Saturday, May 9, 2009

Like a thief in the night, twice as shy

The Thief series has a special place in hearts of many, many fans. Not only has no game really embraced stealth and spatial exploration with quite the same flair (quick comparisons are Metal Gear solid and Portal respectively), but its humble little dark engine created notable counterparts in System Shock 2 and Deus Ex; not to mention the constantly growing and excellent community missions. Old news of course but it's a pedigree family.

A while back, when vista x64 first found my hard drive, I decided to test if Thief 2 would run, it would (EDIT: Smarter solution here). For a long time Thief 2 has been calling, quietly beckoning. The game had never been finished, the hard mechanist angle seemed stifling, other games would often overshadow the desire to play. But every now and then I would pop back into that noctropolis to explore some more. Just like the other day...

After rejigging my key bindings, having been reprogrammed to TF2/L4D in my gamer memory recently, I was all set to continue my current mission Blackmail and familiarised myself with the objectives:

  • Sneak into mansion, check. Currently hiding outside a kitchen with some servants talking about the drunk guards, good for me. A vague memory of sneaking thorough a series of houses and then a hole in a wall to get there. No idea why I'm here though.
  • Sneak into Sheriff's bedroom. Hmm.. don't remember why, but it don't sound like a healthy goal. I do have some gripe with that fella and I'm not sure the bedroom is the best place to duke it out, people might get ideas. Bah what am I talking about, no-one will find out, heh.
  • Confront Sheriff with recording. Ah yes that was the one I took in the last mission. He's in deep trouble, and I'm set to put him over a barrel, heh heh... oh dear.
  • Steal 1,100G loot, nope. Quick purse check shows the tinkling of around 700 and not even inside the mansion yet. Nice.
  • Escape and don't kill anyone, yep expert all the way buddy.

The typical sneakathon ensued, nabbin loot, clobbering guards and dragging them to the shadows, stealing servants keys, finding secrets, nabbin loot, picking locks, plot twist, nabbin loot, sneaking through attics, nabbin loot, popping invisibility and slowfall potions to escape. Unfortunately my hole-in-the-wall entrance would not pay out as an exit and so my escape plans needed to be rethunk. Sitting with the map I perused the options. There was this whole chapel I seemed to have missed in the east of the map. I was betting my mechanical eye it would have a nice secret exit being close to the main entrance.

Honed by my stealthy exploits earlier it was a quick affair to find the chapel door and pick the lock. Then the chapel bell started to toll and quiet, eerie choir music echoed from within. Out of game it was getting dark, I'd been sneaking around for the best part of an hour or two. Instinctively I froze and listened. There was a jingling of keys coming from outside my room... nope it was in game. Well that was unsettling. The chapel was empty, save for a large hammer, an arrow on the wall and a hammer shaped hole near the ceiling. The jingling was coming from underground somewhere and I knew what it was, the memories came flooding back: a haunt.

For the uninitiated I need to explain. Haunts are undead Hammerites, that is: soldiers devoted to a religion centred on the doctorine of cold iron, that and making you eat it. Meh I hear you say, nothing scary about that. Well, you see in Thief right you can knock people out right and well in expert right you pretty much have to and these haunts you see, they're like impervious, you know and can't be knocked out. Meh, I hear you say so just avoid them. Well yeah but what if you can't. Kill them. I can't, it's expert, and they're already dead. Run away... Sigh.

But what makes these enemies scary, is not just the mechanic. These zombies are insane. They walk around muttering insensible scripture, with the jangling invisible chains like some Dickensian ghost. If you hide in the shadows they can't see you, but you can see their blood red armour and if you're unlucky a hideous skull mask. Then when you get close they start to laugh. In your face, and I don't mean a little giggle, or a slapstick gaffaw. This laugh is a deep evil manic cackle designed to crawl under your skin. They can't see you , they don't know you're there but they laugh, mocking any attempt to move, daring you to come out of the shadows, thinking of all the atrocities they've done in their lives that they just can't wait to inflict on the next living thing they find, haunting their home and your thoughts. 'Join us, Join us now' 'Your soul cannot be saved, hsssss'

Damn I thought, but that's why I play this game. There is so much richness in the levels, so many secret areas to search for, so many ways to get to your goal and escape. The haunt meant several things. There was something under the chapel, it was probably guarding something, that something may well be a secret exit from the mansion.

Using my newly aquired arrow I shot into the Hammer shaped hole. 'Secret found!' - a huge hammer idol moves to the side to reveal a ladder to the potential catacombs beneath. The jangling grew louder and there he was stalking through the darkness. Shivering in the sanctuary of the dark I waited for him to leave and sneaked in the direction he left. The laughs echoed as I turned the corner, it was bright, and the haunt was charging at me down a long brightly lit corridor, How did he see me, block, stay back, miss, arrggh..... Dead.

