I pry open the second story window of a grey wood house. Shabby grey curtains are draped to each side of the window. The house is simple but well kept. The floors and walls are made of modest wood panelling. There are two doors in the house, but I am unable to open either. There is a twin bed in the corner and a desk on the opposite side of the room. I cannot see the owner of this house, but they must be on the other side of one of the doors because I can hear a man speaking to his wife, “What other work can I get? Cleaning up another man’s cupboards?” I don’t waste time trying to be sneaky. I stand up straight, in full view of the candle light of the room and sprint to the desk where I find a gold letter opener and a silver goblet. I take them both and then walk to the window opposite of the one I entered in, and begin prying it open with my crowbar.
“The more you explore, the richer you will become, search everywhere for items to steal.”
This tip flashes on the screen as I am waiting for Thief to load. It makes sense as the game places players in control of a master thief named Garrett who is hired by various people to steal items of great import or value. The vast majority of what I steal in the game comes out of empty houses of nameless people living in a nameless city. The majority of my thievery is neither challenged or noticed by its owners. For a game titled Thief, thieving feels surprisingly meaningless.
Thief is set in a city called “The City” in what feels like the 19th century. With the City Thief strives for an environment as vibrant as Rapture in Bioshock or Dunwall in Dishonored. Outside of a few hints at an interior life, the City is just a grey, rain-soaked backdrop for Garrett to skulk and scamper through.
The City is overcome with poverty and sickness as a terrible plague known as “the gloom” ravages its citizens. It’s ruled by an evil man known as the Baron who has leveraged the gloom for his own personal gain and brutally rules the city with an iron fist. These are not Garrett’s concerns, however, as he continues to prey on the poverty of the City by stealing the few items of value possessed by its citizens.
In the game’s first mission Garrett’s protege, Erin, kills a guard. Garrett chastises her for her reckless disdain for human life. As the story progresses, Garrett begins to question his selfish ways as he unwittingly participates in a plot to overthrow the Baron. However, whatever moral standards Garrett has can quickly be discarded by the player. While hindered by limited resources, players can kill guards with arrows, beat them with Garrett’s “black jack” and throw them off of roofs. When I first started playing the game, I wanted to honor Garrett’s concern for human life by refusing to kill guards, but the more I stole mercilessly from the poor people of the City, the more it seemed only natural that Garrett wouldn’t care about the fate of anyone who stepped between him and treasure. Thief invites us to steal from anyone and everyone with little to no consequences.
Dissonance aside, Thief isn’t without virtue. It’s enjoyable when it’s stressful, as I frantically try to pick locks before being seen by guards, or successfully sneak past soldiers I could never take in a fight. Moments where I’m tasked with searching for secret switches and levers in order to uncover treasure are satisfying hunts. But while the stealth is appropriately stressful, the treasure hunting appropriately thrilling, and the graphics appropriately impressive on new systems, Thief doesn’t excel in those departments over similar games that preceded it.
While some of the levels are well designed, with small mysteries to uncover and a sense of a life outside of the game itself, I spend more time traversing the arduous open world than doing anything else. Between missions, I cross the same paths, past the same guards over and over again. En route to these missions, I sneak into countless empty houses and steal their possessions without being challenged or questioned by anyone. I then sell those items for more arrows and energy packs, which I use to steal more from a cursed populace. Thief is primarily about stealing, and stealing from the citizens of The City should be more meaningful.
At one point Garrett once again risks his life to steal more riches. His friend and employer, a ruddy faced scoundrel named Basso, says, “Garrett, no one is paying you to do this.” Expressionless, Garrett turns to Basso, blankly retorts “it’s who I am”, and runs off into a night as inert and emotionless as the game itself.
Drew Dixon is the editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about videogames for Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter.