I boot up and play a bit of Skyrim once in a while, and every single time I end up making a stealth archer. My intentions are always pure. As it downloads I’m thinking about illusion magic, and as I install my barebone list of UI mods I’m looking up dual-wielding skill trees. But when it comes to down to the wire, I pick a Khajiit or Wood Elf, and start shooting people with bows from the shadows. I didn’t choose the stealth life, it chose me, and it won’t let me play the game any other way.
I only ever play for a few hours though. Because while Skyrim has a million things to do and many different ways to do it, the game is notoriously shallow. And the stealth is no exception. You’ve seen the full breadth of its stealth mechanics within your first dungeon and there’s no real challenge to be had. So I close it down, and look for a game with something more to offer.
In recent years, there have been three big AAA titles that I would consider hybrid stealth games: Dishonored, Deus Ex and MGS V. I’ve played them all - and love them all - for their own particular quirks. Dishonored has its verticality, Deus Ex has its well realised locations and MGS V reinvigorated dynamic gameplay for this generation. All these games have stealth as part of their DNA, but they’re not defined by it - its an optional path, a way to play the game, a part of a richer tapestry of overlapping ideas. This seems to be the future of the stealth genre, as a section of something greater.
But does it need to be this way? Could we take that stealth part and expand it into an entire game, getting rid of the lethal guns, the base building, the explosions?
A couple of weeks ago I played through Thief Gold for my podcast. Originally released as Thief: The Dark Project in 1998 by Looking Glass Studios, it left a lasting impression on the industry and players alike. And the main thing that you need to understand about Thief is that - well, it’s just a stealth game.
In Thief, you play as Garret, a predefined character. He’s sarcastic, egotistical, and angry at the secret society that trained him: The Keepers. You don’t choose how he feels, his dialogue options or who he romances, and you definitely don’t get to decide his strengths or weaknesses.
Garret is good at being a thief. He hides in shadows incredibly well and is fairly athletic, able to climb up rope arrows and long jump with the best of them. He can also pick locks, use a bow and has excellent hearing and low light vision. But he isn’t infallible. Garret is rubbish at fighting and is often outclassed by just one guard. If you get spotted, you better run, or you’re going to end up dead.
And this person, this character, never changes throughout the entire game. These are the terms and conditions you accept when you play Thief. You get access to a couple of additional tools, but you never level up or gain access to new abilities. There’s no double jump, armour increase or double take down. You are not a superhero, and never will be. It's not that you’re useless, it's just that you need to play to your strengths - which largely consists of being silent and hiding.
Instead of Garret getting skill points to increase his strength, you get better at being Garret. You learn how far sound travels on different surfaces, so you creep across the clanky metal only when you’ve gained some distance from the nearest guard. You get a better grasp of how invisible you are in true darkness, and how close you can be before getting spotted. You learn to sit silently behind a door, listening to the footsteps of a patrol, using that as your only guide to know when it's safe to venture out from the comfort of dark. By the end of the game you’ve somewhat (hopefully) earned the title of Master Thief that Garret claims to be.
You’re not a one man army or a deity of death and destruction. You’re just a thief.
The way we understand the various worlds of video games is heavily influenced by the mechanics of the game. Aesthetics can’t exist independent of how we engage with the world. When you play Portal, you rapidly understand the difference between surfaces that can be shot with the portal gun and the ones that cannot. And you view the world in this way because it defines what is possible for you.
In Thief, you view the world in terms of shadows. They splay out in front of you, lanterns and candles shining their little hubs of brightness. And you physically recoil at the light. Its safe inside the darkness, and dangerous in the light. Your water arrows are more precious than any explosive mine because they answer this encroaching threat. Every time you walk into a new area your eyes rapidly scan the area before spotting a patch of darkness, and you descend into it, sighing a breath of relief as you fade from sight.
Sound can be just as deadly as the light, however. While soft, velvety carpets completely deaden your footsteps - letting you sprint or jump along them with zero danger - marble floors make me want to turn around and find another way. Even tip-toeing over those menacing floors can spur guards into alert if they’re close enough. You can use your moss arrows to provide bastions of silent safety, but there’s always too much marble and not enough arrows, particularly as you move into the later challenges of the game.
