A ghost wanders the flooded wine cellar of the abandoned Hammerite Cathedral, talking backwards and spitting out skulls. Hauntings patrol the altar above, shaking their chains. When they go in pursuit, they do so at breakneck speed, as if they were playing at double speed on a VHS. Strange laughter seeps between their whitened teeth as they swing their swords, two or three times a second.
Which is to say that, in addition to being the very first stealth game on PC, Thief: The Dark Project is a surprisingly effective horror experience. Even more terrifying than restless undead are hard floors. It’s not the craymen chirping in the caverns below the opera house that keep me awake at night, it’s the marble hallways that connect the auditorium balconies and the steel walkways suspended above the stage. . The clatter of Garrett’s shoes against the metal still elicits an involuntary Pavlovian grimace, tied to memories of running guards and sounding alarms.
“What we were acutely aware of was that this was going to be the first stealth game that was going to really rely on audio cues,” Looking Glass sound designer Eric Brosius recalled in a 2011 interview with the GAMBIT. MIT Game Lab.
First modeled on submarine simulators when Ken Levine was lead designer, Thief is a game about collecting secret information. And visual information is difficult to obtain. Not once do you get the chance to hang out on a hill and mark your targets in a valley below. Instead, the many guards who threaten to press their blades against your crouching ass are almost always obscured by the mazelike, monk-punk world around you – the U-bends of narrow Italian-inspired streets and sewers; the enclosed walls of the boudoirs and pantry; and that ever-present blanket of sadness.
As such, your best bet is to keep your ears peeled for the sound of a mercenary clearing their throat, or a pious martelite humming a hymn as they stroll through the temple. This way you can create a mind map of which patrols you should avoid or interrupt with a blackjack to the back of the head. Because just as you collect visual and audio information about your surroundings, so do your enemies. These are submarine killers to sink your vulnerable ship.
To aid the player, Brosius constructed Thief’s soundtrack from simple, buzzy loops that in some cases were only four seconds long. “We wanted to make sure there was enough space in the game for you to hear what was going on,” he said. “It made you very aware of things around you, which worked to your advantage listening to the footsteps of the guards. We kept it simple and hypnotic. We didn’t try to scare people, that wasn’t our goal. We knew we had to make it really immersive.
Of course, while sound may be the first tool and adversary a Thief player must master – weathered by noisemakers and foam arrows, which can carpet that pesky marble and dampen your tread – it’s matched by the light. Every shadow in this medieval noir story serves more than a stylistic purpose, giving you a pitch-black path to safety, or an unseen vantage point from which to observe your enemies.
“You play this essentially voyeuristic role,” project manager Greg LoPiccolo told MIT GAMBIT in 2011. “We were playing against Doom, which was ‘boom, boom, boom’ all the time. entertained by standing for a minute somewhere doing nothing? Just watching a guy walk around a corner and [wondering] how long will it be before it comes back the other way? There was no up-front that it was going to work when we started.
The thief formula came to fruition late, after a “massive staff turnover”. The lead artist and lead programmer of The Dark Project quit during production, as did Levine, who left to co-found Irrational Games. But into those empty slots came talented individuals like Tom Leonard, who developed and tuned Thief’s stealth AI, and then shaped the behavior of Combine soldiers in Half-Life 2. And in the years since the launch of Thief, it was hailed – alongside Metal Gear Solid, which came out a few months earlier in 1998, as the ancestor of a new genre of 3D game.
Which is strange, when you think about it. Because those systems I’ve dedicated hundreds of words to – the unparalleled sound design, light and dark – have largely been left behind by modern game design. Oh sure, there are plenty of partial homages: as a mood piece, Dishonored is almost the spitting image of Thief, and incorporates noise into its stealth; Irrational’s swan song, the Bioshock Infinite DLC Burial at Sea Part 2, has mixed its levels with broken glass and puddles in order to force you to think about surfaces; Fallout 3, led by Thief veteran Emil Pagliarulo, introduced multi-stage enemy detection that’s now standard in Bethesda RPGs. Then there are the Ghost Recon games from Ubisoft, at this point Splinter Cell’s closest living relative, which still pretends to lurk in the shadows. And this year’s Modern Warfare 2 offers a huge advantage to players who stop and listen to their opponents’ footsteps in multiplayer.
But these are outliers. Typically, line of sight is now the determining consideration in stealth sequences. As a frequent freelancer on PC Gamer Rick Lane points out, stealth is now most often an additional mechanic in games that also embrace all-out action. In this context, developing a detection model as detailed as Looking Glass’s could be seen as unnecessary extra work, not to mention confusing for players who only engage in it periodically. As a result, stealth is both everywhere and less advanced than it was 24 years ago.
Perhaps it’s for the best that AAA games today meet the needs of the majority, allowing them the thrill of slipping through a patrol or unleashing a takedown on a distraught guard without requiring mastery of multiple tedious systems. Thief has always been a niche hit, and indie successors like Gloomwood exist to satisfy its old audience. Still, returning to The Dark Project remains an invigorating and brilliant experience. The kind of cold shower – or ice cold bath in a wine cellar – that makes you feel alive.