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.”

Thieves guild

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.”

Mak­ing mon­sters

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.

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