A Stairway To The Unconscious — Thief: The Dark Project, 20 Years Later
Part 1: Bluebeard’s Labyrinth
Sometimes you have to wonder if people who are predisposed to violence don’t at least partially get it from how monotonous and uninspired the design of our buildings and public spaces are. A lot of life is filled with small compromises we don’t even know we’re making, and our architecture reflects that. The blandness of so much of day-to-day life feels like a testament to the failure to dream of something bigger. A nondescript place of your own must have once been a big dream to escape the horrors of the past. But in the modern era, those spaces have become their own places of horror.
Virtual spaces, in entertainment and on the internet, have taken an ever-growing burden of providing us with some sense of meaning and purpose amongst the purposelessness. But they often just as easily fall into their own cookie-cutter molds too. The processes behind the creation of larger scale media becomes streamlined much in the same way that design of most large-scale buildings are as well. It’s rare that we ever get to have a truly authentic experience of something genuinely unexpected, in life or in fantasy. And even if we did ever get to have this kind of singular authentic experience, how would we know that we’d be ready for would come out of it?
Thief: The Dark Project, re-released later as Thief Gold, is a computer game that doesn't provide escape in its virtual spaces so much as a sense of curiosity mixed with eerie discomfort. Thief is mostly a fun action videogame. But sometimes it gets a little too close for comfort to hitting on something deeper. Some of its fantasy spaces feel a little too familiar in ways they probably shouldn't. Constantine’s infamous mansion from the mission “The Sword” is one of those spaces.
But we can’t talk about Constantine’s mansion without first talking about real-life American serial killer Herman Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes’s “murder castle”. Holmes was trained as a surgeon but he also was an entrepreneurial businessman, eventually buying out a drug store he had worked at as an employee and then building another one across the street. He presumably constructed this three-story building in Chicago to sell stuff out of his drug store on the first floor and make some extra money renting out rooms as a typical mixed-use space for apartments and retail. Hotel rooms were also planned for the building, but it’s unclear if it was ever actually completed before Holmes was charged. Under the surface, however, the building seemed to have been constructed to make his wildest fantasies of preying on and murdering of young women possible. Some of these murders could have even happened in broad daylight. The whole building was constructed with several hidden passages, possibly that only Holmes knew about, to make it very easy to trap people and hide bodies from other visitors. He is rumored to have achieved this by only giving partial plans and hiding information from construction crews. He also apparently never paid the construction company who built the castle.
In the late 19th century, what we think of as modern day medical science was then growing rapidly as a field. As such, cadavers for medical students to do research and training on were in huge demand. A lot of money could be made by selling dead bodies to medical science for research, and few questions were ever asked about who those bodies were or where they came from. It’s not known how many bodies of his victims Holmes could have sold for these purposes, but it seems very possible that he did so at some point given his medical background. Holmes apparently confessed to killing 27 people (mostly women), although some speculate he could have killed up to 200, via the dense crowds of The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 who could have come through his building.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s fact or fiction with the Holmes story. As with any tale of a famous murderer, especially one over a century old, any number of details about the story could be made up or heavily exaggerated. But the images the story conjures are pretty unforgettable. Young women dying in a murder labyrinth by suffocation or by gas in secret rooms hidden behind walls seems almost too cartoonishly horrifying to be a real thing that happened in an unassuming building in an all-American city like Chicago.
Perhaps the worst part of it the whole story is how these unlucky young women’s skeletons could have later been used by unwitting medical students. How could no one notice that something was off about the castle itself? In reality, maybe some people did. But this was the Gilded Age — private businessmen were so loosely regulated by any sort of governmental oversight, if they were at all. Even a handsome young con man like Holmes who hid plans and equipment from his construction crews and neglected to pay his outstanding debts could get away with it, at least for a little awhile. America still struggles with not giving this type of man everything he wants.
A figure like Holmes is a good dark mirror image to so many entrepreneurial “great men” who might have been thought of as heroes but also did totally heinous things. Holmes started to build his castle around age 25 and died in prison by 34. He was the age of a young “boy genius” tech entrepreneur when he built his castle. He was playing out his own twisted version of the dream of the an all-American snake-oil man.
So Holmes is a quintessentially American figure — some call him “the first American serial killer”, though that feels like a bit of a nebulous distinction. And his mansion has been immortalized in the above illustration by artist Holly Carden. His story also has been covered in depth on the popular murdery podcast Last Podcast On The Left.
But there’s no doubt that Holmes would have nowhere near the lurid fascination around him had he not been a killer. There is a kind of bleak, brutal rationality to serial killers or mass shooters buried beneath the layers of irrationality that makes them a consistent object of fascination for so many people. Usually there is some kind of back-story or psychological profile to help explain why they did what they did. Perhaps they were victims of severe child abuse or neglect. Or perhaps the environment they grew up in provided no guidance and enabled them acting out to an incredibly unhealthy degree. Looking for these narrative threads gives us a connection to them. We have a window into what we could be capable of as well, if some things happened differently. Maybe it’s even empowering to know that all humans are capable of great evil as much as good, and it doesn't matter who they are or where they’re from. It keeps us grounded in a more honest picture of the world, something not totally out-of-time and out-of-history. Fantasy becomes reality and we see get a glimpse behind the veil of society in those stories.
