E3 Thief 4 Gameplay Demo Analysis

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[Originally Posted on Gather Your Party at 01 Jul 2013]

Introduction

The Thief franchise holds a special place in video game history, starting with the most unlikely of games: Castle Wolfenstein.

Yes, Castle Wolfenstein, a stealth action-adventure shooter for the Apple II, DOS, Atari and C64 developed by Silas Warner and released in 1981, was one of the main inspirations behind the Thief franchise. The second ingredient is certainly less obscure but also far stranger in association: Diablo by Blizzard Entertainment.

Thief’s heritage and legacy is a complex story that spans three companies, three genres and three legends of game design. The Thief franchise, excellent in its own right, is an essential link in the chain of events that gave us what I consider the messiah of video games: Deus Ex. Let’s look at the diagram below detailing the connections between the most acclaimed and most revered franchises of the mid and late 90s.
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At inception, Wolfenstein 3D was to continue the tradition of Castle Wolfenstein, creating a stealth-action game with an innovative stealth system that supported dragging bodies, swapping uniforms and silent attacks to knock out enemies. These concepts were scrapped as it was feared that they would complicate controls too much and slow the game to a crawl. Ultimately, Wolfenstein 3D was developed in the form we all know today and it would define a whole genre: the first-person shooter.

System Shock was largely inspired and designed as a science-fiction equivalent to the RPG Ultima Underworld, except now with laserguns and grenades rather than swords and sorcery.

Doug Church and his team initially were inspired by the atmosphere of Diablo and the gameplay of Castle Wolfenstein, and their experience with titles like Ultima Underworld and System Shock led them to create a prototype much closer to an RPG than a first-person stealth game. This prototype was called Dark Camelot and could best be described as very close to the idea of The Elder Scrolls, with an open world, complex sword combat, factions, stats and levels. However, during development this idea was scrapped and only the stealth-system was used in what we now know as Thief: The Dark Project.

Thief fits its place in the trinity of RPG-Stealth-Action so well because it is a pure form of what later would be incorporated into Deus Ex as but an element of the game. Thief isn’t a genre-mix; it is a pure stealth game. It always was. Combat was not some sort of out-of-jail-free card. The strength of Thief was its uncompromising approach to challenge through the core concept of not being seen. It was even pitched as a game about an “invisible man”. There never was an option between stealth, full out bloodbath or a mix of both. In short, Thief is not Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, nor is it Dishonored or Hitman.

It has to be said here that while I (jokingly) remarked that Deus Ex was the messiah of video games, I do not think it is in any way, shape or form superior to Thief. Thief is a separate franchise that excels at what it does, and it is an absolutely excellent game. I would not want Thief to become Deus Ex.

The simulation in Thief: The Dark Project, its design, was intimately interested in “drawing out the space in between being safe and being caught” (Doug Church). The game tried to achieve this by having an emphasis on simulating environments and letting the player complete them through emergent gameplay. The main feature of the Thief franchise was environment manipulation; it wasn’t about overcoming an enemy but rather the terrain and topology of the environment. Light was your enemy and so was sound; moving on cold granite was louder than moving on a carpet, a brazier in the room created a sphere of danger and the difference between closing a door or leaving it open could mean detection and discovery. Furthermore, Thief is reliant on the perception of the player himself, gauging a situation and adapting to it as best you could.

To help the player in this pursuit, the game gives Garrett, the protagonist, the tools to manipulate and create openings for himself. Water Arrows can extinguish fire-based light sources, Moss Arrows can create soft surfaces to tread silently and Rope Arrows let him scale heights. Other tools like Noisemaker Arrows can be used to distract guards or misdirect their attention, Gas Arrows can choke or block line of sight and Fire Arrows can be used to deal massive damage or relight fire-based light sources. Many other consumable utilities like flash bombs, potions and lockpicks also existed to aid Garrett.

The AI had simulated senses like vision depending on lighting, as well as hearing, and would pick up on your footsteps or objects that fall to the ground and make noise. It behaved depending on what happened during gameplay, with phases for detection, discovery, and searching.

The only major differences between Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age were improved level design, the Vine Arrow and the addition of the Remote Eye consumable that allowed Garrett to throw it and gain vision in the area it landed. Otherwise, the gameplay was left intact but rebalanced with more AI behaviors and more consistent environments featuring less supernatural monsters. Finally, in Thief: Deadly Shadows…well, we don’t talk about Thief 3: Deadly Shadows. Garrett as a character in Thief never grows any more powerful, the game does become more challenging and your avatar never gains any new abilities. It is the player that is in control here; Garrett is already a Master Thief, trained by the The Keepers to the limits of his abilities.

