Sequestered in its own cozy corner of the PC gaming world is TTLG.com. This acronym stands for “Through the Looking Glass," an homage to Looking Glass Studios. It’s also likely as not a reference to the second Alice in Wonderland story of the same name because of the wonder that Looking Glass’ games opened its fans towards. Above all of Looking Glass’ masterpieces, their two Thief titles offered the most special wonder.
This fantastic noir world captured the imagination of all the PC gamers lucky enough to chance upon it. The most ambitious and inspired Thief fans made fan missions (called FMs for short). Though the original Thief has many fan missions, the vast majority of them have been made for Thief II.
For all these 20 years since Thief II's release, the fan community has been creating amazing FMs and even branching out into other works, like full-length campaigns, total conversion mods for other games, and a revolutionary fan patch. To this very day, new and amazing FMs are being made by this community. How do fans keep a game alive for this long? How do they keep pushing its limits? Below, I chronicle some of this community's greatest geniuses and works that have kept the world of Thief alive and well.
The start to 20 years of great Thief II fan content began with great content for the original Thief. TTLG user Purah was one of the community’s greatest pioneers and fell in love with Thief’s art from the start.
“The cut scenes in the original [Thief: The Dark Project]," said Purah, "were just insanely good. Leaving so much unsaid. That world was so confident (in its presentation) that you just accepted the weird tech and social structures at face value. It was just a brutal, brutal world. That resonated with me.”
Purah's second fan mission, Calendra’s Cistern, released in 2000 and was substantially impressive for its time. Moody and noir, it was a heist with twists, turns, and drama until the very end.
Its sequel was a Thief II fan mission called Calendra’s Legacy that blew the TTLG community’s mind. Technical effects like thunder and lightning, complex maps, and a gripping story made it an instant classic.
Having made these, Purah has maintained legendary status at TTLG. I asked Purah how he felt about his influence on Thief’s fan community.
“I've never really reveled in it," he said. "It was great to get emails back in the day from people playing them, discovering the details. But you know, if you are constantly creating, you leave a trail of things behind you.”
Though Purah moved on from Thief FM design in the wake of Calendra’s Legacy, his influence and impact on the community remains monumental. He was the original Thief fan visionary.
TTLG user Saturnine was another gamer whose imagination was won by Looking Glass’ stealth title. Like for any diehard Thief fan, Thief wasn’t just a great game for him—it became a lifelong inspiration.
“This sounds like hyperbole but I can honestly say that Thief has shaped my life from the time I discovered it,” said Saturnine.
His first fan mission preceded Purah’s Calendra’s Legacy by a few months, and was an immediate classic. Titled The 7th Crystal, it showed how powerfully the Thief design can tell a story indirectly through worldbuilding.
Set in the aptly named Saturnine estate, The 7th Crystal is purportedly a heist, but the story of a couple and their child emerges. Using Thief’s audio cues, NPC conversations, and readables, Saturnine masterfully crafts an atmosphere and a chilling story.
So how did Saturnine or any of these early authors get started? By making the first leap of looking for and opening up the Thief’s level editor: DromEd.
“[I]t wasn't long before DromEd arrived and I started playing around with that. I'm sure anyone that did that first DromEd tutorial had the same awestruck feeling as I did when they made their first single box room with sky on the top and went into game mode, and looked up at the stars, it was magical honestly and gave me a lifelong urge to create worlds, which I am now doing professionally to this day.”
Beyond Purah’s and Saturnine’s timeless works, there are many other notable classics from the early days. One community favorite is the undead romp The Inverted Manse. Its creator, Sledge, had begun designing Thief missions during the same time as Purah. Sledge's first FM, Cult of the Resurrection, was great, but Manse is what he became known for. In fact, he became so known for it that the Thief 3 devs hired him as a level designer.
The founder of TTLG, known as Digital Nightfall on the forums, helmed a team of authors called “Team CoSaS.” This acronym stood for “Circle of Stone of Shadow," also the name of a TTLG-affiliated fansite. Their first mission Gathering at the Inn came out in early 2003. It was cinematic in presentation and bore a very high level of detail.
These classics are only the beginning.
Keeping the Love Alive
After a few years, so began for TTLG the challenging time period for any game-fan community: keeping their game alive after it had ceased being a recent release. TTLG succeeded; fan missions continued to push the limits of the Dark Engine and raise expectations for design and storytelling.
This “middle” era of Thief fandom enjoyed the exceptional works of several skilled authors. Melan was an author whose works are some of the most impressive in the community.
"There are several games with active modding communities, but I think Thief is one of the very few viable ones for creating story-centric projects," Melan said. "In the end, it may have been this circumstance which has kept the community going – there are no realistic, accessible alternatives for the kind of experience Thief fans like.”
