Thief: tense narrative through level design and mechanics
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Recently, I've had the chance to showcase my analytical work and poster on Thief: The Dark Project at the 2017 Game Developers Conference as part of the Game Narrative Review Competition, in which I was named a Gold Winner. Essentially, what I did is that I fully expounded to attendees the ludonarrative nuances and elements that made Looking Glass's magnum opus (and my favorite game of all time) such a consummate example of environmental storytelling.
In this article, I shall provide an extensive description of the ways Thief manages to captivate the active participant with its level design and mechanics. The following paragraphs are derived from the paper I submitted for the contest:
Set in a steampunk metropolis dubbed “the City,” Thief: The Dark Project puts players in the shoes of Garrett, a witty and highly disciplined master thief. After proving his abilities by stealing priceless artifacts and escaping an assassination attempt by a crime lord, Garrett is offered a fortune to retrieve a mysterious artifact known as the Eye. As he gathers the talismans necessary to access the haunted cathedral harboring this mystical relic, Garrett becomes embroiled in a conflict between the City’s two major warring factions, the technocratic Order of the Hammer and the nature-worshipping Pagans.
As one of the first games to embrace the “immersive sim” philosophy of player agency, Thief uses its backstory and setting to create a subtle but effective dialog between the player and the environment. This is accomplished by allowing the player the freedom to uncover the story on their own initiative, and through detailed level design that accentuates the player’s sense of vulnerability to create a palpable environmental narrative that complements the game mechanics.
Thief sets the mood for each of its sixteen levels through cinematics that combine Garrett’s explanation of his situation, cryptic quotations and a map of the relevant locale that acts as an important world-building element. Maps for abandoned places such as the Old Quarter and Lost City are somewhat sketchy and crude owing to their lack of human activity, whereas populated locations such as the Hammer Temple have explicit labels indicating points of interest.
Regardless of detail, these maps only serve as general guides. It is ultimately up to the player to carve out their own path by scouting out the mission area, circumventing conspicuous entry points that are blocked by hostile NPCs and/or environmental hazards, and navigating critical mission areas in search of loot and objects of interest before escaping. This design strategy reinforces the player’s sense of tense immersion without resorting to extensive dialog to communicate the danger and lore of each level.
The contextualized placement of interactive items also helps reveal character and story through the environment, compelling the player to discover for themselves the location of loot and information. In Ramirez’s manor, for example, the player comes across multiple rooms to explore. Using common sense and their insight on the level layout, the player might think that little to no gold would be found in spaces such as the cellar. But in that one room, Garrett will come across the mansion’s owner counting his loot judging from a conversation between two servants the player may have overheard earlier. The Thieves’ Guild is another good example of important items being placed according to the narrative, with the peculiar location of a priceless vase in a safe hidden behind a banner highlighting the paranoia and strife of the two bandit leaders calling the shots. Aside from the opening cut scene expounding this conflict, all of the information the player needs to acquire the vase is obtainable through eavesdropping on NPC conversations as well as collecting notes scattered in the level.
This symbiosis of improvisational exploration and environmental storytelling means that the player’s success hinges on their desire and ability to uncover the backstory of the level and the City as a whole. Letting players uncover the world for themselves makes them feel like they’re accruing knowledge they’re not meant to stumble upon, resulting in the same rush they would get from finding a shortcut to circumvent guards. All of this is possible thanks to how gameplay necessities sync with the reality of the game’s locales, enhancing the City’s sense of place and the player’s absorption of the environmental details without the need for contrivances such as conspicuous quest markers or dynamic mini-maps.
The City, in particular, benefits greatly from subtle world-building and scene-setting that broaden the player’s worldview without spoon-feeding them. Despite being a linear game, Thief provides the player with a portrait of a rich, detailed universe that lies beyond the levels’ boundaries. For instance, the player can overhear a conversation between two guards outside Bafford's manor arguing about going to the bear pits. One guard insists it’s entertaining because the bears don spikes that make them vicious, while the other is old enough to remember when bears didn't need that kind of equipment.
