Friday, May 18, 2018

So you want to try playing Thief 1

I've been streaming some Thief 1 for the past month, which has gotten some people interested in trying the game for themselves. You definitely should, especially if you like eclectic first person games, immersive sims, open world games, or walking simulators... it's almost 20 years old, yet it still feels really different and fresh and distinct from anything today.

That said, it can be a bit tricky to play for modern tastes, so here's a bit of advice for getting into Thief:
  • Acquire a copy of Thief Gold. Buy it, borrow it, or uh, get creative... just as long as it's gold: Thief Gold (1999) is the remastered re-release of the original Thief: The Dark Project (1998) game, and it has a bunch of tweaks as well as three new missions. (Well, you should skip one of those new missions because it's terrible, but more on that later.)
  • Get the NewDark mod, a rewritten engine patch for Thief's Dark Engine developed by the player community based on some possibly-stolen source code. But don't be afraid, it's been secretly vetted by the fan community, and the GOG store sells Thief and System Shock 2 with it installed already, so most people agree that it's safe. Basically the mod adds DX9 widescreen support and high screen resolution support, fixes other small issues, and also adds advanced features for mods ("fan missions") you might want to play. Just install Thief as you normally would, and then download and run the installer, and it should automatically detect everything from there. It's also up to you whether to install the "high definition textures", 50% of people think they look worse.
  • Rebind the controls. I forget what the default keyboard bindings are, but they're basically terrible and ignore modern first person genre conventions. Make sure you rebind them according to your own play style. My main bindings are:
    • WASD = Run forward, slide left, etc
    • Shift = Speed Toggle (walk)
    • C = Toggle Crouch
    • Q/E = Lean left, lean right
    • Left Bracket / Right Bracket = Previous / Next in Inventory
    • Left-Click = Attack
    • Right-Click = Use Item / Pickup Item
  • Don't skip the training mission. Thief is from an era of level design where, like Half-Life, the tutorial isn't built directly into the game. You'll need to play the training mission to learn about Thief's distinctive "light gem" mechanic, where the brightness of the floor determines your visibility to enemies. It takes a little while to internalize how this works, and how dark is "dark enough" to sneak past a guard's vision cone. (Fun game design fact: Thief AIs have several different vision cones, to simulate peripheral vision, night vision, and "spidey sense".)
  • Try to play on at least Hard difficulty. If you play on Normal, the game will disable a lot of special objectives that otherwise add lots of richness to the game -- it basically cuts out, like, 25% of the game. If you're a somewhat experienced stealth game player or first person player, just start on Hard. You'll probably die a lot, but at least you'll get the "real experience."
  • Hone your spatial memory or draw a map. Thief levels are really big and unusually complicated for the first person genre, and the in-game map screen is intentionally useless for most missions. If you're confident you can remember how ten different-yet-similar stone rooms connect to each other, then go for it. But if you're someone who easily gets lost, then try treating this as a cartography puzzle, and keep some pen and paper nearby.
  • ... that said, feel free to skip the Thieves Guild mission. It is notoriously regarded as the worst mission in the entire game, even by diehard "taffers" (Thief fans) and it's mostly just a maze of boring tunnels that lasts for 3 hours. To use the level skip cheat, hold down Ctrl + Alt + Shift + End on your keyboard.
  • Be a little reckless, don't plan things too carefully, and try to roll with your mistakes. If you get caught by a guard or trigger an alarm, then don't reload the game. Just run ahead, improvise, and see what happens. It's OK to be detected! Some of the best moments in Thief are when the shit hits the fan and every mistake compounds another mistake, but then you end up surviving anyway. In fact, one of my personal favorite missions is best ONLY when you trigger the alarm.
  • ... that said, it's OK to quick save before every climbing challenge / ladder. There's the fun kind of death where you should've foreseen disaster, and then there's the not-fun kind of death where the game insists you didn't really "grab" the ladder and you plummet to your death repeatedly. The quick save function is a peace offering from the player physics programmers, you're meant to use it, that's why it's there. No shame.
  • Sound propagates realistically around corners and down hallways. You can also listen through doors if you lean into them. It's a cool eavesdropping mechanic.
  • Advanced technique: you can KO guards and animals (but not undead) from the front by leaning forward and booping them on the head at exactly the right time.
  • Even more advanced technique: try not KOing anything and never getting caught. The Thief player community calls this "ghosting."
Whether you're a first-time Thief player, or a long-time taffer who hasn't played it in ten years, welcome!... and good luck.