Melan offered his own takes on the Thief formula, starting with Bad Debts in 2007. The community played a key role in his inspiration.
“My work is rooted in the community – my first mission was a homage not just to the original games, but many of the fan missions I had also liked, and later studied to see how they had done it," he said.
Alongside Melan, other highly talented and gifted authors produced top-notch work. TTLG user Eshaktaar blew everyone out of the water with Broken Triad. Sensut crafted fantastic adventures through the history of his resident country Hungary, with Dracula and Bathory missions. DrK put the whole community in awe with his gloomy, tarnished art style in the gripping One Night in Rocksbourg series.
Then there was Lady Rowena. She was a brilliant FM author whose missions were so ingeniously designed she became a legend at TTLG. Her titles Rowena’s Curse and The Seven Sisters gave players open-world environments with multilayered stories. She unfortunately passed away in 2016, but her memory remains alive at TTLG. A number of Thief community members collaborated to posthumously release a mission she had been working on.
Gaetane was another of the great FM authors of the 2000s. Her L’Arsene series were ingenious adventures filled with delightful comedic touches. In 2012, she released the fifth title in this series and her most epic project: The Black Frog. This gigantic, five-mission campaign had some of the biggest and most complex maps of any FM and remains a riveting testament to the powers of Thief's game engine.
One Thief community pillar, who went by Komag, started the practice of distributing physical discs with FMs on them to TTLG members. Komag also wrote a helpful DromEd tutorial and in 2000 began hosting FM contests. The contests gave community members challenges to rally around.
Another important FM author and foundation of the Thief community is Yandros. No fan mission author is perhaps better experienced to talk about the community’s evolution from its early days to the present than he.
Many of Yandros’ FMs have focused on technical features: a grappling hook, a snowball fight (complete with scoring), and Thief deathmatch (with bots). One of his most beloved and oft-played FMs is A Thief’s Holiday which has players prepare a home for a Christmas party.
I asked Yandros what inspired his smaller, off-beat FMs: “[T]hese are the ones I tend to return to myself because they are simpler and aren’t meant to be serious, and are even designed specifically to blow off steam the way FPS games are. Some of them were also learning experiences for me from a technical point, I had something I wanted to see if I could do.”
Beyond his own creations, he has had a hand in several other fan missions, either through direct collaboration or “behind the scenes” work. Yandros has often teamed up with Random_Taffer and Tannar, two other community greats, to create FMs like 2013’s superb The Drymian Codex.
“I’ve started working collaboratively on all my recent missions, actually,” Yandros said. “Everything since [The Drymian Codex] has been at least me and one other person, usually Random_Taffer and/or Tannar. I find they both complement my own style and strengths and weaknesses well, and we are able to share ideas but also criticize each other and reach consensus on how to proceed, which is vital when working with others.”
Yandros is also one of the community’s sages, providing consistent help and advice to fan mission authors in the technical forums. Recently he became a moderator. Given his many perspectives on the Thief fan community, I asked him what he thinks sets this community apart.
“Certainly the steadfast and long-lived dedication of our fans is rare among gaming communities, but also ours is one which has traditionally prided itself on being more courteous and helpful than typical gaming communities, including to newcomers," he said. "I’ve seen this not only among players but also (and perhaps moreso) among authors. To demonstrate the point, The Editor’s Guild basically went years without even having an active moderator because moderation was rarely ever needed.”
Random_Taffer, one of Yandros’ collaborators, has become well-known in the community in the past few years. His earlier dabbling in FM design and collaboration with other community members gives him a unique insight. His first FMs took on a few different forms, including a short series called Memento Mori.
“In the early days I wanted to put my stories into the world of Thief, but I was still trying to find my niche. Evendale [his first FM] was never really finished all the way. Memento Mori was initially envisioned to be themed around being bound to a cruel fate, but after mission 2, I never quite knew where to go with it and the more I worked the more I realized that maybe that story wasn't right for the Thief world.”
Random_Taffer soon found momentum with later FMs.
“Ashes & Dust was my first truly classic release, I'd say. Captain of the Guard was actually supposed to be part of Memento Mori, but ended up becoming a sort of mini game. ... With my later releases like [Death’s Cold Embrace] and Godbreaker, I've really gotten into world building.”
Godbreaker was a fantastic campaign that came out in 2017, demonstrating how even in recent times amazing FMs are still being made.
Fan-Made Mission Pack, New Game
If you were a PC gamer in the '90s and early 2000s, a “Mission Pack” was something magical. Think of them as like the old days’ DLC, except in this case you’d go to a retail store and picked up a box.
When you installed and launched a mission pack, it was like opening a Christmas present. You’d get a new single-player campaign for your favorite game that usually had new enemies, weapons, and other characters and tools. If you had a poor Internet connection, this may have been the only way you could nab extra content.
