Let the Builder return — Thief 2 is 20 years old today
“The Trickster is dead. Beware the dawn of the Metal Age.”
These were the last words Keeper Artemus said to Garrett before the Master Thief vanished into the shadows of the early morning City streets at the very end of Thief: The Dark Project. The world was saved. The evil Pagan god, The Trickster, was stopped at the very last minute, killed at the heart of the Maw of Chaos. The City people slept that night peacefully, not having a clue that they were that close to being slaughtered, their houses turned to ruins, cobblestone streets gave way to the gloomy woods and caves, electric lights and plumbing destroyed and replaced with wood, fire and sorcery.
Garrett didn’t know that eliminating one deadly force would pave the way for the other to rise even quicker. The Keepers did know, however — but the thief, of course, never wanted to listen to them. The Metal Age was coming.
Like Keepers, Looking Glass Studios — the makers of Thief: The Dark Project — also knew fairly well what was going to happen to Garrett and The City after the events of the original game. The first Thief game was a somewhat surprising commercial and critical success — in spite of a very troubled, chaotic development, the legendary studios’ stealth-focused immersive sim managed to find its niche in the market dominated by first-person shooters and more straightforward games. However, according to some players, The Dark Project was a flawed game. It was built around a tightly written, focused story about Garrett uncovering the secrets of the Pagans and thus followed him to the darkest and most unnerving places such as the underground Lost City, The Haunted Cathedral, and The Maw itself. While technically, the game’s stealth system worked similarly regardless of the types of enemies, many players felt too scared or confused to sneak around zombies and pagan creatures, thus forced to fight their way through the later levels more than they were willing to. The message Looking Glass received was clear — the market wanted more Thief, but this time, it should be a game focused on sneaking past human enemies in lively, inhabited, less weird and unsettling environments.
The death of The Trickster and the end of the Dark Age not only dramatically shifted the balance in The City — it changed the way Looking Glass would make a Thief game.
The designer of Thief 2: The Metal Age, Randy Smith, recalled that for the sequel, the team took a completely different approach. Some of the original game’s levels emerged during the early stages of development, when The Dark Project wasn’t yet necessarily even a fully stealth game, and thus felt perhaps a little forced into the final game’s shadows and silence gameplay paradigm. For Thief 2, the team’s goal was to first create levels that would be varied, interesting to play and explore, supportive of all kinds of play styles — and only then try to fit in the story. The Metal Age would have a police station level, a rooftops level, and of course a bank level — something that was expected from a game about a thief breaking in highly guarded, dangerous places.
Thief 2 is a remarkable sequel because even though it uses a very similar engine, lots of old assets, and almost identical gameplay mechanics, it ends up being a very different game thematically and narratively.
Garrett’s allies in the finale of the first game, the religious fundamentalists called The Hammerites, gained unrestrained power with the death of The Trickster. A new extremist wing emerged within the fanatics group, calling themselves The Mechanists, led by a lunatic zealot Father Karras, who — as we would soon discover — believed that no living flesh-and-bones organism could match the purity, perfection and relentless obedience of a machine. The Mechanists would rapidly grow their power and influence in The City and would start producing steam-powered robots and electrical security cameras that the rich and powerful of the world would find endlessly fascinating and useful. This would prove to be a major challenge for Garrett — breaking into mansions and establishments would become more and more dangerous, as any misstep would result in a painful death by an explosive blast from one of those scary looking metal machines. It was inevitable that the paths of Garrett and Father Karras would eventually cross. Very soon the thief — with the guidance from his old friends Keepers, of course — would realize that The Mechanists would prove to be as great a threat to The City as The Trickster used to be. Turns out, killing all living creatures and replacing them with mindless machines is no less crazy and devastating plan as The Trickster’s idea of eradicating technology and comfort of homes and fireplaces with wood and dirt.
Thief 2 fully highlights the narrative brilliance of the series — by focusing each game on different extremes and letting the players seeing both sides, Looking Glass states that ideas, views and beliefs per se can’t be right or wrong — it’s their absurdist, extremist applications that make them dangerous to the world. The Pagans’ love of natural chaos is fine as long as it doesn’t pose a threat to the civilized world. Religious views of the Hammerites and their push for technological progress do little harm unless those are used as a weapon against human lives. The balance of the opposing views, the checks and balances system, the compromise is the right way to move forward — and Garrett is the only person in The City who would not just understand it, but also act accordingly. It is thus both sarcastic and telling that in the dangerous world of Thief, constantly torn apart by various opposing factions, the only person who could preserve the balance and thus keep the world safe is a selfish, cynical thief who is only concerned with staying alive and couldn’t care less about others. Years later, 2K Marin would use the same narrative approach for BioShock 2 that would depict the dangers of extremist collectivism as a stark contrast to the original BioShock’s absurdist individualism.
