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Thief: opening the door to the next generation

Friday, 5th April 2013 16:37 GMT By Stace Harman

Thief gives Stace Harman a first-hand glimpse into the spectacle of next-gen games, but underlines how even with extra power behind them, some things never change.

Thief

2014’s Thief will mark the return of master pilferer Garrett, ten years after he last appeared in Thief: Deadly Shadows on Xbox and PC.

Thief supports pacifist playthroughs, but game producer Stephane Roy goes further to suggest that “technically speaking, avoiding conflict is actually the main goal of this game.”

Thief will take place in The City, an unnamed locale in a period that’s described as being “Victorian, on the verge of industrial revolution.” The game is being built using a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3.

Thief’s first-person viewpoint will occasionally switch to third-person to aid with environmental traversal and “offer a different flavour of play”.

Thief is being developed by Eidos Montreal and is set for release on PC, PS4 in 2014.

Watching Eidos Montreal’s Thief demo on PC, I’m struck by two things. The first is the aesthetically pleasing display of dynamic lighting, volumetric smoke, god-rays and weather effects that’s being delivered to my eyeballs. The second is just how completely it is undermined by the simple act of opening a door.

The play-through I’m watching is that which was concisely described by Dave a little while back.

In it, master thief Garrett scales the rooftops of a darkened cityscape in order to orientate himself, prior to hot-footing across town to reach the House of Blossoms brothel before the clock strikes 12.

Eschewing the heavily guarded front door of the pleasure house for a conveniently overlooked hole in the wall, Garrett slips inside, incapacitates a guard, burglarises a strongbox and pick-pockets a patron.

All actions are expertly carried out without raising suspicion as Garrett surreptitiously extinguishes light sources to facilitate his slinking through the shadows. It’s atmospheric, moody and watching Garrett ply his illicit trade provides an undeniable frisson of excitement.

And then he opens a door and my brain pulls a sad face.

We’ve all seen it play out a thousand times before: player gets within a few feet of a conventional door, player presses button on controller, door swings open without being touched by avatar. It’s a very familiar scenario and that’s precisely the cause of my consternation.

Where is Garrett’s natural caution? Why doesn’t he ease the door open and peek round it? Why is the door either wide open or shut tight? There’s an immediate sense of disconnect between player, avatar and game-world that’s caused by such mundane trifles as having a door swing open without being touched.

It’s something that we’ve grown used over the years but equally it’s something that could become increasingly difficult to accept or ignore as we move toward the brave new world of next-gen.

Putting this to Thief producer Stephane Roy elicits a thoughtful pause before he delivers an unexpected answer, “It’s a tradition, if I may call it that, that’s known throughout the video game industry: doors are a pain in the arse.”

“In terms of the AI understanding the role that doors play, how to navigate them, how they affect the layout of a room … in real life opening a door is nothing but in a game it’s more complicated. Then there’s the animation of the action and the angles from which a player can perform it; it’s a lot of work. That said, I agree, this is next-gen and the idea that there is some kind of magic door that just swings open is not good.

“The most important thing for us is immersion and that you believe in this world. This type of detail can undo that. I cannot promise you anything but I am certainly putting some pressure on people on my team to find solutions to these kinds of problems.”

Of course, the opening of a door is merely representative of a host of accepted conventions and immersion-breaking problems to be addressed by Thief and its next-gen brethren. Guards incapable of looking up, amnesiac AI outfoxed by breaking its line of sight, gimmicky super-powered vision that highlights objectives and provides solutions to puzzles.

There are a lot of things that we’ve gotten used to seeing in our games that developers of next-gen titles are going to have the power to address. The question is: will they?

Sumptuous visuals aside, it’s disappointing to see a next-gen game being played in exactly the same way as a current-gen title. However, what’s more encouraging is the conversation that I have with Roy afterwards in which he addresses many of these concerns.

For example, he speaks of how the increased processing power of next-gen machines allows for AI to be managed on many more levels than is currently possible and how it will facilitate a more seamless transition between states of awareness.

What’s more, veteran guards can display more complex behaviour patterns than low-level rookies, meaning that tricks that work against some AI entities won’t necessarily work in the same way against others.

“For us, the big thing with the next generation is how it will allow us to really concentrate on creating an immersive experience,” Roy reiterates. “We’re having a lot of conversations internally about how to address issues and ensure that the world feels believable.”

It’s at this point that I bring up Focus, Garrett’s vision-altering power that will be familiar to players of Tomb Raider, Batman, Hitman, Assassin’s Creed and a host of other games. Here, Focus is a limited resource that can be used to highlight objects, aid pickpocket and lock-picking attempts, and facilitate takedowns during combat.

Thief director Nicholas Cantin has previously stated that use of this power will be “completely the player’s choice”, but in the level I watch, Garrett uses it to uncover hidden glyphs to solve a mission-critical puzzle and there really doesn’t appear to be any other way to achieve that without using Focus.

“The Focus is really linked with the story, something happens at the beginning of the story that makes sense of it … we’ve worked very hard to make sure that it doesn’t feel like a video game gimmick and having said that its use will be optional, we have to work very hard to make sure of that,” Roy explains. “If we have a puzzle that all of the people in this city cannot solve [without Focus], then we have to be able to explain why that is.”

