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Thief: emphasising credibility, downplaying accessibility

Friday, 7th February 2014 09:00 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Thief has to be more playable than its precursors – but without sacrificing the unforgiving stealth simulation that is the franchise’s core. The result is unforgiving and challenging, but doesn’t require octopus-level dexterity.

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Thief: Back in Action

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A new take on a classic PC-exclusive formula, hailing from Deus Ex: Human Revolution developer Eidos Montreal.

A simple premise: you get in, you steal stuff, you get out.

Purists insist on no discovery, no kill playthroughs. You can enforce these restrictions through menu options.

Thief steals ont- *slaps self* arrives on PC, PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One at the end of February.

Prior to this year’s reboot, my only experiences with Thief were mostly negative. It’s one of those franchises I came late to, picking it up in a bargain bin collection of re-releases when I first acquired a decent gaming PC. All my friends raved about how good it was, but I’d never played anything like it – I think it might have been one of the first first-person game I’d ever played.

Objectively, watching somebody else play, I can see the brilliance, but there’s just something about having to remember a dozen different buttons for peek that puts me off.

“Technology has advanced. I played through the previous games not too long ago actually,” director Nicolas Cantin told us in a recent interview. “You see a lot of things that are not acceptable today, to gamers.

“Thief was really our main reference. We wanted to keep the main pillar. But we wanted to deliver a new experience, something for the modern public, but that also that would please the fans. This was a good challenge we had.”

I can’t speak for those hardcore fans, although I do wonder whether they can learn to be proud of their skill at the game even as we regular joes turn the difficulty down and experience the story and Thief fantasy.

Just rob a dentist already

It’s often hard to spot guards in your immediate surroundings. I suggested that Garrett should carry a tiny mirror on a stick to allow him to look around corners. Cantin did not seem impressed by this. If it pops up as premium DLC I expect a cut.

“The experience was more dry,” Cantin said of the original Thief games’ bristling control schemes, now rendered simple by the arrival of ubiquitous analog controls. “The technology now gives us all these utilities. We want you to become the character. You become Garrett. We put a lot of personality in his hands, the way he’s moving. So it’s not only, poof!” – he gestured flatly – “Generic movement. It’s how we define the character. We don’t want you to play Garrett. We want you to be Garrett.

“We put a lot of effort into those details because this is also one of the big differences between the game of today and the game of the past.”

Whenever a developer or publisher mentions “accessibility”, it raises hackles. But while I’m no advocate for dumbing down games and lowering difficulty, there’s something be said for replacing a dozen different buttons for peek with an analog stick capable of producing even more subtle motions.

Eidos Montreal’s flexibility and willingness to cut certain features demonstrates that it isn’t willing to sacrifice the franchise’s unique flavour in favour of something with universal appeal. Another apt demonstration of this is the fact that guards, once alerted, never return to an entirely passive patrol state – something those of us raised on Metal Gear and its ilk will find unforgiving.

“If something happens, they change their reactions and they will behave differently. Even though they go back to their ‘normal state’, shall we say, they’ll be affected by what happened before,” Cantin confirmed.

Creative differences

Eidos Montreal’s AI programmers were very pleased with themselves when they made guards smart enough not to be fooled by the old throw-a-bottle trick. Playtesters and designers had to convince the team that having a guard track the path of the missile back actually wasn’t a super good idea, even if it is a hell of a technical achievement.

“So it’s not about ‘going back’ and redoing the loop and things, it’s really about being more organic and making sure that’s it not always the same thing.”

Additionally, there aren’t any simple, hard and fast rules for the player to learn by rote; how alerted characters behave depends on who you alert, and when, and how. At one stage, Eidos Montreal went for a hyper-realistic approach, where guards never gave up looking for the player after an alert – but it wasn’t much fun.

So guards won’t come drag you out of a cupboard, unless they know you’ve run into a locked room, but they won’t ever forget you were there – players will have to take opportunity of small chances to escape detection, which is where Eidos Montreal hopes the fun is.

“Credibility was really important, to make sure that it was not feeling too much like if you’re in the shadow, it will protect you if you stay there all the time.”

Speaking of hiding from guards: one last topic I felt I had to raise with Cantin was Garrett’s outfit. A master thief ought to blend with the shadows, but you know what really stands out in shadows? Solid blacks. That’s why so few camouflage prints utilise it. No serious stealth master would wear solid black. This is a real, true thing, and if Cantin – director and art director on the most pure stealth game in years – did not know it, I was ready to flip a table.

“Black is not the most stealthy colour, is it,” I asked.

“Black is n- what is more stealthy than black!” Square Enix PR manager Adam Phillips exclaimed.

Wardrobe department

As I’ve demonstrated time and time again, I’m a hard-hitting investigative games journalist who isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions.

“Does Garrett change his clothes when he goes back to his clock tower, or has he been wearing the same leathers for the entire game?” I asked Cantin.

“He has the same suit, but ten times he washed it,” Cantin joked, before commenting that customisation and progress of costume wasn’t really on Eidos Montreal’s radar because Garrett is who he is – a master thief – when the player first meets him.

“It’s a good thing the guards can’t smell then, or they would find him,” I pointed out.

“The guards smell too. Everything smells bad in that world,” Cantin argued.