The lurid details of Holmes’s castle are universal. They have a bit of a fairy tale logic to them, and recall the fate of the wife in the infamous tale of Bluebeard. Like Bluebeard, Holmes was involved with many women, and many of those women ended up dead in one way or another.
Bluebeard’s tale is a personal favorite of mine. Particularly in the manifestation of presented in the narrative game Judith by Stephen Lavelle and Terry Cavanagh, a sort of retelling of the Bluebeard story. What is fascinating is how it imagines Bluebeard as a charming, almost sensitive figure. He seemed to want what’s best for his wife, in spite of his possessiveness over her. He seems like he could be someone rational, intelligent, and relateable. And that’s the thing: H. H. Holmes was probably a pretty rational person in some ways. His castle was certainly very rationally built towards the ends of efficient, multi-tasked murder.
Constantine’s mansion feels totally irrational by contrast. Constantine’s motivations as a character don’t really make sense. And unlike Holmes’ murder castle, the intentions of its construction seem to never really be clear. Perhaps that’s what makes them almost more unsettling in a way. There’s no way to get a sensible cross-section of the place, and the map you’re given in Thief is intentionally vague.
The construction of his mansion appears to completely break with reality without giving a real explanation for why and how it might be doing that in the context of the game. The natural and man-made blend together in a way that could only exist in an MC Escher painting. Strange giggles echo from no particular sound source in the upper halls. Many rooms look like normal rooms, except upside-down or turned on their sides. There is a dense forest covering another part of the mansion.
But once our player character Garrett has grabbed the sword he needs, he’s free to wander out and move on, like it’s just another typical mission in the game. After stepping into this bizarre world, you can slowly descend back down into the stairs and into normal reality. Thief only gives you some glimpses at a larger world but never tells you the whole story, even in its expository cutscenes. The mission based-approach keeps the game from centering one particular location very much, even if a few are revisited.
Constantine from Thief is not a serial killer — he’s a villain archetype. He’s not a figure to whom we can really pore over his backstory and puzzle together a real motivation. He’s frankly not outlined in complex or interesting enough ways for that to even be worth it. But there is still a great deal of meaning to be found in his mansion, even in parts where it appears to transcend all meaning.
I personally see Constantine as a Harvey Weinstein-esque figure who represents the inhumanity of the upper class indifference, and the complete co-option and corruption of art and science into self-interested, destructive acts of pleasure. I see him indifferently luring and preying on both young women and men with the promise of power or pleasure, possibly exposing them to a paganistic ritual sacrifice ala Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or I see him starting a murder cult in the forests of his villa filled with brainwashed hippie followers like a sort of Charles Manson. He’s the codification of brutality and victimization into the natural order. Constantine is also maybe a bit like the corrupt libertine characters in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film adaptation of the Marquis De Sade book “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom” — a perverse pleasure brutally controlled and mediated that’s really not about pleasure at all.
But what really draws me to these megalomaniacal men and the design of their cruel and impossible spaces are the ideas that sit behind their construction. Holmes was driven by money and bloodlust, but was presumably a skilled surgeon as well. His meticulous dissection and stripping of the bodies he murdered gives me some clue into what his thought process might be like. Perhaps he thought the true destiny and value of these women he dated was much greater as medical specimens than as people. Maybe he thought they had more inherent value as bodies. Right around the time of Holmes’s murders, a philosophy would begin to grow that would give voice to this idea that medical alterations of people would be necessary to further our shared destiny as a species. Eugenics, forced sterilization, human experimentation: it all begins with a radical philosophy and a way of life that looks for new technology to create a totalizing solution to “fix” the supposed problems plaguing humankind.
Constantine similarly appears to advocate for some kind of radical return to an idea of natural purity before industrialization ruined the planet. For Holmes, it’s his application of medical science and his ability to literally reduce women into their component parts to be put towards another use that contains the glimmers of a larger ideology. For Constantine, it’s his treatment of art and nature as carriers of a exceptionalistic ideal. They’re vessels for him to cultivate a hyper-individualistic, hyper-subjective controlled universe around him. There are no compromises or context provided. His house is built from the ground up to realize a fever dream.
Constantine’s house is an effective stand-in for the entire experience of Thief: spaces that appear to be built around one obvious purpose that actually hide some kind of deeper, much murkier purpose somewhere inside them. A portal from the known to the unknown. This is about something much bigger than spooky murder mansions. It’s about an idea: a philosophy.