Reading between the lines it seems likely that, as things stand, the use of Focus during moment-to-moment game play will be optional but that Garrett’s reliance on it in other instances is inextricably tied to the narrative.

In truth, this first 30-minute look at Thief raises more questions than Roy has time to answer. He promises future demos will better illustrate how the AI behaves and how myriad approaches will affect the way a level plays out, but that will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, it’s exciting to imagine how light and shadow, a contrast that has always played a fundamental role in Thief series, might affect game play. The possibilities that could be explored through clever use of dynamic light-sources, real-time shadows and genuine reflections could fundamentally enhance the Thief experience beyond anything that is currently possible on PS3 and 360.

Of course, video game conventions are not going to change overnight. It’s going to be a while before we find out whether Thief, or indeed any of the first-wave of next-gen exclusive titles, will offer a genuinely new experience or, at the very least, more than just a shiny new wrapper.

To paraphrase Roy, for me the next gen is less about the number of polygons being pushed around the screen and more about what those polygons are doing. I just hope that extends to how they open doors.

Thief will launch on PC, PS4 and “other next-generation consoles” in 2014.

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19 Comments

  1. _LarZen_

    We have next gen hardware and next gen graphics. What we need now is next gen games.

    #1 1 year ago
  2. SameeR_Fisher

    The Door, I wish developer would play Splinter Cell Chaos Theory -which is kinda the king of stealth games, at least to me- Sam Fisher holds the door, he can swing it open, or control how much of it he opens to peak around corners, I really miss such attention to details.

    Focus, again Splinter Cell, they introduced the trifocals goggles, you could use the Thermal Vision to see the finger prints in a keypad in SAR, or see mines, or sometimes see guards behind thin wall -rarely-, it was REALISTIC, but now ?!, it is all about supernatural vision and tracking and BS.

    Thanks Stace for actually being worried and seeing faults that other would generally just let go.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. fearmonkey

    I think it’s great Stace that you called them on the door thing. That is a good call, hopefully they listen to your feedback and implement something. I could see where an animation evertime a door was opened would be annoying, especially if they have a ton of doors. Having that animation could affect level design. I applaud bringing it up :)

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Stace Harman

    @1 +1

    @2 @3 Thanks, folks. We’ve waited a long time for the next gen and I’m keen for devs to prove that it’s been worth it.

    Also, @2, the Splinter Cell example is a great one. If you’re heavily invested in stealth, things like how your avatar interacts with a door has a big effect on the game play experience.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. cw5th

    Another thing that crossed my mind as i was reading through this article. What about creaking doors/doorhandels?

    That would be one of the worst things a Thief can come across i would assume.

    The whole house is dead silent, no one is making a noise. Garret opens a door and “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh”… “shit”.

    It would be quite difficult and the player has to time the opening of a door with a loud noise(which belongs into the natural sound of the scene(Clocktower or something like that)), but it would be so aweome if it works out…

    Just a thought.

    #5 1 year ago
  6. apollyonbob

    @4 Yeah, it has a huge effect. And yes, doors are a pain in the ass. But it’s kind of like … what have they been doing? I would think that “making stealth work” and AI would be, you know, kind of priority #1 and #2 respectively.

    Instead, they’ve probably been working on … what, the graphics?

    #6 1 year ago
  7. TheWulf

    I completely agree about the door.

    I remember that Penumbra, in some ways, felt like a very natural evolution of thief. So did Amnesia. What I want to happen, what I desperately want to happen… what should happen… The Amnesia devs need to make a spiritual Thief successor. No, really. They do.

    Penumbra got that feeling of caution right, and Amnesia refined it. It was for survival horror rather than thievery of course, but if you play Penumbra and Amnesia, and look past the horror, the feeling of a thief game is very much present. That’s what I want from a Thief game, not PUSH BUTAN SWING OPEN DOOR.

    This is pretty much off my list, but at some point… I’m hoping someone shows the mainstream how it’s done.

    But right now I kind of want to go and follow around Frictional Games like a lost puppy with my plaintive pleas of ‘oh please won’t you use that brilliant engine of yours to make a true Thief successor? Oh please

    I want another Thief game. But this isn’t it. Come on, Frictional, I know you have it in you.

    #7 1 year ago
  8. TheWulf

    Plus! The atmosphere of Amnesia/Penumbra is absolutely perfect for a Thief game, it’s very reminiscent of the older ones. The older Thief games had an atmosphere that you’d need a good steak knife to carve through, it was something that could get your heart beating. Plus, there were more… disturbing elements of Thief.

    Really, Frictional Games would be my dream Thief designers. They have the atmosphere down, the disturbing elements, the art, the gameplay (that feeling of caution and building fear)… why are these guys doing what Frictional could do so much better? If I had money, I’d throw it at Frictional to do a Thief successor just to spite them.

    Almost tempted to shoot a mail Frictional’s way rambling about this.

