Up until sometime in high school, my family would always take a week-long vacation at the beach every summer. We’d rent a house, and my uncle, most computer-savvy member of the family, would always bring a PC along so we could play games in between catching waves and shopping ventures. One year, he brought a game titled Thief: The Dark Project. I’d seen advertisements and demos for it here and there, but my limited attention span was mostly focused on exploring Lara Croft’s mansion in Tomb Raider and blasting imps in Doom back in those days. Still, I fired it up out of idle curiosity, and immediately found myself sucked into Garrett’s dark, seedy world. For someone whose prior exposure to first-person games consisted entirely of id Software FPSes, the difference blew my 11-year-old mind out of its tiny skull. It was the ultimate demonstration in what games could be. A game where the player’s interactions stretched far beyond merely eviscerating everything that moves and collecting primary-colored keycards. A game where the protagonist was not a godlike super-soldier, but a mortal man. A clever, crafty, snarky, self-serving man. A game where the world did not merely function as a stage for the gruesome murder and mayhem, but was a character in and of itself. The Thief series has stuck with me since childhood, and continues to influence my taste in games to this day, over ten years later.
Looking back, Thief was the first game I played that became more than just a game to me. It became a window into rich world, fantastic yet believable. Every so often, I come across a game that jogs my memory of those days skulking through the shadowy halls of Lord Bafford’s manor after a long day at the beach. Whether I’m swiping trinkets for the Thieves’ Guild in Oblivion or wading through the flooded tunnels of Rapture in Bioshock, every so often, the brilliant game design that Thief pioneered will resurface, and I can’t help but smile as I recall what made those games so special.
Developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Eidos in 1998, Thief: The Dark Project places players in the soft-soled boots of Garrett, master thief and snarkologist extraordinaire, as he gleefully relieves the rich and affluent of their worldly possessions. Garrett’s avarice eventually lands him in over his head, and he finds himself caught up in supernatural conflicts and prophecies he normally wouldn’t give a shit about, were his own life not at stake. The game is broken up into several discrete missions, each set in a sprawling, nonlinear map the player must navigate with nothing but wits and a few handy tools at his disposal. It’s entirely up to the player to figure out the most effective means to fulfill each mission’s objectives, whether they require him to steal a priceless artifact or bust an old acquaintance out of the slammer. Each map typically provides multiple points of entry, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. The more direct route may be faster, but crawling with guard patrols, while the labyrinthine back entrance probably only has a token guard watching for signs of trouble. The game never forces the player to choose one path over the other, nor does it even explicitly lay out the options. The player must explore and figure them out on his own, which only adds a deeper sense of reward to the experience. Even today, few games permit exploration and discovery to serve as their own reward.
Carelessly strolling through mansions and temples like he owns them will never get Garrett very far. The game rarely punishes the player for being seen by guard patrols or spilling a little blood, but it doesn’t provide the most enjoyable experience. While Garrett knows how to swing a sword, he’s still just one man. He can fall to a few well-placed strikes just as easily as his foes, if not more so, and it’s more than a little difficult to focus on robbing nobles blind with an entire guard detail chasing him down. Garrett’s abilities and tools are much better suited for concealing his presence, allowing him to load up on valuables to his heart’s content, with no one the wiser. By sticking to the shadows and moving slowly, enemies will obliviously saunter right past Garrett, only to be greeted with a swift, silent blackjack to the back of the head. The tension rises with every encounter, as the player must quickly calculate the most effective means to avoid detection. Should he try to sneak up from behind, taking out the guard and stashing the body? Or is it less risky to douse the nearby torch and just sneak past? Regardless of how the player chooses to handle the situation (or not, as the case may be), successfully completing a mission without anyone ever knowing the player was there kindles an unmatched sense of satisfaction, and more than a little mischievous glee at the knowledge that he got away with it.
