Being late on the review bandwagon isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it lends itself to clarity. At least, that’s the excuse I’m going to use for why I’m choosing to talk about this title. Look at a review anywhere, and the general consensus for Eidos’s Thief is that it falls flat, and it’s nothing to get very excited about. To fans of the original series especially, it was a huge let-down, which is something I’m reminded of every time I discuss it with my girlfriend, having never played the old generation myself.
My personal aggravations with the gameplay Thief stem overwhelmingly from frustration. The map ranges from difficult to impossible to read in the hub between levels, giving waypoints, but not always being clear which area of this fucking disaster assembly you can actually enter from. I found myself running all over the city, lost as hell, trying to figure out which areas the windows I was supposed to sneak in even were. Some side-missions I gave up on entirely because I just hated them. And that was a shame, because of everything the game did right, the ideas behind the little side-stories were fun.
One of the biggest sins of this game, even as a stand-alone title, is the writing. And that’s why I’m here.
Garrett. Garett is boring. His facial expression rarely changes, and when it does, he either looks like his eyebrows are broken, or he’s just a little constipated. When you visuals are part of your storytelling, a trait of movies and video games, the way people express themselves is essential to portray. Garrett never becomes anything but an instructional voice who seems ever so slightly sorry for himself and rather brooding. He isn’t funny or charming or even very memorable, unlike Original Garrett, who I know to be witty and strange. And a lot of the things he says… well, it doesn’t always make any sense. And it isn’t, say, fun to hear.
Wikiquote.org has a section on the previous thief games, and just looking at these lines makes you smile and gives you a good idea of what the character is all about. I have some favorites from Thief: The Dark Project.
"Heh! It’s a throne room. How pretentious can you get?"
"I was pissed at Cutty for a good while after the…prison debacle. But hey, you can’t blame him for what the Hammers did to him. So I decided to go after that horn Felix talked about. Not like I had a whole lot of choice, really…the rent is due…and my landlord’s even tougher than the Hammers."
"It’s a rock. It’s what you asked for. Am I gonna get paid or not?"
I have not played this game. I have no idea what the context is for these lines. And the dialogue alone, just these snippets, makes me want to go dive in.
By contrast, here’s some Garrett lines from the new Thief. I took this one from the opening scene. It is, in fact, the very first thing Garrett says.
“If there’s one thing this city’s taught me, you can put a price on anything. Secrets, reputations… a life. And trust? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. But then I suppose none of that matters when you’re me. After all… when did I ever pay for anything?”
This just doesn’t have the same ring to it. And again, does it really make sense?
“If there’s one thing this city’s taught me, you can put a price on anything. Secrets, reputations… a life.”
Got it, good. Not my favorite grammatical choice. I would have gone with “lives” instead of “a life”, because that suggests he’s talking about a particular somebody, but there’s no evidence for that anywhere else in-game.
“And trust? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
And now I have a problem. This is a big break from the last statement. So when he says it, it sounds… weird. Secrets, reputations, a life. And trust? It just sounds awkward, like it’s a totally different conversation. This isn’t a place for questions.
“But then I suppose none of that matters when you’re me.”
Well then why the fuck are you talking about it, Garrett? Because that’s so contradictory, it makes me want to slap myself. The price of secrets is practically your job, for fuck’s sake! You go around stealing things from safes, where they are SECRET, and then selling them for money, which ruins reputations a-plenty, I’m sure. You may not be an assassin, but there’s a bounty on your head, and I would say that the price of your life matters quite a bit. And as for trust, are you not referring, previously, to your trust which others cannot afford? Well, what then?
“After all… when did I ever pay for anything?”
You spend the rest of the game paying for equipment upgrades, more arrows, and helpful trinkets. With money. So… all the time, Garrett. You pay for things all the time.
