Thief interview -- mission structure, complexity, lessons from Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Eidos Montreal's latest gig shaping its Thief reboot treads a fine and shadowy line. The modern entry to the esteemed stealth series has the cautious attention of franchise fans who've long awaited a new Thief, but it's also mixing the new in with the tried-and-true: a grittier and more involved Garrett, an all-revealing Focus mechanic, and a conservative jumping/climbing control scheme.
I had a chat with senior producer Stephane Roy and narrative director Steven Gallagher on the team's drive for delivering its own take on Thief and what to expect from taking to The City's streets. Read on for their thoughts.
PC Gamer: How many City hubs will we find in Thief?
Stephane Roy: You'll be able to explore and pick up jobs in the Dayport, Old Quarter, Cathedral, Stonemarket, South Quarter, Docks, and Auldale districts.
Are there crossover jobs? Can one pick up a job from Stonemarket and have it take place in Auldale, for example?
Steven Gallagher: The smaller City wards denote the fact that you'll travel there during the game's main storyline. Most of the side-quests and miscellaneous jobs take place in the major hubs of Stonemarket and South Quarter.
How much variance will players see in terms of where City hub loot is hidden? A number of the jobs I completed seemed to always involve finding a hidden switch behind a painting.
SR: During full story missions where you're going after a specific piece of treasure, you'll see a lot of various ways Garrett figures out where his prize is being kept. For hub gameplay, it's much more systemic and reliant on exploration. We hope the full package—both mission and hub gameplay—strikes a good balance for players.
So, the missions are where you'd find more complexity, generally?
SG: Well, the complexity of “finding something behind something” isn't that complex, really. I think it's more fair to say that missions offer a little more uniqueness in design. I certainly don't think the intention is for a player to automatically home in on a painting the moment they enter a room.
SR: A primary objective within the hubs is leaving a trail of clues to follow and explore. It's also more accessible—if you only have 20 minutes to play before heading out, you can hop in and finish up a couple hub jobs before you're done as opposed to going through a full story mission.
Does that make hubs something along the lines of “Thief lite”?
SG: I wouldn't say so. Missions usually focus on a single objective. While in The City, you'll often trigger multiple objectives after discovering hidden documents or journals. You're encountering smaller pieces of a greater experience as you continuously explore.
SR: We've seen players who don't even bother to read anything they find. We have to make sure the game is fun for them, too. So, it's a big challenge to add enough layers of exposition to not penalize anyone who wants to skip over that kind of stuff.
SG: The hubs are useful for getting to know the world of Thief better. They're also good setting for more lighthearted content. You don't want to be in the middle of mission 5 and get interrupted with a joke out of nowhere or something. You're going to find stuff in the hubs that'll make you smile and laugh.
Will we hear a “taffer” somewhere?
SG: [laughs] I've said in other interviews that our Thief has a new story, a new Garrett, and so on. The old Thief games have that great history and legacy, but the more you'll play our game, the more you'll hear words you've never heard before. We have a sort of brand new lexicon for the game, as it were. As for taffer, you may or may not hear it. Maybe it exists in this world and maybe not. There's an entirely new vocabulary at work.
How flexible are the hub jobs? Could a player discover a job item before actually acquiring the contract and turn it in for the reward anyway?
SR: That reminds me of a talk I had with the lead designer a couple days back. We talked about how we want to make sure the hubs represented exploration, but we also didn't want to encourage linearity by blocking off a bunch of stuff. Technically, job items won't show up until you talk to Basso, because that would otherwise render Basso useless. As an example, you can explore a specific apartment relating to a job before talking to Basso, but the combination for a safe in that apartment holding the job item only appears after you pick up the contract.
Within the framework of Thief, do you think it's better to let players benefit from a full freedom of exploration that includes mistakes and frustrating moments, or is it more effective to include slight nudges in the right direction for a safer but slightly restrictive experience?
