Friday, August 22, 2008

The Failure of Thief 3

In my previous post about the Shalebridge Cradle I mentioned my disappointment with that level, which was supposedly the high point of the game Thief 3.

To clarify, the level was very well done and I agree that its merits deserve acclaim. But it really belongs in a different game. In general Thief 3 not only fails to live up to its predecessors, but failed to fit the established setting. The Cradle highlights why.

As a plot for explaining myself I'll borrow some items from jtr7's classic list of what made Thief 1 and Thief 2 special.

First, the tools of the trade. These were changed way too much. Climbing gloves failed to provide the rich three dimensional nature of exploration allowed by older games' rope arrows. Flashbombs or careful leaning no longer allowed your character to knock out alerted opponents. Foes such as zombies that your character cannot knock out were changed so they could be permanently destroyed. Too many small changes to elaborate upon made fighting often more attractive than sneaking, contrary to the intended theme of the series. The Cradle was the worst such place with a very two-dimensional map and the primary foes unable to be knocked out but able to be killed.

Second, the elemental magic. In the first two games the only magic used by city folk had small effects of an elemental theme, such as your water arrows or an enemy mage's fireball attack. There were major magic things but these were mysterious and horrible artifacts left over from the lost civilization whose ruins lie under the city: the entire first game is about how finding one such item completely destroyed a section of the city and three times caused a drastic shift in the balance of powers among the city's factions. The resultant setting has a heavy sense of myths and traditions mysteriously based on long-lost facts. But in Thief 3 there is no myth or mystery; magic is commonplace and fails to fit the established setting. There is an attempt to make the main enemy mythical but this is done through a shallow layer of information layered on top of the rest of the setting rather than arising from the setting's core. The Cradle is again the worst offender, a level about a building with a mind whose existence, abilities, and how you escape simply don't make any sense in that setting.

Third, the atmosphere. In the first two games the city is huge, sprawling, and a definite steampunk setting with machinery and pipes recessed in many alleys and corners. Its streets, slums, and sewers were dirty, littered, and had rats. In contrast the city's wealthy, whether respectable or crime lords, lived in clean mansion full of artwork: paintings, tapestries, statues, vases, rugs, and decorative tile floors. The resulting atmosphere was that art was appreciated and valued by everyone, but like electric lamps only some could afford it. Space was also cherished: the wealthy had plenty but an infrastructure of machines was slowly taking away what little space the poor had. In contrast, in Thief 3 the city is tiny and every place is cramped, dreary, and dirty . With artwork, except for one pirate's mansion the wealthy's artwork is presented as often as not looking inherited and neglected: displayed in hallways no longer well-lit or rooms no longer used. The Cradle is again the worst offender, an ugly building almost completely lacking in artwork. It is huge. But after so many cramped castles, mansions, and catacombs in preceding levels finding a huge and sprawling orphanage seems misplaced and breaks immersion.

Fourth, the city's people. The first two games told long stories about a struggle for power between the pro-industrial Hammers and the pro-nature Pagans. Yet in these stories the action happened just as much among other parties oblivious to the conflict brewing around them: the city's nobles, crime lords, police force, merchants, and intellectuals. The city was a big place with many factions, all of which have some noble goals and some corrupt members. In Thief 3 the main two factions change beyond recognition and their rivalry is an unrecognizable shadow of its former strife, floundered like a failed joke, lacking goals and homogenous in membership. The other parties are nearly absent, except for the Keepers who are also unrecognizable, changed from mysterious intellectuals who rarely act but manipulate other factions with precision and subtlety into inept blunderers who manipulate nothing and wander the streets with weapons drawn until they are noticed and slaughtered by the city guard.

From what I understand the reason Thief 3 fails to fit with or live up to its predecessors is that the game developers wanted to create a game they could release on both the PC and the Xbox, and the ways they catered to the Xbox's hardware and typical user forced them to create a limited product. That might have been a worthwhile decision for people trying to make a living.

No comments: