I'm going to level with you. I have no idea if the next Thief game is going to be any good. And that's not for a lack of trying to figure it out.
The game, which is something of a reboot of the video game series by the same name, won't be out until next year. Technically, it doesn't have to be good yet. It's a 2014 game for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. In 2013, 2014 games are entitled to make you wonder.
In a way, the new Thief is just like any other game we preview. We see a slice of it. We talk to the game's creators about it, and they tell us about what we're seeing but also what they hope we'll see. At best and at worst, they talk about potential.
In other ways, Thief is like no other game we've previewed this year. We've seen the first-person stealth game a few times this year and have been left scratching our heads. The demos are ok. The game has baggage. It's surrounded by whispers.
The baggage involves our June 2012 report about lots of turnover and turmoil at the Eidos Montreal studio making the game.
The whispers increased in April 2013, when a reporter at Polygon chronicled some of those departures and added new information about a game that seemed to be far behind schedule and beset with changes in direction.
And then, in May at a press event in Santa Monica, I watched a demo of the game and then played part of it. I played part of the demo that was shown in June to attendees at E3.
I didn't fall in love with the game. I didn't hate it either. The fact is, it's a stealth game, and stealth games are hard to size up during press events when you've just gotten up from playing Saint's Row 4, glanced at Deus Ex running on an iPad and then sat down for 10 minutes with a level that's mid-way through this new unfinished Thief. I snuck around in first-person. I watched guards' patrol patterns. Got into some awkward fistfights, ran away, shot arrows. I didn't get anywhere near the jewels I was supposed to steal. My fault, I assumed.
I get the most out of stealth games when I'm unhurried. And I get the most out of them when I'm not wondering if the game is a calamity that's just tumbling into E3.
"I've worked on several projects and what I've seen [on this one] is, honestly, nothing new, nothing worse," the game's producer, Stephane Roy, had told me when I asked him about all the tumult back in May. "It's just a classic process."
Roy joined the team about a year and a half ago, and he admits that the game had problems then. The truth is that we often hear about games having problems. It doesn't mean the games will be terrible when they come out. But it also doesn't mean they'll be good. When I spoke to Roy last spring, it was my goal to try to deduce what the situation really was with Thief.
If nothing else, my curiosity led to one of the more interesting exchanges I've had with a game developer this year. It occurred while Roy and I sat outside on a patio of the hotel in Santa Monica where Thief and several other upcoming games from Square, Eidos and Deep Silver were being shown. Here it is:
Roy: Let's say this table is the game. When I started, the table was just full of everything. Features. A lot of things. To bring this franchise back, the team tried a lot of different things. ... 'What should we bring that's new?' 'What should we do different?' And things like that. I have to admit that probably the team was kind of...you know when you're so in your stuff that you don't step back? When I started, it wasn't easy, but easier to say, 'What's the mandate? What was your intention here? Maybe this is not...' All the answers were on the table. The game was there. The gameplay loop was there. It was messy a little bit, so, 'Let's clean up that, that, that.' I think we have a clear picture.
Me: They were trying to do too much?
Roy: Oh yes, sometimes.
Me: What did they have in there that you cut? Cars? I don't know... did they have a big machine gun?
Roy: I'll give you two examples. An example I gave in the past: there is a demo in the studio that's third-person. Full third-person. Another thing is -- what is the expression? -- the devil is in the details?
Roy: Sometimes, you want to have everything -- so perfect that it could bring you down a path where you lose the important things. You are in the detail. At the end, you feel this is what you have to do, but, whoa, whoa, wait, wait. So I'm going to give you an example. There is a lever in the game, ok... there's a lever. [He gets up and stands in front of an imaginary lever.]
Me: [laughing] This is my big exclusive! There's a lever!
Roy: [joking] Yes, we are the only one with a lever. No, no, you have the hands [that you can see in the game] and you have that lever. [The developers thought,] 'It must [look] perfect, from all the angles.' If you are about to touch the lever and a guard hits you, if you are about to touch the lever and... all the fucking situations... at the the end I don't know how many megs it was just to support the animations for the lever. 'Guy, guy, that's a lever, ok? Can we move forward?' It's a funny example, but sometimes, no, no, no, 'I guarantee, guy, the player will not tell you that the game is not fun because of the lever.'
Me: I get that that is not a major example, but that's a real example, right? That's not a metaphor?
Roy: No, that's a real one.
That... sounds positive, yeah? This sounds like a textbook case of getting something back on track, of cutting the fact, of _____ [cliche/metaphor that means a mess is being turned into the opposite of a mess].
Roy said so many good things about this new Thief, mostly about how adaptable the game would be, how tolerant it would be of different play styles. This was a stealth game that would let you set traps, let you lurk, let you set guys on fire with flame arrows shot into pools of oil or let you be a rooftop sneak.