More than anything else, Garrett’s command of his role as the leading man helps Thief shine. The classic antihero, Garrett takes great pleasure in his chosen line of work, and makes no excuses for it. He doesn’t just steal to pay the rent. He steals for the thrill and art of the act itself. His intentions are never honorable, and he works alone so he doesn’t have to split the profits. Garrett cops a cool attitude to everyone he meets, and always has a snarky quip on the tip of his tongue. For all intents and purposes, Garrett should be one of the most detestable assholes in all of videogames, yet he holds a special place as one of my most beloved characters in the medium. For all of his flaws and vices, Garrett is undeniably human. He’s not a superhero. He gets beaten down, and sometimes can’t get back up without someone else’s help. Despite being a self-proclaimed professional, Garrett occasionally lets his guard down and succumbs to moments of physical or emotional weakness. In those fleeting instances, a small flash of strength or compassion shines through his rough exterior, pushing him through circumstances that would otherwise break him. He’s weak and selfish, yet he comes through in the most unexpected moments to do the right thing, even if it’s for his own reasons. Garrett will save the world, but he’ll grumble and complain about it every step of the way. It’s hard not to crack a smile every time Garrett drops a snarky line, because there’s far more in him to relate to than in all the run-of-the-mill FPS action heroes combined.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Looking Glass quickly followed up The Dark Project’s respectable success with Thief II: The Metal Age in 2000. While the game ironed out the few kinks that dragged down its predecessor and delivered a superior experience, it was too little, too late. Financial problems had plagued the company from the series’ inception, sinking them into a hole so deep that nothing short of gangbuster sales could have pulled them out of it. Though Thief garnered ample respect and appreciation for the risks it took, it hardly took the market by storm. The writing was on the wall for Looking Glass, but they ended on the highest possible note, putting out a beloved game they could take pride in. Many of the employees would find their way to Ion Storm Austin, headed up by former Looking Glass employee Warren Specter. Together, they would release one final game in the series, Thief: Deadly Shadows. While a respectable game in its own right, Deadly Shadows lacked some of the magic that endeared so many to its predecessors. Some questionable design decisions, like swapping the sprawling, open maps for linear ones, and providing a Metal Gear-esque third-person perspective option, betrayed a disregard for several core design elements that made the earlier games unique and appealing. To this day, nearly a decade later, Deadly Shadows stands as the last official Thief release. While Eidos confirmed the development of Thief 4 (appallingly stylized as Thi4f) back in 2009, they’ve revealed very little substantive information, nor have they shown any footage from the game publicly, in the three years since, suggesting a troubled development cycle. For such a lovingly crafted series, hardship continues to plague it with every installment.
For all its woes, a somewhat underwhelming final installment and a questionable future do not represent the lasting legacy of the Thief series. Like me, many others continue to sing the praises of the series and enjoy it to this day. Over the past decade and beyond, the Thief fanbase has grown into a close-knit community that remains highly active even now. Should a player inevitably run into a problem trying to install The Dark Project or The Metal Age on a PC, a quick Google search will almost always lead straight to a forum topic on Through the Looking Glass, the leading Thief fan community, which addresses and resolves that very issue. More significantly, many dedicated fans choose to continue the legacy of Thief themselves by creating their own missions. Looking Glass released official level editors alongside both their games, and Thief fans continue to create missions using Thief II’s engines and assets, an enduring testament to their love for the franchise. Fans who have long since burned themselves out on the original games can choose from hundreds, if not thousands, of missions designed by fellows fans to satiate their appetite. Out of all these endeavors, the most noteworthy is a full-length expansion created by an intrepid group of fans collectively known as The Dark Engineering Guild and released in 2005, titled Thief 2X: Shadows of the Metal Age. Set in the same city during the events of Thief II, 2X follows the exploits of Zaya, a wide-eyed outsider who gets drawn into the city’s dark clutches. Despite a few rough edges, such as awkward voice acting and some mediocre writing, Thief 2X ultimately succeeds in its endeavor to provide a new adventure that feels like part of the series’ fiction. The expansion recycles many of the assets from Thief II, yet the developers managed to create a unique aesthetic that feels original, but maintains the classic Thief atmosphere. The designers clearly did not aim to imitate Thief, but instead to capture all the elements that made it special while telling their own story. It only takes a few minutes of wandering through the streets, listening to Zaya’s musings, to see that this project was a labor of love for the group, who wanted to write the ultimate love letter to the games they adore so deeply. Despite Garrett’s absence, Thief 2X is arguably a much more satisfying follow-up to Thief II than Deadly Shadows.