I have spent quite a while talking about the history and mechanics of Thief here, for the sake of establishing a baseline for the franchise. There is much more to say about Thief’s mechanical intricacies, story, world and the main character Garrett, but it would exceed the purpose of this article.

The Analysis Proper

[Annotation, I have specifically selected this shorter video due to the commentary. There is a longer video available that I will discuss elements from further below.]

The featured gameplay starts with Garrett trying to get into a large mansion to steal a gem, and we start already loaded into the map and perching on stone pillar. This is unfortunate as it skips over showing us the planning phase. Thief 1 and 2 both had planning phases in which the player was able to purchase consumables, get a briefing, look at a vague, hand-drawn map of the location and generally prepare for the challenge ahead. It would have been nice to see how, or if, this planning phase exists and which form it takes.

The second thing we notice is that Thief 4 now uses a radial menu, a modern design sensibility popularized on console, instead of quickslots. The selection shows us a few arrow types like Flame, Rope, Water, lethal and one I can’t really place by its icon, possibly “more lethal”.

Additionally, the activation of the radial menu conveys a slow-motion effect, which is a curious design-choice considering it removes the responsibility for timing and reacting to emergent openings. One can imagine sitting in slow-motion while assessing the situation and deciding what course of action to take, instead of being forced to accept and quickly react to the consequence of a misstep.

Looking at the UI, in the lower left corner of the screen we can see the Light Gem, a staple of the franchise indicating exposure to light. In the previous Thief games, this element faded gradually depending on the exposure you were experiencing. The brighter the gem, the more light you were exposed to and the more visible you were. Looking at the situation here, Garrett is seemingly getting full exposure, indicated by a bright white Light Gem and when he shoots the Brazier with a Water Arrow, the Light Gem goes entirely dark.

The interesting thing to note here is that, in addition to the Light Gem, the screen also becomes darker and features a black, foggy vignette obscuring a large portion of the screen. A very dubious design-choice as we already have an UI element to indicate light exposure. The effect is quite distracting, especially when combined with Garrett’s floating hands that also take up a portion of the screen-space and obscure the view. I also don’t understand why they need to be visible all the time and why Garrett keeps fondling anything he gets close to.

The next difference in the UI are markers on the corner of the screen indicating the direction of nearby guards, as well as their status indicated over their heads. In the original Thief games, the phases and enemy status were only indicated by the verbal announcements they made, as well as footsteps. Sound was very important and the player was required to listen to the ambiance and interpret what they heard. An interesting question here is how sound propagates in this new iteration. In the longer, full, stage demo (linked at the bottom) the developer mentions that surfaces still create different sounds like in the original Thief games. In the stage demo, standing next to the waterfall I can not hear the footsteps of the guards, nor can I hear mine. Does that mean that the guards will also not hear those footsteps? The question is simply how sophisticated the simulation is.

Next in the stage demo, we see sound (footsteps) being made visible by the focus mechanic, which essentially invalidates the need for any sort of perception from the player.

After the guard has passed below Garrett’s position, a prompt appears to perform a “takedown”, which consists of Garrett jumping down off the ledge in a cinematic third person perspective, and playing out an animation of knocking the guard unconscious. The original Thief certainly featured several ways to take out opponents — a “takedown” among others was possible — but this was predicated on the skill and timing of the player alone instead of a button prompt.

It is at this point where the developer mentions how they are blending stealth and action, something that, as I have specifically mentioned above, was never the purpose of the Thief franchise.

The developer states how the first Thief game was about trial and error, and it is here that I realize that none of them have ever actually played the games. Thief was never about trial and error, it was about strategy. It was not about reacting to arbitrary events; everything was controllable and in the hands of the player. It was undoubtedly challenging but not random or arbitrary. Guards behaved very similarly to Metal Gear Solid and I would like them to try and level this type of (stupid) critique against Kojima.,

The developer then goes on to say that they want to protect you when something bad happens. This means that the responsibility for the player’s actions is removed from him and his actions become meaningless entertainment without consequences. After all, why should the player worry and experience the aforementioned tension between being safe and being caught, if all his decisions have a safety net when caught.

A minute later we see the next mechanic in action: Focus; it seems to highlight enemy weak points and slow down time. This time, we see Garrett taking out a guard with an arrow to the head, which is immediately announced as a “Headshot” by the UI and awards the player 40XP (experience). What or if the experience is used for something is unknown at this point, although the stage demo commentary mentions a ranking system. I really hope that this is true and that there will be no “leveling up” of Garrett. It would invalidate Thief’s philosophy, pitting the player against challenges instead of being an already versatile avatar.

