Any given game beloved by its fanbase is likely to have an unpopular, love-it-or-vehemently-hate it mission, level, or section. You know, the Water Temples and Xens of the world. Those two levels come from classics, Ocarina of Time and Half-Life. Even the best have blemishes. There is dissent in each of these cases. There will be fans who love hated levels, not to be contrarian, but to recognize and celebrate the positive design elements of the level. For example: I like both the Water Temple and Xen. I understand the negative criticisms players have, but I see the mystery of Xen and listen to the calm ambiance of the Water Temple, then think, “There are reasons to defend these.”
Now, imagine a game mission that had a tavern, a secret underground casino, and two lavish manors owned by two warring crimelords. On paper, that’d make a great Thief mission, right? Indeed, it sounds like a taffer’s labyrinthine dream. In practice, however, it’s different. For in Thief Gold’s sixth mission, called Thieves’ Guild, there are more confusing sewers than anything else. They say the rooftops are the “Thieves’ Highway,” but any taffer worth their tiara knows that the real one is a bit lower. And it’s in this unfortunate franchise staple that you spend most of your time in Thieves’ Guild. You’ve got a casino, you’ve got manors, but it’s all sewers. Nonsensical sewers that lead to dead ends. Switches and levers that have no clear purposes. Running around in circles as you enter one same looking sewer tunnel after the next. That’s why this mission is the Xen of Thief: most diehard taffers hate it.
I’m that guy, though. I say despite its mediocre and nonsensical design, Thieves’ Guild is a worthy example of the series’ excellence. It’s a dark and moody adventure through a labyrinthine rendition of the City’s underbelly, and I’m going to make you love it. It’s an example that the designs I elaborate on in this series can turn even the most misguided, poorly designed levels into something enjoyable.
This guild mission is one of three additional levels that Thief Gold threw in with the classic The Dark Project set. It takes place after the excellent Assassins mission and before the even more excellent The Sword mission. That Guild is placed between two masterpiece Thief levels hurts it more than is fair. It’d be like if Thief II’s “Masks” mission was between Life of the Party and Precious Cargo. (Inside joke there.) Taken on its own, the mission can be good, though not great. The story setup is: Garrett plans to sneak into the hideout of the Downwind Thieves’ Guild to steal a sapphire vase they got to before he did. In other words, the lone thief is sneaking into the den of thieves. That’s not a bad premise at all.
The mission’s first strength is humor. Since Garrett is robbing a den of thieves in this one, he’s dealing with thief NPCs rather than the usual guards or monsters. Their lines are jarring. “When I find you, I’m gonna take my time with you,” “Garrett, you’re an idiot for breaking in here,” and “I’m gonna rob you of your organs, taffer boy,” are just a few of them. Guards can be tough, but these thieves mean business. The little whistles, hums, and self-mutterings as they patrol around are also funny.
All that, however, is just icing on the cake. The cake consists of the two most hilarious conversations in Thief missions. The first is an Abbott-and-Costello-esque bit of antics that takes place right at the mission’s start involving a password. One person says it, but the door guard still makes the other person say it, even though they were standing right there the whole time. See, it’s funny!
The second amusing dialogue occurs later in the level, when you’re in the basement of one of the two noblemen. Take a listen below:
It gets me every time!
There is mild humor worked in throughout the Thief games. Most of it comes from the series’ own comedy duo, fan favorite Benny the guard and his straight-guy sidekick, or Garrett’s wisecracks. No single mission has as many funny conversations and dry NPC humor that Thieves’ Guild has, though. It’s no mistake, as it matches the mood of its characters: outcast thieves who have teamed together with people just like themselves, that is, people who don’t want to get along with others and would rather keep to themselves. They hate being around each other, but they’re stuck with it – and in the sewers! There’s no honor among thieves, but there’s plenty of humor.
The second strength of this mission is its moodiness. There is no completely discernable structure here. As said, there’s a shop, a casino underneath this shop, a sewer system underneath this casino, and then two manorhouses that the sewers connect. Yet none of these structures resembles exactly what it would in the real world. Now the same could be said for virtually any structure in Thief, but here the impressionistic aesthetic is more pronounced. There is so much crammed into this mission, it can’t help but be. “Where am I now?” I often ask while exploring Guild. “The sewers or a manorhouse? Or am I back in the casino? What’s going on?” The negative here is the level’s nonsensical design, but the positive is a sense of labyrinthine-ness. At any point you feel lost in a maze of shadows and oppressive structures, moving through a underworld of crime and emptiness. The secret casino could be a dirty basement as much as it is a casino, and the sewers could be an underground hideout. It all meshes together. A noir feel pulses heavily throughout. The nondescript interiors of Reuben’s manor consist of large rooms, large hallways, scarce furniture, and dim lights with oppressive shadows. This is one of many examples of the sense of weigh the mission’s architecture has. This makes sense, as most of the mission is underground (in the sewers), and the whole mission’s theme is one of an underground organization. You are usually a thief, but now you are a thief hiding from thieves. The sense of detachment is doublefold.
The audio beats that drive it complement this moodiness. The synthesized drums that accompany the casino breathe nightlife. The medley that strums while you explore the sewers matches the flickering torches and towering shadows of that area. Lord Donal’s manor is the last section you will venture to. Herein lies the sapphire vase Garrett seeks. It represents the last steps of what has been a long journey with much backtracking. Appropriately, the audio background is dominated by a hammer beating. This is part of Thief’s theme already (the Hammerite faction), but here reflects the sweaty tenseness tired players feel as they approach the mission’s final objective.
Guild also has one of the series’ most perplexing moral quandaries. Loyal guardsman Thom watches over the key to Rueben’s estate. Poor old Thom has no idea what’s happening when you, Garrett, conk him over the noggin and swipe the key he’s been entrusted with. You, Garrett, have to feel some remorse when you read the note Reuben left Thom. See below:
Thom has a grisly fate in store, then. Maybe it’s just death. But maybe it has something to do with the giant spiders Reuben has caged in his cellar (with human bones lying around them). In which case, you have sent Thom to an eight-legged fate so you can get your vase. This is not only a moral quandary, but also a demonstration of the ruthlessness of these guild lords. Moral crises and palpable characters – Thieves’ Guild has got it all.
The final redeeming point to note of Guild is the mission’s overall sense of adventure. It captures the feel of a dungeon delving romp. This is because you leave the same way you enter, after a long plod through an underground labyrinth. There is the small beginning: the shop and the hidden casino. Then there is the grand labyrinth: the sewers. Next there are the two temples, or central objectives: the manorhouses. Once all your tasks are complete, you make your way back through the sewers, through the casino, and out of the shop entrance. Guild isn’t the only Thief mission that has this sense of progression. But no other so steadfastly captures the steps of a journey inward and then outward along the same lines.
There is my defense of Thieves’ Guild. That the mission can be redeemed with such as my defenses proves that Thief’s design can shine through even poorly designed segments. Even a lesser level can be saved by fascinating, immersive design. First-person immersion could make folding a paper airplane an engaging, atmospheric experience (imagine an empty room in an abandoned house… there’s crumpled paper on the floor… you have to pick it up, smooth it out… on it is a child’s drawing, mostly indiscernable… as you fold it, you notice a note, too…) Even though Guild is not the best designed mission, it still has memorable NPC conversations, effective audio ambiance and architecture, and a sense of a journey. These designs are enough to save it, meaning that even the most trite level in these games can be compelling. I could say the same for Xen, the Water Temple, or any less-loved section of a much-loved series.