Cantin also confirmed that Eidos Montreal did not consider implementing a scent system.

“We’re not about our main character smelling bad,” Cantin said.

Even though he obviously does.

“Um, grey? Dark blue? Purple? Green? Pretty much everything,” I said. I was showing off.

“Garrett’s not wearing black,” Cantin said. “He’s grey and – like you see all the lighting presently, it’s blue. Garrett’s not going to have that reflect on him, he fits into the environment.

“It was an interesting thing, the hood and costume. In the beginning it was all in fabric, and when we did a costume [for a live action promo] the girls in New York who were working with us, they did it in full leather. And it looked really much better,” Cantin added. “So we were like, ‘Oh! Let’s do that also in the game.’”

Unfortunately, polished leather shines. “We kind of reduced the specular of the leather, and we had to make sure it was looking good but it was also stealthy.

“But if you look here,” – Cantin directed us to a large poster of Garrett – “It’s all blue, but the mesh is more like grey, brown, with a lot of variation for the fabrics.

“If you look at the shoes, they won’t make much sound. He’s meant to be silent and invisible in this world. With the mask, when he’s doing stealth action, so his face isn’t shining like,” Cantin made an expressive sound of garrett’s pasty features lighting up the night.

Credibility confirmed.

Thief arrives on PC, PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One at the end of February.

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4 Comments

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  1. Jerykk

    Solid black stands out in shadows? How does that logic work? The whole point of camo is to blend in with your environment. If you’re hiding in a solid black shadow then wearing solid black is the best way to blend in. Then again, if the shadow is solid black, there’s no light there anyway so I guess it doesn’t matter what you wear.

    Anywho, leaning in the original Thief games was not complicated at all. Q leans left, E leans right. Those were standard keybinds for leaning in PC games at the time. Not sure how you construed that as a dozen keys.

    #1 2 months ago
  2. karma

    “Whenever a developer or publisher mentions “accessibility”, it raises hackles. But while I’m no advocate for dumbing down games and lowering difficulty, there’s something be said for replacing a dozen different buttons for peek with an analog stick capable of producing even more subtle motions.”

    This is one of the reasons I bitch so much about modern games. Makes me sound like a grumpy old fart. but the fact is all the dumbing down is impacting my game enjoyment considerably. I dont feel the urge to play a lot of modern games since they often feel stripped of depth and danger. BioShock Infinite for example, to me was just a huge step back from its predecessors. Storytelling is getting better, but gameplay and player interaction with the systems is becoming a bore.

    I agree there are a lot of modern gameplay mechanic improvements. Its always a good idea to reduce the number of button presses to make something cool happen, as long as it doesn’t actually kill the nuance that the feature allowed. Taking away the players input and doing things automatically for them just makes games feel like they are not interactive, but rather reactive, and fool proofed to prevent player from harming themselves. Games are less enjoyable when you take away the danger. That type of simplification also removes player experimentation and ability to discover new tricks / skills overtime, because ultimately the mechanic is a more robust and restrictive one.

    As for T4, it was pretty apparent in the beginning that they DID start out with accessibility in mind, but I think overwhelming criticism caused them to pull a lot of that stuff back. It remains to be seen if they actually found a good balance for vets and new comers alike.

    #2 2 months ago
  3. ddtd

    @1 – There’s no such thing as a solid black shadow, If you have a shadow, you have light as well. Even when it’s really dark, an eye that’s adjusted to the low amount if light can pick up some detail, including variations on tone. Hence that’s why solid black stands out.

    #3 2 months ago
  4. TheWulf

    @3

    Yeah, but that’s dealing with the kind of absolute realism that’s been making games so, so much less fun. True, it’s unrealistic that solid black blends in, but then why can’t it be some form of magic, advanced technology, or mix of the aforementioned? There’s no excuse for it. It’s just this fetishistic desire to bring reality into everything, even where it just doesn’t belong.

    And it affects aesthetics, too. The original Thief games used to be really colourful, but because developers are used to desaturated environments, they make their games look the same way. They need to take more nature walks. Double Fine, notorious for their incredible aesthetics, have also pointed this out in their documentaries.

    See, when I first saw a friend streaming a nearby city, I was astonished at how flat and grey it was. I actually wondered if the camera wasn’t working properly, but it seems that cities really just are completely dead, soulless, desaturated places without any visual personality whatsoever. Oh, sure, you have these little niches, but most of the time it’s a depressing, grey nothingness.

    And that’s being translated into games. Games are becoming a depressing, grey nothingness. Thief was originally so much more colourful, but now we have scenes which are dominated by one colour. Even Bethesda did it with Fallout 3, which Obsidian followed on with, and I disapproved of. See, Fallout 3 had a GREEN filter, and New Vegas had an ORANGE filter. Everything looked flat. Remove the filters and the art assets people created really began to pop out, more.

    Thief has the same problem.

    It’s a grey place. It’s a grey place. It’s a brown place. It’s a grey place. It’s a grey place. It’s a slightly more reddish brown place. It’s a grey place. It’s a grey place. It’s a grey place. It’s so boring, make it stoooooooop.

    I have a passion for aesthetics, and this obsession with realism really gets on my tit. Fuck realism. DEFENESTRATE REALISM. Get it out of the building!

    Let’s replace realism with FUN again.

    #4 2 months ago