Feature Article

Pulling Back the Curtain on Thief

Master of Illusion.

by

The lights went down and the man spoke.

His baritone echoed through the room as his energy rose and fell, passionately telling the somber tale of master thief Garrett and his protege Erin. Where Garrett was silent and precise, Erin grew reckless and bloodthirsty. Where Garrett understood that chaos is to be avoided, Erin reveled in creating it. Yet Garrett was drawn to the girl. Like him, she was a child of the streets, once forced to scrub floors in the local whorehouse before escaping into the cold darkness of The City.

In time, however, Garrett grew increasingly aggravated with Erin's refusal to find solace in the shadows. He allowed her to go her separate way, though he never forgot her. Years later, it was this fond memory that arsonist friend Basso exploited to reunite the two. Basso sent Garrett on a thieving mission--but Erin was already on the scene. Garrett was reticent to join the young woman on this quest for riches, but he was certain she must have grown, must have left her brutal ways behind.

How wrong he was. Garrett watched Erin as she used her signature claw for killing purposes as well as for grappling to higher ground. She was no longer a thief but a sloppy assassin who held little respect for the lives of others. Where Garrett killed only when necessary, Erin killed for fun. And so Garrett swiped the claw when Erin was otherwise occupied, hoping to teach her a lesson.

Erin never lived to learn the lesson. When the building supporting them crumbled beneath them, Erin dropped to her death, powerless to save herself with the claw no longer in her possession. Garrett, too, tumbled to the ground and fell into blackness. A year later he awoke, the time lost, and the political events that led to The City's descent into its current despair a mystery. And so there was only one thing to do: find Basso.

Light returned to the room. This portion of Garrett's dark story, as melodramatically recounted by Thief narrative director Steven Gallagher, was finished. But the full tale was far from over.

The first time I saw Thief in action some months ago, I watched it being played; it wasn't until Gallagher had finished his story that I played it myself. Seated at a PC running a demo of the upcoming stealth adventure game, and with an Xbox 360 controller in hand, I began my sojourn into The City, starting in the clocktower that serves as Garrett's center of operations. And once I got used to controlling Garrett with a controller for the first time, I was ready. It was time to step into the city square and locate Basso.

As it turns out, locating Basso, or any mission objective, isn't really that hard: you choose the mission you want to accomplish from a menu, make it your active task, and then find your way to the guide marker that appears. Actually reaching that marker isn't necessarily a straightforward task, however. Thieving missions take you to windows on upper stories and require you to consider the city's verticality. By holding a trigger, you can use wall grates to claw your way to higher ground, rush forward, climb up ledges, or leap across chasms. (I fell to my death several times during the demo when misjudging how far I could leap, leading me to save often lest I made a wrong move.) You can also fire a rope dart from your bow at specified locations and climb up, or leap to the rope from a nearby ledge, thereby gaining access to rooftops and balconies previously off limits.

And so I made my way to Basso, avoiding the watchful eyes of a duo of guards making their way down the main alley in regimented fashion. Before I reached Basso's lair, however, I took the opportunity to get my bearings and soak in the dirty darkness. The City is an unwelcoming place for someone that prefers basking in the light. Shadows and fog permeate the streets, and the Gothic architecture, embodied by pointed arches and an overall verticality, signal harsh despair. Citizens speaking to each other in hushed tones told of the vast social gulf between the privileged and the needy, and guards warned of the fog as though it weren't just an atmospheric phenomenon, but a grave disease.

Basso was pleased to see me, though he didn't elaborate on his emotions. (According to the developers on hand, swaths of dialogue were removed so that press members playing the game could focus on accomplishing their missions and exploring The City.) He was certainly downtrodden, but even his threadbare clothing had an elegance to it; his broad scarf and embroidered waistcoat in particular gave him an air of dignity, though the vestments had clearly seen better days. But this wasn't a time for ogling an old friend--it was time to pilfer riches. After visiting the merchant in Basso's quarters and purchasing a cutting tool, and armed with several missions, I ventured into The City, ready to take what was not-so-rightfully mine.

If it's a life simulation, we discovered that it's not fun because you feel the game is not fair.