"I don't want to see you adapting how you play, because the game asked you to do that," Roy had told me. "It's the opposite for us. If you want to have fun with the chandeliers and oil patches, please do it. If you want to be a perfect ghost and kill nobody, it's possible also."
Roy had this smart design philosophy relating to the hands you see in Thief. These are the hands of franchise protagonist Garrett but also of someone you know quite well. "It's a first-person game," Roy said. "Immersion is important. We want to convince you that when you see the hands and you peek, it's really your hands. So if you cannot play like you want, we kill this immersion. If for you you prefer to go in the sewers, because it feels really stealth, alright."
How can we not be rooting for this game? We're in a stealth-game renaissance of Mark of the Ninja and Far Cry 3 and Dishonored.
Confession: I've been worried that the game will be boring. What Roy said was sound, and, like I wrote above, it's hard to judge a stealth game amid cacophony, but I can also say that some of the game's big E3 demo bored me. Garrett had to sneak into some sort of manor, steal a jewel and then run out. It all happened at night. It started slowly and ended loudly. The game was so dark (of course, it's a stealth game!), and its brand of quiet, careful, low-powered sneaking and stalking seemed less exciting than the predatory stealth in Far Cry 3 and Batman: Arkham Origins (of course, because they're not purely stealth games!). Yet, just when I was feeling bored looking at a playthrough of Thief back in May, the game shifted from skulking to high-octane/building's-on-fire escaping. Shades of that level in this year's Tomb Raider when you're suddenly running through an entire, collapsing, burning town. I felt guilty for perking up at that. Roy would later talk to me about this mix. Infiltration, stealing, and escaping... that's the high-level gameplay loop.
I've checked my notes from back in May to see what impressed me the most.
Here are my two favourite details:
- Dual pickpocketing
- First-person rope-climbing looks cool. Shoot a rope to the ceiling and climb!
To see games early, a games reporter often has to agree not to write about what they've seen until a later date. What I saw in May was off-limits until June.
And then, in June, Rock Paper Shotgun's eternally-astute Nathan Grayson spoke to a different member of the Thief development team, played the game and then... shredded the game.
What Eidos Said: “There’s several factors to what we can do now that we couldn’t do [in earlier Thief games]. Hardware’s better, so we can do more barks, a better blend of animations, better readability of the AI. They can act in groups, so like, ‘OK, you go and check it out. I’ll stand guard here.’ They won’t just all hop around one place. In combat, they’ll start taking positions and make it harder for you to just run away. It’s a really big balancing challenge for us. It’s really hard to make AI feel like a human, because humans are super complicated. But they still have to be fun to play with, because if they were super smart, they wouldn’t shout out their intentions. We need to kind of merge that reality with the game.”
My Experience: Nope, nope, nope, nope. Guards proved respectably eagle-eyed in a few cases, but stultifyingly blind in just as many others. My favourite was when I found myself right outside the mansion’s basement entrance in a labyrinthine mess of crumbling walls, barrels, and dog cages. I used a water arrow to put out a torch on the other side of the, erm, expansively constrained area as a distraction, then slyly rounded a crucial corner while a guard struggled to understand what could possibly make all the pretty lights go away. Mistake. I miscalculated and nearly slammed mascara-ed-eye-first into two more guards. ‘Welp,’ I figured, ‘that’s curtains for me, then. May as well see how far I can get before they bop me into festive goth ribbons.’
They never did.
Um. Not good! I recall the guards being dumb, too. I recall guards in just about any stealth game I've ever played being dumb, so I don't know how badly I can knock the execution, as much as I might regret the gap between that and the intention. Then again...we're so many, many months from release. I recall how unsteady Red Dead Redemption seemed when I saw it just a few months before it was released. I recall the behind-the-scenes turmoil we reported about BioShock Infinite just a few months before I played the game's spectacular first four hours.
What in the world to make of this game?
"There is a time when a [development] team wants more time," Roy told me. "Give me more time. And now we are in this section where people don't want more time. That's enough. They want to ship this game. Honestly, if you give me more time I'm not sure I will take it because the team will say, 'Why? Don't we have enough to make it happen?'"
I get what he's saying, but the game clearly needs more time. I also get that games often come together in their final months. And yet I'm also aware that, for whatever reason, the team on Thief is trying to thread a needle and is trying to do more than just make a good game but wants to make a popular one.
"This is our mission," Roy had told me. "Not our mission from God, but what I would like is... I used to work on Splinter Cell. Some people are afraid of games like that. 'Oh, it's too complicated!'
"With this one, we wanted to make sure, 'No, man, play it like you want. You want to take your time? Take your time. It's not complicated. It's not full of gadgets and controls. It's really, push the stick, go.'"
When the game is released, may it all, ultimately, go that smoothly.