A few minutes later, the developer mentions how the game will adapt to your gameplay-choice. Well, what a surprise. Thief was originally the complete opposite of that. In the Thief franchise, the player adapts to the environment, he adapts his strategies and his approaches depending on what the environment demands. The game does not grant him the freedom to do what he wants.That’s not Thief, that’s Deus Ex. The Thief franchise fits into a small niche that is currently not occupied, the first-person stealth strategy-game. With this reboot, it seems that the niche has been entirely emptied.

Next we see how the actual detection looks. Unsurprisingly, the player kills two of the three guards using the focus mechanic and then gets killed, largely due to his own incompetence, by the third. The reasons why the third guard, who was behind him from the start, wasn’t massacring him during the fight with the guards in front of him is a mystery.

Lets see how a similar fight against two guards looks in Thief: The Dark Project.

Yes, that went rather badly.

When looking back at the gameplay demo, one can see that the fight is made to be “fair”. The guards seem to be very quick at reacting and running to the scene but are very slow at attacking, clearly taking turns in between attacks and never attacking at the same time. It gives the player ample time to parry, riposte or attack, even without Focus. This would clearly not be possible in the original Thief games because these games weren’t interested in making combat fair; combat was supposed to be unfair by default.

The combat in Thief wasn’t impossible, but it was something to be feared, especially when cornered or against multiple opponents. It was there to create tension that detection is likely going to result in your death and failure. And of course, some levels even restricted the use of violence altogether. To that end, try fighting three heavily armed guards, trained to kill people for a living. Come back and tell me if it’s fair.

By now. I’m sure you noticed that the Light Gem reacts strangely and only seems to indicate a binary “on/off” state. At first I chalked this up to the level design, but the more I watched the more concerned I became. I never saw the Light Gem actually function as a gradient to indicate exposure but only alternate between dark and light, leading me to believe the Light Gem is no longer responsive to gradient light-levels. [Around 10:00 Garrett runs past a lantern, clearly fully illuminated, but never leaves the “hidden” state.]

I was especially confused when the indicator stayed dark and the fog-vignette indicated being in total darkness when visually the environment seemed brightly illuminated. This can be a simple UI oversight or a mechanical change to make it easier for the player to understand when he is hidden and when he is visible. If it is the latter, it seems a very primitive way to handle stealth in a franchise that was first and foremost praised for its more complex light simulation in 1998. So far, its zero steps forward and six steps back.

Later during the stage demo, the player runs into a situation where he is escaping guards and Garrett seems to be using some kind of climbing assistance not dissimilar to the Thief: Deadly Shadows wall-climb claws. However, as I said, we do not talk about Thief 3 around here.

When using the Rope Arrow, the player can now see surfaces that he can attach the arrows to, and similarly the focus mechanic seems to also indicate items, points of attachment, and breakable surfaces. It is strange that both give the same result, so why have this indicator if Focus already does that job? In the end, its another way to make the game easier and remove the requirement of perception from the player.

Towards the end of the stage demo, we see a new UI popup after Garrett climbs through the window. An objective description appears and provides a hint: “Check the library for clues”. Unfortunately, the demo ends here and we do not get to see any further gameplay. Only a verbal explanation. If the gameplay so far is any indicator, that is probably how all the missions will play out: leading you by the hand to the objective.

Judging from the stage demo, the approach in design is diametrically opposed to what a stealth game should be. That being facilitating challenge through adaptation and strategy. Instead, what we have with Thief 4 is seemingly Deus Ex in medieval times, where the player can choose a play-style and always win because the game will allow for it. The initial spirit of the game to “extend the space between safety and detection” is now entirely lost to simpler stealth mechanics and largely de-fanged combat.

The line often repeated throughout both the videos is that you can turn all these options off and play the game like any other Thief game. While I’m highly skeptical about if this is even feasible, my question then is why was the game not designed the other way around? Why do we have to turn off Garrett’s Little Helper mode so we can play the proper game? Why isn’t the game designed as a Thief game first, but with a “casual mode” option if you think its too difficult?

Or better yet, why not just make a Thief game that isn’t Dishonored with Water Arrows, and design it to fulfill its purpose without compromise. Other games do that already. Dark Souls was never interested in optionally being a turn-based RPG. That’s why its experience will always be more coherent and fulfilling.

Now that the Thief niche is empty, we need someone to fill it because I don’t want to see first-person stealth go the way of the Dodo as a genre.

(Full stage demo.)

[If you want to see Warren Spector and Doug Church talk about Deus Ex and Thief for 45 minutes, click this link. I am almost certain that the developers for Thief 4 never watched this video.]

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