SR: There's definitely not a black or white answer to this. On one side, you have the kind of player who demands to jump or go anywhere and die if he or she chooses. Others get bored if they keep dying and don't mind that kind of stuff being blocked off. What we're trying to do here is impart subtle messages that certain jumps will kill you—if you still tell Garrett to jump, he'll instead crouch near the edge and look down. You can still jump and potentially die if you miss an actual landing spot like a wooden beam. It's a matter of tightening the visual language and showing where and where not to jump to signify that any deaths come from genuine player error and not a communication failure on our part.
"We've seen players who don't even bother to read anything they find. We have to make sure the game is fun for them, too."
SG: I consider the matter pretty subjective. It's kind of like the “are games art” debate—what might be defined as art for one person isn't the same for someone else. It's the same with what's considered difficult by various kinds of players. There's some things my best friend can't do in games that I'm perfectly fine with, for instance.
Every time I start a new game, I have these old gaming habits kicking in to urge me to find out whether I can fall off this edge or die this way and so on. After I figure it out, I have a pretty good feel of what kind of game I'll be playing. That's my personal way of doing things, but still, falling off because you weren't paying attention isn't that much fun. I can see why it's empowering for some people, though. It's sort of a Dark Souls effect where movement and combat veterans clearly stand out from the rest.
In Thief, your skillset is demonstrated in different ways. Garrett is a master thief, so he's really flexible in terms of how he handles situations. You can be fast and aggressive, wiping out an entire room before anyone knew you were there. Or you can keep to the shadows and leave no trace of your presence at all. Who's to say one way is better than the other? Given the tools and choices available to you, you should be able to play using whatever method you wish.
SR: It's important to consider every scenario from a thief's perspective. You shouldn't expect to survive if you stand in the middle of a spotlight and yell at everyone to bring it on. Garrett isn't a soldier. He's more of an opportunist, and that's reflected in Thief's level design. You can light oil patches to burn guards alive, or you can simply not touch them at all. We won't force you into one situation or the other, but we'd like the player to be aware of the opportunities given to them throughout the game.
During my time with the demo, I noticed that jumping across rooftops and dropping down from heights swayed in sensitivity, even though I'd be using the same amount of pressure on the control stick (I was given an Xbox 360 controller for the hands-on) the entire time. I'd sometimes fall to my death on jumps I've completed before without changing my orientation. How would this be addressed on the PC, and how will PC gamers be able to pull off precise jumps on PC controls?
SR: This is a problem we've seen similar feedback from earlier playtesting. We're close to distribution phase in the game's production, but we're still keeping close attention on making sure players movement aligns with their intentions, and I know it can get pretty frustrating if it doesn't work out. I'm both happy and unhappy to get this kind of feedback from you, but I'm especially grateful it lines up with what we've seen so we can really nail it down.
I ran into the same problem while climbing rope arrows. I'd face the platform or rooftop I wanted to jump to, and Garrett sometimes just simply lets go and drops straight down like a rock.
SR: Yeah, it's similar to the other issue you described. From a production standpoint, I'm glad to hear of these tiny details, especially when we're showing off a demo. It's easy to gloss over the little things when you have a strong part of the game to show off, but I know movement and navigation is such an important facet of Thief. We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable with the controls.
Even though a different team at Eidos Montreal worked on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, what potential lessons did Thief's team learn from that game's development and apply towards their own?
SR: Trust your instincts. Human Revolution's team encountered the same challenges of taking a long established franchise in a new direction while under considerable pressure from core fans going, “No, no, you can't do that to my Deus Ex.” It's simply impossible to listen to everybody out there, so the guys working on Thief have really learned to trust their feelings behind their decisions. Nothing would get done otherwise. If we decided to backpedal and add in “taffer” because a bunch of people wanted it, we'd get another complaint the next day from someone else saying, “Why stay stuck in the past?”
Thanks to Stephane and Steven for their answers. Thief releases February 25, 2014. For more info, check out our hands-on impressions.