I sat paralyzed in the dark with the flickering of the mission screen in front of me. That, I thought to myself, that was some scary excrement. No way was I beaten though, this was Garrett, master thief. Loading up the quick save at the chapel door I opened the hatch and was as patient as possible, timing the route of the haunt. I also pocketed myself the invisibility potion that he was conveniently carrying. The thing was, I couldn't be sure if there were two of them or not and had no idea how big the place was. I decided to brave another run, but found it was not just dark but pitch black in some areas. From this cursory run around I discovered corridor formed a square returning back to the ladder but the dark areas meant there may have been other corridors I missed. A haunt appeared, prompting me to run away in panic to the relative safety of the latter (climbing up to be doubly sure). This was getting silly. Braving the dark one more time I waited for the haunts to continue their patrol. Then I did a silly thing, I ran in the opposite direction to the jingling into the darkest place I could find. Now you see you can cheat in thief, you can raise the gamma up (as I did for these pictures) and see all the wall textures. Alternatively you can adjust the gamma to make dark mean dark, then rely on flares when you can't see. I opt for the latter and so shivering in the cold undercroft I lit a flare. Dead end, and I could hear the haunt returning! Turning around I saw a hole in the wall indicating an equally dark room the other side. Running away from the haunt I found another darkened portal in to a dark corridor. The flare was still guiding my way so I was hoping my damnedest it would be a way out. Rounding another corner it was a dead end, but a nice dead end as follows:

A'la Indiana Jones, there was sweet golden skull, to which I promptly helped myself. However the haunts mutterings were getting closer and as I turned, I was greeted by this friendly face.

This time I couldn't take it. ARRRfurrfrrrrrrrraagghghhrrghghgshhhiifarraaaaahh. Without waiting for the hammer to strike I was off, nipping past and into the dark! No flare! I must have floundered against so many walls trying to find my flares whilst the haunt was charging after me. Some light drew me back into the main corridor and then we ran Benny Hill style around in a circle till I managed find the ladder. Thankfully NPCs don't have the ladder climbing ability so I sat in the chapel and reviewed the madness I'd just experienced.

I'd scared the crap out of myself. What was I thinking? There wasn't even an exit. Turning the gold skull and unused invisibility potion in my hand I knew my thieving skills were intact but now it was time to leave. The exit was laughably close and there was no need to go into that damnable chapel.

Afterwards I couldn't help thinking how awesome this game experience was. The thing is this game is OLD, but it still works incredibly well at atmosphere. The voiced narration cuts in perfectly with the gameplay, never taking away control. Even better are the random conversations you can eavesdrop on, giving extra layers to the plot and the level, indicating places to look for secrets or how to get past certain barriers. Yeah that's cool, along with the exploration and using rope arrows and mantling (some FPS games still don't have this!). But to top all this off it could still make me quake like a little girl, me a grown man well aware of the pixelated nature of this adventure. The music also cuts in perfectly to your location and for my many plays with Thief 1+2 I never paid much attention to that until now. I know few games that do this stuff as added extras as well. The whole chapel and undercroft could have been left well alone, but no I had to explore. Testament to the fantastic level design it was one of the scariest moments I've had in game for a long time. Here's my 'Garrett rendition' of the chapel map:

The first thing you'll notice is the undercroft is incredibly small. Yet I somehow managed to get completely lost in the pitch dark sections and freak myself out more than should be healthy. That just impresses me even more.

Amusingly this is sketch doesn't match up to the actual level design when I went to investigate again to get the pictures for this blog. Actually, taking these pictures was a bit of a perverse thing to do. The setting was none-the-less scary but this time I actually intended to get caught, just for you to see the haunt. It was brutal and I am a little scarred. The only grace was I did get a full idea of the actual map. That and there was only one bloody haunt with numerous places to hide from him. Lmao.

My hat goes off to Mike Chrzanowski, designer of this level and orchestrator of my bedroom horror. But the thief series has generally amazing atmosphere and some special moments in almost every level. I'll always remember my trip into the the lost city in Thief 1, with it's atlantis type feel that beat the socks of any Tomb Raider experience, while the haunted cathedral and catacombs were just brilliant. The zombie levels in Thief were cut down for Thief 2 but actually I think they're some of my favourite parts. The great thing is there are just as many Thief experiences to come. I still have the rest of Thief 2 and all of the fan missions to spend some love on. There is even hint at Thief 4... (EDIT: now a reality)

Safe Journey

Solar out

Grumblings continue...