Steven Gallagher, narrative director of Thief, gave a stirring performance when he recently described the plot of the new stealth adventure game. After all, he’s pretty passionate about the first new Thief title in a decade.
Eidos Montreal, a division of Japan’s Square Enix, is prepping the game for launch in February 2014 on a variety of platforms. We recently saw the latest build of the game, which, like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, gives you the option of sneaking past guards and stealing goods or using your weapons in a vengeful way. Gallagher filled us in on the storyline and Stephane Roy, senior producers, described the gameplay. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Do you have a Shakespearean background? There seemed to be a little of that in your presentation.
Steven Gallagher: No, I’m just kind of a creative guy. I used to be in animation. I’ve always been in acting of a kind. It helps in the storytelling. I like moving around.
GamesBeat: To start, remind us of the storyline for this game.
Gallagher: In a nutshell – it’s going to be a big nutshell – Garrett has a protégé, a young girl named Erin who he tries to teach to be like him, to be a master thief. She has a propensity for killing, which Garrett doesn’t like – his feeling is that a master thief shouldn’t kill without thought or good reason. This causes them to split under bad circumstances.
Some time goes by, and Basso — Garrett’s old friend and fence – brings them back together again, thinking it would be a good idea to pull off the biggest heist he’s ever come across, to steal from Baron Northcrest himself. Garrett decides to go ahead with the job, even though his head is telling him it might be a bad idea. Due to a decision Garrett makes that he thinks will solve a problem, things actually become much worse. There’s a bad accident, and Erin dies.
Garrett also falls in the accident and is knocked out. When he awakens and comes back to the city, everything seems a bit strange, and after he goes to see Basso it appears that he’s been away for a year. That’s when the game starts to unfold. The player opens up the plot of where Garrett has been and what’s happened in the city.
GamesBeat: If you could take me back to the approach for this game, what do you want to do differently? How did you start thinking about this one?
Gallagher: From my point of view, in terms of the universe and the environment, it’s still a Thief game. It has that Thief feel. Garrett is still that wry, dry character that we wanted to bring over. But for want of a better expression, we wanted to bring him to a contemporary audience. We have a much bigger cinematographic feel to the storytelling. You have a very privileged place inside Garrett’s head. It’s a first-person game. You are Garrett.
GamesBeat: Why did you want to start the game the way you did? What does that set you up to do, creatively?
Gallagher: From a story point of view, it’s because — I like to say I sit with Garrett a lot. I talk to Garrett in my own head. I asked him, ‘Okay, so you don’t like talking to people. You don’t socialize. You’re good at everything you do. So what’s your weakness?’ That’s when I realized that his weakness really is on the social side of things. That’s why we started the story from this protégé angle, where he has this more social element of the story he has to deal with.
GamesBeat: He can’t work with somebody else?
Gallagher: It just goes against his grain. He’s an independent spirit. To be trapped in this scenario — He’s always said, “I don’t work with anyone. I don’t need anyone. I don’t trust anyone.” But there was something about Erin. Maybe he recognized a bit of himself in this girl and realized that maybe she could be a thief like him as well. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t resist.
GamesBeat: Does that also set up interesting gameplay in a way that’s different from what’s happened in the past?
Gallagher: I’ll segue way to Stef on this, because he has more to say about the gameplay. What I will say about what the narrative does for gameplay is that it doesn’t try to penalize you. If you want to play aggressively, you’re allowed to be an aggressive thief. Obviously the narrative reminds you, though, that you’re a master thief, not necessarily a master killer. From a narrative point of view, I don’t want to get in the way of how players want to play the game. That was one of the biggest challenges to the design team, trying not to penalize players for the way that they play.