This is your first dive into the game, the first fricken thing he says. And it’s… dumb. It’s just kinda dumb. We’re supposed to get a snapshot of Garrett’s life and mindset. Instead, we have brooding and dialogue that smacks us in the face with “LOOK A SOCIAL PARIAH” even though the statements themselves are contradictory. Yes, this is a bit of nit-picking, but a first line of dialogue should be solid if not flawless. It’s what hooks you in. There’s no excuse for this.
My next lines come from a fairly broken cutscene in which the lip-syncing is, in every version I have seen and the one I played through, broken. The speaking is so far ahead of or behind the mouths and subtitles that if would be funny if it wasn’t damn frustrating.
Garret shows interest in going to rob a very dangerous, supposedly nonexistent safe, to which Basso says, “Look, Garrett… No one is paying you to risk your neck for this.”
And Garret replies, “It’s not about the payment. It’s who I am.”
To which I am forcibly inclined to agree. It is who this Garrett is, because he is apparently nothing BUT a thief. He has no meaningful personal relationships, in spite of going through the trouble of saving his fence. He never seems to address Basso directly as anything but a business partner, which makes one wonder why he bothered to come to the rescue in the first place. Garrett has no quips about life outside of stealing things, usually at night. His house is empty except for collectibles, the bed is nasty and eternally unmade, and the only other person he has consistently interacted with is Erin.
And I’m going to get to Erin.
First of all, this is a character shift so far from the original that even I can smell somebody trying for the Batman-like, heroic anti-hero archetype. Garrett is a thief. The payment ought to be very important. And if indeed there is something in the safe (which of course there is), there would always be a buyer somewhere.
But this is not who Garrett should be. A character who is nothing but a thief will not be relatable for most audiences, will not be endearing. Garret is indeed not those things. He is stale. He is boring. He lacks originality.
And then, moments later, when he gets to the safe, Garret says “This might be a bad idea.”
Which seems a little bit late, seeing as he had to go be all dramatic about how stealing things that are really unrealistic and dangerous to steal from is just part of his identity.
Originally, I wanted to pin down dialogue for Erin as well, but the task was absolutely, mind-blowingly annoying. Because somehow, everything she said managed to make me frustrated. Indeed, I remain unsure if the writing, or the voice-casting is to be blamed for this overwhelming sense of irritation I feel about Erin. A good piece of evidence towards the acting is at the beginning of the game, where her line is “So how much did you steal?” and it sounds like the actress maybe had a voice crack at the last word. Like she maybe choked on a mint or something. Which, in all honestly, might have made a better scene. Erin either coughs and makes herself look stupid—which lends itself to relatability and a bit of humor in this very dour setting—or perhaps sees that one of the things Garrett has stolen is embarrassing. Say, a pair of silk pantaloons. And laughs a little. No, we instead get something that sounds poorly edited, like they couldn’t be bothered to record again.
Throughout the game, at every opportunity, they like to replay Erin’s “Garrett I’m slipping!” and “NO!” to the point that they are in no way stressful to hear, not pulling a single heartstring. They are annoying. It would be better, in my opinion, to be playing dialogue from unseen sweeter moments of their past together. This would have given both characters more relatability, more charm, and indeed an actual history. Erin’s past is known mostly through paper trails and flashes of Primal, but we know very little about our main protagonist. Just a scene with them laughing about something from way back would actually make Erin’s constant nagging about supposed betrayal feel justified. Maybe tragic. Nothing hurts more than somebody you trust doing you wrong. And she is repetitively harping about this point, but we as the player are just left feeling like she’s childish and delusional. As I said before, Garrett never really shows anybody much fondness. Just a few pieces of new dialogue in place of repetition could have fixed that.
Basso was a well enough character, I suppose. The high point of the writing, in my opinion, came from his first scene, where he seems genuinely worried and upset about Garrett being gone, and he even lends himself to some good sarcasm and gross charm. But that emotion also passes rather quickly there, and in later parts of the game. His side-mission statements are all similar, very cookie-cutter. “Something kind of funny happened, now I need you to steal something back for me/ steal something for a client.”