    #8 1 year ago
  9. SameeR_Fisher

    @4Stace: that’s exactly why I am kinda against mainstreaming in Stealth games, the devs begin to lose focus on the important little stuff, sure they can make a balanced games, but the stealth would never compare to a pure stealth title.

    It is sad times we are living in where mainstreaming is a must, I would love to see a Splinter Cell title or any new IP in the vein of Chaos Theory.

    Thief -as far as I know- is the first stealth game in next gen, so alot of pressure on it, I want it to deliver, I want it to try and remain as stealthy and hardcore as possible, we need a strong pure stealth titles alongside the balanced mixed stealth/action titles.

    #9 1 year ago
  10. RandomTiger

    Great stuff Stace, not sure if the door thing in itself is a good or bad idea, I would have to playtest it. But developers need to understand that next gen is an importunity to step up more than just the graphics.

    #10 1 year ago
  11. karma

    I just can’t be excited for this reimagining. No way in hell they are gonna make a faithful to the original Thief game in this day and age of dumbed down, mass market appeal games. It just won’t be Thief. Just antoher stealth action game that isnt half as immersive as the original.

    I mean, come on they got qte like combat encounters, no Stephen Russel as Garrett, increased focus on combat, Mirrors Edge style free running and the worst of all a third person climbing camera? Did they learn nothing from Ion Storm’s Deadly Shadows?

    Sorry but as a big fan of the original 2 games, this doesn’t interest me.

    Maybe if Deus Ex: HR had felt more like the original DE, then i’d give em a chance, but it felt so watered down by comparison.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. Jerykk

    While it would be nice to be able to open the door in various ways (ala Chaos Theory), what’s more important is that the AI recognize that the door has been opened. The AI should remember the default state for environmental objects like doors, so if a door is closed by default, they should get suspicious if they see it open. They did this in NOLF2 and it was pretty awesome.

    Speaking of memory, the AI should have it. In every stealth game I’ve ever played, the AI has extremely short-term memory. They can notice a series of suspicious occurrences but as long as you space them out appropriately, the AI will always return to its idle state as if everything is fine and dandy. The size of the suspicion increments should increase with each subsequent event. So, the first time a guard hears a weird noise, his suspicion increases by 10. The second time he hears something, it increases by 50. The third time, 100.

    #12 1 year ago
  13. reask

    Excellent article Stace and my reason for visiting this site on a daily basis upon other great journos like Dave and Sam to mention but a few.

    Nail on the head was nailed in this article.
    Stop with the pretty games and bloody work on the actual game please.

    God of war 1 and 2 for example, I mean solid gameplay doing the job over cosmetics.
    THIS IS WHAT WE YEARN FOR DEVS SO PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE TAKE NOTE.
    Kindest regards Reask.

    #13 1 year ago
  14. Kuwabara

    Different animations can be used depending on the angle and speed you approach the door. How about being able to drop down and in first person view look under the door for feet or shadows, or be able to put your ear against the door to hear the vibrations of sound from the other end. There’s plenty of ways to do this and it can add some exciting gameplay elements.

    #14 1 year ago
  15. DarkElfa

    So basically, what is happening in this next generation is the Uncanny Valley of in-game movements.

    As things become more real, the animations become far more noticeable and distracting. While they can almost make the models and textures look photo-realistic, the actual movements and interactions of models are far behind the curve.

    A living being makes random movements that are rarely duplicated, but that is almost if not straight out impossible to do in-game.

    Until true AI is achieved and computers can create things like random movement on the fly, it’s a valley that cannot be traversed.

    #15 1 year ago
  16. Phoenixblight

    @15

    Only way to counter the uncanny valley is with 3d scanners and mo cap much like Fox Engine. But in reality it is quite a cost up front to do this and smaller studios and publishers won’t be able to pull it off. THis is generally why I like stylistic approach it makes the game timeless and not as obvious being outdated.

    #16 1 year ago
  17. manamana

    Bravo Stace! The attention to the door “detail” tells the whole story of sluggish game developement and why immersion of a gaming world will fall apart without attention to such details considering the context of the game.

    #17 1 year ago
  18. Erthazus

    So it’s a Thief for a console gamer.

    Great. Just great. I’m sure that Thief community will be pissed so much about this. that’s what i’m talking about. With a small controller that has 16+ buttons and crappy “AIM” you can’t make a decent stealth game. It’s going to be stealth action game with cut scenes and stupid AI because most of the console gamers will not use gadgets, think or wait some time to do things… but will start killing them with a bow… In Deadly Shadows you could actually kill a person with a dagger but that was hard as F. If you didn’t know how to do it you would die in 3 hits.

    There was a reason why Thief 1 and 2 were never released on a console. Now, good bye to stealth games.. welcome to another shitty Action game with a bow.

    Why making a stealth game for a community that Does not like stealth games at all? Just for the sake of making it an action game and sell to idiots? F. that.

    #18 1 year ago
  19. GwynbleiddiuM

    @18 Last stealth game Eidos produced clearly shows where the company stand on the subject, each feet on the side of the genre in a dock position, splashing poop all over it.

    #19 1 year ago

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