Living Backdrops (Thief) | Dark Narrative

Our latest feature on Thief focuses on the background and environments.

Published: March 15, 2019 2:00 PM /


the korrigans - pineapple guard (featured image)

Within Thief, you are part of an ongoing world. The world does not stop for you - each level isn’t set up for you. You are a piece of it moving about life that keeps happening. In this way, virtual experiences can help simulate our world, as in our world we are part of an ongoing life. All Thief fan-mission authors capture some element of this, but Gaetane does so exceptionally well.

Gaetane is a Thief mission master. She stands apart because of the stories she weaves into the backdrop via NPCs. While in her cityscapes, you’ll see unusual NPCs running about who has a unique trait and commands your attention. You will also find journals or other notes that reference them. Gaetane captures amusing little anecdotes and pictures, reminding us that in the grim world of the City, the natural comedy of humanity is still on display.

Gaetane is a master at creating comical worlds that illustrate being human. Take her debut fan mission, L’Arsène, as an example. Right at the start, you’re given a flavorful little letter from Garrett’s rival, whose name is the mission’s title. Already this is an unusual start for an FM – Garrett’s in a thieving race against someone who could be better than him.

But my focus here will not be on this mainline rivalry, other than to note how it flavors the start of this whimsical drama. Instead, I mean to highlight a character in the background who incidentally gives this world life.

In the very first scene of L'Arsène, Garrett's apartment, you hear a scurrying beneath your window and the chords of a harp. If you peer out, there will be no one there. You have heard, but not seen, a local figure everyone seems to know. Those in the town know him as Pouilloux. Throughout the mission, you’ll read of a “different” young man that most seemed annoyed by. You’ll also see a possible reference to him in a sewerman’s diary as a “sickly young lad.” To use harsh terms, he would likely be thought of as the village idiot.

After sneaking into one home, occupied by a young woman named Geraldine, you’ll read of the idiot harpsichordist in a diary. The journal reveals her attitude towards people and the habits of Pouilloux. Geraldine took pity on the unfortunate man and welcomed him in for a meal and some conversation. She's come to sorely regret this as the "halfwit" now plays his harp underneath her window each evening. She can't get rid of him! She's also noticed that her necklace has gone missing, and suspects Pouilloux to have stolen it and have it in his "den."

This is rumored to be in the Old Tower in the industrial district. This tips Garrett off to the possible location of some loot, but the main point of this readable is learning about the hard-playing NPC. He comes off as a "Phantom of the Opera." Though this mission is mainly about Garrett and his thief rival, the character of Pouilloux, trotting along and strumming his harp in the background, is a major player in events.

A person can be seen
"I'm gonna take you down, taffer! Let's see some ID! Hands UP! Hey, wipe that smile off your face!"

The harp sounds and written gossip coalesce in the NPC himself when you see him run by. Pouilloux is just a background character, but his presence plays an important part in the character of this mission’s cityscape. Contrast against the regular guard NPCs, he gives the typical humdrum fresh life.

In her mission The Korrigans, Gaetane will use this setup – an NPC running about a city again. This time, it’s more humorous than in L’Arsène. In short, a new member of the guard has been subject to hazing and is dressed like a giant pineapple. You first read about it in a police report lying on a table in one of the security stations. Players will likely think it is just an empty reference. But later in the mission, you'll see an unusual object running about and realize it's, to the contrary, a very full reference. Hilariously, the guard will still react to you if he sees you as a serious guard would. You can’t help but laugh, unless you’re used to being addressed harshly, in full seriousness, by a pineapple man.

At times I wonder at Gaetane: I am playing this Thief mission, pulled in by its story of little goblin-like creatures, seeing new references to the series’ thief rival L’Arsène, surveying guards’ patrol routes… and then I see this ridiculously dressed guard running through everything. But this is Gaetane: she uses comic reliefs, or whimsical backdrops as I prefer to call them, masterfully. It’s a reminder that these cityscapes we’re carefully treading through are populated by humans, and humans can be ridiculous. Think of the crazy activity you may have observed or encountered when out and about. To be ridiculous is to be human. By including these off-the-wall NPCs, Gaetane makes her FMs very, uniquely human. Her best effort in this endeavor is the first mission in her grandest campaign.

Gaetane’s grand Black Frog campaign begins in a quaint seaside town. Currently amid an annual festival called “Songs of the Sea,” the town is livelier than usual. Indeed, this may be the only time that the town is lively at all. One bored, drunken guard’s journal notes how slow things usually are as he complains about how little action he gets while on duty. Whether this liveliness is to Garrett’s advantage or not is up for discussion. He plans to meet with a contact about a painting – his next job – and whatever goes on in the town is surely just background for him.