Part 2: A Strange New Science
On November 30th, 1998 — twenty years ago today — a game studio founded by some ex-MIT nerds in Cambridge, Massachusetts released their latest genetic mutation out into the world. Like other PC games released by publisher Eidos at the time (most notably the Tomb Raider games), Thief: The Dark Project and its sequel came in a silly-looking trapezoidal box. It was never clear if those boxes were supposed to represent anything more than a marketing gimmick.
Many of the games released in that box, however, seemed to share a labyrinthine, open-ended sense of adventure. It’s as if the box was a clue to us that the game that was contained within was rethinking what kind of experiences a videogame could take you on. It was the late 90’s, and the technology and scope of 3D games had begun to expand rapidly. The PC games market had also become dominated by hyper-violent first-person shooters. But these trapezoid boxed games were perhaps something a little different — more slower-paced and more mysterious. It was really hard to know exactly what kind of experience you were in for, and that was perhaps part of the excitement.
I never played Thief 1 until this year, partially spurred on by watching game designer/professor Robert Yang stream it recently. Thief isn't exactly niche, but it exists forever in the shadow of its more popular stealth game cousin from 1998, Metal Gear Solid. The Thief series never really had the cross-platform appeal to console gamers that games like Tomb Raider or Doom did either. Still, time never seems to have passed the Thief games by. Thief ’s level design often gets written about, like Robert’s in-depth examination of the first half of the mission “Assassins” or this discussion of the use of in-game maps in Thief 1, or this rather dry overview from last year, or this currently-in-progress comprehensive analysis of the design of the first couple games. It also has a still-active fan modding community.
But it can be hard to know what any of that really means in regards to the game’s value today. Videogame culture is highly insular and often horrible at communicating the actual value of its own product to outsiders. The videogame press and the game-playing public regularly fail with re-evaluating old games because of a persistent focus of technological innovation and commercial success. Often we have even less of a clear perspective in the present than we did in the not-to-distant past. So a bit of skepticism is warranted here. Are glowing endorsements of Thief mired in nostalgia for a PC gaming day of yore, or there to talk about “future influence” on other, better titles… or is there something else going on there?
By now, you probably know the answer to this question. But near the time of the release of Thief 2: The Metal Age, I distinctly remember gaming magazines and burgeoning online discourse declare that Thief 2 was by far the best of the series — that it refined the core stealth mechanics and got rid of a lot of elements that a lot of people found off-putting about the first. That appeared the obvious, unimpeachable wisdom that I had no reason to question or dispute. One simply made the other obsolete. So naturally I played bits of Thief 2 a few years later and thought it was pretty good, but I wasn't overwhelmed. It did feel a lot like a less adventurous and more limited Deus Ex, one of my favorite games of all-time. They both shared a Looking Glass lineage: Thief 2 was the developer’s last game before folding, and Deus Ex was made by several Looking Glass alum.
Both Thief 2 and Deus Ex are also similar to each other in how they feature sandbox-style environments that are meant to feel like reasonably realistic spaces that a human being could conceivably occupy. Even as they also contain elements out of science fiction or fantasy, that realism overrides everything else. Locations are designed with as much, if not even more of an idea of what they might functionally represent in the world of the game than they are designed around the player. That’s not to say that players aren't given plenty of in-roads into these environments: a place you’re in may feel indifferent to you in some ways, but there is also a lot of freedom given to go about it via multiple approaches. Occasionally these games might deviate or get a bit more out-there and trippy to go with the twists and turns of the story, but generally that setup is pretty stable throughout each game and you tend to be able to anticipate the weird stuff when it comes out… most of the time. The point is that more broadly, both Deus Ex and Thief 2 capture fantasy worlds that are mostly rational: a sort of speculative fiction, rather than something more fantastical.
That approach gels pretty smoothly with the design of many of the “immersive sims” that have come after. The Dishonored series or Prey (2017) are a good example of games that continue on in this format, at least in most ways. There may be strange or fantastical elements to those games’ environments, and there are almost certainly some interesting twists in the story. But for the most part, their environments still feel comprehensible and rationally constructed. We are expected to care a great deal about the internal realism of those worlds — they’re a huge part of steeping us inside the greater story.
Many see the way these games have come approach the design of their environments as an embodiment of what “good game” design principles are supposed to be: building a larger sense of realism to the world, centering player agency and expression, and communicating clearly to the player. But that’s where things get a little more complicated.
Thief: The Dark Project has a lot of the same components of your basic immersive sim game, but is also a bit different. It hits the genre before it fully developed towards centering a sense of internal realism.
Perhaps that’s just because that kind of sensibility hadn't been fully developed yet. Looking Glass was certainly a respected developer, but its previous games like Ultima Underworld 1&2 and System Shock were considered niche and difficult to run on computers of the time… not nearly as well-known by the general public at the time as they are today. Thief was the first game I remember hearing about from Looking Glass, particularly in how the concept seemed like it was a reaction to the then-surging popularity of mindless first-person shooters. You can almost imagine how a pitch went down about this game: What about a game where the object was not really to fight or kill people, but to sneak around and steal stuff like a real thief?