Much of my adventure felt good under my fingers. A proper sense of slinkiness made it fun to sneak through the streets and search the rooftops, all in a first-person view. The peeking mechanic, which allows you to take cover behind object likes crates and walls and glimpse around the corner or above the object, was simple and fluid, though there were a few objects that wouldn't allow me to take advantage of the peeking option for no apparent reason. Elsewhere, the controls felt less responsive, such as when I couldn't jump from a ledge no matter how well I applied the prescribed method; after heading through the window I had climbed out of and returning to the ledge, I was able to hop to the ground. I ran into this idiosyncrasy on a few occasions, so gauging just how Garrett would react to drops and obstacles wasn't always clear.

The rest of my time with the demo was characterized by similar hills and valleys. At certain times, I was wholly engrossed, taken in by detailed touches that enhanced Thief's murky ambience. I infiltrated a private residence through a window, for instance, where I read a woman's diary entry that described how she ducked into a closet to see what manner of trouble he was up to. After watching him stow valuables in a safe hidden behind a painting, she scratched the safe's combination into the wall, making it easy for me to get into the safe. First I skimmed my fingers along the frame to find the latch, then entered the combination to open the safe. I pilfered what I wanted and made my escape, the sleeping wife none the wiser to my intrusion.

At other times, I was pulled out of the experience by the demo's stiff, clockwork AI, which made certain elements too artificial to overlook. At one point, a citizen caught me stealing a goblet and ran off to alert the roaming guards, which seemed proper enough. Yet another time, I took down a guard from above directly in front of a resident who was unimpressed by the assassination, taking no notice of the corpse in plain view. The guards, in the meanwhile, showed no variation in their joyless meanderings. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Splinter Cell: Blacklist, but I hoped to see some element of humanity that made the guards seem less robotic, only to find none. And in one case, when I did alert the guards, they seemed none too bright, the two of them bumping into each other and ignoring me as they tried to work out their paths. I wasn't aware of the characters that I interacted with in The City as people; I was aware of them as easily exploited computer programs.

So I sat down with Thief senior producer Stephane Roy to talk about the game's AI. Concerned about the artificiality, I asked him how the team intends to make The City feel more like a living, breathing place and less like a collection of systems.

When you see what's going on under the hood and all the calculations, to most human beings it's fairly meaningless because we operate on feeling.

Roy is not a passionless man. As he explained Thief's development, he paced the floor quickly, his hands busy and his eyes shining. Roy is excited by the project. He is clearly pouring his seemingly limitless energy into making Thief all it can be."Let's say you are really a ghost," he says breathlessly, "and you collaborate with the game, let's say. You listen and watch and stuff like that. Yeah, you're going to see a pattern, because the guards are on patrol and stuff like that. If they're suspicious they are going to behave in a different way. If they are in a group, compared to if the guy's alone, they're also going to behave in a different way."

Roy's tone gets more serious. "If it's a life simulation, we discovered that it's not fun because you feel the game is not fair." He describes tests in which they would throw objects to get a guard's attention. The AI programmers would celebrate when the guard cared more about where the bottle was thrown from than where it landed, correctly interpreting the location of the player. Getting worked up again, Roy throws a water bottle across the room and pretends he is the guard, describing the AI's potential thought process in this scenario. "OK, this is the room, and there's the bottle. And it's f***ing stupid because the room is empty, and probably the bottle is coming from this direction!" Still pretending to be the guard, Roy moves to where he would know the player was and makes a stabbing motion. "Boom, you're dead!"

But that's not the behavior the player expects, and it destroys the purpose of why the bottle is initially thrown--to distract the guard and avoid detection. Roy tells me, "And this is where I think there's no black or white answer. Because on your side maybe you're going to be really demanding and you're going to tell me 'I don't believe in this behavior.' But the other person will say, 'hey man, I really want to have fun with the game. It's a video game, not like a simulation, give me a break, make sure that I can read the pattern.' "

It's a fair enough answer, but for me, it's not so much about "realistic" behavior as much as it is about the illusion of realism. I don't think we expect most games to be real--but we want them to be convincing, and designers have all sorts of tricks when it comes to keeping games fun while making their worlds feel natural. I asked Roy what tricks Thief will use to help me avoid noticing its more scripted aspects.