One group of dedicated Thief fans, called The Dark Engineering Guild, essentially gave the community a free mission pack: Thief 2 X.
The joy of playing it was that it felt like you had traveled to the store and picked up the Thief 2 X box from a shelf. Beyond the fan community’s delight Thief 2 X also received press recognition and was included on one of PC Gamer’s demo discs.
At the time there had not been a single-release FM campaign of this scope. Thief 2 X included a 13-mission campaign, a new player-character, new NPC models, new ambient sounds, new enemy models—really, new everything. It was a remarkable achievement. That the designers completed this one in about four years’ time is phenomenal. More than one author I spoke with for this story said Thief 2 X was the crowning achievement of the community.
But the Thief community did not just make a mission pack. They also made a new game—or as close to one as you can come. First made available in 2008, “The Dark Mod” is a Doom 3 total-conversion mod that creates a world heavily based on Thief in the Doom 3 engine. It's also an editing tool. As a result, a quasi-separate community for The Dark Mod has branched out into its own website.
Now The Dark Mod stands on its own without requiring Doom 3, so you can download and have access to missions from a Thief-inspired stealth game and a level editor all for free and with no base game needed. That’s awesome. The fact that it exists is a testament to TTLG; the fact that Thief II FMs continued beyond it is a testament to them.
A Revolutionary Fan Patch
Entering 2012, it had been over a decade since the original Thief games had released. Such grand accomplishments as Thief 2 X and The Dark Mod were even some years old. But great missions kept coming—TTLG continued to outdo itself.
New authors joined, like skacky. In real-life he’s Romain Barrilliot and is currently working on Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. As skacky ,he was also a Quake and Unreal Tournament mapper—then he discovered Thief. In 2012, he released his first mission and made a great impression. I’ve had a chance to speak with skacky before, and this time was no less intriguing.
Skacky’s many years as a fan and mapper for other games preceding the addition of Thief mapping gives him a unique perspective. I asked him what he thought makes Thief fans and the TTLG community unique.
“I think it's a combination of a really great game as well as a powerful editor that isn't too hard to learn, with which you can modify a whole lot of aspects of the game without having to learn how to code—which is why there are many fan-missions that don't strictly adhere to the core mechanics of Thief.”
Soon after skacky became an active FM author, a fan patch came out called NewDark that allowed FM authors to realize even more in their missions. It also enabled players to install and launch the original Thief games from just about any new PC, which prior had been a laborious process. The author of it has remained anonymous and posts updates for it on a French fan forum.
“NewDark has had a bigger impact on the community than any other single thing," Yandros said. "Not only did it rejuvenate authors and the community in general, it greatly increased the tools available to authors to tell stories and create environments.”
13 and a half years after Thief II’s release, this revolutionary fan patch allowed a new level of fan design for Thief.
2017 dawned. The Thief 2014 reboot was near three years old and was already forgotten. But the Thief FM community was keeping the love alive for the near two-decade old originals.
In fact, 2017 saw two of the grandest, most brilliant Thief II fan-mission campaigns ever released: the aforementioned Godbreaker and Death’s Cold Embrace. The former had been worked on by Random_Taffer for several years; the latter by Yandros for longer. They proved once again that the TTLG Thief fan community is never short of phenomenal experiences that rival any officially developed game.
The Thief: The Dark Project’s 20-year anniversary contest in 2018 saw a glut of new FMs. Skacky was one of the contest organizers.
“It was incredible. I had no idea so many people would be on board with this, especially considering it was for Thief 1 which historically has seen far less missions than Thief 2, and the restrictions could put off a few veteran authors who relied on custom assets," he said. "The turnout was crazy, with 26 or 27 missions total. That's nuts!”
20 years out from Thief: The Dark Project the community was alive and better than ever. Now 20 years out from Thief II, the same is true.
Here we are in March 2020, twenty years since Thief II’s release, and Thief II fan missions—Thief fan missions in general—are still being made. The Thief II 20th anniversary contest is happening right now; Random_Taffer and Yandros are working on a sequel campaign to Godbreaker; a full campaign set for the first Thief called The Black Parade is in the works; and overall the Thief world and its devoted fanbase are alive and strong.
As Melan said of the community’s single best achievement, “Beyond any single thing, the wealth of absolutely great stuff from over many more than 1,000 fan-made missions should count for one. More broadly, we can perhaps also look at how Thief missions have cultivated a certain idea of gaming based on exploration, complexity, and freedom of choice. This idea was developed in studios like Looking Glass, Origin, and Arkane, but it has mostly fallen by the wayside in the modern game industry. All that by amateurs—in the best sense of the word.”
Take a dip, if you haven’t yet, in the amazing work produced by 20 years of love and dedication. Play a Thief II FM.