There are several stories in this background of revelers and songs. In Gaetane fashion, one of them involves running NPCs. We saw this with the harpist in L’Arsène and the hazed guard in The Korrigans. Here, one sees a young woman, flowers in hand, chasing after a young man. The young gentleman is not quite eager for a romantic relationship, apparently. A bug with AI patrols might flip the narrative, however. After some time of playing, this scene had become the lady running from the gentleman, and then after a while, the two were separated by some distance. Whichever manner they ran in, their pursuit lends a thread to the tapestry of the town. This is a time of music and merrymaking, and for young lovers to chase after one another.

There are a few groups of revelers. One, the largest, is frolicking about in front of the church. All drunk and dancing, one is atop the fountain, as the others writhe, all on the point of completely passing out. The church, still with Mechanist-decorated pews, is empty. This is as much due to the greater story in the world of Thief of the fall of the Mechanist Order as it is to this being a night of revelry. Weaving throughout this crowd is old man Pingus, checking on his treasure. More on that little tale below.

Two people can be seen.
These party-goers have set up electric lights and a viktrola. Seeing Thief NPCs swaying and dancing is always a treat.

The other more notable band of revelers involves an angry townsperson. A man from a window across the street tosses items at musicians as he complains about the noise. This is usually a peaceful, quiet town, and not everyone is excited about this one active time of year. According to one readable, a letter you find in an apartment, by this festival’s standards it is not as successful as it used to be. The streets are less crowded - there are fewer musicians and singers. 

Maybe, then, this man is not complaining of the noise per se, but of the lesser quality of it compared to times past. Regardless, his whining demonstrates that this festival is not uniformly enjoyed by the town.

The other party groups consist of performers and an audience – no drunken partying or angry townspeople involved. My favorite has two performers who take turns either running very fast or bending or swaying. An older couple watches. The other has a dancer that a family is watching. These scenes show the wider strata of people out and about at this party. The town isn’t just full of drunken revelers, as there are also couples and families simply taking in the shows put on by the performers. Perhaps these are traveling performers – I don’t know. But it’s nice to see the story of this town's annual festival playing out.

But you’ll see stories from all over the place: a festival may be taking place, but life, in all forms, goes on. A couple of homeless men stand hidden in a stairway’s corner beside a large barrel. An old Mechanist, gone bonkers since the fall of the Order, wanders around an out-of-the-way section. If you get too close, he’ll start following you, babbling nonsensically. The tavern is full. I’d guess these people would have been stopping by there anyway, festival or not. Then there’s Garrett’s unfortunate contact who gets shot in the back with an arrow and killed immediately while Garrett’s meeting with him. This sudden twist bespeaks of coming plot points and forces Garrett to snoop some in order to know the details behind his job, which this contact, Irvin, would have relayed to him.

Garrett finds a key to Irvin’s sister’s house. It’s a bummer to read a note within on how excited she is to be paid a visit by her brother, now murdered. (Garrett doesn’t break her the news.) You can open a chest under the stairway in her home, too, but it only contains a loaf of bread. I dropped it back.

Remember the reference to Pingus I made above? He’s the old man who’s got a treasure hidden away somewhere and goes to eye it every now and then. Town local Higgins is obsessed with finding it. Higgins, writing to Eliane, likely his partner, notes that he will even skip out on attending the festival in order to go hunting for this old man’s treasure. You’ll see him standing in the graveyard with a shovel, and some holes dug.

A person can be seen
Having a good time?

Higgins is convinced that the treasure is there, but Garrett knows better. If you follow old man Pingus you’ll find it in a tucked-away tomb on the opposite side of the church from the graveyard. Poor Higgins: he’s spending the night digging up graves instead of partying with his lover.

After Irvin’s unfortunate murder, Garrett’s got to go on the sly. While in that mode or before, he’s moving forward on a mission, and all this “Songs of the Sea” festivity is just background noise. But as always in a Thief mission, if you – Garrett – take your eyes off the job at hand for even just a little bit, and pay attention to the world happening, you’ll find several interesting stories. It gives life to the background scenery and makes you realize that here in this game, as in life, you are intersecting with several other characters and narratives, and are only a piece of this lively world tapestry. Gaetane places intriguing NPCs to encourage us to pay attention to the world around us and see the comical, lighter side of life.

This post was originally published in 2019 as a part of our Dark Narrative series. It's been republished to have better formatting.

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Photo of Trevor Whalen
| Writer

I am a lifelong, enthusiastic gamer, freelance writer and editor, blogger, and Thief FM aficionado. I think that exploration-heavy, open-ended first-person… More about Trevor