Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll immerse ourselves in the history of Thief. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Table of Contents
New England’s Blue Sky Productions was founded by Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner in 1990 and was renamed Looking Glass in 1992. The studio developed a variety of sports and simulation games throughout the early 1990s, including John Madden Football ‘93 (1992) and Flight Unlimited (1995), but was best known among passionate video game fans for Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992). This first-person 3D dungeon-crawler introduced complex simulation elements like momentum and water physics to the previously abstract role-playing mechanics of Origin Systems’ long-running Ultima franchise and is widely credited with kickstarting the immersive sim video game genre. Looking Glass rebranded as Looking Glass Technologies in 1992 and Looking Glass Studios in 1996, growing its reputation by doubling down on the style of game it had pioneered with Ultima Underworld: players had more opportunities than ever to creatively approach environmental puzzles and combat encounters in titles like Ultima Underworld II (1993) and System Shock (1995). Following the latter’s successful release, the team began planning a fantasy world of its own design.
Thief: The Dark Project (1998)
Thief began development under Ken Levine, who worked up several concepts for the studio’s next action role-playing game. Among these were School of Wizards and Dark Elves Must Die, about which little is known, and a “communist zombie game” called Better Read Than Dead. The latter had moved too far away from the project’s initial emphasis on realistic sword-fighting, so it was abandoned in favor of a unique take on Arthurian myth called Dark Camelot. This prototype saw the player controlling Mordred the Dark Knight as he worked with time-traveling wizard Merlin to save Camelot from the evil King Arthur. The game would have highlighted racial dynamics, as its Black hero and heroine were being oppressed by a white supremacist England, and steampunk elements that distinguished it from the myth’s traditional medieval aesthetic; gameplay featured Mordred sneaking into mansions and castles as he undermined Arthur’s regime.
As this iteration of the game hit developmental roadblocks, studio founder Paul Neurath successfully lobbied his team to replace Mordred with an anonymous thief protagonist. The Arthurian milieu was abandoned in favor of a steampunk cityscape with narrative beats drawn from film noir. Other influences included Castle Wolfenstein (1981), Diablo (1997), and a tabletop role-playing game called Thieves Guild (1980). Looking Glass Studios’ proprietary Dark Engine and Dark Object System synced in-game objects and movement with dynamic audio and lighting effects, allowing enemy guards to react in real-time to the player character’s actions. A non-linear mission structure in which objectives grow more complex at higher difficulty levels was inspired by Rare’s Goldeneye 007 (1997). When she joined the project in mid-1997, mission designer Laura Baldwin leveraged her participation in a large-scale live-action role-playing (LARP) group at MIT to produce tonally consistent dialogue and writing based roughly on the King James Bible. Looking Glass Studios’ increasingly precarious financial situation and high staff turnover, including the departure of original lead developer Ken Levine, would not keep Thief: The Dark Project (1998) from being hailed as the world’s most advanced immersive sim when it was released for Windows PC in December 1998.
Players take on the role of Garrett, an orphan adopted by a mysterious organization known as the Keepers. Trained in the arts of subterfuge by the Keepers, Garrett eventually strikes out on his own in The City as a skilled thief. A small-stakes heist next leads to Garrett being hired by nobleman Constantine to obtain a supernatural artifact called The Eye from a seemingly abandoned cathedral. Garrett eventually crosses paths with the Hammerites, a technocratic religious group vying for power in The City, and the chaos-worshiping Pagan faction. Though this narrative initially seems grounded in low-fantasy crime, the stakes are raised by the appearance of hostile undead creatures and a malevolent god known as the Trickster.
The Dark Project eschews Ultima Underworld’s single sprawling dungeon in favor of more tightly designed discrete missions. While these environments are encountered in a linear order, their open-ended level design offers players myriad ways to accomplish a set of central objectives. Manipulating sound and light are the core actions that allow Garrett to remain hidden as he moves through buildings, streets, and subterranean tunnels. Among other sneaky techniques, guards can be distracted by noises produced far away from Garrett’s position and shadows can be cast by dousing torches with water arrows. A light meter at the bottom of the screen tells the player exactly how hidden they are from view.
Combat is engaging, if less dynamic, than The Dark Project’s stealth options. Garrett’s sword is swung in the direction of the player’s mouse when activated by a click, while holding the attack button results in a powerful overhead swing. Enemy attacks can likewise be deflected with a block command. In addition to altering his environment through the use of elementally-infused arrows, Garrett’s bow can be used to simply strike enemies from a distance.
