Retrospective: Thief

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Most games encourage you to run ahead and take out your enemies quickly. The Thief series, however, is one of a group of games that encourages stealth. Lots of stealth games seem to get the formula totally wrong, but the Thief games – which largely defined this genre, along with the Metal Gear Solid series – get it right.

Anti-hero and player character Garrett is a thief with a mysterious past who’s not all that good at face-to-face fighting but excels at moving silently in the shadows and beating people over the head with his blackjack. To help achieve this end, the Thief games provide you with a light sensor that tells you how visible Garrett is to his enemies. Staying in the dark is imperative: it means that guards and other enemies can’t see you. The brighter your light sensor is, the more visible (and thus the more likely to be discovered) you’ll be. As you’ll certainly find out during your playthrough, being discovered by your enemies in a Thief game is a very bad thing.

In the Thief series, darkness is your friend.  Here, the light sensor (the crystal at the bottom) is dark, indicating that you're invisible to enemies.

In the Thief series, darkness is your friend. Here, the light sensor (the crystal at the bottom) is dark, indicating that you’re invisible to enemies.

Why can’t you just run out of the shadows and hack your enemies to death? The reason is partly that Garrett is not a warrior – he’s no Kratos or anything like that. Instead, you’ll have to use your lineup of weapons and contraptions to survive, including a collection of different types of arrows (for example, the extremely useful water arrow, which can put out torches and flames and keep Garrett in the dark) and tools such as flash bombs (temporarily blinds other characters that see it, allowing Garrett to knock them out.

Secondly, as the game will remind you if you’re playing on hard mode, Garrett is a thief, not a murderer. At higher difficulties, you’ll fail your mission if you end up killing anyone, even in self-defense. There’s always a way to get through a mission without killing anyone – simply avoid your enemies or wait until their backs are turned and hit them over the head with your blackjack, knocking them out.

Another reason is the importance of stealth to the progression of the game. Garrett will often have to eavesdrop on people to learn about secret plans and steal documents without being detected. In the Thief series, you play a spy just as often as you do a thief.

Here's what you DON'T want to see.  You can fight guards with your sword, but more often than not the commotion will either end with you dead or more guards alerted to your presence.  The key to success is remaining in the shadows.

Here’s what you DON’T want to see. You can fight guards with your sword, but more often than not the commotion will either end with you dead or more guards alerted to your presence. The key to success is remaining in the shadows.

Still, Garrett is a thief, and he has rent to pay. Thus, he’s going to steal some shit. All the Thief games leave loot around for you to swipe: candlesticks, silver plates, stacks of coins, etc. You can even steal food from rich guys’ dinner tables to keep you up and moving. Most of these goodies are out in the open, but a surprising amount is hidden away in strange places. The game gives you an incentive to explore each map and find more loot by letting you buy more weapons and tools for your arsenal with the loot you collected on your previous mission.

Someone's bedroom, full of stuff that's about to get stolen (by you.)

Someone’s bedroom, full of stuff that’s about to get stolen (by you.)

One of my favorite parts of the Thief series is all the documents and letters left out for Garrett to read. These indicate great attention to detail on the part of the developers. Some of these texts are important to the plot, revealing the plans of other main players in the story and dropping tips for Garrett to follow. Others are purely there for atmosphere, or to simply give the player a laugh in the middle of a tense stealth mission.

You'll find stuff like this all over the Thief games, especially the second one.

You’ll find stuff like this all over the Thief games, especially the second one.

Thief: The Dark Project was released in 1998 for the PC. However, 2000’s Thief II: The Metal Age is a lot better than the original in every respect. While interesting and innovative, Thief didn’t seem to know where its strengths lay. Its mechanics emphasized stealth, but all too often the game put Garrett in situations where he was running through caves and tombs, fighting zombies and large animals that couldn’t be taken out with a blackjack to the head. As a result, Thief could sometimes be frustrating and slow.

Thief II fixed all of these problems by putting Garrett in almost entirely urban environments where the player can lurk in the shadows and knock out guards and civilians alike. For this reason, plus a few tweaks and improvements to the mechanics of the first game, Thief II is a much more enjoyable game.

Thief is also one of those series that just won’t die. Nine years after the release of the third game, Deadly Shadows, the fourth game in the series was announced. Simply titled Thief, this “reboot” is one of the most anticipated games of the year. Hopefully it will be able to live up to the legacy this great series has created. If Thief ends up sucking, it’s going to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year instead.

But will it suck? In a troubling turn, the game’s developers have recently given interviews in which they emphasized the reboot’s “accessibility.” Whether this means the game will be dumbed down to the point that it takes the actual gameplay out of the player’s hands – a Quicktime event-style “press X to kill guard”, for example – remains to be seen. I really, really hope Eidos doesn’t follow this trend.

A pre-released screenshot from the new game.  I wish I knew what the hell was going on in this scene - I guess I'll have to wait to play it.

A pre-released screenshot from the new game. I wish I knew what the hell was going on in this scene – I guess I’ll have to wait to play it.

The first three Thief games, last I checked, can all be found on Steam. You can also buy boxed versions, but they might be a pain in the ass to get working with Windows 8 or 7. I’m not a huge fan of Steam, but it’s nice to have sometimes, isn’t it?

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Retrospective: SkiFree

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This is SkiFree, a game that was released on Windows Entertainment Pack in 1991 with copies of Windows 3.1 (?) It took up a slight 100-something KB and came preloaded with every Windows machine in the early 90s. It was one of many such games we got for free back then, and one of the few that were loaded on the machines in my elementary school’s computer lab.

SkiFree is the only game out of all those early 90s freebies that anyone remembers, and people remember the hell out of it. But why?

SkiFree is an extremely basic game where you point your ski man down a slope and he skis. You can move him around with the arrow keys on your keyboard. If you’re so inclined you can do low jumps off of hills (represented by half-circles) and high jumps off of ramps (shown as rainbow-colored bars, for some reason.) This isn’t necessary, but it’s fun.

SkiFree features sweet tricks such as this one.

SkiFree features sweet tricks such as this one.

You aren’t alone on the slope. Your nameless skier is joined by annoyingly slow, crappy skiers and annoyingly fast, skilled snowboarders. There are also dogs that sometimes piss on the snow (seriously, this happens.) All of these, including the stationary trees and rocks that populate the slope, are obstacles for your skier to avoid. Not that it matters all that much if you hit them: you’ll just fall over and get back up.

Sometimes the tricks don't work out.  Left: tree, rock, a snowboarder.

Sometimes the tricks don’t work out. Left: tree, rock, a snowboarder.

There’s something else that lives on the slope, but if you don’t know what that something else is then I won’t spoil it for you. Go play the game. The creator’s official SkiFree website is here. He seems like a cool guy, even aside from the fact that he gave me a fun diversion to play in my school’s computer lab when I was six years old.

For some reason, SkiFree has become a part of modern internet culture. Not a massive part, but a part. It must be the power of nostalgia at work. New games are great and all, but we also like to think about the games of our distant childhoods, even if it turns out they weren’t very good, objectively speaking. Luckily, SkiFree was pretty good for what it was: a fun, innocent two-minute break from the tedium of school or the office.