"One thing we still have to do, it's a big task but it's gonna help a lot," he says, "it's the… we call them the occupation. Probably we're going to adapt the patrol that the guard probably doing this," Roy looks back over his shoulder and scans behind him, "making sure there is nothing, giving you this window to, phew, let's go. And after that he'll go there," Roy points, "look under the cloak, and stuff like that, so now you really believe that the guy is really looking. And this takes a lot of time because we try to adapt it, not for every single situation, but adding a lot of variation."

I don't want to kill all the magics of a game.

Thief narrative director Steven Gallagher adds, "When you see what's going on under the hood and all the calculations, to most human beings it's fairly meaningless because we operate on feeling. When I'm in a room, it's all about the anticipation, right? I remember speaking with the lead designer and he was very keen on capturing that sensation. He said, 'I'm looking for the anticipation of, oh shit, I hope he's not coming over here. Oh did he see me?' But it was all about anticipation for him, and it's more fun when you sustain tension in the room as opposed to some AI who's like, 'I'm pretty sure he's there.' "

Roy acknowledges, however, that when it comes to making The City come alive, there is still labor ahead. "We have, let's say, two different types of citizen. We have the one, it's really there to add some life but they won't react. And this is where we have to work very… we have to be very careful, we have to be smart. So it's the beggars, for example. So if we put beggars in a place where you can be in front of them and kill people, the beggars by definition won't be able to react with stuff like that. So we have to make sure these citizens, we use them smartly in some place that it just, it makes sense. And we have the other citizen, them, they are really alive. So if you're going by, and they are going 'ok, you're not about to kill me,' and that's it, but if you start to mess and do some stuff, they're going to be 'ok, alert, alert,' and stuff like that. But for you the player, there is no difference, there is no 'ok, the other citizens are all blue, and then there are yellow,' there is no difference visually speaking. So this is where we'll have to be really smart."

Roy was worried that exposing these systems to me would make Thief seem less special. "I don't want to kill all the magics of a game." But if anything, peeking behind the veil gives me greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into creating that magic. I'll let them tinker under the hood. As long as the result instills the tension Gallagher talks about, I'm happy to fall under Thief's spell. Here's hoping the illusion is a convincing one.

Discussion

122 comments
dmdavenport
dmdavenport

I think I'll wait for the reviews on this one.

midway_nights
midway_nights

i am not buying this thief, i hate first person games.

StarsiderSajun
StarsiderSajun

Trying not to get too excited for Thief. After the head of the company leaving and then seeing articles like this it kind of bums me out. Thankfully the Human Revolution Director's Cut is so amazing that it will make up for any shortcomings this game has in my opinion.

samus_my_life
samus_my_life

Finally, We Got prince of persia back lol ... 

I know, they're from deferent developers ... but i'm excited to get my hand on this magnificent game :) :0

( very soon ) 

Hell Yeah !!!!

skeet1964
skeet1964

So basically what I am hearing Kevin - is so far, in summary, not very impressed.  Hoping for more.  Game still needs quite a bit of work before the Feb. release.  Hmmmphhhh, I had high hopes for this game, but now they are somewhat dashed after reading this article.  Oh well, I appreciate your honest feedback.  Hopefully they will incorporate your input to further polish the game before release.

Warfighter_971
Warfighter_971

its quite obvious for every single old title out there...something new happening to them causes a serious loss leading to no hope...nothing's left but disappointment....

Hurvl
Hurvl

How convincing is the city? Is the city in Thief convincing as the City? How much have they borrowed/stolen like a thief from previous City's cities? Can the Thief 4 City match the City-zen Kane level City from previous Thiefs?

Garm31
Garm31

Visually it's uneven. It's a multi-gen title. It still doesn't look next gen enough. It has too many of the previous gens flaws. Still only 30fps? Sure it's true 1080p. But?

