The FOCUS OF THIEF
Tim Stellmach on distilling Thief ’s design.
Thief is unique amongst the immersive sim genre. No other game from the stable of Looking Glass and its inheritors has such a specific focus on the experience it offers the player. Ultima Underworld, System
Shock, Deus Ex and Dishonored are all about providing the player a broad spectrum of play opportunities. Thief is about stealth, and stealth alone.
This focus came as a consequence of Thief ’s development. The game went through several concept stages in which Looking Glass envisioned some very different games. Even once nailed down, Looking Glass toyed with all kinds of additional features that never made it into the final product. These discarded ideas offer a fascinating glimpse into the game’s development period, showing how Looking Glass ended up with such a distinctive game.
Before Thief became Thief, Looking Glass considered two other potential projects. The first was Dark Camelot.
An inverted telling of Arthurian legend, the player assumes the role of Mordred taking on the despotic king and his corrupted Knights of the Round Table. The second was Better Dead than Red, a Cold-War espionage thriller that involved fighting communist zombies.
These concepts might sound completely different, but as Thief ’s lead designer Tim Stellmach points out, there is a common link between them. “You go from this resistanceinsurgency thing against Arthur in Camelot, to like an espionage game, and then we just [went] all-in on you being an antihero character,” says Stellmach, who now works at OtherSide Entertainment as lead designer of Underworld Ascendant.
“We jumped off from our understanding of thieves in Dungeons & Dragons, and then developed the world into something more distinctive from there.”
Indeed, one of the key elements of Thief is that its fantasy world isn’t a cliched Tolkien knockoff. Thief
incorporates Victorian and modern elements, featuring gaslike lighting and myriad mechanical devices. It’s quite similar to steampunk, but the inspirations are a lot more specific than that. “If you think about Garrett’s voice, and his whole relationship in the early game being recruited by Viktoria and then betrayed, that’s straight out of Raymond Chandler,” Stellmach says. “We also looked explicitly at Batman comics, and Batman’s relationship with the Joker, and all this stuff, in terms of the nature of the order versus chaos conflict.”
With the concept in place, Looking Glass began working on the game proper. But even though the studio had finalised its idea, there were still lots of ideas the team had in mind that would hit the cutting room floor. “If you think about it, the number of tools that Garrett had was really, really slim, right?” Stellmach says. This is because, again, Looking Glass ditched anything that didn’t work or was less useful than another piece of equipment.
For example, the team toyed with multiple ways of giving the player means of escaping guards, but discovered that none of them were as effective as flash bombs. One such mechanic was the ability for Garrett to shrink down and navigate through tiny passageways like drains and mouseholes, much like the rats in Dishonored. “We just decided it was gonna be way too much work to do it right,” Stellmach points out. “It started raising questions that we didn’t want to answer.”
Another major element that Looking Glass explored was including multiplayer in Thief. “We kicked around a lot of versions of that,” Stellmach says. “But at the time, we were up against the problem that, if
“We jumped off from our understanding of thieves in D&D”
you think about Garrett’s role in Thief, that is a guy that like, bringing two of him, only makes things worse. Now you have two chances to get caught.” Moreover, for much of The Dark Project’s development, Looking Glass was still grappling with the stealth concept in singleplayer. “We were still just trying to figure out that one core thing. [Multiplayer] would’ve been a big distraction and I’m glad we didn’t do it at that time.”
Trimmed down as it is, there are elements present in Thief that the developers would have cut with hindsight. One of the big hangovers from Looking Glass’s work on Dark Camelot are the creature designs; the Burricks, the crab people, the zombies. “We went from this design that included things like the Burricks that didn’t really have readable body language, and the zombies who didn’t have any readable barks,” Stellmach says. “To, later, the more robotic characters in Thief II, and the ghosts in the cathedral mission there. They become more and more and more readable as you go along.”
Thief marked the first time anybody had attempted a first-person stealth game, and that naturally involved creating a whole bunch of new systems, such as lights and shadows that affected visibility, sound that both the player and the AI could react to, and AI with multiple behaviour states. It was a huge technological challenge, never mind building the game itself. Hence, it was vital to Thief ’s success that Looking Glass remained focused on enabling the core experience, and that is why the game ultimately worked so well. “We ended up just paring all that down to a minimal set of, ‘What do you absolutely need to support what you’re really trying to do?’” Stellmach concludes.
RIGHT: Thief is inspired as much by Raymond Chandler as it is fantasy fiction.
TOP: Over the course of Thief ’s development, the team focused more on humanoid characters, as their behaviour was easier to interpret.LEFT: The game’s design often leans into surrealism.FAR LEFT: Thief was unique in that it was a first-person game that didn’t emphasise killing.