This mix of pure scene-setting pieces, like notes about how to prepare dinner and ledgers of illegal payments, and gameplay-relevant information, such as a tip describing the incompetence of certain guards that alerts Garrett to potential exploitation of their demeanor, means that Thief strikes a fine balance between gameplay and environment storytelling by leveraging its lore to not only bolster the player’s worldview, but also apprise them of potentially beneficial information on points and items of interest that will compel them to explore every nook and cranny in the game.
The levels’ structure also highlights the sense of danger and uneasy emotional involvement that the player subconsciously feels as it's being fed back into the player-environment dialog. Water, for instance, serves as a boundary between the game's safe and hazardous spaces. Locations such as Cragscleft Prison and the Opera House require Garrett to swim through water, emphasizing that the player is entering a high-risk area. This design technique of establishing a motif of impending danger becomes especially noticeable in the second act, from stealing Constantine’s sword to retrieving the Eye in the haunted cathedral using the talismans found in the Opera House, Mage Towers, Lost City and Hammerite Temple, which gradually contrasts the natural and paranormal threats with the City’s technological prevalence to which the player has previously been exposed.
The same can be said of the rift in structural layout between rich and poor areas, which underlines the idea that power and technology are meant to be feared. The variety of surface materials Garrett can step on, from damp dirt to solid tiles, makes the player more confident in shabbier areas such as city streets and ruins, and more fretful in rich or high-security locales such as prisons and mansions with their noisier surfaces and narrower corridors, forcing the player to devise new strategies to evade their physically and numerically advantageous foes. Likewise, the use of torches that can be extinguished with a water arrow in downtrodden areas and lamps that can’t be deactivated in wealthy ones emphasizes the progress the player is making through the game from an environmental standpoint.
This, in turn, opens the door to twists and turns that can highlight the daunting nature of the game’s locales and the core pillar of subterfuge that defines much of Thief’s gameplay and emotional tension, such as the Eye locking the haunted cathedral’s doors behind Garrett upon entering it and retrieving the artifact, and narrowing the gap in knowledge between the player and their avatar. The sense of vulnerability stemming from not knowing what exactly awaits the master thief can also impact the briefing information the player and Garrett possess upon being dropped into a level.
The sound design also alerts the player to their situation. For instance, once they reach the chapel at the top of Cragscleft Prison, Hammerite chants are overheard in the background, highlighting the building’s sanctity and level of security. Likewise, a riotous tune lets the player know they’ve infiltrated the heavily guarded Thieves’ Guild, and a looping melody imparts a sense of relief upon reaching the sword room in Constantine’s manor. The same can be said of the abandoned and rural areas in the game such as the Lost City, Bonehoard and Old Quarter, where the game’s atmospherically paranormal elements crop up. Regardless of where the player goes, the feeling of danger in populous and ruined areas serves to reinforce the theme of nature in decline vs. technology on the rise. By using the soundscape to communicate the precarious shifts in danger, Thief lets the player know that either technological evil or natural hostility can lurk around every corner.
Thief grants the player freedom of movement by making them nimble, but also encourages stealth by making them physically weak. This mechanic affects the narrative from both a player and environmental standpoint. As an embodiment of Garrett, the player experiences a sense of exposure and peril in a hazardous world filled with enemies who greatly outnumber him. From the environmental perspective, that emotional involvement enhances the theme of nature vs. technology. The uncertainty of how scenarios will play out due to the enemies’ advantages and Garrett’s weaknesses emphasizes the importance of information-gathering, which bolsters the sense of player agency while preserving the tension of the story.
