[An essay done for English class. It is on the computer game Thief which I find one of the best stealth games ever created. Please enjoy.]

THE DEAD POOL

Soft clacks echo off stone walls as a wary guard slowly walks across a chamber floor. The floor is marble and difficult to traverse without those clacks following his every step. Oblivious to any potential danger, the guard mumbles to himself some inane statement and starts whistling contentedly. He traipses across a soft carpet, muffling his footsteps, as he nears the entryway and ignores the deep shadows to his right. Suddenly, an arm reaches out and raps the back of his bare head with a blackjack. The guard collapses with barely a whimper and the flump of his heavy body hitting the floor. The blackjacker, dressed in a black cloak, kneels down to grab the guard’s body and drags him off to secret his body away in the depths of the surrounding shadows.

What seems like a scene out of a movie is actually one of many such scenarios abundant within the computer game Thief; released in 1998, it became a highly innovative game and defined what the genre of stealth action was to become. It did so through its engaging storyline, its immensely detailed and absorbing atmospherics, and its innovative use of stealth action.

The story of the series revolves around the character of Garret, a thief living in a town called simply "The City." He is a former member of a secretive organization of warrior-priests known as the "Keepers" who maintain the peace between the various factions of guilds inhabiting the areas surrounding the city; notably the "Hammerites," who are a faction of religious zealots, and the "Pagans," who are a culture of human and insectoid creatures that worship nature. The Pagans and the Hammerites hate one another with a passion and Garret often finds himself, reluctantly, caught in the middle of the chaos. This being a result of the Keepers sending him on missions of their own design.

There is an arching theme of prophecies dealing with Garret, though he doesn’t want anything to do with those writings. However, he finds himself inexorably drawn into the coming conflicts as a thief with unique capabilities of getting into spots in which the average person is incapable. In the first game, the prophecies lead him to the Pagan lord, "Constantine"; an entity bent on conquering the human realm. Within the second game, Garret becomes entwined in a plot masterminded by an eccentric individual of the Hammerites known as "Karras" who wishes to purge the human race of the sinful. The third game in the series wraps up the prophecies line with a return to an attack by some sort of witch creature that threatens both Pagans and Hammerites as well as the base populace of the city.

Garret’s importance to the prophecies of the Keeper’s can become a bit complex and may only manifest when the player sets the game difficulty to a higher level. Nonetheless, Garret is supposed to be the individual the prophecies speak of and he is the one to allegedly restore a balance to the city. As a result, he is continually recruited by the Keepers to perform duties he has sworn never to do again.

Though the storyline is intriguing, Thief ‘s breakthrough accomplishments occur in more engaging elements. Of those elements, the most notable are the environmental effects such as level design, lighting effects, and audio cues.

In the atmospheric environments, perhaps the most crucial in a complex game like Thief are those involving the level design itself. With this game, the developers spent a great deal of time and attention to detail to bring about some of the most well crafted environments up until this point. The world in which Garret lives is a steampunk world [steampunk: an anachronistic time period generally transpiring before the industrial age where elements of that industrialization have found a foothold in the society presented. Examples of this would be: electric lighting in the medieval age, CD players in WWII, aircraft in the stone age, etc.] He thrives in this environment by stealing from those wealthy enough to pay his skills tribute, though not knowingly. As a result, he has to be undetectable and silent. To achieve this, the developers painted Garret’s world in shadows and light. The buildings are stone, the guards constantly patrol the brick streets, and the world is cast in a perpetual night.

The structures become almost an enemy to Garret as every sound that might echo, every well-lit street, and every closed door poses a hazard to our "hero’s" safety. Keeping stock of moss arrows (to shoot the ground in an effort to mask footsteps), water arrows (to douse lit torches), and noisemaker arrows (to shoot in the distance where alert guards will investigate) are a good idea for surviving well crafted levels that can become mazes of elaborate city streets or deep caves. The developers even gave the players a special light meter to measure how effectively Garret is hidden in the shadows. Metal walkways make traversing the interiors of the Hammerite temple almost nightmarish, while trodding deep in the forest may disturb sitting leaves or hard stone making it more likely to be detected by Pagan sentries.

One of the most unique aspects of Thief lies with the importance of sound. It is often that Garret must stop and listen for whistling guards, clacking footsteps, and clicking insect sounds to figure out behind which corner the next threat is coming. It becomes incredibly amusing to sit still in the shadows and listen to the banter of guards as they encounter one another. One such scene has one guard in a bank late at night commenting to his associate about a patron with a hefty deposit earlier in the day. His associate retorts with his own remark, "Yeah, ‘here, ma’am, let me help you with your heavy, heavy bags of gold!’"