The old woman, the queen of beggars, was just your cliché cryptic old woman. She knew everything, but couldn’t be bothered to just tell Garrett because, well, because the writers didn’t want her to, however little sense it actually makes. This, paired with supernatural elements, makes it all feel very much too similar to Dishonored.
Funny enough, there are those who say Thief just copied Dishonored. Which is ironic, seeing as most of the core ideas behind Dishonored came from or were inspired by the previous Thief series.
My favorite character was Jenevere. The bird. I was genuinely upset when that poor thing died, and actually, so was Basso. And so was Garrett. The shining moment of them actually mourning comes not from Erin, who ought to be the most troubling, sorrowful, regretful thing on Garrett’s mind. It comes from the messenger-bird getting shot.
Personally, I wanted Jenevere to survive because maybe Garrett nurses her to health or something. Or Basso, who shows remorse in remembering how he had been cruel to the animal previously. Something to give Garrett more personality, though, would have been welcome.
There are other little things in the writing that irked me. For instance, the plague on the city is called The Gloom. Now, by the standards of the dictionary, this is just fine.
1.total or partial darkness; dimness.
2.a state of melancholy or depression; low spirits.
3.a despondent or depressed look or expression.
But when you actually say it, it sounds like a weak word for a plague. Like feeling gloomy. It doesn’t lend itself to the kind of discomfort and agony that a more consonant-heavy or demanding word like “murk” has. Or a more lamentable word like “woe”. When you hear the characters referring to something as “The Gloom” for hours and hours, it sounds childlike and honestly not worrying at all.
The plot gets saddled on the player all at once instead of gradually. You finally confront the Baron, and shoves about three different plot twists, some obvious, some not, at Garrett. There’s very little storyline left after this event, and everything about the plot from that point on feels last-minute.
The Thief-Taker General was a guy who was sort of just evil for the sake of being evil. And his scene in the brothel is rather unnecessary and gross. Incest fantasies just pound in the “evil” peg by showing us how against our social beliefs this character’s sexuality is. In this case it isn’t catastrophically offensive, but having him doing mommy fantasies with a prostitute could easily be replaced by something more comical or more relevant to his character, seeing as these feelings about his mother never come up again. Maybe he could be having fantasies about getting down and dirty with thieves. Maybe even with Garrett, who enrages him beyond all others. It would certainly be an interesting twist on his choice of profession.
The ending was weak. The whole repeating-the-beginning thing isn’t a new idea, but it can be done well sometimes. In Thief, it just feels as if things have… ended. No explanation of how Garrett and Erin will be interacting in the future. No real sense of character development for our protagonist, though possibly for Erin. No evidence that the city will actually be able to grow back to health; which is unfortunate, because many of the leadership roles are filled only with corpses now. Perhaps this is to leave things open for a sequel, but if that is the case, this whole adventure has just been cheapened as bait for number-two.
In spite of the harshness of words, I didn’t hate Thief. I was just disappointed. The most fun I had was from feeling sneaky, breaking into houses and snooping around to find out about all the dirty secrets of the residents. The gameplay was fun, especially anything involving the deftness and smooth movements of Garrett’s hands. Some of the level designs, Moira Asylum and The House of Blossoms in particular, were extremely fun in creepy and sexy ways respectively.
There’s a lot we can learn from figuring out why a game falls flat, and for our own writing we find places to improve and bits of inspiration. For anything from fanfiction to future triple-A titles, writing should be important. The Michael Bay Effect of “because it looks/sounds cool” shouldn’t cut it. We can do better, and we should aim to do better. Overall, Thief was not bad. But it was boring. And “boring” is a writing sin. Even a nonsensical, over-the-top piece that’s harder than hell to understand (ex. Bayonetta, Metal Gear Solid, Inception) is better than one that puts an audience to sleep, or one that insults their intelligence. So let’s aim higher. Let’s write better.