Eric Bro­sius re­veals the se­crets be­hind Thief ’s au­dio de­sign.


Sound plays a cru­cial role in Thief ’s de­sign. Play­ers must be wary of how much noise they make as they walk across dif­fer­ent sur­faces, and must lis­ten to the foot­steps of guards to fig­ure out when to slip by. Its be­spoke au­dio en­gine prop­a­gates sound re­al­is­ti­cally, to the point where play­ers can press against doors to eaves­drop on con­ver­sa­tions. But Thief ’s au­dio de­sign goes way be­yond what is me­chan­i­cally nec­es­sary. At­mo­spher­i­cally it is one of the strangest and most dis­tinc­tive games ever made. Its hyp­notic, haunt­ing sound­track be­comes the main con­trib­u­tor to im­mers­ing the player in Thief ’s world, and is one of the key el­e­ments that has pre­served Thief ’s playa­bil­ity through the years.

Sounds good

Thief ’s au­dio de­sign was led by Eric Bro­sius, whose other cred­its in­clude the 1995 shooter De­scent, and the Gui­tar Hero se­ries. “From the begin­ning we knew that sound had to be re­ally im­por­tant, and we had to make it clear that what you were hear­ing was hear­able by other peo­ple,” Bro­sius says. “Some of that was in­spired by those sub­ma­rine games you used to play in the ar­cade where you can’t see any­thing but you can hear them.”

Bro­sius knew sound was also vi­tal in cre­at­ing the right mood and keep­ing the player in­ter­ested. Thief was a much slower game than its con­tem­po­raries, with the ma­jor­ity of first-per­son games be­ing high-oc­tane shoot­ers. As such, it needed a sound­scape that made its world feel alive even when the player was do­ing very lit­tle. “We wanted to not have a tra­di­tional score, like a tra­di­tional cin­e­matic-style score. We wanted to make things that helped with the im­mer­sion, cre­at­ing the mood and ev­ery­thing. We sort of blur that line be­tween am­bi­ent sound and mu­sic.”

Bro­sius pri­or­i­tized em­bed­ding sound in the world to em­pha­size that the player was mov­ing through a 3D space, while the am­bi­ent sound­track com­prises low drones and buzzes that are looped over and

it is one of the strangest and most dis­tinc­tive games ever made

over. “My goal was to get you hyp­no­tized into not even hear­ing it any­more,” he says. This also worked from a prac­ti­cal hard­ware side. “Mem­ory was short and ev­ery­thing was held in mem­ory, there wasn’t re­ally any stream­ing. So ev­ery­thing was short loops.”

These am­bi­ent loops and 3D sounds were of­ten de­signed to fit the theme of the level in ques­tion. But Bro­sius would de­lib­er­ately mess around with their com­po­si­tion so that, while vaguely recog­nis­able, they also sounded eerie, so that the player would never feel too com­fort­able. In Song of the Caverns, for ex­am­ple, Bro­sius used a mod­u­lated record­ing of an orches­tra tun­ing up.

“I put a lot of kind of mu­si­cal snip­pets on these emit­ters, so as you walk around a cor­ner you’d hear a piece of loop­ing mu­sic come in. And then it would kind of go away and it might mix with another one,” he says. “You got this ran­dom sound­track that I thought fit the level be­cause it just seemed like you were in the opera house and there was mu­sic seep­ing out of the walls.”

The sound­track and ef­fects weren’t the only im­por­tant com­po­nent of Thief ’s sound de­sign. One of its best fea­tures is the di­a­logue, par­tic­u­larly be­tween its guards. Orig­i­nally, the plan was to cast Bri­tish ac­tors, but Look­ing Glass found that Amer­i­can ac­tors fit more nat­u­rally into the game’s Ray­mond Chan­dler-in­spired city.

“I re­mem­ber one guy who had to come in, and we wanted to do a more cock­ney-style ac­cent,” Bro­sius re­calls. “He was quite good. But he would go,

BE­LOW: Sound in Thief prop­a­gates re­al­is­ti­cally. Close those doors, and the sound be­hind them will be muf­fled.

RIGHT: In The Sword, the mod­u­lated sound of Terri Bro­sius’ laugh­ter em­i­nates from the walls.

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