With over ten years of trends, gimmicks, and innovations behind it, Thief has stalwartly endured the test of time. Its dedicated fanbase navigates all manner of technical hiccups and hurdles on modern machines simply for a chance to relive the magic, yet the gameplay remains sufficiently accessible for to draw in a new audience courtesy of digital distribution. Fans continue to produce missions built on the game’s obsolete toolset that put many contemporary games to shame. Many developers involved in the series’ creation have gone on to make names for themselves with titles that drew inspiration from Thief, such as Warren Specter with Deus Ex and Ken Levine with Bioshock. Many other game developers continue to regard the series with admiration, paying it homage in revered titles such as Half-Life 2, Fallout 3, and the forthcoming Dishonored. Thief didn’t set the world on fire with its innovations in gameplay and atmosphere. It didn’t trigger a widespread movement that forever changed the landscape of triple-A gaming. Multi-million dollar first-person shooters continue to reign supreme, with sales charts dominated by Call of Duty and Gears of War. While those games will always dominate the primary hardcore gamer market for the foreseeable future, Thief’s influence has been far more subtle, yet no less profound. Thief inspired an underground cult following, changing the way they perceive games, and changing the way some developers create games. Bioshock, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, Fallout 3, Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, and countless other unanimously revered games have sought to capture the brilliance originally pioneered by Thief in one capacity or another. From the darkest shadows, Thief continues to inspire developers to create deeper games that draw players from all walks of life into their fantastic worlds, encouraging them to question what they should expect from their beloved medium. Over the years, Thief has gradually changed the fundamental expectations of videogames as a medium of expression, but yet almost no one even realizes it. Garrett would be proud.
As a self-proclaimed Thief enthusiast, I craved a game that follows in its silent footsteps for some time. Since its short-lived heyday, many other franchises have implemented major elements from Thief, such as Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, Deus Ex, and The Elder Scrolls. However, each of those games merely drew inspiration from Thief, employing the advances it made to take their respective experiences in new directions. No game has come close enough to recreating Looking Glass’s crafty first-person sneaking to satisfy me. While Eidos has promised fans like me Thief 4 for years now, the dearth of information about the new project leaves me concerned and unconvinced. When Dishonored was announced last year, I was ecstatic. Here was a game that would bring me as close to Thief as I could be without actually playing a Thief game, with a few advances and adjustments to put Arkane’s own stamp on it. If Arkane made good on their promises, then they would prove that Thief’s unique style of gameplay still has a place in an industry crowded with military first-person shooters and open-world crime sprees. Dishonored quickly earned a spot as my most anticipated game of 2012, and when I finally opened the box and fired up my 360, it did not disappoint. Put simply, Dishonored is my Thief 4.
Dishonored drops the player in the industrial port city of Dunwall as Corvo Attano, the disgraced bodyguard of the late empress. Framed for the empress’s assassination and condemned to execution, Corvo escapes prison and hunts down the conspirators with the aid of a handful of loyal dissidents and the mysterious supernatural Outsider. While cool in concept, the story is far from the main attraction. Is sole function is to provide context for Corvo’s missions, which becomes unfortunately obvious later in the game. Some have likened Dishonored to Bioshock, but the strongest parallel between the two games is not the most flattering one. Both games set players in beautiful and dangerous worlds, overflowing with character and history. They also frame those worlds within stories that can’t sustain the sense of wonder that arises during the opening hours of play. Their stories build up to game-changing twists intended to shock and awe the player, though Dishonored’s attempt to emulate Bioshock’s nearly legendary twist falls completely flat. Successful or not, both games fail to capitalize on the adrenaline rush and ride it to a stunning conclusion. They let the moment dissipate almost as quickly as it comes, exploiting it as a flimsy justification to drive the player through an underwhelming final act. Dishonored’s saving grace is that the gameplay holds up from start to finish, making it blessedly easy to ignore the story’s nosedive and continue skulking and stabbing.
