Casing the joint.

“I’ve always equated ‘feelings’ with ‘getting caught’ they both get in the way of my money. Unfortunately not everyone is as committed to their work as I am.”

Garrett isn’t an embodiment of traditional power fantasies, he might save the world but he does it reluctantly, accidentally. By the time he actively decides to foil Karras’ plot in Thief II: The Metal Age, he has already been betrayed and driven out of his home.  Like Clive Owen’s Theo Faron in Children Of Men Garrett is a cynic, he doesn’t care about the world and likely doesn’t think it worth saving. He saves the world not because he cares about it, far from it, he saves it because it’s the only way he’ll ever get to go home, to return to normality. Through all that he has his own standards to uphold and like Theo he doesn’t use violence.

Playing Thief II it’s possible to reinterpret Garrett’s character as somebody who does use violence, it’s possible to kill. But it doesn’t feel right, it’s clumsy, messy, noisy, inelegant, and ultimately counter productive, like “feelings” and “getting caught” it gets in the way of the money.

Garrett might not want to save the world, but he’s not above changing it for his own benefit. Murder might be inelegant but unlike his contemporaries in other first person games violence is not the only option for Garrett. Assuming the role of the master thief, you are provided with an array of “weapons” and tools you can use to adjust the state of the environment to better suit your needs. A floor too noisy? Use a moss arrow to deaden your footsteps. A corridor too well lit? Water arrows are your friend. You can manipulate the environment, but you can never completely master it, there are always a few too many torches for your Water Arrows to douse; a few too many guards for your Noisemakers to distract. You can shift the odds in your favour but in the end there’s always a risk, you might be invisible in the shadows but eventually you will have to move. It’s then that Thief II is at it’s most powerful.

In all senses of the term Thief II is a game about “shades of grey”. In shadow with the Light Gem black you are safe, in the open with the Light Gem glowing you are in danger, but in between, in one of the numerous different shades of darkness you’re never really sure; you have to take a risk.

Thief II isn’t a game about the traditional power-fantasies of being the “fastest” or the “strongest” but it is about a particular kind of power-fantasy, one that is more mature and darker than most. It’s about the fantasy of “getting away with it”. This is an idea that the individual levels of Thief II drawn on in some interesting if differing ways.

From breaking into a police station, through escaping an attempted ambush, to an actual bank job. Thief II is full of levels that make you feel like you are doing something impressive and morally ambiguous, and getting away with it.

Thief II does exactly what it says in the title, it makes you feel like a thief.

Nowhere is this more apparently than in the classic Life Of The Party. Starting on the roof of a tower your objective is to infiltrated a party held in a distant building, one it’s impossible to even see from your starting position. With the streets out of bounds you take to the roofs and the “Thieves’  Highway”. Sneaking through an apartment for no other reason than you need to get to the next building; of course helping yourself to what is available along the way. It can take over an hour to get to your target, Angelwatch, and in that time you’ve crept past alert guards and sleeping citizens and witnessed an argument breakout between the guards of two opposing houses, accompanied by one of the best exchanges you’re ever likely to witness. When you finally arrive at Angelwatch, you’ve still got a six story building full of Mechanists and civilians to explore before you have to make your way back across the city to the tower you started from.

Throughout this one level you can experience everything that is great about Thief II. You’ve explored a world that is at once self contained and consistent. That seems like it could go on without you but that also feels explicitly designed to be experienced by you. Each building is both a logical place, with kitchens and bedrooms and bathrooms, but also an abstract puzzle designed to test your intelligence and abilities.

Thief II is a game that makes you think about your actions on different levels, the immediate and the long term. The choices you make in one moment might have consequences you can’t predict, that guard you disabled might be found when you least expect it. That Moss Arrow you used to get across that corridor might be required now you need to make a run across a well lit court yard. You make your choices, you adjust the environment and hope that you’ve mitigated the risks as much as you can, and anyway if all else fails you can improvise and adapt.

It might not be easy but pay attention and think before you act and you’ll get away with it, after all that’s what being a thief is all about.

“Greetings, Garrett! Thou art expected, though not precisely… welcome. Feel not so surprised; I have anticipated thine arrival, just as I now anticipate thy departure, heh heh! Art thou a religious man? It is time to say thy prayers! Thy sins will be thine own undoing!


Due to some severe arachnophobia I was never able to get further than the second level of Thief: The Dark Project so Thief II: The Metal Age was my first real experience of the Thief series.

3 thoughts on “Casing the joint.

  1. Thank you for this. I recently wrote three posts on Garrett’s character and the power fantasy thereof, and I’m still kind of obsessing about it now — so I’m glad someone has delved into it too. And you are right on all counts.

    Life of the Party is probably my favorite Thief level, unless it’s Casing the Joint and its immediate sequel. I was shockingly disappointed by the extent to which Soulforge doesn’t fit the feel of the rest of the game; the ideas behind it (especially the manufacturing) are really well-thought-out, but compared to Angelwatch, the rooms are so sloppy and incoherent and explicitly puzzle-like. I suppose it’s meant to show Karras’ increasing derangement, but I can only offer that level of kindness when I’m not playing it. Part of it is also that it’s a Randy Smith level, and I could never get my design brain around Randy’s design brain.

    If anything saves Soulforge, of course, it’s the Karras rants you quoted above. Stephen Russell chews them up in grand and heroic style, and the mix of amusement and horror you feel at them recalls any number of future villains of this kind. When you kill in Thief, you always feel the import of your actions, and it’s never more so than with Karras.

  2. I believe the comments are currently setup to require my approval for any that contain links. I apologise for the inconvenience, but it does prevent a lot of spam bots.

    It’s really nice to hear somebody’s actually read some of this stuff. This article and my slightly more recent piece about System Shock 2 were some of the more personally gratifying things I’ve written. When I get the chance to return to those games again I hope to explore them in greater detail.

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