If Thief 2’s purpose was to show the opposite end of the spectrum, it is then very fitting that the aforementioned different approach to level design and story was taken for the sequel. A few exceptions aside, The Metal Age would primarily take place in brighter, more industrial locations. Undead and pagan creatures were left in deep underground and otherworldly places Garrett no longer visits in the second game — he is now preoccupied with the Mechanists’ robots. Security cameras can spot him and sound alarm. Turrets hidden behind fake walls can shot him dead immediately. Robots not only see, hear, and fire projectiles, but are very difficult to disable — the only stealthy way of shutting them down is a couple of well-placed water arrows shot into the furnaces in their backs. And then there are even weirder, even deadlier mechanical creations hidden behind the walls of the Soulforge cathedral.
Similar to the finale of The Dark Project, where The Maw is designed to showcase the profound and horrifying power of the Pagans in all its glory, Soulforge is the testament to Karras’ wicked vision. A giant, sprawling labyrinth of a cathedral turned enormous factory, it is a glimpse of the world devoid of human life, the world Garrett must stop from becoming a reality in The City. Armies of metallic robots patrol brightly lit, stone and metal halls, heated by furnaces that service machines use to create new robots, thus wickedly reproducing fake mechanical life. The cacophony of machinery ring in ears. There is one paranoid man, hidden somewhere behind a bullet-proof glass, talking to you through the speakers in his scary voice: “Thou art transparent to me, Garrett, even now I can see thou seeking to stop me, but there is naught you can do”. This voice echoes off walls, and you can hear it from everywhere, like a deadly choir — as the robots themselves, the Children of Karras, speak in it as well.
The Thief series art direction is remarkable in its unique blend of dark fantasy and steampunk — and as Thief 2: The Metal Age gets closer to its final act, the more grandiose and wonderfully unnerving the latter aspect of this mix becomes. It is astonishing how Looking Glass again achieves this chilling, uncomfortable sense of dread and panic, similar to the first game — but this time, without resorting to underground tombs, zombies and dark magic. The power of the machine and its complete lack of empathy and humanity is equally scary.
Thief 2: The Metal Age is a masterful, iconic sequel to a game that was already widely creatively successful and artistically coherent — it achieves that by not repeating what was already said, but by looking at the game’s core pillars from the opposite direction. It is a perfect compliment to The Dark Project, the yang to the first game’s yin, the day to the night, the heat to the cold. Being thematically different, it however plays very similarly to the first game, thus making all the fans of the original game feel right at home.
Now, exactly 20 years since its release, it is difficult to overstate the importance and lasting value of Thief 2. The original game gave birth to the series and set the stage, but it was Thief 2 that made the series thematically complete. The Dark Project will forever remain the first, the inventor of the “first-person sneaker”, but it would be The Metal Age that would top all “best stealth games of all time” lists for decades to come. Thief 1 would introduce the fans to the wonders of DromEd modding, but it would be Thief 2 that would become the basis of the vast majority of all Thief fan-made missions. Many people think The Metal Age is the best game in the series — I would disagree, but not because it is flawed or in any way worse than The Dark Project, but because these two games are so complimentary to each other and so intertwined, that I would never dare to pit one against another. Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age are both the best games in the series — and of course, my personal best games of all time.
Thief 2 would also become the last game by Looking Glass — no amount of critical praise and decent commercial performance would save the studio from closing its doors in 2000. If the demise of one of the greatest game development studios in history was inevitable, then it was perhaps fitting that The Metal Age would become their swan song. It is only like this — by making the finest game of them all, a wonderfully creative and complimenting sequel to an already established masterpiece — is how any self-respected studio should make its last stand.
When we looked at the relics of the Precursors, we saw the heights civilization can attain. When we looked at their ruins, we marked the danger of that height.
Other immersive sims related articles by me:
- 20 Years in Darkness — after two decades, Thief: The Dark Project is still the best
- 20 Years of Thief Gold — different, not better
- The Many are still strong — System Shock 2 is 20 years old today
- A love letter to Prey
- A love letter to Dishonored 2
- Deus Ex: Breach — a short-session immersive sim done (almost) right
- Five pillars of Immersive Sims
- Immersive Sims are about the feeling of space
- The future of immersive sims is independent — can it be bright?