The concept must have been positively niche and high-concept to actually try and pull off for the first time: a slower paced first-person action game with the story and world-first focus of an adventure game and the complexity of a simulation. And yet “Lord Bafford’s Manor”, Thief’s first mission, manages to pull it off handily and be a perfect tutorial for the game’s systems (ignoring the game’s actual tutorial, which is actually compelling in itself). We see a variety of environments: from a city block outside, to a dank sewer, to the kitschy opulence of Lord Bafford’s manor. We are even given a freebie drunken guard who is incredibly easy to incapacitate with the blackjack, our trusty knockout weapon, so you know what you need to do right from the getgo. Or you can just take the sewer and avoid the guard entirely — anything to avoid taking on the heavily guarded front entrance.
In general, Thief also has the good fortune of being simpler, more accessible and more “modern” seeming than any Looking Glass game made prior to it. Everything in the core gameplay makes intuitive sense, given the game’s initial premise. What about having the primary mechanic of slinking into the shadows for cover, like a real thief would do? The game fully executes on that concept by having a detailed system of light and shadows painted all over the world for cover. How can you tell where guards are it in the world, and how can they tell where you are if you can’t see them? The game’s design addresses that with ultra-precise sound design that can let you know where guards are in reference to you (partially by footsteps, but also by their often quite hilariously bombastic utterances and copious insults at our hero Garrett, like calling him a “taffer”).
But you also make sound too, and that can put you in immense danger depending on what surface you’re walking on, how quickly you’re walking, and if you create other noises with your weapons. Garrett is weak and he can’t really stand to fight people or alert guards for very long before dying, so we need to be really careful playing as him.
The game may be brutally hard with its realism at times. If you alert too many guards, you can put yourself in an unwinnable situation. You might have a lack of shadow cover or a limited amount of items to use to your advantage. You might be in a place with incredibly loud floors, where not attracting other guards is incredibly difficult. But still, there are almost always ways out of a situation. There are almost always multiple pathways and secret passages as well. The game is also pretty generous about how easy it is to knock a guard out too, provided your timing is correct. Given how many guards you deal with, these all feel pretty necessary.
Every piece of the environment that is in the game for design purposes also doubles as a decision made for narrative ones as well. It’s harder to sneak in a bright mansion because of loud marble floors, heavy guards, and lots of light — but those are also places where lots of treasure and important information hides, like it would in reality! It’s much easier to jump into water and hide into dank sewers where you won’t be so easily spotted, but you’re a thief and those places are only ever a means to get somewhere else.
While every enemy in the game loudly declares their intentions to Garrett as much as possible so you can locate them, this also means you to learn more about the larger world via eavesdropping on their conversations. There’s an element of tongue-in-cheek absurdity to many of the remarks of the weary guards. Other parts of the soundscape are filled creepy atmospheric audio, sometimes blurring the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound and creating a general feeling of unease. It seems like the guards must notice these sounds too and be equally creeped out by them. They presumably have some awareness that the world they occupy too impossibly big and weird for them to fully comprehend, and they know their life is just another expendable one to serve someone else’s agenda. Their dialogue cuts through some of the darker and more self-serious elements of the game’s story and tells us important things about the world, even if it can be a bit cartoony at times.
So what the fuck is going on with this game, then? Right after Lord Bafford we get the the second mission, Cragscleft Prison, which throws zombies and spiders at our hero Garrett right from the outset like some kind of broken down Half-Life level. The zombies don’t really operate like humans at all, and can’t really be killed without holy water, or fire — something you have no way of knowing! Sure, the original game’s fairly spartan manual gives hints about it. But in no way does it spell any of this out to you in the game. And then the mission abruptly changes tone into an oddly expressionistic prison occupied by humans dressed in Hammerite garb and reciting religious phrases — a completely different character of person from the lowly grunt guards around Lord Bafford’s manor.
The third mission, “Down In The Bonehoard”, dials up the weirdness even further. Your task here is to infiltrate and steal stuff from a really trippy labyrinthine underground burial site that feels like a cross between The Water Temple in Ocarina of Time and the perilous environments of Tomb Raider, except more like a horror game. Disorienting sounds are pumped in, apparently by wealthy people with remains of relatives or other goods stored in the vaults, to scare off would-be grave robbers. Tomb Raider-esque death trips are everywhere — the map is a real tour-de-force of traps. And then there’s the Horn of Quintus, a rare treasure you’re tasked with stealing that echoes out through a cave occupied by burricks, otherwise known as weird little dinosaur creatures who belch gas at you. There are more zombies here, sitting within a bunch of connected octagonal rooms called “The Halls of Echoing Repose”. On Thief Gold, there’s even a ghost man called a “Fire Shadow” that is permanently on fire and can’t be completely killed. A whole host of strange things come together in this map. But there are no humans. Of course not. Why would there be humans?
