s conception, but the Watch and Graven needed to be invented for this game SPECIFICALLY.

I mean I know Zombie games were annoyingly prominent in that year, but there WERE ghosts and zombies in the older Thief games, the ghosts generally being a Hammerite thing and zombies being a Pagan thing.

I am Brother Murus, and I will be thy spiritual guide.

Had the story been about how the Hammerites and Pagans evolved to being their own types of undead (as some kind of commentary about eternally fighting in pointless wars) at least it would’ve LINKED things to the original games’ themes rather than just outright inventing two new factions that have no real connection to them.

But okay, the general concept has already been a bit botched, how about the execution?

Well, the worlds are at least larger than in Thief Deadly Shadows. I mean the City actually is big enough to be a City… buuut the Thief Reboot didn’t exactly hold on to the whole “realistic buildings” mentality either. Heck in fact it deviated further from it at times. See, the Thief Reboot has more of a Blockbuster Movie type of mentality. There’s more focus on spectacle.

Which means every level needs to have an “EXCITING” story event happen to keep people awake and all that.

This also meant that each level needed to have some kind of “break” in the world.

With some exceptions, most levels abandon the idea of a building being a place you’d actively explore. Instead it’s a series of puzzles, like mini-MetroidVanias. In-story this also kinda ruins the whole “Ghost Run” thing because… well… in order for there to be forced chase scenes between the villains and Garrett… the villains would have to kinda SEE Garrett, you know?

So no matter how hard you try to keep being invisible to the world with your expert stealthing, IN-STORY Garrett has to be caught in some way to justify an action sequence.

The bright side of the Light Gem

So yeah, both games have some big problems working against them, and in all honesty it’s very justified for fans to compare them unfavourably to the first two Thief Games.

But I also think they actually did a lot of things right. In fact, I still play the two games again and again because I genuinely enjoy them as games.

For Thief Deadly Shadows it’s because for being the game that introduced Hub Worlds in this franchise (Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age simply had you go from level to level) it surprisingly does a lot of things RIGHT with it.

It introduced the idea of giving you options on which levels to tackle in what order you want, it kept the gameplay between the Hub World and Levels consistent as in BOTH you have to stay out of sight of people and the story is built up with the Hub World in mind. Throughout the game, you’re sent into levels to steal one of 5 Legendary Artifacts. To enter those levels you have to traverse through the Hub World and learn the layout of the Hub World.

Eventually it’s revealed that to defeat the main villain, you need to enter the 5 Legendary Artifacts within parts of the Hub World. And by the time you LEARN that’s what you need to do, you’ve already LEARNED the layout of the Hub World! It’s like a genius test of your skills in learning the City! The game as a whole has become one huge puzzle!

Fans of the Thief games tend to compare the Thief Reboot with DmC: Devil May Cry, calling it a betrayal of the original games and all that. But I never agreed with that idea. Mainly because I NEVER felt like the Thief Reboot DISRESPECTED the previous Thief Games. A lot of the game’s story seems to respect the original Thief games a lot. This could’ve EASILY have been a Continuity Reboot that doesn’t need to cover the original Thief Games. But they didn’t, they made it a Stealth Sequel that actually explained how it WENT from the age of Thief Deadly Shadows to the Thief Reboot.

Sure the story is a lot more “Hollywood”, but honestly it could’ve been way WAY worse. The optimal way of playing the Thief Reboot is (and will always be) about Stealth.

I’ve said the Watch and the Graven kinda came out of left-field (and are less interesting alternatives to what came before them) in terms of being the two warring factions compared to the Hammerites and Pagans, but to be fair they NEVER actually lost their central message of the franchise as a whole. Namely that power reveals the truth of the one who holds it.

In Thief: The Dark Project the Pagans were in power and it revealed their true selves as people ready to bring the world into chaos. In Thief II: The Metal Age the Hammerites were in power and reveals that the Mechanists can have SUCH a standard to people that they’re willing to forcefully TRANSFORM them into what they want. In Thief Deadly Shadows the Keepers were in power (because they kept the conflict of the Hammerites and Pagans in balance) which reveals that they were in fact just as easily defeated and manipulated by a smarter villain. And now with the Thief Reboot the Watch is in power with the Graven trying to take away the Baron’s power revealing them both as complicit in causing the trouble that started the conflict in the first place. Basically there is never a designated “Bad Guy” faction, ALL factions have the capability to become villains should they be tempted by the posession of power.

This is of course wonderfully contrasts with Garrett, who is always physically weaker and CHOOSES not to BE in power (there are many times where Garrett could’ve EASILY stopped stealing and lived out his life comfortably with the riches he’s stolen, but his own desire for an irresponsible life and challenge keeps him from moving away from the lowly position of a thief) and yet always ends up taking the one in power down a notch.

For what the game IS, it’s a decent enough game that gives you an interesting world to explore. You still go through the City like a thief in the night sneaking into and stealing people’s houses.

And with how much bigger the city is now?
There’s SO much more stories to background characters to discover now.

The Thief Reboot makes for a good introduction of the Thief games in general, as you can pretty easily move backwards in games if you want from there, games getting more “hardcore” as you go back.

So yeah, two very flawed games (especially compared to Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age) but in my opinion still great games in their own right. And I still think people should give them a chance.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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