The reason you strive to not get noticed are the ever-present guards. Your only chance against a guard is to get right behind them and blackjack them, knocking them unconscious. You need to be silent and hidden to get up close enough to do so, taking the perfect opportunity to strike when there is no-one else present to witness your assault. But make one mistake, and its either a reload or a desperate scramble to get away. When you see a guard walking towards you from the end of a long corridor, your instinct is to turn around, hide, quickly open a door and get away. You recognise these grunts holding swords as deadly foes, at least until you can catch them unaware.
In most other games, this stuff would barely register. Sound and shadows are often functionally irrelevant, and generic, regular enemies are minor obstacles to be brushed aside. But when you play this game, you see it through your character’s eyes, so you feel as threatened by a metal floor surface as a boss from any other game.
You play Thief stealthily not because of some abstract morality system or so you can get a sweet achievement. You play it that way because it's the only logical thing to do. The world is given meaning through your character’s strengths and weaknesses. You can’t use persuasion or violence to deal with the threats in front of you. You’re just a thief, with all the strengths and weaknesses of one, and see the world and its dangers through a thief’s eyes.
The player character is only one side of the coin of immersion though. The other is worldbuilding. You start (nearly) every mission in Thief with a map. Some of them are extremely detailed, and help enormously in your ability to navigate the complex levels. Others are starting points, or require a more creative interpretation. There’s one thing that they all have in common: They’re all a conscious part of the worldbuilding.
When you go on your Tomb Raider-esque adventure to the Lost City, you get a piece of parchment scrawled with hieroglyphics. No other map exists - the last Keeper expedition never returned, so you’re stuck with this awkward and difficult to understand piece of paper. It adds to the challenge, and makes knowing where you are more annoying - and it's perfect.
There are no objective markers telling you where you need to go. There’s no minimap tracking the locations of missed treasure chests. When you find a parchment that has a clue pointing towards a secret artefact, you don’t get a notification and an objective update - you need to read and understand what’s been written down. Even something as simple as the light gem is part of the world - it's a literal gem that reflects the light level - rather than being some artificial UI indicator.
The world itself is constructed to be realistic and grounded first, and game-ified second. Take the Opera Houses’ layout, for example. The entrance is decked in marble, but when you reach the seating area its covered in plush carpet. Most of the Houses’ patrons are in this area, and it's by far the most well lit. The backstage area is darker, but covered in wooden slats with the rigging being made of clanging metal. The storage areas are mostly stone except for the practice area down below, also wooden to mimic the stage above.
It could have been set up with the entrance carpeted, the seating area in wood and the top floors in pure marble. It would have been a traditional difficulty progression from easy to hard. And it would have made zero sense in the world of Thief.
Thief’s world is all so normal and realistic. And when we do go to the more weird places that Thief has to offer, it's the strong worldbuilding of offer that keeps it grounded. The treasure isn’t placed in such a way as to provide a consistent gameplay feedback loop - its put in the place that makes the most sense, behind the guards and multiple locked doors. The gameplay comes about as a consequence of the worldbuilding, not the other way round.
The trick with good worldbuilding is to make the player think that they’re seeing a fraction of a much deeper picture. While we might see 90% of what exists in the world, we have to believe that its 1%. When you fill the world with angry notes to maids and a room that has excess opera props it becomes easier to believe in the reality of that world. And if the world is real, it becomes meaningful to interact with. You’re not some person playing a video game - you’re just a thief.
Thief is just a stealth game. Thief is only a stealth game. Thief is exactly a stealth game. And that’s precisely why it has resonated with so many in the decades since its release. It takes the simple idea of being a thief, and expands upon it in every direction. What sort of tools would a thief have? What is it that a thief fears? What places would be interesting to rob, and how would they look and feel? What is it that makes a thief feel safe and how would they perceive the world?
It's an extremely focused game. Its not trying to cater for multiple play styles and isn’t stuffed to the gills with crafting and elaborate parkour. It set out to provide a very specific experience for the player, and built it down and down and down. It's the opposite of Skyrim’s wide puddle - it's a small hole that goes to the centre of the earth.
Thief is by no means a perfect game. These games still need to solve the problem of constant quicksaving. It feels janky in a lot of ways, with dodgy ledge grabbing and hit detection. And while the world building is solid, its largely been eclipsed by modern titles like Prey (2016). But the narrow lens by which this game has been designed has allowed it to keep pace with more modern stealth titles all these years later. It nails the pure stealth experience by showing restraint. It started with the guilty pleasure of silently waiting in the shadows while oblivious guards walked about, and built a game out of that idea.
Thief is just a stealth game. And when you play it, you become a thief.