Thief has no interest in holding your hand as a player. Its attitude is mostly just to dump you straight into the fray after a short intro cutscene and let you sort everything else out. There is also an almost manic variety of settings, from realistic to fantastical, and the way one flows into another is impossible to predict. Over time, you get used to this and the lack of context helps to make a lot of the game’s environments start to feel really memorable and singular. It always feels like the worlds you occupy in most of the missions are skittering on the edge of comprehensibility. You never quite know if you can trust your eyes about what you’re seeing or not.
In the story, the totally ridiculous and comical regularly sit right alongside the gravely serious and spooky. Genuinely impactful moments will happen in the midst of dealing with the myriad of zombies, ghosts, magical fireballs, burricks, crayfish men, and other fantastical creatures that populate this game. And maybe that doesn't make a lot of sense for a series about being a mercenary thief and stealing money from the rich to pay your rent. How absurd that you’d be forced to take so many downright silly things at face value! How ridiculous that you would be fighting a bunch of crayfish men and worrying about evil magic fireballs in this game that’s supposed to be about infiltrating buildings and stealing shit! What does this game even think that it is about?
The mood outside of the visuals feels equally at cross purposes with itself. The game often has a distinctly Gothic vibe. But Thief is not really elegant so much as it’s gaudy, blown-out, and surreal. Just as often the environments you walk into feels like they come from a surrealist painting, or from a campy old art catalog than from Gothic horror. High and low aesthetics freely mix and intermingle throughout every aspect of the game. There are very little of the muddy greys and browns of many 90’s first-person games, and we’re a world away from the blue-orange look of so much of today’s AAA game art direction. Many of the textures are incredibly over-saturated and feel almost hyper-real. It’s like they’re slathered on with several layers of paint and about to melt off at any time. Gaudy wallpaper is fucking everywhere. Texture alignment is more of a vague suggestion than anything even approaching realism.
A lot of walls in the game look like we now think Greek and Roman statues looked in their original, painted form and not their commonly remembered, spare and elegant white one. It’s kind of like these walls capture a moment of history how it actually was, filled with strange and awful aesthetics, and not how we remember it from photographs. There’s something deceptively clever about that.
Much has been made of Thief 1’s maps as well, about how they only give you limited information about the environments you’re setting foot in, and sometimes evoke more questions than they answer. This is another part of the game that feels emblematic to confusing 90’s design philosophy of just throwing you into the fray. That is, until you remember that there’s something more realistic about Thief 1’s approach when compared to Thief 2, which did away with it for much more detailed and comprehensive maps. There’s no way a thief like Garrett is going to have full knowledge of the ins and outs of the environments he’s breaking into. He’s just a petty thief; he doesn't have those kinds of connections. So having only sketchy maps makes total sense, because he’s just working with what he’s got. And so as a player you, via Garrett, come to know environments by being present in them, rather than studying the maps.
Thief 2 also did away with most of the variety, and a lot of the non-human enemies as well. This seems to makes perfect logical sense for a game that seems primarily concerned with the sanctity of its own mostly human-centered mechanics — the ones it invented. Why would it so thoroughly try and undercut that stuff by throwing a bunch of strange and disorienting things at you that seem to have nothing to do with the core idea? Why did we need all the zombies and all those magical fireballs and crayfish men anyway? What could they have conceivably done to a game with a core that works really well other than make everything feel more confused?
Perhaps the developers felt this way, too. Perhaps they introduced the fantastical and horror elements of the game because they didn't think they’d have the ability to fully focus on their core stealth concept and make it interesting enough in itself. It’s possible that they felt they needed other elements to make it more exciting to gamers at a time, and maybe the direction of Thief 1 felt like a compromise they didn't completely want to take. And Thief 2, which eliminated most of those elements and focused on that bread and butter to the expense of excising the strange and anomalous, seems like an obvious improvement.
But then why does the design of Thief 1 feel so self-aware at times, almost as if it’s making fun of its core conceit? Why does it feel like it’s operating on a completely different plane of existence than anything else similar to it? And does it even matter what the intentions of the development team might have or have not been, or how they changed over time? Nothing about this game is simple or straightforward.
Part 3: Wallpaper Reverie
The term “kitsch” is a German word that comes out of gaudy, schmaltzy, sentimental consumer-oriented artistic trinkets sold in the latter half of the 19th century. More recently has endured across the world into the contemporary era via consumer artists like Thomas Kinkade.
Robert Yang remarks in his piece on “Assassins!” about how Lord Bafford lavishes his manor in a bunch of gaudy accouterments to look more rich and powerful. He likes his gold wallpapering, or his ridiculous security gong, or his nice marble reflecting pools. No doubt this is motivated by some kind of insecurity, like the classic archetype of the balding middle-aged man who buys a Ferrari to impress younger girls. Ramirez’s manor in “Assassins!”, a few missions later, is a bit more tasteful and stripped down in design. But in Ramirez’s estate we find a note from Bafford apologizing for not paying up to Ramirez, showing that clearly Ramirez is the one with more power and resources of this relationship. This is an age where wealth and power is not so obviously indicated by lavish outward appearances, especially for those with more power and influence — there are new, more refined aesthetics taking shape.
