I first played Thief Gold because it has a vague reputation of being an ‘important classic. It’s the first game to bring traditional stealth mechanics into 3D, supposedly laying out blueprints for all of its successors. In that regard, the game is done very well, with reactive guards, gradients of light to shade yourself, and different levels of noise that will give yourself away. It’s honestly surprising that so much is implemented so well on the first pass at a stealth game. But what really impressed me in Thief was the experimental levels and aesthetic.
Thief contains a world in strife, ruled by an industrious, and technocratic religion that ruthlessly enforces their ideal of order. They worship the Builder, an architectural god, and call themselves the Hammerites. Pagans (self-described) worship the Trickster, a god who represents the chaotic force of nature. The game is framed with heavy and imposing biblical verses and prophecies from in-game religious text. They serve to foreshadow, darken the mood, and build up the strange world it comes from. This contrasts with the relatively goofy, self-serious narration coming from the protagonist, Garrett. The verses and prophecies are super dense and evocative, but the narrative is following the misadventures of Garrett. He tells us what is happening directly and immediately in physical space, while the verses tell us how it relates to the world’s ideology. Unfortunately, he is the most boring (though often endearingly campy) type of Cool Videogame Dude to take this journey on. It mostly serves as an excuse for the player to travel between points of the world.
The game selects some technological advancements and elements of high-fantasy to sprinkle in an otherwise medieval world. Beside sword and bow, there are flash bombs and explosive mines. Beside old castle-like mansions and magic towers, there are electronic lights and elevators. Thief really has no interest in assimilating and being constrained by one style. This helps the world take its own identity and directly display the conflict between the Hammerites and the Pagans. Most of these elements come forward slowly, only a few levels at a time as the world opens up.
Thief starts with a straightforward robbery of a simply designed mansion. Soon after, guarded corridors are traded for the open caverns and crypt tunnels, guarded by zombies, traps, and wildlife. Afterwards, we return to the familiarity of a man constructed mansion, but filled with impossible space. It starts slowly, subtly, a door out of place here and there, then blows out into grassed rooms, giant trees, and flowing ravines in its second and third story. It’s bizarre and beautiful to see ornate stone rooms right next to and combined with naturalistic grass and plants. Other rooms are inexplicably set on their side and upside down. One room bridges out into an endless black void, with a jump connecting to a different exit out of the room. Players will later find out the owner of the house is the Trickster of legend. The mansion is a space where the order of the Hammerites pales to the natural chaos of the Pagans. It also serves as a transitionary level where the game starts to focus more on magical artifacts and places. Afterwards, the game takes players everywhere from magic towers, haunted chapels, and ancient abandoned cities.
Each level is sprawling. Giant compounds, full towns and tunnel networks; a mission is never short, and the path of least resistance will take even more distance to travel. Sometimes a map is given to the player, rough and labeled to look like an in-game character had drawn it. However, the maps are rarely complete, and there’s no tracker, so the map is useless to orient oneself in the actual space. Each level is thus overwhelming as their size weighs on the player. Over time, players find the best entrance points, they discover which rooms connect with which, and what loot is where. Small little secrets with extra loot and lore are hidden all around to incentivize thorough searches. The ability to bunnyhop (like in Quake) luckily makes backtracking efficient and engaging. Slowly the levels piece together in the player’s head as more and more is discovered and they chisel away at the objective. Every level is a fresh start on a new journey towards a rewarding comprehension of the space. Timid sneaking becomes boastful running and jumping as the levels becomes familiar. Being thrown neck deep in these absolutely fresh, inspired, and iconoclastic levels is such a great way to experience them and their intricacies.
As I visited these extraordinary places and collect these magical items, a sinister feeling crept in. It’s foreshadowed so strongly it’s unmissable. This isn’t right. This much power shouldn’t be collected in one place. Maybe the Hammerites were right to hide away all these artifacts. Sure enough, Garrett’s employer is revealed to be The Trickster, and he takes the artifacts deep underground to destroy civilization and restore natural order. The game descends into absolute chaos traversing deep, twisting caves filled with The Trickster’s naturalistic and alien monsters. It completely abandons the core concept of loot and focuses purely on survival.
A few months after I completed Thief Gold I decided to try out Thief 2. Not surprisingly, but disappointingly, the ability to bunnyhop was gone so the pace was automatically much slower. After about a third of the game, I got stuck and lost the drive to push past it. All of the levels were really vanilla, there was no abstract spaces to embody, or even abandoned cities to explore. I looked up some more information online, and sure enough, after criticism Looking Glass Studios moved towards a literal “thief” experience. Most of the monsters were removed, and the game is more focused on simply stealing from wealthy denizens. I’m sure Thief 2 is a fine stealth game, that it is sufficient at letting you walk quietly around 3D models. But that’s never why I enjoyed Thief Gold. I loved the unique scenario, the impossible spaces, the vastly different types of levels. I don’t even like stealth games that much anyway.