Instead of taking cues from Thief’s dark, understated story, Dishonored captures the gameplay formula flawlessly. The core gameplay of both games stems from the concept setting the player in a large, nonlinear map with a few objectives, and nothing but a few tools and his wits to figure out how to accomplish that goal. The player only has a couple of weapons at his disposal, limiting the options for directly killing opponents. However, the game grants the player plenty of tools and abilities that are critical to success. The ultimate purpose of Dishonored is to learn how to effectively manipulate and combine Corvo’s tools and magic to outwit his enemies. Yes, the player can bust down the front door and waste everything that moves, but head-on combat serves much better when treated as a last resort. The true challenge and satisfaction comes from figuring out ways to sneak past enemies and take out targets without anyone ever knowing Corvo was there. My personal favorite mission in the game tasks the player with infiltrating a spectacular masquerade for the elite aristocracy of Dunwall. I slipped past guard patrols onto the estate, waltzed into the party as if I belonged there, mingled with the rich and affluent to find my target, took care of her quietly, and walked right back out. It took some effort and a few reloads, but when I finally pulled it off, my sense of accomplishment was astronomical.
Dishonored’s style succeeds because of the options it presents to the player. What makes the way I tackled the party mission special was that I could have handled every aspect of that mission half a dozen different ways. The level design and skillset encourage experimentation, which makes it special when the player pulls off a sophisticated plan. The game knows where the player is going to go. What matters is how the player chooses to get there. Different play styles can yield equal amounts of satisfaction. While there’s great appeal in slashing a guard or target’s throat from behind and stashing the body, I always felt most accomplished when I kept the casualties to a minimum. I didn’t adopt this approach in there interest of being morally good; I felt smarter when I figured out how to accomplish my objectives without leaving any trace. The game assigns a chaos level to the player’s actions, with lethal actions increasing the amount of chaos, thereby darkening the tone of the ending. Though it has the outward appearance of a binary morality meter, I feel that my actions were more evil in retrospect than merely killing guards and targets. Each mission presents a nonlethal means to eliminate Corvo’s targets, but it’s hardly a matter of simply slapping them on the wrist and telling them not to be bad anymore. Corvo delivers serious punishment for their transgressions, condemning them to fates far worse than death’s cold embrace. The greatest moments for me were when I brought those plans to fruition and witnessed their aftermath. The gratification I derived from those moments felt far more sick and twisted than when I merely put my targets out of their misery. Despite the appearance of a moral compass, Dishonored forces players to question whether their actions can truly be considered good or evil. I concluded with the best possible ending in Dishonored, but I committed the most despicable atrocities the game had to offer in order to get there.
Like Thief, nearly every aspect of Dishonored’s experience resonates with me, as it will for many years to come. Dishonored is the quintessential spiritual successor to a beloved game: It incorporates all of the successful features of Thief, from the gameplay to the tone, while implementing its own stye to establish itself as a standalone experience. Despite a few missteps, the game makes it count where it matters, and I sincerely hope Arkane gets the opportunity to expand on the formula and fulfill their potential. If they do, then Dishonored has the rare opportunity to become more than a spiritual successor. Dishonored could take the overlooked Thief formula and evolve it into something even greater than it was in the beginning. By preserving and improving the core gameplay, providing hints of the bright future this small genre could have, Dishonored has already accomplished what Thief 4 may never do. It gave me the Thief game I’ve been waiting for, but feared I would never have. Your move, Eidos.
Despite the increasing popularity of the Lara Crofts and FemSheps of the industry, many developers continue to express reluctance to tell a story from the female perspective. We’ve progressed well beyond the damsel-in-distress archetype earlier generations, but games starring straight white guys still saturate the market. Considering my gender-based predisposition, my ears definitely perked up when I first heard speculation of Grand Theft Auto V starring a female protagonist. Regardless of the likelihood, I was excited by the prospect of Rockstar making a numbered Grand Theft Auto game with a woman calling the shots. It would be a crazy, bold, daring move. And best of all, it would be totally Rockstar. The idea made sense from every angle.
My hopes were first dashed when the first trailer launched a year ago. The trailer sent a pretty strong message that the game wouldn’t feature a female protagonist. I was disappointed, but not surprised. In an undeniably male-dominated industry, it’s an inevitability. Progress is slow. I accepted it and moved on. I knew the score, yet my disappointment was not simply renewed, but amplified threefold when I first clicked the link to Game Informer’s much-anticipated GTA V cover reveal. In the weeks leading up to it, the Game Informer staff teased fans with tantalizing hints about how big, how audacious, and how daring the latest and greatest GTA will be. With so much buildup and speculation running rampant, imagine the letdown upon clicking the link and immediately being greeted with the image of not just one guy, but three guys. My heart sank further when the description confirmed by suspicions. GTA V features not one, not two, but three protagonists, whom the player can swap between throughout the game. I could not even begin to fathom the rationale that Rockstar chose to make a game with three distinct protagonists, but didn’t make one of them a woman.