Thief’s oddly blown-out palette not only recalls the gaudiness of ancient Rome — it calls to mind the backdrop of places like Fin de siècle Vienna at the end of the 19th century. This was a place where, in more educated circles, there was great pessimism about the opulence, cloying sentimentality, and meaninglessness permeating around bourgeois society. Kitsch was not necessarily an indicator of class, but was an indicator of bourgeois lack of taste and values, which the more cultured rich people were probably hip to distinguishing themselves away from, like Ramirez.
The connection to Vienna is perhaps even more direct than that, as Carol Reed’s classic 1949 post-WWII noir film The Third Man is mentioned in this interview by Thief artist Dan Thorn as one of the biggest inspirations for Thief’s art direction. The Third Man captures a real-life Vienna reduced to rubble, haunted by the very recent ghosts of World War II. That old kitschy Vienna started to crumble thanks to the seeds planted by modernization, driven by new movements and ideas from bohemians and intellectuals. What was once dignified and stately became a representation of a rotting empire, and a war against kitsch began. Modernism, brutalism and futurism would come attached to many different revolutionary movements that would transform the look, feel, and approach of culture. But certain other major, much more catastrophic world events would happen too. And as a direct result, Vienna lay in ruins.
Along with kitsch, perhaps we can feel a bit of the decay of a world taken in by a self-destructive promise of greater things in Thief. We can see echoes of a sense of cultural entitlement and belief in the expendability of human souls to serve an ultimately catastrophic ideal growing in both Thief 1 & 2’s worlds. This theme would certainly would move through into other immersive sims, like Bioshock, or like Prey (2017). Thief is a fictional story from a fictional time period, but both it and its sequel examine societies in flux. It’s hard to avoid pointing out Thief 2’s Mechanists more or less utilize fascist, art deco-influenced imagery from the 1920’s and have a similar interest in engineering and experimenting on humans to the Nazis. But perhaps their rationalism was birthed from the seed of subjective annihilationism of the movements who led up to that, like either the bohemians of Fin de siècle Vienna or Constantine’s Charles Manson-esque death cult of hippie paganists. Perhaps Thief 2 is to the early 20th century as Thief 1 is to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Both capture the growth of extreme “solutions” to kistchy bourgeois malaise.
But the inspirations from The Third Man permeate into the story of Thief 1 as well. Garrett, our hero, recalls Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martens. Martens is a small man who writes bad pulp novels and is perpetually in the shadow of his much greater friend, Orson Welles’s Harry Lime. Half of his screen time he appears to be totally drunk and bewildered. In both Thief and The Third Man, our protagonists are along for the ride trailing someone else’s story, while those greater men make the waves in the world outside of us that we only have a small glimpse at from our subjective viewpoint. Garrett may be a lot more composed and well-equipped than Martens, but he is similarly clueless about the big picture of events unfolding around him. Maybe the people at Looking Glass saw some affinity to Martens as well. I bet they could feel the same sense of existential dread as someone trying to make something creative within a pulpy, undignified popular medium: perhaps if Martens existed today he’d be a game designer.
Prior to stepping into the heart of darkness in “The Sword”, we see a world of petty competing factions. Like the Old Testament-esque brutality of the religious order of the Hammerites. In Cragscleft Prison we see the disposability of most human lives. Prison guards recite holy scriptures to no one in particular in an effort of self-reassurance, perhaps. Or of the various mansion-owning factions of the rich trying to one-up each other with displays of wealth and power by ordering various killings — such as the hit ordered on Garrett by Ramirez in “Assassins”. A repressive, petty oligarchy of elites in constant battle with each other and who hoard wealth and resources dominates a lot of the game. Thief Gold would add even more factions to the world (much to the dismay of many fans): the Thieves Guild, and the Wizards. The Wizards, in particular, will make grand declarations and incantations to no one in particular about how wonderful and enlightened they are. And with it a new set of names to be made by great men, fueled by the innovations of others. But their power is only piecemeal. Many places in the world are in decay and overrun with the undead or other entities — like the ancient, underground Lost City, or the more recently abandoned Old Quarter.
And then we see behind the veil and glimpse who those kinds of great really men are — like The Third Man’s Harry Lime, the charismatic, All-American man. The upstanding businessman, con man, and… mass-murderer who profits off the medical misfortunes of others. Just like our friend H.H. Holmes. The guy that dies in disgrace by the end, still young, with his twisted dreams lying in ruins, unfulfilled.