Robert-A
Robert-A

Square did a good job with Deus Ex, my other all time favorite game series, so I have hope that in the end Thief will be where it needs to be.

adrianjarca
adrianjarca

I just hope it won't be too consolized or anything like Thief 3.

immortality20
immortality20

I'm not too hyped for this yet, hopefully the developers can smooth over the control issues. Last thing you want in this type of game is to be constantly wondering how to jump and how far you can etc.

ahmad1080
ahmad1080

Its like a dream came true when I heard thief is coming, since 1999 .... I still play thief 1 & 2 

Garm31
Garm31

The old Thief games are superb, even the vastly inferior Thief deadly shadows is good. Why can't they just make them like they used to?. Do they have to put in all of the contemporary,  cinematic, slow motion, combo chained deaths? It killed HItman. It tarnished the series almost beyond repair.

bbq_R0ADK1LL
bbq_R0ADK1LL

Looks good, I'll almost certainly pick this up on PC. Having said that, one thing is wrong...

I HATE 1st person perspective in stealth games! It just feels wrong. If I'm playing stealth I like to see what's around me. A 1st person game doesn't simulate peripheral vision well so 3rd person feels a lot better. In Dishonored it felt silly to be peering out from behind a wall & yet the AI couldn't see me even though my head should have been in full vision.

The next problem with first person games, particularly this one, is why are his hands always floating up by his face? http://gifrific.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Not-Sure-What-to-do-With-Hands-Talladega-Nights-Ricky-Bobby.gif

uninspiredcup
uninspiredcup

"Seated at a PC running a demo of the upcoming stealth adventure game, and with an Xbox 360 controller in hand"

Another pc classic ruined.

brxricano
brxricano

Kevin! Good work on the concerning inquiry and your overall investigative journalism into what peeved you versus what most other do (cross their fingers and "hope its fixed by release"). Your article was well written and erudite as always. I'm more interested in this game now for it. Keep it up!

Garm31
Garm31

Ironic how the game that inspired Dishonored, is now a clone of it. It looks nothing like the old Thief games. Picking fights with guards? You would have you ass handed to you in the previous games. It's about stealth and getting caught  usually incurs death.  Also special slow motion abilities?  Please give us the ability to disable this shit.

wizardboyus
wizardboyus

oh, and i think that depending on how smart the guard or person is, they should react differently (i.e. investigating where the bottle was thrown from, or walking to the place where the bottle was thrown). 

wizardboyus
wizardboyus

i'm glad vannord brought up these issues with stephane roy, so that they can work on them. the visuals look amazing, and the narrative already seems very intriguing. but we all have to remember that this is just a demo build of the game, there are hundreds of QA testers and people like vannord there to help guide the developers into making hte best possible AI behavior for this game. of course nothing's perfect, it's a video game, people are gonna find ways to exploit the AI. but these testers will bring up issues like vannord stated above, and the developers job is to make the game as immersive as possible. in short, don't worry guys, i'm sure when the game comes out those doors it'll be a fine tuned beast of a game! after all it is one of the first next-gen games, it's gotta make a good impression :P

juliano001
juliano001

I love thief series. I have them all, so i am really anxious about this one too.

Imaginaari84
Imaginaari84

This looks great! That bottle thing bothers me tho. If you are sneaking you are not supposed to be throwing bottles to begin with. This is like in some old movies the good guy throws a rock somewhere bad guy goes to see to the place where rock was thrown and gets killed.


I really really love how the athmosphere looks. <3

adward22
adward22

thank godness ,,,,they havent forget  to make  version on current gen especially xbox360 .........well done  ^___^

grumpytrooper
grumpytrooper

If people love Thief and want to experience the old gameplay , try a free standalone mod called The Dark Mod, Google it, youtube it  download it play it  there are over 70 missions  to enjoy and a few small campaigns to look at.

Rooten
Rooten

I don't know why but It looks like Dishonored kinda game :\

Elche58
Elche58

Why the hell does everything have to be open world these days? Why dont they just give us some 15 juicy well designed missions? I don´t want another sandbox I want Thief! Hardcore Thief! Where there are no markers and where treasures are cleverly hidden from unwanted eyes. Will I have same sense of challenge as in legendary "expert" difficulty of the classic Thief?

