20 Years in Darkness — after two decades, Thief: The Dark Project is still the best

20 years ago today, Thief: The Dark Project was released. It is arguably one of the greatest games of all time. It is definitely one of the fundamental games that defined stealth genre and immersive sim school of design. It is indisputably my all-time favorite game, it has been for the last two decades, and it probably will forever remain so. I consider Thief to be a part of my identity.

Before Thief, the game that fundamentally reshaped my perception of what games could be and do, was Doom. Prior to Doom, I considered video games as very cool entertainment, but then id Software released its classic shooter, and it taught me immersion, design, atmosphere and style. I was obsessed with Doom and since then have always believed that if a game is not first person, it is flawed.

But then in 1998, before the death came, the liars were to feast upon the hands of the thieves, and the thieves were made to ingest the tongues of their liar brothers, and we praised the Master Builder for his judgements.

I was a kid at school back then, and I still remember the day when a friend of mine mentioned the game to me. The class was out exploring some old Russian temples and chapels. We were walking down a dark cold corridor, red brick walls around, and he said — “Looks like Thief to me”. Thief, I asked? He brought me the CD with the game next day.

Thief blew my mind. The game shook and influenced me fundamentally, and I still see and perceive video games through the lens of this experience. Once you embraced Thief, its style, its approach to game design and gameplay, there was no way back. There was nothing like it twenty years ago, and I would argue that there is still nothing like it in 2018. If Doom was immersive, stylish, but still just a game about shooting, Thief was a game about the world which was so believable, so real, so fundamentally impressive, that all other games seemed boring and shallow in comparison.

Back then I thought that the difference was in the stellar stealth mechanics that was the cornerstone of Thief, but in fact stealth is just a part of it. As I argued in my previous piece, I believe immersive sims to be about the feeling of space. By nature of being a game about realistic, believable, functional spaces and supporting systems, Thief of course is the best stealth game of all time, but it was also about little details which shaped the game experience. They were everywhere. Torches that made those cozy cracking sounds. The noise of the footsteps on the tile floor. The dialogues of guards and servants. Weird and unnerving paintings on the walls of Constantine’s mansion. Prayers of Hammerites. Random letters you find. Garrett’s cynical commentary.

Thief’s brilliance has always been in the dark, multilayered world, inhabited by characters with their own lives, secrets and agendas, which you quietly observed from darkness and eavesdropped through closed doors. Since then, only Dishonored tried to replicate this feeling of silent, reflective observation, but unlike Thief, there you couldn’t stand in the shadows four feet away from a guard, unnoticed, and hear him breathing. No other game has ever made you almost physically suffer from being in the light, and feel the sense of relief while being in darkness. Thief made you live and breathe shadows and silence, both on the narrative and game mechanics levels — it is such a brilliant, revelatory design that is still unmatched.

It’s unbelievable how advanced and unprecedented Thief was, released just a year after Quake 2, in the same year with Unreal and Half-Life. Recently I’ve seen people debating on Twitter if Thief, after twenty years, still has the most complex sound propagation system in games. Dark Engine pioneered numerous innovations, and the system of “room brushes” (virtual spaces that encompassed level geometry and controlled the flow of sound distribution) is one of them — even modern first person games don’t bother to pay such close attention to these details, and Dishonored 2 and Prey have inferior audio systems.

Advanced technology was leveraged by the unbelievably talented sound team. Led by Eric Brosius, Looking Glass’ audio department created some of the most atmospheric, haunting and meditating ambient soundscapes I have ever heard. These haven’t aged a day and send shivers down my spine every time I listen to them:

Another technical innovation was the Act/React concept of complex physics simulation — water doused fire, wood made arrows stick and could float in water. Instead of controlling every aspect of player experience, Looking Glass created the ruleset and toolset and let us (and even themselves) discover the possibilities. It was a complete revolution, a revelation, in 1998.

Thief’s AI was groundbreaking as well. Even in modern immersive sims, AI more or less acts similarly to how it did in Thief — listening to the noises you make, looking around, chasing you across streets and different floors of complex buildings, communicating with each other. In Thief, characters didn’t need you, the player — they went on and lived their lives without your presence.

Thief had a captivating story and unbelievable worldbuilding. Half-Life is widely considered to be the turning point of the first person genre on PC, however, Thief pushed the genre so much more — you learned bits and pieces of the story through numerous books and scrolls and overheard valuable conversations that moved the story forward. Environmental storytelling was one of the cornerstones in Thief — you could learn so much about key characters like Lord Bafford or Constantine by just studying their rooms and offices. “I wonder if he reads all of this, or is it… just for show” — asks Garrett, entering Bafford’s private library. A good question, considering there is an absurdly large, stupid and pretentious throne room just a few hallways away.

And there were cutscenes. Low resolution and bad compression aside, these cutscenes still scream style and good taste even today, twenty years later. Just watch this:

Thief: The Dark Project has aged phenomenally gracefully. Revisiting it today, it amazes me how relevant, immersive and captivating it still is. The original Thief game was followed by a stellar sequel (“The Metal Age”) and a very good follow-up (“Deadly Shadows”), and then there was a reboot by Eidos Montreal. In a piece called “Five pillars of Immersive Sims” I suggested a scale that ranges from stealth-focused to assault-focused, and Thief series is still the only one in the family of immersive sims that solely and profoundly focuses on stealth, which makes it unique to this day. This is a game that is, two decades later, still one of the kings of stealth games genre (just ask RPS, Gamesradar, Kotaku or Escapist Magazine), still holds well in certain aspects such as core gameplay, sound design, art direction and worldbuilding, and still has an incredibly vibrant and active community that works on mods and additional missions (there are hundreds of them). Thief’s modding scene paved the way to the industry for many members of the community — including people who now work at Arkane. Thief is the pinnacle of immersive sim school of design of the 90s and arguably the best game Looking Glass made. Many people who worked on Thief are widely respected industry legends (Paul Neurath, Warren Spector, Ken Levine, Nate Wells, Doug Church and many others) who went on to create other seminal titles such as System Shock 2, BioShock series, Deus Ex, The Last of Us, Guitar Hero, Skyrim, and many others.

Marc Laidlaw, writer and designer on Half-Life, once said: ”Thief is the single most terrifying, immersive, and rewarding game I have played and the one single-player game I continue to replay. […] There are countless books I wish I had written; Thief is one of the few games I wish I had worked on”. Eurogamer’s John Walker wrote: “Thief is an embarrassment to modern stealth games, each of which produces only a faded parody of this masterful original. It makes me sad for a lost era of truly epic, truly intelligent, truly brilliant gaming. Many games manage one or two of these, but so few achieve all three”.

There probably will never be another Thief — let alone another Thief game that is worthy of its name — but this is fine. Somewhere down the dark streets of the City, I’ve left a part of my soul, and it will stay there forever.