From this chaos we get the main villains of Thief 1 and 2. They represent something altogether new and different. A break from history, a totalizing force, a new kind of magic. Drastic solutions to create a world to an ideal state away from these petty warring oligarchies of rich men. But of those two, one of these feels altogether more bewildering, more disturbing, and hits deep at a primal subconscious level. Constantine is the man, or non-man, who by his very nature, embodies the embrace of subjectivity, irrationalism, and emotionalism. And Constantine’s mansion is a perfect embodiment of this everything contained in this worldview. It is a totalizing ideology made manifest. It’s deeply symbolic space of dreams, where Pandora’s Box reveals itself and we see the reflection of absolute power, self-interest, destruction, and murder on the other side. It’s to the very heart of where the emergence of fascism as a total organizing force for all society becomes manifest.
Of course because it’s a videogame made in the 1990’s, Garrett has to save the world and defeat the bad guy in the end. And so he does.
Many classic PC games are known for having legendarily bad endings. Thief is certainly no exception to that, but I’m not really sure why that is. Perhaps the development team overscoped on their project and didn't put much thought into how they would end the game. With many games from that era, however, I think it’s often something much more fundamental. A lot of games in the 90’s started to introduce critiques and narrative elements that could broadly described as anti-establishment. But very few were able to escape the conceit of being, at the end of the day, an escapist fantasy that wasn't able to say anything totally coherent outside of that role. The increasing self-awareness of games as a form did not preclude them from still having trouble conceptualizing themselves outside of being “games” that are supposed to be “fun” and inherently not venues to offer deeper critiques, especially if they challenged that fun somewhere down the line.
Thief falls into this same trap to the point where, to be honest, maybe it’s all a bit Harry Potter in the end to be taken very seriously. The game drops off drastically in quality in its last few missions, and its conclusion feels stunningly anti-climatic given everything that has happened up to that point. The story doubles down on the generic fantasy lore, severely undercutting the understated sense of magical realism the actual environments create. Constantine in particular just becomes the vague fantasy archetype of “The Trickster” instead of a fleshed-out person, where he could have actually been much more terrifying figure and said much more about the world of the game. His paganists don’t come off well at all — they feel straight from a reactionary fantasy. This idea of the brutal, chaotic pleasure-seeking savage who lives by values other than those of polite society is routinely used to smear and target persecuted groups of people across the globe. Plus it’s sort of the opposite of what his actual mansion communicates. Without giving him more of a specific grounding in reality, the game verges on pushing itself into some incredibly lazy territory. And to contrast with that vagueness, we’re given explanations for a lot of things that shouldn't have ever been explained at all in the story, for a game previously remarkable in how much it keeps behind the curtain.
Thief just isn't severed by generic fantasy tropes — it’s served by an internal sense of realism, even when things get totally ridiculous. When the game prepares you to read its experience one way, and then it makes a complete 180 towards generic videogame methods for resolving a story, it feels like total whiplash. It doesn't help that the last several missions feel incredibly rushed in comparison to early missions.
I guess you could be generous and say the game hints at something more horrifying and strange in the ending in how the world of its systems just totally break down. There are glimpses at some kind of chaotic destruction looming on the horizon for the tightly controlled, hermetically sealed environments we've slowly trekked through. But it just doesn't play out so well in execution, where it feels more like a bad Saturday morning cartoon, or like an anime series gone off the rails. It’s almost laughable. And it makes it hard to even go back to the world of Thief, which is pretty incredible for most of its duration, without wanting to wipe the entire slate clean. That could be why this world never really has been returned to in the same form, which is a real tragedy.
Thief Gold, a later re-release and the one that is sold on all digital storefronts now, would make some great additions (the fabulous mission “Song of The Caverns” and an extra area to Constantine’s mansion) and some abysmal ones (the truly mind-numbing “Thieves Guild” mission that makes no sense from a narrative or world design perspective, and the addition of the goofy wizard characters in a couple missions). It’s questionable if Thief Gold really adds anything but more bloat to the thrust of the game’s narrative at all, even with the good missions. But given how much the story falls apart by the end, it’s probably for the best to at least get some more fun in before it all comes crashing down. It is recommended if you play Thief Gold, that you skip the Thieves Guild entirely and save yourself several hours of frustration. This can be done very easily via cheats.
We tend to view the progression of many commercial games away from the absurdity and subjectivity of a game like Thief and its totally self-destructive ending into the more rational territory of Thief 2 as a natural one. But I really wonder about whether we actually moved anywhere at all. 1998 was a monster year for games. By far the most well-known release of November of that year was certainly not Thief: The Dark Project, but The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released November 21st, a game that many still refer to as the best videogame of all time. Ocarina has a lot of the abstract, strange, and disorienting environments of Thief, and it had a magical sense of subjectivity to its story as well. It also had a strange, foreboding melancholy embedded within its mostly kid-friendly story that seems to cut beyond the generally more conservative approach Nintendo takes to game storytelling.
At the end, though, both are just narratives about saving the world. But both Ocarina and Thief are very much engaged in an intense internal struggle over trying to be a fun empowering videogame fantasy world and say something else. You can feel the struggle within them. Their worlds go through a lot of change, and parts of the change they undergo feels irreversible in some ways. Maybe that’s what makes them feel so disingenuous — they were never really able evolve further beyond that, and they knew it.
