20 years of Thief Gold — different, not better

Last October, Thief Gold turned 20 years old. For many, Thief Gold is just a patched, “improved” version of Thief: The Dark Project, but I disagree with this assessment. Thief Gold is a different variant of the game that doesn’t cancel or supersede the original release — it exists alongside The Dark Project as an alternative take on the game’s story and gameplay.

Gold is a pretty significant change over The Dark Project. The original game has 13 missions (including the opening “A Keeper’s Training”), whereas Gold has three more completely new levels, thus bringing the total amount to 16. Gold version also features substantial changes to some original missions, which pretty dramatically alter player’s perception of certain characters and affect gameplay. Bug fixes and minor engine improvements aside, not everyone thinks that certain changes that Thief Gold brought to the game made it better.

It took Looking Glass almost a full year to release Thief Gold — quite a gap by 90s standards. However, most of the studio focused on Thief 2, that was in advanced stages of production by the end of 1999, and also previously helped Irrational Games with finishing System Shock 2. Thief Gold largely kept The Dark Project’s version of Dark Engine (for example, colored lighting from System Shock 2 wasn’t ported to Thief Gold).

After the release of The Dark Project, Looking Glass felt that not everyone appreciated the supernatural aspect of the game’s story and gameplay, and many people didn’t like missions with zombies and beasts. As the result, for Thief 2, the team decided to shift focus to less abstract locations for the missions, and tone down the horror aspects. Thief Gold, released in the middle of this change of focus and direction for the series, feels like a snapshot of the then-current mindset of the design team. Three new missions features very little non-human enemies, and some changes to the original missions also reflected that vision.

The most obvious example is the edits made to the iconic “The Lost City” mission. In Thief: The Dark Project, Garrett visits the long-forgotten ancient part of The City, buried underground and sealed off by The Keepers. Dark, windy, extremely moody place, oozing with the atmosphere of dread, loneliness, and mystery, is inhabited by deadly craymen beasts, burricks, and fire elementals always ready to shoot Garrett down with their projectile fireballs. It was one of the most narratively consistent and memorable missions in the game, and a very scary one too.

In Thief Gold, craymen are gone and replaced by human mages — the wizards that we got to know closely in the previous mission in Thief Gold, “The Mage Towers”, discovered Karath-Din before Garrett. While this change has arguably made the mission a bit more varied in terms of tactics and gameplay mechanics, pleased haters of supernatural, and also made us know the mages even closer, I can’t help but feel that the Gold version of this mission has lost most of its atmosphere and wonderful sense of mystery.

In Thief Gold, the Lost City is lost no more — the mages are everywhere.

Even more profound change has been made to another iconic original mission, “The Sword”. In this level, Garrett visits the manor of someone known as Constantine, an eccentric collector and one of The City’s more mysterious inhabitants. Even in the original version of the mission, attentive players might discover lots of weird and unsettling clues that would make them think that Constantine is not just a normal human. Thief Gold’s version, however, takes it to extreme with the introduction of the whole new huge section of the level called “A Little Big World”. A flip of a secret lever in the basement opens a way to a disorienting place where Garrett suddenly becomes first very large, and then extremely small — basically the size of a rat — and has to navigate massive, giant rooms, hiding behind colossal sofas, climbing up on immense chairs and tables and trying to find the way out. Easily the same size as the rest of the “normal” mission, “A Little Big World” is one of the most impressive and memorable areas in the entire game, and leaves no doubts that something is extremely wrong with Constantine.

Even just with profound (and not always beneficial) changes to original levels, Thief Gold would’ve been a significant alternative take on The Dark Project, but of course the main part of the package is three completely new missions.

“Thieves’ Guild” is probably the most controversial out of them. In this mission, that does not directly contribute much to the game’s main storyline, Garrett breaks into the underground hideout of local thieves in the vast network of sewers. He then needs to traverse through those tunnels and service rooms to break into the mansions of a couple of local crime lords to steal valuables. Many players don’t like this mission because it is perceived to be extremely confusing and repetitive. Personally, I love it to death — the entire concept of a secret underground thieves’ guild is appealing, the sewers are very moody and well done, and moving between streets and districts using service tunnels contributes a lot to the character and feel of The City. With Thief 2 focusing more on traversing The City in different ways, and on less charming, seamy sides such as warehouses and rooftops, one can see how “Thieves’ Guild” is a precursor mission to the sequel’s location design approach.

These thieves won’t be let inside the guild until they say a password.

“The Mage Towers” is another new mission that divided fans. To find one of the Talismans that sealed The Haunted Cathedral doors, Garrett breaks into The City’s mages guild, Hand Brotherhood, where he needs to subsequently unlock towers of Water, Air, Earth, and Fire to retrieve the needed artifact. The level’s interiors are not terribly well detailed to compensate for the huge scale, and the mission is a bit too linear by Thief’s open-ended design standards. And yet, I find it remarkable and hugely entertaining. Each tower presents players with unique, creative challenges that are not repeated elsewhere in the game. Jumping on moving platforms while trying not to get caught by Air Mages is irritating but fun. Timing moves not to get burned by metal platforms in the Fire Tower, all with making no sound, is a great stealth puzzle. Every part of the level has distinctive, memorable atmosphere. The mission is difficult and also has very well-designed middle-section that links all the elemental towers.

Finally, “Song of the Caverns” is probably the most-loved Thief Gold’s level. The concept is great in itself — to find the last Talisman, Garrett needs to descend to the network of perilous caves beneath The City, and in the beginning it feels like the mission is going to be yet another dive into dark and scary underworld of The City, inhabited my monsters and undead. However, very soon Garrett discovers that the Talisman was taken by the people from the Opera House located above the caverns, and realizes that he now needs to break in there — yet another subtle hint at the series’ move from supernatural to more grounded environments. The Opera House is huge, very well designed, full of alternative paths, and charms with unique atmosphere thanks to the wonderful ambient soundscape created by Eric Brosius’ team. Listen to this:

I love Thief Gold’s new missions, as well as most of the additions to the original levels. A snapshot of the design mindset of Looking Glass at the time, it is a minor rethinking of The Dark Project, and a preview look at what was in store for the fans in Thief 2 in terms of location design and overall scale (Gold’s missions feel larger than most of the original levels). And yet, I would not call Gold a better version of the first Thief game. The Dark Project is a tighter, more consistent, more focused game that is wonderfully at piece with the darker, more mysterious, scarier side of Thief’s universe. I like to think of those as of two equally great editions of the game that I love dearly, and I would recommend everyone to play through each of them separately.

Happy (belated) 20th Anniversary, (g)old friend!