The Dark Project, which began development as a series of sword-combat simulation experiments, evolved mightily during its tumultuous two-year production process. The final game was celebrated by press outlets and casual players alike, producing near-unanimous critical acclaim and strong sales. A promotional video included with Thief: Gold (1999), an expanded edition featuring three additional stages, soon confirmed that work on a sequel was already underway.
Thief II: The Metal Age (2000)
Unfortunately, Looking Glass Studios’ financial situation went from bad to worse during the final years of the 20th Century. The Electronic Arts-published System Shock 2 (1999) and Flight Unlimited 3 (1999) were unmitigated commercial disasters in spite of their popularity with critics. The studio was narrowly saved from its mounting debt by Eidos Interactive, which signed a deal to bankroll and publish three additional games in the Thief series. Development on Thief II: The Metal Age began under project director Steve Pearsall in January 1999 and wrapped up shortly ahead of the game’s release on Windows PC in March 2000.
Players again step into the shoes of Garrett, who defeated the Trickster and was warned of an impending “Metal Age” at the conclusion of The Dark Project. This Metal Age is characterized by the world’s cosmic balance swinging from Chaos to Order and the rise of a brutal law enforcement regime led by Sheriff Truart. The Mechanists, a radical Hammerite splinter faction, are simultaneously planning the City-wide spread of a vapor which turns humans into rust. Despite Garrett’s earnest efforts to avoid earth-shattering plots following his role in the previous game’s events, he once more finds himself a pivotal force in averting the apocalypse.
The reused Dark Engine’s flexibility is demonstrated by a handful of noticeable graphical improvements in The Metal Age. Character models feature double the polygons of those in the preceding title, and more accurate hit detection makes aiming arrows or blackjack blows more important when downing enemies. Rather than being purely aesthetic, the addition of transparent glass surfaces and fog effects likewise enhance immersion.
Level design is altered to take advantage of these new opportunities for creative problem-solving. Having feared that players would be bored without traditional first-person combat, the designers of The Dark Project had included more action elements than initially intended; The Metal Age’s team opted instead to prioritize urban exploration and sneaking based on feedback received from critics and fans. Consequently, monsters and claustrophobic mazes are eschewed in favor of smarter human antagonists and non-linear urban landscapes.
The press lauded The Metal Age’s singularly complex AI and enhanced focus on stealth, while initial sales were higher than those of its predecessor. Fans were so enthusiastic about the game that they released an unofficial expansion featuring 13 additional missions in 2005. Critical acclaim and commercial success were not enough to overcome Looking Glass’ dismal financial situation, however, and the studio shut down after Eidos Interactive declined to acquire it; contemporary claims that the notorious failure of Eidos-published Daikatana (2000) caused the deal to fall through have been disputed in recent years. Without an owner, Thief was suddenly at risk of being abandoned in May 2000.
Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004)
Eidos’ surprise purchase of the rights to Thief in August 2000 ensured that Looking Glass’ most famous property would outlive the studio that had created it. Warren Spector, the visionary ex-Looking Glass developer who had been running Eidos subsidiary Ion Storm’s Austin branch since 1997, successfully lobbied for the opportunity to produce the third Thief game and hired as many former Looking Glass employees as he could. Thief seemed to be in good hands following a year of corporate turbulence.
Sadly, the project’s four-year gestation would be troubled by significant logistical and technical difficulties. Ion Storm had bitten off more than it could chew by splitting its limited resources between Thief: Deadly Shadows and Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), the sequel to another landmark immersive sim. Eidos’ dedication to launching the game on Microsoft’s new Xbox platform alongside PC – as was the case with Invisible War – forced level designers to scale back the scope and number of maps from what would have been possible on contemporary PCs. A freely explorable version of The City was similarly truncated due to hardware limitations. Ion Storm’s ambitious but intensely demanding texture renderer, which was built on the Unreal Warfare engine and projected real-time shadows from every in-game character and object, compounded these issues even further. In spite of its challenging development process, Thief: Deadly Shadows launched to widespread critical acclaim in May 2004.
The narrative retains the protagonist and setting of earlier titles while ramping up its supernatural elements. After engaging in a handful of heists throughout The City and being framed for murder, Garrett is pursued by a team of telepathic assassins as he struggles to prevent a powerful witch known as The Hag from destroying the Keepers. Garrett even travels backwards through time to explore an abandoned orphanage known as the Shalebridge Cradle during one memorably atmospheric sequence.