But it’s not like we've evolved much further at all in the struggle for deeper meaning in the past 20 years anyway. The videogame industry increasingly would leave the self-reflective melancholy of those two titles behind and become subsumed into an increasingly aggressive pro-military, pro-establishment spirit in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Fantastical settings would often become replaced by real-life battlegrounds. Then, digital content distribution would change a great deal about videogames. But these issues of fun escapism vs. deeper meaning never really went away at all, in spite of all the changes in style and technology. We’re still struggling as much as we've ever been.
There is just something much more immediate going on in a game like Thief beneath the surface here that is not captured by invoking the “nostalgia” of a bygone era, or by talking about its innovations and future influence on other titles, like so many voices in games will spout off unthinkingly. Sometimes I wonder if the designers of a game like Thief were all a little ashamed at how close they got to getting to some uncomfortable realizations about the role of their work and their industry, and eventually backed away from it.
Perhaps they saw too many parallels between their work and the reality around them for comfort. So they tried to put that cognitive dissonance aside and change with the times. They threw themselves back into technology, and they bought into the wildest dreams sold to them by the tech industry. They saw themselves as scientists and engineers. They followed all the new voices and trends they were supposed to, and put that into their work. Maybe they got their chance to construct their own dream game engines with nice innovative new shiny features, and tried to port their experiences to be accessible to more people. Or they tried to be ambassadors for their medium, to speak for the industry at large, to get people on board with new technologies, and not rock the boat too much anymore.
Maybe that’s how we ended up with stuff like Deus Ex: Invisible War, a total miscalculation of everything that worked about its gloriously clunky and resilient predecessor sacrificed for the sake of elegance and accessibility. Perhaps Thief 2’s elegance and mechanical focus, even if it wasn't nearly as extreme a deviation from its predecessor, was a bit of harbinger for all of that. Or maybe that’s reading too much into it.
But it doesn't really matter either way. Now the technology has caught up to all of us, and the bright future new tech was supposed to offer us all has been totally hollowed out and commodified in every conceivable way by private corporate interests and dark money. Now technology looks a lot more terrifying with every passing moment. And the tech industry looks like it’s filled by megalomaniacal supervillains who are obsessed with immortality, afraid of sentient robots, and want to colonize Mars, while doing everything in their power to make sure their own workers have no benefits or real power. What the fuck happened?
At the very least, I can tell you that playing Thief 1 for the first time in 2018 made me call into question even my most basic assumptions I had about the progression of design practices over the years. At the end of the day, Thief 1 feels like a subversion of its more straightforward and comprehensible sequel that came after. And it’s not for any one obvious reason, but for about a hundred less obvious and hard-to-express ones. Thief is absolutely, 100%, a game you should still play today. Granted, Thief 2 is still basically the same game about stealing from ruthless rich people. It still has the same core gameplay, and still covers many of the same kinds of themes. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. But it feels like a much more obvious and surface-level implementation of everything it tries and far less of a dive into the unknown compared to what preceded it.
I mean, how does that even work? How does your past self challenge your future self without knowing what your future self has done? How can a game like Thief move beyond the immersive sim genre it helped establish and appear to try to salt the earth behind it in a way it really shouldn't be able to? How do even the designers not seem to quite understand the nature of what was going on with the game they made or know how to recreate it since?
Maybe there is something positive we could take from the ending of Thief 1 after all. At least, maybe our man Garrett is the one to save the world. He doesn't try to put on an act and play the tough guy like Holly Martins poorly pretends to do in The Third Man. Garrett is a hero by virtue of not being much of a hero at all. He doesn't desire that much or really seek power, though he’s skeptical and not easily swayed to believe in one big idea or another. Unlike Link in Zelda: Ocarina of Time, he’s not a moral center of the universe. Link is a Great Man with a destiny and he struggles within that. Garrett may be a skilled thief, but he really is just some guy who wants to stay alive and pay the rent at the end of the day. In a world gone totally mad, being a person who just wants to survive, with no predetermined destiny or interest in greatness feels like one of the sanest things you could do.
I think most of us are a bit like Garrett: not sure what we've stumbled into or how we got here at all, but we’re here nonetheless. We’re left from this journey far more confused than where we started, reeling at the eerie grotesqueness of reality beneath the seams. Thief doesn't portend to have the grand ambitions of its cousin Deus Ex beyond its novel stealth mechanics. It’s a limited game. It doesn't try and answer the big questions it brings attention to, because Garrett doesn't try to either.
But the keys to something much deeper are nonetheless still there, hidden somewhere beneath the surface. They’ll certainly remain there for another twenty years, as long as the game can still be played. And if we can’t keep returning to look for them, and take them off the hands of those who hoard them, as Garrett does… then we’ll just be waiting for more Constantines to do it all for us.
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