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The world of Thief and its degrees of darkness

Thursday, 20th June 2013 13:39 GMT By Phil Owen

Thief might look shiny on PS4, but Phil Owen played it at E3 and found the game’s stealth mechanics to be quite disappointing. Producer Stephane Roy told him why realistic stealth wouldn’t be all that fun in a game setting.

As we enter a new generation of gaming, immersion is key for the AAA space. We have the power to build whatever experiences we want, and when you’re harnessing the power of a next-gen console or high-end PC for your game, you’ve gotta actually use the tech.

Mechanics are super important, yes, but there’s little reason for those mechanics to not jive with what you’re actually seeing and hearing. I’m not crying to every big game to adopt a semblance of realism, but I do want to be able to take seriously what I’m looking at when I play one of these experiences that somebody dumped tens of millions of dollars into.

Unfortunately, when I was playing the Thief reboot at E3 on an actual PS4, I had a hell of a hard time buying into what Eidos Montreal were selling me. It’s not that the game is necessarily bad or unenjoyable.

I expect that if I were to play the full game, and I will, undoubtedly, I’d become accustomed the the way the game works and just go with it. But, because I only played the thing for 30 minutes, I have only my first impressions, and those impressions caused me to frown a little bit.

If you have ever played a Thief game before, you’ll know that the dark spots are important. There have to be places in the world for you to lurk while you plan your movements. This Thief, at least on the map I played, has ‘dark spots’ but not actual dark spots.

You see, there’s a little orb in the bottom left of the screen that tells you if you’re visible to your enemies. If the orb is black they can’t see you, if it’s white they can, and if it’s hazy then they can see you but by mechanical necessity they won’t be able to tell if you’re an actual human sneaking around instead of, like, a human-sized cat?

The point is that I crouched and walked right in front of a guard in a well lit are – but with a hazy orb – and the guy was like, “Is that a person? What’s going on here?” while a a meter that looks like an eyeball filled up above his head. When the eyeball fills, it finally dawns on him that you are not a loose sentient bit of shrubbery and should be killed.

What did I do then? I ran away, of course, and hid in a corner that the orb told me was totally dark. Except it wasn’t because I could see the ground I was standing on and the wall behind me very clearly. Because, I repeat, I was not in a corner that any sane person would hide in thinking his pursuers would not be able to see him there. Alas, the guard I riled up followed me to that corner, stared right at me from a couple meters away, and shouted that he knows I’m around here somewhere and that he will find and gut me.

I get it. Thief is all about the mechanics, and as producer Stephane Roy would tell me later you can’t make a totally realistic stealth game because it would just irritate everyone. And it’s not like this kind of issue is new to the Thief franchise. But this is an eight-generation sequel to a fifth-and-sixth-generation franchise. My expectations are higher.

As I mentioned above, though, I brought this topic up with a producer from Eidos Montreal, and Roy told me that for the dev team, “immersion is really, really, really important,” and that what they are doing with the lighting in Thief, what I describe above, is all about immersion in working with next-gen systems.

“In real life, it is not dark or light,” he said. “You are in this garden, and you watch, and it’s like, ‘dark and light?’ I kill the immersion.”

What he’s saying there is that with the wild lighting tech they have to work with now, it can’t just be black or white. The team is trying to take advantage of dynamic lighting tech in order to create a more visually nuanced experience than past games. But it’s still a game, and it’s a very game-y game.

And he also said something else I mentioned above, which is that after playing with a stealth scenario in the game for a few minutes that you’ll figure out what’s going on with the lighting and play accordingly, which is true. I did not actually have any trouble getting the hang of playing Thief. He also pointed out that you can turn off HUD elements like the eyeball meter and the visibility orb to make it feel less game-y.

On the other hand, it may be possible to not even treat Thief as a stealth experience, if you get annoyed about being able to hide in not-too-dark shadows. I know I, just for the hell of it near the end of my session, tried a frontal assault instead of stalking around, and I found that I was decently proficient at this on the standard difficulty. But Roy has a message for folks who might want to try that:

“If you want to go in the middle of the light and say, ‘Come on!’ this game is not for you.”

