Stealth is everywhere in games, but the innovations of Thief have been forgotten

thief the dark project header
(Image credit: Square Enix)

A ghost wanders the flooded wine cellar of the abandoned Hammerite cathedral, speaking backwards and spitting skulls. Haunts patrol the altar above, rattling their chains. When they give chase, they do so at breakneck speed, as if played back at double-speed on a VHS. Strange laughter seeps between their bleached teeth as they swing their swords, two or three times a second.

Which is all to say that, as well as being the first-ever PC stealth game, Thief: The Dark Project is a surprisingly effective horror experience. Yet more terrifying than the restless undead are the hard floors. It’s not the chittering craymen in the caverns beneath the opera house that keep me up at night—it’s the marble corridors that connect the balconies in the auditorium, and the steel walkways suspended above the stage. The clang of Garrett’s shoes against metal still brings about an involuntary, Pavlovian cringe—connected to memories of running guards and sounded alarms.

“The thing we were keenly aware of was that this was going to be the first stealth game that was really going to rely on audio cues,” Looking Glass sound designer Eric Brosius recalled in a 2011 interview with MIT’s GAMBIT Game Lab. 

First modelled on submarine simulators back when Ken Levine was its lead designer, Thief is a game about covert information gathering. And visual information is hard to come by. Not once are you given a convenient opportunity to hang about on a hillside and mark your targets in a valley down below. Instead, the many guards who threaten to bring their blades to bear on your crouched arse are almost always obscured by the mazelike, monk-punk world around you—the u-bends of tight, Italian-inspired streets and sewers; the close walls of boudoirs and pantries; and that ever-present blanket of gloom.

As such, your best bet is to keep your ears open for the sound of a sellsword clearing his throat, or a pious Hammerite humming a hymn as they potter about the temple. That way, you can create a mental map of the patrols you ought to be avoiding, or interrupting with a blackjack to the back of the head. Because just as you’re gathering visual and aural information on your environment, your enemies are doing the same. They are submarine-killers out to sink your vulnerable vessel.

Noise maker 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

By way of assisting the player, Brosius built Thief’s soundtrack from simple, droning loops that in some cases were just four seconds long. “We wanted to make sure there was enough space in the game that you could hear what was going on,” he said. “It made you very aware of stuff around you, which worked in your advantage listening for guards’ footsteps. We kept it simple and hypnotic. We didn’t try to make it scary, that wasn’t our goal. We knew we had to make it really immersive.”

Of course, while sound might be the first tool and opponent a Thief player needs to master—altered by noisemakers and moss arrows, which can carpet that pesky marble and dampen your tread—it’s matched in significance by light. Every shadow in this medieval noir story serves a greater than stylistic purpose, granting you a pitch-black path to safety, or an unseen vantage point from which to watch your enemies.

“You’re playing this essentially voyeuristic role,” project lead Greg LoPiccolo told MIT GAMBIT in 2011. “We were going up against Doom, which was ‘boom, boom, boom’ all the time. Could we make a game where you would be entertained by just standing for a minute someplace and doing nothing? Just watching some dude walk around a corner and [wondering] how long will it be before he comes back the other way? There was not a foregone conclusion that that was going to work when we started.”

Thief’s formula came together late, after “massive staff turnover”. The Dark Project’s lead artist and lead programmer quit during production, as did Levine, who left to co-found Irrational Games. But in those empty slots arrived talented individuals like Tom Leonard, who developed and tuned Thief’s stealth AI, and later shaped the behaviour of the Combine soldiers in Half-Life 2. And in the years after Thief launched it was hailed—alongside Metal Gear Solid, which came out just a few months earlier in 1998—as the progenitor of a new genre in 3D gaming.

Dying light 

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Which is odd, when you think about it. Because those systems I’ve devoted hundreds of words to—the second-to-none sound design, the light and the dark—have largely been left behind by modern game design. Oh sure, there are plenty of partial tributes: as a mood piece, Dishonored is almost the spitting image of Thief, and factors noise into its stealth; Irrational’s swansong, the Bioshock Infinite DLC Burial at Sea Part 2, laced 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 the multi-stage enemy detection now standard in Bethesda RPGs. Then there are Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon games, at this point the closest living relative to Splinter Cell, which still simulate hiding in shadow. And this year’s Modern Warfare 2 hands a huge advantage to players who stop and listen for opponents’ footsteps in multiplayer.

But these are outliers. As a general rule, line-of-sight is now the defining consideration of stealth sequences. As fellow frequent PC Gamer freelancer Rick Lane points out, sneaking is now most often a supplementary mechanic in games that also encompass all-out action. In that context, developing a detection model as detailed as the Looking Glass one could be considered needless extra work—not to mention confusing for players who only periodically engage with it. As a consequence, stealth is at once everywhere and less advanced than it was 24 years ago.

Perhaps it’s for the best that AAA games today serve the needs of the majority, allowing them the frisson of slipping by a patrol or triggering a takedown on a clueless guard without demanding mastery over multiple fiddly systems. Thief was always a niche hit, and indie successors like Gloomwood exist to satisfy its old audience. Yet returning to The Dark Project remains a bracing and brilliant experience. The kind of cold shower—or freezing bath in a wine cellar—that makes you feel alive.