Thief is far from an abysmal game, but the things it gets right only serve to highlight glaring issues elsewhere. Instead of the player thinking “Wow, this is good.” the player thinks “Why can’t the game always be this good?” Thief does itself no favors in this regard. If it presented itself as a scrappy little upstart with a few great parts we all might’ve been more inclined toward forgiveness, but the game’s tone spurns such charity. Thief insists upon itself, presenting itself as a much better game than it is, and laying mediocre gameplay at our feet with the all misguided good intentions of a dog giving presenting its master with a dead rodent.
To start, Thief’s writing is hopelessly self-serious, delivering Crackling Dialogue like “You filthy rat. I’m gonna kill you.” and “We’re not so different, you and I.” and “Eel-biters will make a purse out of my hammer pouch.”
But it isn’t all bad writing. There’s a point in the asylum level where you have to use light to battle Morlock-like enemies that proved a fascinating inversion of the game’s usual stealth mechanics, or would have if the game’s mechanics weren’t so flawed as to strip it of any pleasure. There’s nothing quite so exquisitely disappointing as the point in a bad game where “Oh, this is new and interesting” is immediately followed by “Oh, but they did a crappy job.” and “Oh yeah, I see how this is supposed to work—I mean, it doesn’t, but I see how it would, had someone competent been in charge.”
At the end of each story mission, Thief presents stats and grades you based on how stealthy, predatory, or opportunistic your play style was, but in most cases they were options I didn’t feel like I had. I often had the experience of sneaking into a door or air duct and believing I’d successfully eluded a guard and was making progress, only to find I’d really just discovered a dead end with a few trinkets in it. I’d have to retrace my steps to try to get past the guard again.
Encountering such dead ends wouldn’t have been so dispiriting if they contained anything interesting, but the the thievery in Thief is boring. Disabling traps is fun, but looking through six empty drawers to find one inkwell worth a pittance isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Stealing should feel forbidden and transgressive. You should feel like you’re rifling through the lives of a diverse and bizarre populace, but the inhabitants of Thief‘s city, The City, are interchangeable. You’re constantly overhearing conversations exchanged by guards or trickling out of windows, but they’re never interesting.
In Dishonored the emptiness of streets in a city that’s supposed to have a massive population is explained by the presence of the plague and a strictly enforced curfew, but Thief clearly intended to have a much greater populace, and was forced reduce its NPCs. There are scenes where street preachers frantically proselytize to an audience of two. There’s much talk of “The Gloom,” but they never explain what it is, it’s symptoms, or how it effects people. You encounter plague victims, but they’re just a part of the landscape, as inert and unremarkable as mailboxes. There is no sense of what the city was like before the Gloom struck, or how such a profound blight has changed it. The concept art deployed during load screens appears much more interesting than what actually made it into the game, as if as the designers are serving it up to us as a consolation prize. The load screens depict scenes of riot and upheaval, scenes that never make it into the game.
At least Thief’s story did get better as I played. It was not just the result of my steadily diminishing expectations, though I’m sure those helped. When Garret, the main character, begins reconnecting with Erin, a fellow thief he thought he’d lost, we’re treated to an arresting portrait of mental illness—however, this represents a problem. Erin happens to be a both a lady and crazy, and the still largely male-dominated realm of video game development has a very checkered history regarding its portrayal of lady crazy. If Erin was male, I know I would probably feel much less empathy towards her mental anguish. Women suffering from mental problems tend to inspire sympathy. Men suffering from mental problems tend to inspire fear.
There’s a very good reason for this. Men experiencing mental health issues are far more likely to direct their problems outward in erratic behavior that endangers themselves and others, while women are more likely to direct their torment inward and crawl off into a corner to suffer. This cultural bias has allowed men to reap the benefits of socially accepted mental disorders like narcissism and megalomania, but it also discourages us from seeking constructive help for our problems. This Walk It Off mentality means that anger and sadness isn’t regarded as a problem to be addressed in the male community, but something that should be channeled into becoming a captain of industry, or a backyard wrestler with a small but loyal following on YouTube. Women also have their own gauntlet of garbage to wade through, and asking for help often puts them at risk of having their problems idiotically dismissed as feminine weakness or hysteria, but when it comes to media portrayals, we’re still more likely to empathize with them. It’s crude, it’s manipulative, but it works: Erin’s madness in Thief is powerful, even a little moving. It’s certainly worthy of a better game.
Thief is not a good game, but I don’t regret playing it all the way to the end. I experienced occasional glimmers of quality, dim shades of design ingenuity and technical virtuosity that haunt Thief like ghosts of the game it could have been, their eldritch presence imbuing it with the kind of genuine melancholy that the game’s broken-down portrayal of a gloom-infested, faux-steampunk city never manages to successfully convey. The burning bridge section is great. The hallucination sections are great, even if they seemed a lot like those in Condemned 2: Bloodshot. The section in the underground library is great, and I’d really like to know if it was inspired by the library in the film In The Name of the Rose, as I suspect it was. (If you haven’t seen In The Name of the Rose it’s great, it features Sean Connery as a Franciscan monk, F. Murray Abraham as a Dominican monk, and Christian Slater’s bare ass.) However, for all that, those who feel enticed by Thief would be much better served going back and playing Dishonored again. Having played Thief to its conclusion, I am certain now, more than ever, that Dishonored is an excellent game.
The burning bridge part was really great, though.