Deadly Shadows‘ gameplay and presentation feature several enhancements on earlier series entries. The player can now switch between first and third-person perspectives, offering a better visual indicator of whether Garrett is hidden in shadows or exposed to detection. A lock-picking minigame makes use of the Xbox controller’s rumble feature to convey how close Garrett is to unlocking doors, while newly-introduced oil flasks can render floors slippery. The City’s use as a hub area connecting individual missions dramatically enhances the game’s sense of scale despite being slimmed down from Ion Storm’s original vision. Even mission maps, which are more cramped than those of Thief II, feel more organic due to their high level of detail and dynamic lighting.
Deadly Shadows sold less than anticipated and Eidos demanded major overhauls to the series if it was to continue, resulting in a planned Splinter Cell-inspired sequel called Thief 4: Dagger of Ways. The game would have seen Garrett using the eponymous dagger to phase in and out of a ghostly wraith dimension in a contemporary real-world setting rather than The City. Fans were left with nothing more than concept art, though, when the project was canceled in late 2004 and Ion Storm dissolved like Looking Glass before it.
For the first time since 1997, there was no new Thief title on the horizon. Five long years passed without comment, leaving fans to wonder whether Deadly Shadows had been the nail in Garrett’s proverbial coffin. Their fears were assuaged when Eidos announced that its Montreal branch had begun development on a fourth Thief game in 2009.
The series reboot was directed by Nicolas Cantin – an artist who had previously worked on Assassin’s Creed (2007) – and involved no former Looking Glass staff; Garrett voice actor Stephen Russell was even replaced by Romano Orzari due to the new game’s use of realistic motion-capture. A conceptual phase saw the core 20-person team experimenting with and then abandoning plans for a fully third-person perspective inspired by Cantin’s earlier project, while three further years of pre-production involved high turnover as differing visions of the game came into conflict with one another. Eidos Montreal moved into production using Unreal Engine 3 around 2012, and Thief launched in North America for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Mac OS X, and Windows PC on February 25, 2014. An additional bank heist mission was made available as paid downloadable content shortly after release.
Though it retains the series’ characteristic steampunk aesthetic, the game is set hundreds of years after the events of Deadly Shadows. Protagonist Garrett is a distant descendant of the previous games’ hero and the warring factions of the past – Hammerites, Keepers, and so on – are represented only by ruins scattered throughout The City. The narrative instead focuses on the outbreak of a deadly plague known as the Gloom and Garrett’s efforts to overthrow the tyrannical Baron Northcrest. Supernatural elements remain present in the Primal, a mysterious stone with the power to influence people’s actions.
The trend towards more linear stages established by Deadly Shadows continues in Thief, though these individual areas are accessed through a convoluted hub location. Rather than offering large-scale, open-ended level design, missions instead emphasize a handful of specific paths to completion that allow players to improvise their preferred gameplay style. Individual areas are again relatively claustrophobic but highly detailed and full of hiding places. Aside from a grappling hook used to ascend vertical surfaces, Garrett’s tools are largely identical to those of earlier titles. Thief’s primary gameplay iteration outside of advances to lighting and artificial intelligence is the inclusion of Focus Mode, which conveys heightened perception of environmental details and enemies while slowing time.
Despite Eidos Montreal’s best efforts to remain true to the series’ roots, Thief was met with critical opprobrium upon release. The press drew particular attention to its overuse of scripted sequences, lack of meaningful problem-solving, and technical issues. Ten years of waiting for a sequel to Deadly Shadows seemed to have been a bust for long-time fans. So soon after finally re-emerging from the shadows, Looking Glass’ cult franchise returned to its hiding place once again.
At the time of writing in early 2021, Thief has been on ice for nearly seven years; occasional rumors of a sequel have so far failed to yield anything tangible. Even so, the stealthy soul of Thief is alive and well in spiritual successors like Hitman (2000-2021), Splinter Cell (2002-2013), and Assassin’s Creed (2007-2020). For purists, on the other hand, CDProjekt’s game preservation platform Good Old Games (GOG) renders the original trilogy accessible and enjoyable decades after its debut. Though we may never see another entry in the Thief franchise, Garrett’s adventures live on.
What do you think about Thief? Which is your favorite tool or weapon? How does the franchise compare to other immersive sims like Deus Ex or Dishonored? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
You can find me here at The Avocado or on Twitter as @SinginBrakeman. Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series; Season Two: Resident Evil will premiere all major podcast apps on July 1!
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As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #104: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – July 9
- #105: Shenmue – July 23
- #106: Spider-Man (Part 1) – August 6
- #107: Spider-Man (Part 2) – August 20
- #108: Advance Wars – September 3