Thief’s greatest strength is its use of subtle foreshadowing to mete out critical bits of exposition. The quotations in the cinematics are a good example. While many of these are pure scene-setting, such as the Hammerite and Keeper quotes that flesh out their beliefs, others, such as those pertaining to the Pagans and the Trickster, hint at story events that will later prove to bear terrible fruit. This foreshadowing pays off at the game’s major turning point: Garrett’s betrayal at the hands of Viktoria and Constantine upon retrieving the Eye. This event triggers Thief’s third and most intense act, in which the Pagans attempt to open a portal to the Maw of Chaos in hopes of restoring the City to nature. This scheme is intimated by the surprising amount of vegetation in Constantine’s mansion which, given the City’s segregation of nature and technology, a perceptive player may find incongruous. In addition, several documents, such as a letter that can be found in a crime lord’s accounting vault, hint at locations and characters that may prove important later in the game. The seamless integration of these hints encourages inquisitiveness, tangibly investing the player into the story.
Thief falls short in its overreliance on underdeveloped paranormal elements, such as ghostly specters and the undead, in sparsely populated missions that don’t involve burglary. Although effective at bolstering the game’s oppressive atmosphere, these entities are mechanically incongruous. Their relatively predictable AI reduces the risk of getting caught or killed, discouraging exploration and diluting the player’s emotional involvement. This shortcoming could have been avoided by rebalancing the behavior of the paranormal entities to more closely match the threat posed by the human opponents, or simply removing them from the story altogether.
Of all the locales Garrett visits, Constantine’s mansion stands out. Its clever use of environmental storytelling and level design toys with the emotions of the player more potently than any other part of the game.
By the time players begin the mission dubbed “The Sword,” they will believe they have developed a good understanding of the tactics required to infiltrate well-guarded establishments, sharing Garrett’s confidence in his ability to plunder the mansion. However, the associated map challenges the player's initially optimistic mindset. Although the front of the mansion is clearly labeled, the back is left blank, owing to its recently built nature and Garrett’s reliance on observation and hearsay to get a rough idea of the layout.
As the player ventures into the mansion, the disorientation increases. The back of the estate contains cavernous tunnels full of foliage, rooms that spiral, tilt and go upside down, and magical booby traps, enhanced by haunting ambient sounds. At the moment the player gets their hands on the sword, they discover that their client was none other than Constantine himself, now revealed as a manipulative and potentially dangerous character.
The lack of expository dialog on the strangeness of the mansion or its twisted occupant enabled the designers to evoke a specific emotional effect essential to the impact of the story: stupefaction. This scene exemplifies Thief’s commitment to letting the player uncover the game’s story through exploration, with little or no handholding.
Use exposition subtly to present world-building elements: As a way of compelling the player to search for details that will broaden their worldview and gameplay knowledge, Thief cleverly mixes expository information with pure scene-setting elements that flesh out the game’s locales and characters. For example, the design of Constantine’s mansion slyly apprises players of dramatic possibilities, making their discovery all the more impactful as they materialize.
Set the tone for each level and design them in a way that communicates progress: In addition to the objects and characters that provide gameplay and narrative information, designers should consider the theme and mood of each mission to communicate their level of challenge and adjust the player’s expectations. From using water and sound design as spatial barriers, to populating the levels with different light sources, corridors and surface materials to reinforce a fear of power and technology, Thief makes effective use of level structure to bring its locations to vivid life.
Let players feel as if they’re learning things they’re not supposed to know: Designers should hint at the backstory, doling out lore and exposition in bits and pieces (such as the documents and conversations encountered in the Thieves’ Guild) scattered across the levels. Player agency is enhanced by encouraging exploratory improvisation.
Use mechanics to communicate story and player-environment dialog: Garrett’s constraints and vulnerabilities play an essential role in bolstering the player’s sense of tension, reinforced by an emphasis on non-lethal tools and restrictions on killing NPCs. Thief produces its intended emotional effect by stressing the importance of subterfuge, solidifying its synergy of narrative and mechanics.
With its deft integration of mechanics and level design, Thief weaves a satisfyingly deep and dark experience. Its tense environmental narrative and palpable sense of agency opens a possibility space for the player that encourages exploratory improvisation, fully delivering on the promise of its title.
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.
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