Though music is sparse, there are some intense cues of action when certain tracks kick into play. Rather than just blaring scores, Thief employs more subtle atmospheric pieces to set the tone to what is transpiring. Of course, as enjoyable as these elements are, there are still some issues inherent.

As with many games on any system, Thief suffers from a few setbacks. Prominant in the games are glitches. A glitch is an unintended error that randomly occurs in programming. With Thief, there are more than a few moments where the character will end up getting stuck on a crack or on a window sill during a jump or just against a wall. Hopefully, the player may be able to work Garret free through steady jiggling with the controls. However, it is unfortunate that during most of those moments, there is a mandatory reload to the last save point-that being where the player last saved the game file for future play.

There tends to also be episodes of freezing, where the game just stops playing. Though, this is rare and not as incessant as the being stuck bug, which doesn’t occur real often, but often enough to be a nuisance. And, of course, the lack of a third person option during the first two games became a real drag. This feature, though, was fixed in the third game: "Deadly Shadows" for the XBOX home system and the pc [personal computer]. Gripes aside, one mustn’t overlook the most important aspect to the game and that is its redefining stealth action.

Stealth in gaming is still a relatively new consideration since most gamers prefer the run-n-gun approach-this meaning a player has the character pick up a gun or wield a sword or simply use their fist to barrel through the legions of butt-ugly nasties just waiting for an ass-whippin’. Thief is an entirely different beast all together and isn’t for those lacking a great deal of patience.

The whole concept of stealth hails back to a little game on the NES-Nintendo Entertainment System-by Konami called Metal Gear. The most this game did in that aspect, however, was to have the character, by the name of "Snake", hide behind some object to avoid being spotted and then jump out to shoot the unsuspecting foe in the back...or the player could just sneak by quietly, but where was the fun in that? Though Metal Gear Solid was released to the Playstation barely six months after Thief, it wasn’t as innovative in its use of stealth tactics. Sure there were the hiding behind structures, in boxes, or in lockers moments, but the sheer fact that the player could get through the game without ever having to be stealthy made it less enjoyable for those looking for a true stealth experience.

Metal Gear wasn’t the only game to employ stealth action in the vein of Thief. Tom Clancy’s: Splinter Cell took the concept to a whole new level and followed the exploits of a government official who was unofficially on assignment to foreign lands to uncover top-secret documents and operations. The idea of not being seen was extremely important with run-n-gun features fairly limited. This game perfected the genre initiated by Thief and even was played completely in a third person mode for better viewing of the environments and those elements within. It became mandatory to hide bodies cleverly and to be as unobtrusive as possible within the game environment. Still, even this game wasn’t as innovative as Thief.

With Thief, the elements of stealth are incredibly crucial. Garret must use the shadows to not be seen. He steals from guards and people walking by those shadows through a tactic known as pick-pocketing. The player makes use of moss arrows and water arrows to assist in maintaining a low profile. Sneaking up on an alert guard and knocking him out can be thrilling, especially when there are other guards wandering around the nearby area and don’t notice the action. Paying close attention to audio clues ensures that the player will survive to thieve again.

"It’s not everyday someone sees a Keeper, especially one who does not wish to be seen." These words ushered in a new era of gaming at the beginning of the first Thief game and closed the final chapter of the trilogy in "Deadly Shadows." Whereas other games have encorporated stealth action, none have captured the essence of the genre as elegantly as Thief. It was and still is a game unlike any other where the key to survival is through stealth and patience and not just through blowing everything to kingdom come. It accomplished this through an evocative storyline, engulfing environments that bring the player into the action, and by redefining the whole concept of stealth gaming. Though there would have come more Metal Gear games, the direction of stealth in games would have been severely hindered and certainly Splinter Cell wouldn’t have been the game that it was, if it would have even existed at all. Being able to sit up in the dark shrouded rafters and wait for that unsuspecting guard to come walking along is a trip; cock the arrow, let it fly and watch him either drop or flee screaming like a little girl. Which gives me one more body for a nasty little hobby I picked up during the game, finding every guard in the mansion and dragging their unconscious or dead bodies back to the interior swimming pool and tossing them into the water. Which is a feature no other game has, disposing of corpses in unusual manners, such as my lovely, lovely waste disposal unit: the dead pool.

Email: kaipur@aol.com