30 November 2018

Light Notes on a Dark Project

In my ongoing quest to assume the credentials of a PC gaming connoisseur, I played through the original Thief for the first time earlier this year. The game is now 20 years old, and is being roundly celebrated by the hobby's best and brightest. The blog gong has been rung.

Thief : The Dark Project (or Thief: Gold, its expanded 1999 re-release), though a bit uneven and not without pacing issues, enjoys an aesthetic configuration whose elegance and panache see the spooky sneak 'em up's underlying energies arrive two decades past its release little worse for wear. Not having played it back in the gay 90's, it does nonetheless strike me as one of the more resilient single-player video games.

Part of this I attribute to its unusual intelligence, and part of it to its occupation of one of those "double-A" technical sweet spots which seem every year to recede further from view. In any case, acolytes of Thief continue to attest to the coherence of its mythos and cosmos, and the delicious restraint with which they're whispered into being. There is a unity of effect, as they say; a poise. Chiaroscuro pervades the game's beguiling pseudo-Renaissance world, and utterly defines the experience of that world. Like the best video games which seek to communicate a sense of place, it glitters with convincing (and especially in Thief's case, anecdotal) specificity yet also maintains a certain quietly echoing frugality. Which lights were placed by literary discretion and which by logistical necessity hardly seems to matter 20 years further along the pileup of debris.

I often found myself moved while playing by the felicity with which Looking Glass translated their tabletop inspirations into first-person 3-D. Many have testified to the novel frisson of avoiding light and seeking shadow from the viewpoint of a vulnerable and intimately piloted virtual body. Not only did Thief's non-confrontational action cut admirably against the grain, but it's precisely these kinds of counterintuitive logics which braid video games' conceptual and experiential thrills. In terms of design, the original Thief holds an enviable position: its conceit is immediate enough to require little goading, but the open-to-improvisation "script" that comes with its titular role mischievously rearranges many of the elements of action-adventure gaming. 

And honestly, the element of surprise somehow still lurks. It's one of the game's strongest assets, even in 2018, and adds a lot of flair to an already stylish noire, from the mission goal fake outs to the prevalence of the supernatural—and of course I need not spill more ink on that sublime statement of level design, "The Sword". Video games are always at the mercy of technology (among other contingencies), but the best of them continue to sparkle with curiosity—sparkle like a shiny trinket worth a lot of dosh!

I really do mean it when I say that Thief occupies an enviable position, if not one suffused with a certain melancholy. John Walker claims it achieved the dream and invented a whole genre (two genres? 1.5?) while simultaneously deconstructing its invention. In one fell swoop, the alpha and the omega, and that's bloody (John Walker is British) that. Meanwhile Liz Ryerson, ever the voice of dissent, suggests that Looking Glass's masterpiece succumbs in the end to cowardice, that it backpedals from any seriously subversive statements. As for myself, I probably lean more toward Ryerson's conclusion (I do find it hard to brush off that disappointing ending), though I can certainly entertain Walker's. In any case, both assessments seem to me tinged with wistful regret, with the acknowledgment (more tacit in Walker's and more explicit in Ryerson's) of a reach toward the sophisticated, the self-critical, and the unsettling in certain games of The Dark Project's vintage which was subsequently tamped down into the vapid and self-congratulatory. We now have the indies, the Problem Attics and what have you, but there is undeniably a magic to those ambitious yet in some ways tentative studio productions of the 90's.

Others can speak with more authority on the level design, the audio, the AI, the physics simulation, the chemistry simulation, the immersive sim genre, the realism, the surrealism, the legacy, the sequel which I've yet to play... I just thought I'd highlight two of my favorite quests which come after the first tour of Constantine's funhouse.

"The Haunted Cathedral", the level immediately following "The Sword", is one of the most open-ended in the game. It is also one of the most outright horror: an abandoned section of The City's Old Quarter overrun with undead; a spellbinding tangle of rotted wood and rusty light works. 

Behind a wall beside the Cathedral Street drawbridge hides a solitary house. Its columnated facade is lit by two lampposts. Nothing else on the property. Very severe, very private. Once inside, however, one is greeted by fleur de lis wallpaper and the rattling of chains. Two ghouls haunt the maison in the garb of Hammerite priests, up and down the staircase, still-sharp blades drawn. It's a very scary encounter, but it's also, thinking back, an achingly lovely little pocket of architecture and atmosphere. Unlike the pretentious, egotistical, squabbling Lord Baffords of the city proper, the owner of this secluded but richly fashioned residence (and its treasure, the Serpentyle Torc) seems to have been discreet with his wealth. Lovely subtlety.

A further example of Thief's uncommon poise is seen in another all-undead mission. "Return to the Cathedral" has the player assist the ghost of Hammerite Brother Murus, dodging zombies and the like while gathering the things needed for the ritual which will deliver his soul to the Builder's Paradise. Thief: The Dark Project is more spiritually satisfying than the average game, so it's fitting that spiritual satisfaction figures into the main quest. While, for me, emblematic of Thief's occasionally frustrating tentativeness—the scene is not quite as touching as it could have been—it does nevertheless demonstrate an ideological charity which seems rare in later immersive sims and video games in general.

Nearly everyone writing about The Dark Project right now maintains that it's a game which rewards hands-on engagement. It's true. Though disorienting at first, with its big dark (yet vibrantly textured) maps and elliptical worldbuilding, it eventually clicked into place for me and induced a narcotic curiosity. I'm happy to have joined the church of those who seek the light of inspiration among its umbrageous corners.