Stephane Roy: The name of the game is Thief. The story and the gameplay mechanics all revolve around that. Like Stephen said, you can be aggressive or be a perfect ghost, but you always have to keep in mind that it’s the way a thief would be, not a soldier. All the mechanics we have support that type of stealth gameplay. We don’t try to be everything, honestly. We don’t want to be an RPG or an action game, exactly. We’re this game, a Thief game. Thief created that type of gameplay, and we want to embrace it and continue in that direction. The mechanics and tools we have are created with this in mind. At the same time, though, we don’t just want to copy the past. We have our own flavor for it.
GamesBeat: Your challenge, I guess, is making a game in the middle of a series that people like, and they want more of it, but they don’t want the exact same thing.
Gallagher: There are some pretty passionate fans out there still. The Thief franchise is good at creating that passion at a very deep level. I know some of the more passionate fans were worried about what we’re doing. But as I’ve said in other interviews, the old games are still available. You can still buy them and play them. They’re still a lot of fun. They’re also one, two, three and the story’s done.
We very clearly said to ourselves, “Okay, they are as good as they are. If you want to relive the old Thief experience, you can download that and play it again.” We have a new Thief with a new story. What I’ve started saying now is that if you look at it as separate like this, you have a whole new opportunity to fall in love with Garrett all over again.
GamesBeat: Did you feel that certain things were in need of a reboot? You said you’re bringing it back to where it was. Do you think it went astray in any ways that you wanted to fix or change to make this more appealing to new players or satisfying to old ones?
Gallagher: It’s a difficult one, because that’s always subjective.
Roy: Between the last Thief game and this one, 10 years will have passed. We’re in a position where, during those 10 years, the way we play games has changed a lot. We’ve seen a lot of evolution from players. They’re much more demanding. Story is a key element now. Back then, the story was there, but it was more of a mechanic-driven game. The first challenge, then, is to adapt the franchise for today’s gamer.
After that, for example, in the beginning we did a lot of focus groups and that sort of thing. 10 years ago, let’s say you’re in a garden and the guards see you. It wasn’t an automatic game over, but it was almost that bad. They’d chase you down like a rocket and kill you. When we did some focus tests, today’s gamers told us that, “Okay, this is a stealth game. I understand. I’m going to sneak around. But if they see me, I want to be able to fight. Give me something to fight back with.” That’s a difference now. Players are willing to play stealthy, but they expect to have something else too. We had to say, “Okay, how can we give you a feeling of empowerment?” At the same time, Garrett’s not a soldier. We don’t want to see him clearing a room with his fists. That’s the kind of challenge we’re facing.
GamesBeat: In that time, too, other franchises have evolved that way and created that expectation. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the one that comes to mind, where you can do heavy combat or heavy stealth. Players expect that mix and everyone else has to go along with it.
Gallagher: It’s hard to explain. I was going to say it’s become a “cultural norm,” but that’s not necessarily the case. I think people were surprised when — If you create a game and tell the player that when they get into trouble, the best thing to do is swoop off into the darkness and give yourself the advantage again, a lot of people’s first reactions were still to defend themselves. That’s what Stef was talking about, trying to bring something into the game that doesn’t compromise who Garrett is, that doesn’t break the universe, but enables people to defend themselves legitimately.
GamesBeat: As a designer, do you still want to reward the player who plays the game the way you’d like to see it played?
Roy: On our side, there’s no judgment, let’s say. If, in your opinion, this guy is a master thief and so the ghost style of gameplay is the right way to play, we want to build the game mechanics and the level design in a way that supports that. So it’s possible to finish the game without killing a guard. But if you’re more of a predatory player, that’s okay. I don’t want to tell you, “Because you killed these people, you don’t get any candy.” You’re still going to progress. When you’re choosing your upgrades, maybe you’ll pick more aggressive tools. That’s your choice.
At the end of each mission, we’re going to tell you what type of player you are. You’ll see a chart that explains, “Okay, in this mission you played in a more aggressive way,” or “In this mission you were the perfect ghost.” If you were perfectly stealthy through most of the mission, but the shit hit the fan once and you had to kill some guards, we’ll tell you, and you’ll have the chance to replay the mission how you like it again. It’ll be informational, not a judgment.