Paoksis
Paoksis

@StarsiderSajun  "Thankfully the Human Revolution Director's Cut is so amazing that it will make up for any shortcomings this game has in my opinion."


man,thats plain retarded logic right there :S

NoAngle
NoAngle

@ahmad1080 yep, The Dark Project and Metal Age, those were the best...

juboner
juboner

@bbq_R0ADK1LL I see what u mean in a third person game u would just rotate camera to see around like a wall

but I think first person makes u feel more like ur really there and more tension

shreddyz
shreddyz

@uninspiredcup no kidding! Consolifying games is the worst injustice a game could potentially face. F**king developers and their greed for money. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is the worst for gamers. flame shield up^

ekelly10
ekelly10

@uninspiredcup what are you talking about? The 360 controller is excellent. The writer probably just preferred it to keyboard and mouse, which for this game i don't see an advantage to either option over the other

ekelly10
ekelly10

@Garm31 you should check out the similar article on IGN, it might make you feel a bit better about the game in terms of stealth

DigiRave
DigiRave

@wizardboyus I'm pretty sure guards already check the area where there's any noise, they have in all the other "Thief" games, that's kinda an important part of the game -  and how exactly would you know where a broken bottle was thrown from??? 

Stebsis
Stebsis

@wizardboyus Why do that because it's always the wind doing all those shenanigans and... *bleeds out from arrow in the back of the head*

*Other guard sees this* Hmm, must've been the wind.

d34dp00l_187
d34dp00l_187

@Elche58 I guess you better accept open-world games or find another hobby altogether as it's quickly becoming an industry standard. With the proper time, and care an open-world game can be just as engaging, emotional, and fun as any linear games with "15 juicy well designed missions." We're to a point technologically that there's no excuse for us to not be able to have our cake and eat it too. As with all things it will get better in time, and with that said the concept of open-world is still very new to some developers, but with the power of next-gen and the engines that they have at their disposal than there's no telling just how vast out universes will become. Like it or not friend it's a fact.

Raeldor
Raeldor

@Elche58 If openworld is done right, you can have both.  You can have the story driven mission architecture, but the benefit of openworld is there are any number of ways it can be done and it's a completely different experience on every playthough.

I do fully agree with your comment about markers though, that drives me nuts.  What ever happened to exploration and taking notes and making your own markers and notes on maps.

Rooten
Rooten

@Elche58 openworld = more gameplay = more locations = more quest = more fun I guess...?!?

DigiRave
DigiRave

@shreddyz *facepalm* oh my god! they are not "consolifying" it, they just played it with a controller, which is something most pc games allow you to do! Fucking idiots!!!

Garm31
Garm31

@ekelly10 @Garm31 I have read it. Thanks. It just doesn't look like a Thief game. Having just finished Thief 2 again recently, this just looks too easy, giving the player all these abilities, turns Garrett into a killing machine, hes a thief, not an ancestor of Sam fisher.

sightshot
sightshot

@Stebsis @wizardboyus LOL exactly. Can't have 'smart' guards now!!    quote:  "If it's a life simulation, we discovered that it's not fun because you feel the game is not fair"

ohhhhh, the game wont be 'fair' if it's more real.  how stupid.

CrouchingWeasel
CrouchingWeasel

@Raeldor @Elche58  

I was thinking exactly the same thing myself yesterday when watching the 15mins of ACIV. Quest markers on screen, enemy markers on screen.... bloated HUD & information overload all to appeal to the lowest common denominator in gamers. I wonder how long it's going to take these clowns to realise that most gamers like to be able to explore for themselves & would prefer the option to turn "babysitter mode for lazy gamers" off.

Warfighter_971
Warfighter_971

@Rooten nope...the theory u've given was old...new Open World theory means u're just giving an Emblem called "Sandbox" upon it...

ekelly10
ekelly10

@Garm31 @ekelly10 are you taking that from the trailer? Because trailers tend to be...inaccurate representations of games in my experience. I'm waiting for like a 15 minute gameplay video to make any real presumptions, personally.