With a dull thud, the guard slumped onto the floor. Stepping back, I tucked my blackjack back into my belt as I warily listened if anyone had heard the noise. However, the flagged stone corridor was deserted.
Edging forward to an archway of fluted rock, I spied my goal atop a small pedestal within the room: a scepter adorned with glittering stones, lapis and pearl. With a well-aimed water arrow, I succeeded in extinguishing the solitary torch brightening the room, plunging the surrounding environs into darkness. I slowly eased the scepter into my pack, careful not to set off any pressure-sensitive traps.
Triumphant, I allowed myself a rare smile. Yet another wealthy nobleman’s trinket in the possession of the Thief.
Call it the vicarious supervision of controlled violence. In 1998, gamers got their first chance to slip into the soft-padded boots of Garrett, the eponymous thief replete with his quiver of water arrows. A pivotal force behind the pioneering of the stealth genre, Thief: The Dark Project surprised gamers by eschewing confrontational combat in favor of evasion and subtlety.
Set within a sprawling megalopolis known simply as the City, Garrett is presented with ample opportunities to ply his trade amongst the curious mesh of medieval and technological architecture that is a prevalent motif throughout the game; whereas a typical torch or firepit would brighten the interior of a bedecked mansion, so would a buzzing lightpost filled with an arcane glow give light to the public thoroughfares outside.
Visual aesthetics aside, the overt hybridization of machinery and magic calls forth an important plot element; this is a world in which magnanimity meets the profane, a city that has closed in on itself, wallowing in the urban decay that constantly gnaws at the edges like some visceral monster.
Thief, like most stealth games, imposed strict consequences on a player if they wound up going toe-to-toe with an alerted enemy. To be fair, Garrett is quite capable of holding his own in battle…but his strength lies in opportunistic attacks.
Enemies can be swiftly dispatched in one move with a well-timed stealth kill, which is easily done since the AI’s pathfinding often borders on the moronic; I’ve repeatedly seen guards bump into walls and spin in place like some sort of demented top, and not because they were often drunk.
Like any burglar worth his salt, Garrett comes equipped with interesting and useful tools and gadgets to ease any difficulties encountered while on a mission. The iconic water arrows are employed to quench any light source (barring electrical lights), allowing the player to increase the ubiquitous darkness. In addition to the standard sword, a blackjack is provided to silently knock out enemies.
Ultimately, it’s Garrett’s superspy-gadget-like arrows that steal the show while on a mission; rope-arrows, noisemaker arrows, and even arrows that produce moss enable any budding bandit to overcome obstacles with ease.
And those arrows will be needed, as the simple mission objectives outlined before the start of each level belie the enormity of actual mission maps. As an added touch, Garrett’s referenced map during an assignment are crudely drawn from hastily sketched notes and word-of-mouth from conspirators, forcing players to delve deep into each level to further explore the myriad nooks and crannies.
However, certain levels lack thief-like qualities; slaughtering zombies and spiders in order to pilfer jewelry seems more akin to an RPG than a stealth game. This is where the game’s story occasionally falters; I was never given any concise reasoning behind traipsing amongst dilapidated tenements to fight vermin.
I realize the fantastical element of Thief is as crucial as its realistic counterpart — you can’t have swords & sorcery without zombies — but when the game veers away from the simple act of sneaking around people to steal stuff, it becomes quite mundane. The laughably squashed graphical models didn’t help, either.
What am I fighting here? A squashed potato?
In retrospect, I don’t think I can find any other game experience that held my breath and drained my will so much as Thief — and that’s a good thing. The sprawling levels offer multiple pathways to success; indeed, the game offers such hair-raising moments (such as feeling a guard brush your nose as he walks by you in a shadow-filled hallway) that it conjures up some sort of atypical drive to beat the game. An amazing feat to accomplish, to be sure — but since when has stealing become boring?