The most baffling part of the decision is that Rockstar effectively gave itself carte blanche to put a woman in a starring role without alienating its audience. From the opening sentence, Game Informer’s cover story sings the praises of Rockstar’s willingness to shake up the formula and not settle for merely iterating on previous games. It’s not about the money, it’s about the vision. Go big or go home. Yet Rockstar overlooked the most obvious way to turn heads and drop jaws. Putting three protagonists in the spotlight provides plenty of room for a more traditional GTA leading man, and just as much room to try something different. I recognize the realities of making a massive, multi-million dollar game marketable to the largest possible audience, regardless of Rockstar’s boasts to the contrary. It also doesn’t take a marketing genius to understand that Rockstar doesn’t need three dudes to fully satisfy its target market. Just one will do. We’ve seen the gritty yet stylized underbelly of American society through these perspectives already. It’s a known quantity now. A woman tackling the same challenges of surviving and making her way through this kill-or-be-killed landscape could tell a refreshing, original tale. Yet Rockstar settled for familiar points of view, presumably to fully appease their primary audience. In a series renowned for pushing the envelope, Rockstar ironically chose the safest possible bet. For such a daring, machismo-driven series, putting a woman in the driver’s seat would have been the most ballsy decision of all.
Creating a strong, plausible female protagonist in a GTA game would most definitely be a tall order for Rockstar, and it’s easy to believe that they don’t have the chops to pull it off. Rockstar doesn’t have the most stellar track record with female characters, which often play the role of the villian’s victims or the hero’s arm candy (and vice versa) in their games. As far as I’m aware, none of their games have ever successfully passed the depressingly simple Bechdel Test. Even so, Rockstar’s history with female characters should not preclude them from trying to pull off a successful leading lady. Creators can never improve upon their craft if they express a reluctance to venture beyond their comfort zone. The creative minds behind GTA are the masters of executing calculated risks that often seem absurd, somehow working to the game’s favor in the end. Why should putting a woman in the starring role be any different?
In spite of their history, Rockstar’s writers are clearly capable of crafting complex, interesting female characters. Bonnie MacFarlane of Red Dead Redemption fame stands as the one shining example of a Rockstar woman worthy of admiration. Despite coming across as a little too manly sometimes, Bonnie is an undeniably fierce, independent, likeable woman who can stand toe-to-toe with any of the men in Red Dead, or even GTA, and never flinch. A woman like Bonnie could easily hold her own in streets of Los Santos, all while facing challenges that would never enter the realm of possibility for her male counterparts. While the writers of Rockstar San Diego deserve the credit for Bonnie’s character, the GTA team of Rockstar North couldn’t ask for a better template if they opted to create a heroine. With their penchant for social commentary and satire, I have confidence that their writers could put a clever spin on the incorporation of a female protagonist. They pulled off a similar accomplishment in The Ballad of Gay Tony, creating an openly homosexual character (albeit not the protagonist) who acts as a respected, established entrepreneur and the longtime king of Liberty City’s night scene. He faces his own struggles without coming across as a caricature of a flamboyantly gay man. It’s hardly a leap of faith to believe that Rockstar can do the same with a woman.
While I’m more than eager to delve into underbelly of Los Santos, the uncomfortably large missed opportunity mitigates my enthusiasm. No one can deny the ambition and scale of GTA V. The series’ proclivity for simultaneously glorifying and satirizing American society leaves it in a position to make a profound statement. With GTA’s influence, Rockstar could pave the way for other developers to take the plunge and cast women in nontraditional roles. Regardless of the changes and improvements being implemented, we know what GTA brings to the table. We’ve seen guys wreaking havoc on the streets of Sam and Dan Houser’s America. We’ve seen the carjackings, the shootouts, the robberies, the holdups, the chases, the mayhem. We’ve seen it all. Now, let’s see a woman do it.