But if you do decide it’s for you, be sure to turn the gamma way down before you play.

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9 Comments

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  1. TheWulf

    The prior Thief games weren’t that dark, it’s more that they got dark when the player started putting out light sources. Not dark to the point you completely couldn’t see, then, either. What worries me about this is that they’ve essentially wrote a thesis which can be summed up as ‘you can’t extinguish torches.’ I can’t tell whether they have the worst people speaking for this game and it’s bad PR or what.

    Can you extinguish light sources in this game?

    Also, I really hate the triple-A idea that light comes from nowhere. There should be an ambient degree of light based upon moonlight and reflections, yes, but most light should be provided by light sources. I feel it’s insulting to really say that this makes for a more atmospheric game in any way. To the contrary, it’s lazy. You can make stuff not look dark by just tying in-room ambient light to a light source in a believable way. It’s possible to then turn off connected ambient light sources when the light source that provides all that light is extinguished. I believe that’s how the DarkMod goes about it.

    And if they worry about some people complaining about it being slightly less bright than a mainstream game? USE THE MECHANICAL EYE. I’m sorry, but it’s stupid to still have Garrett with a mechanical eye and not use it. Have it work as a toggle similar to Sam Fisher’s night vision. Don’t make it quite as effective as that, but at least have it provide a degree of being able to see in darker areas. Maybe even offer a low level of heat vision, so that when you have it on you can see a hint of guard presence.

    Sometimes I wish I had been designing this game. It would have been better for everyone.

    #1 10 months ago
  2. SplatteredHouse

    This sounds eerily like MANHUNT’s take on Stealth, which was hilariously bad at most times.

    #2 10 months ago
  3. manamana

    Sounds like more streamlined gameplay. Why oh why are they bothering with the darkest of dark shadows? Check out TLOU it’s super immersive. Or Tenchu for that matter.

    #3 10 months ago
  4. YoungZer0

    “Sometimes I wish I had been designing this game. It would have been better for everyone.”

    Wow … you’re not short of arrogance, I’ll give you that.

    Anyway, I think I remember seeing gameplay footage where Garrett used his eye.

    #4 10 months ago
  5. SplatteredHouse

    “Can you extinguish light sources in this game?”
    Yes. They showed in the E3 stage demo the extinguishing of torches by water arrow, and the switching off of indoor lighting. I haven’t seen moss arrows yet, though, and neither was I able to gauge the effect of treading upon different floor surfaces, to footsteps.

    In fact, at one point, the demonstration showed guards that appeared to completely disregard a colossal racket at the other end of the yard that they were guarding, caused by a wooden packing crate/box smashing down to the ground, having broken loose of its rope that had previously held it suspended in the air, until Garrett’s arrow cut the rope. What do you have to do to cause these guards to investigate, was my impression. Given the time of night/low ambient noise, little doubt the rest of the neighbourhood were more alert to The Thief’s presence, than the pacing guards, in the vicinity!

    #5 10 months ago
  6. hitnrun

    So it basically sounds like exactly what you would expect a Thief game green-lighted by a major publisher to sound like in 2013: a game that leverages a brand name and a very basic theme to stoke hardcore interest while ditching most of the gameplay for a casual experience that allows for the possibility of a franchise-spawning blockbuster with annual installments.

    #6 10 months ago
  7. manamana

    ^ Ouhtch – nailed it!

    #7 10 months ago
  8. YoungZer0

    How about the lot of you watch some actual gameplay footage before you jump to conclusions:

    http://youtu.be/5–ZKsAi5E0

    Personally, I don’t see how this is worse than the previous games. It looks fairly competent. Do like the art-direction, the instinct and the peaking mechanic.

    #8 10 months ago
  9. monkeygourmet

    @6

    Called it! :)

    And also, your rapier like deconstruction of this is true for so many beloved franchise reboots we see now.

    #9 10 months ago