Gallagher: Another way of looking at it is that if you’re an aggressive player and you like the sound of an arrow and you like hitting somebody in the neck and you’re upgrading all the strong stuff, you’re giving yourself your own reward, because obviously you want to keep experiencing the game in this way.
What you tend to find is that the aggressive player will miss out in the rewards that the stealth guys get. They’re getting a lot of conversations. If you hang around in a room and you suddenly realize that people are speaking there about something, you can sit there for a half a minute thinking, “Ha, I had no idea they were going to say that.” You receive a very different reward, but it’s just as rewarding as this guy who’s having the roller-coaster ride of thwack-pow-wahoo!
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the tradeoff between player choice and narrative? There have been some very interesting games this year that have played with that, like BioShock Infinite. It seems like there’s a different ending, but there’s just one ending. In The Last of Us, you have to do some things. Grand Theft Auto has the torture scene that you have to be a part of. There’s an illusion of choice in some of these games, where the designers have very deliberately staged things so that you can only go down one path. How do you feel about that? Are there some instances where we’ll come across that sort of thing in Thief?
Gallagher: The story is a single narrative arc. It’s a very powerful, emotional story, and it just has this single thread. It’s always been designed that way. As you heard in the story presentation, Garrett initially sets out to say, “I’m a thief. I don’t kill.” Whether you then play the game killing and pushing the envelope of who you are and experimenting with another aspect of that personality is up to you. The story is going to end the same way for everyone. Your perception of yourself, though, is going to be different from Stefan’s, since he’ll play the game a different way and have a different emotional reaction to how he understands the scenes and the interaction between some characters.
I suppose it’s not the illusion of choice, really, but when you go back to the city hub — The story tends to take place in the missions, but you can always return to the city hub. That’s where you do what you want. If you find a story and realize that there’s something like a murder that just happened in an alleyway or you discover an old love affair happening in this bedroom you’re creeping through, that’s where the world is going to start this feeling that you’re unfolding your own stories in the city.
GamesBeat: What else have we not talked about that’s a big part of this game?
Roy: With the city, what we really wanted to show you today is the feeling of exploration. There are a lot of secrets in this demo here. Like he said, it’ll be fun to see some cooperation between people – you might find something that the next guy doesn’t, and he’ll wonder where it was. Also, when it’s time to play the game from A to Z, we hope we’ll have a nice balance. There are the missions that make up this big story that you’re going to follow, but between each mission you go back to your hideout, and then you get to explore and discover all these secrets in the background. We hope that we’ll come up with a good mix there.
The city is a character by itself. It has its own evolution. As you progress through the story, you’re going to see things change. The demo today is part of the Stone Market. We’ll also have a district called South Quarter, and other areas that are parts of missions. But what’s important is that the game world isn’t just mission after mission. It’s one big universe.
GamesBeat: If players have just come off of another stealth game, like Blacklist or Dishonored, what should they go into this game thinking about? How do you think they might have a different experience?
Roy: The first thing is in the title. You’re a thief. You’re not a soldier or a killer. It’s not about vengeance. Your goal is to steal, not kill. That’s the major difference for me. It’s like being a kid and playing cops and robbers. There’s that fantasy of being above the law. That’s the unique flavor we bring. There still aren’t any other games like that.
We do have some similar mechanics. Garrett has a bow, the guy in Crysis has a bow. But that’s not just because it happens to be the flavor of the month. That’s been part of his DNA from the beginning of the franchise. How we use the bow in this game isn’t necessarily built around killing anyone. It’s really about interacting with the environment.
Gallagher: Thief’s buzzword, for me, is “anticipation.” Listening to Stefan talk about the bow — Yes, there are bows in other games throughout the world. What suits Garrett, though, is the anticipation. It’s a thoughtful weapon. It’s not like bam-bam-bam, six dead people in the room and I’ve left already.
Thief is a thoughtful game. That’s always been key to the experience. “Where should I go? Did that guy see me? Am I going to get away with it?”