I first started up Thief: Gold in the year 2000 as a quiet 9-year-old nerd. The experience it gave me went beyond typical video gaming. Within its intimidating and indifferent world, I found the narcotic opportunity to explore a place reflecting my conception of the world and to do so as someone mirroring myself. The towering structures and ideologies of The City were like the engulfing surroundings of my own life at the time, and the detached, independent thief Garrett was much like my detached, introverted self. Thief’s world wasn’t just a place I escaped to. It was a fantastical mirror of my own world, seen through the eyes of an independent whose view was akin to the perspective I had.
This is part of a continuous series. Read more about Dark Narrative here.
Context is everything, so I must give you an explanation. The time you first play a game will make you love it as much as any other factor. I began playing Thief: Gold right after my family had quite suddenly moved to a new area. I went from the cozy woods of North Carolina and the friends I had there to the much bigger and, for me, more intimidating Texas. The sky was big. The roads were big. Everything was big in Texas, and little old me was scared. I had been shy enough at the tiny school I had attended in Charlotte, but among the not-so-welcoming, boisterous crowd at the bigger school smack dab in the middle of Dallas-Ft. Worth, I was a fish out of water. In addition, there was a drought that fine August, and school started on the ninth. Yep: August 9, first day of school. Where I had gone prior, it started in September. I really felt like I had been transported to some vast, crazy desert – a gargantuan land of giants and bullies. School days were long, and evenings at home were brief. In this large land I was a stranger, and needed a small, cozy world to escape to.
It was a chance that Thief: Gold even ended up in my hands. At the time, my brother and I were obsessed with the N64. We dreamt of Zelda. It was my dad whose interest was caught by the Thief: Gold box, and his curiosity would ultimately be one of the greatest fortunes in my gaming life. Thief gave me something Super Mario 64 couldn’t. Mario gave me escape, but the dark, low-resolution, software-rendered confines of the Keeper Training Compound, and the lonely, forgotten character of Garrett resonated with me more than the bright colors of the Mushroom Kingdom and its super-powered plumber. I could never be Mario in real-life, but I already was Garrett.
The first proper mission of Thief, Lord Bafford’s Manor, wasn’t just another game mission. It was a culmination of so many dreams, nightmares, and inspirations I had had as a child. Growing up on noir and old, black-and-white movies, I saw the real world as a place of hardened detectives, long shadows, and lonely streets. This was the world of Bafford. That alone would have given me plenty reason to love it. But there was more: the long, low corridors of Bafford’s, with their stretching shadows, were, for me, the long, scary hallways of the new school I walked through each day. Garrett muttering “It’s time to begin” in the briefing so eerily echoed my own “It’s another day” thoughts as I entered the school building each cold, dark morn. In this new area and at this new school, I was a loner in an intimidating place that was indifferent to my feelings, much like Garrett.
A key to Thief’s mood is that The City doesn’t care about Garrett. It doesn’t revolve around him. He’s no hero at the middle of an epic. He’s just a tiny, miniscule part of things, a disconnected bystander to movements of ideas and violence far greater than he that he nonetheless gets caught up in. He was an orphan. He has no family name. In a world of nobles, Garrett’s dirt. The only people who noticed him, the Keepers, were people who don’t get noticed themselves, an organization dedicated to detachment. Then Garrett went and detached himself from the detached; and in never seeking shelter within a thieves’ guild, he also became an outlaw to the outlaws. Doubly detached so from society, there was no home for Garrett but the shadows.
This atmosphere of intimidation and indifference is central to the series, but especially the first title. Though I was playing the Gold re-release, whether you play that or The Dark Project original, you will get virtually the same experience. Indifference, dread, horror, ominousness, the arcane and the supernatural – these things seep through every manor corridor, cobbled-street of The City, and dark ruin of the game. As you sneak about the dark rooms of Bafford’s, you feel there is a presence there – like something watching you.
This was my world. With every big building, big bully, and big expanse in our new area, I felt there was a sinister force always pushing against me. It lied in the back of everything. The world was an indifferent and absurd place. Friendship and belonging gives life meaning, and as I had none of that, I sympathized with Garrett’s self-centered world. From Garrett’s perspective, he’s the only right one, in a world of evil nobles and corrupt clergy. As I watched those around me swim through emotions and tout big ideas, I lived by own ways and by my own creed. I was just myself in a world of people trying to be something bigger, and as I saw it, they always failed.
In Thief, everything towers around you. To go back to my Super Mario 64 comparison, you are not jumping about a world, bopping baddies on the head, mastering it all by collecting Power Stars. Nor are you a knight who can walk into any Temple or public square and be seen as an adventurer or a hero. You enter every place a criminal. You are not seeking audience or favors. You’re not looking to inquire about a local monster that needs slaying. You’re after loot, and if you get spotted, you’re dead. It doesn’t matter if you’re entering a manor or a temple. You go in and come out as a thief, no one cares about your existence, and whether you succeed or fail they still want to kill you. Now, I was not living in a world where everyone wanted to kill me! But I was living in a world where everyone and everything seemed sinisterly indifferent to me.
As a kid who also lived in horror from the tales and monsters my imagination conjured, the haunted mines of Cragscleft, the cold corridors of the Bonehoard, and the abandoned streets of the walled-off section each resonated with me strongly, too. I could actually step into worlds of horror that before I could only read about. I felt a greater sense of dread than I ever had before in entertainment, and I remember the undead especially freaking me out. In the haunted worlds then, too, I experienced an echo of the isolation and fear I felt in my real life.
My deep connection with Thief continued throughout life. There were several non personal reasons, of course. The games are brilliant as games, and the fan community has made hundreds of fan-made missions, many of them exemplars of narrative design in gaming, some of these unparalleled. But my personal attachment continued even as I grew older, and this largely because of the main character Garrett.
The world became less intimidating as I grew up, though not less indifferent. The long shadows of Bafford’s manor continued to immerse me, but it was with Garrett’s character that my connection remained strongest. He is enviously uninvolved. I wish I could remain as confidently unconnected. Garrett understands something most of us find out the hard way: you have to be careful when investing in others, as they will likely let you down. We may marvel at the evils committed by religious figures, but Garrett wouldn’t be surprised. “Have you read some of the entries I have in Hammerite journals?” he may remark. He sees the real side to people everywhere, and knows they’re not to be trusted. That’s why he never involves himself with any idea or organization. Garrett may sneer about the Hammerites, that “fanatics make unreliable friends,” but he doesn’t go making friends with the Pagans either (and when he does in Thief II, it’s only for his own survival’s sake). He wavers in and out of Hammerite Cathedrals and haunted crypts, City streets and Pagan forests, but never does he commit to anyone or to any idea. He is always between it all, his own force, his own religion.
Even now, I keep looking for new homes, but I constantly find that non-involvement is my only anchor. I look at ideologies and organizations, and think I should go this way, or go that way, but as yet have not gone fully to any one of them. They’d each be the same. I feel I'd be compromised by any of them and have to give up myself. Garrett is similar. Stuck between battling ideas, he is his own person.
So on the twentieth anniversary of Thief: The Dark Project, my advice is: find a game that’s you. I can escape to fantasy worlds all day long in hundreds of games, but there’s only one game that allows me to escape to my own world. There’s only one game that allows me to play as myself – or, as someone as relatable to myself as any gaming character could be. And that game is Thief. I like Thief because it gives me a chance to live a different version of my life. It’s a variant on a theme, and perhaps in some world somewhere I really am an independent taffer, climbing rope arrows and leaping between rooftops, laughing at it all and not being a part of any of it.