“skacky,” or Romain Barrilliot, is one of the best Thief fan missions authors there is. Most of his missions are done in a surreal style based on the original title, Thief: The Dark Project. For this special entry of Dark Narrative, I had the privilege to chat with skacky. I was playing through his 2012 mission Between These Dark Walls, set in a cityscape with towering buildings and winding streets. I asked him a few questions about this mission, but also on mission design in general. My interview was very enlightening; skacky articulated differences between Thief and Thief II that I had never been able to put quite so well, and also gave informed, valuable comments on storytelling and atmosphere in Thief. If you are a connoisseur of great gaming experiences of any kind, and especially if you are a level design enthusiast for classic PC games, please read.
This is part of a continuous series. Read more about Dark Narrative here.
TechRaptor: Your missions each have a surreal, towering cityscape with winding streets. They remind me of illustrations of fantastic cities like you’d see in books. What informs this design of yours, or what inspires it? What is your intention with it – what mood do you hope to convey in your missions?
skacky: I'm someone who really likes surrealism in general, and who especially loves towering and crushing architecture, with impossibly tall structures and the like. What's so great about Thief, especially The Dark Project, is that it's a game that has a high component of surrealism already, so adding more on top of that is pretty easy. Even if spaces are somewhat realistic (manors, streets, etc.) with somewhat realistic proportions, there is still a big layer of things that aren't quite right and that also contribute to the feeling of dread and anguish the game has, even in more mundane locales like the city streets. The very low-res visuals are also quite a big factor in all that. So I'd say the mood I intend to convey with [my design] is simply that, anguish. Trapped in spaces that kind of make sense, but also don't fully make sense.
TR: That actually expresses a lot of thoughts I've had about the original Thief, though I haven't ever been able to put it like that! "Anguish" or "trapped" in surreal spaces is a very true way of understanding the feel of the original Thief. Following on this topic, your missions, like Between These Dark Walls, have deep respect for the original Thief game. They have the look, the sounds, and the feel. Do you have a preference for the first Thief’s style? Do you think the style of the first Thief is more rich than that of Thief II, or that it needs more use by fan mission authors? (You've kind of answered some of this just now, I know - but anything else to add?)
skacky: I love Thief II as much as the next person, but I really think The Dark Project is by far the apex of the series. It's a game that has an utterly unmatched atmosphere, and I say that having played some very atmospheric/immersive games such as STALKER or Alien: Isolation. It is consistently interesting and throws the player into vastly different situations with every single mission. The Dark Project is a very, well... dark game, but it never ever falls within “grimdark” territory where everything is exaggerated. Thief's darkness is very subtle, but at the same time very explicitly conveyed through sound, visuals and the flawless art direction. I love this game so much that I don't really want to use super fancy textures or meshes [when making my missions] — not only do I find most of them rather average in general, but they result in a certain [distancing] from the original artstyle. I'm generalizing here, of course, it's not always the case.
With regards to mission authors using the original style, I think anything goes. I tend to prefer missions that follow the themes and visuals of the original game over missions that try to stay away from them and explore other directions.
TR: I love each Thief game about equally myself, and Thief II certainly has its own "surreal art" on a clockwork / Victorian-futuristic / art deco level. But there is something about the original Thief's art that's really unique. I think you hit the nail on the head with your description of it. And, speaking of love for the original Thief's design, I even use TFix Lite [a fan-made patch], so I can play with the original T1 guard models! If I could, I'd play on an old PC with low resolution, but my old PC is...well, old, and doesn't work much at all. I think playing through the first Thief on a low resolution PC back in the day, and with software mode enabled or whatever it was, was part of the experience.
skacky: Thief II is a lot more grounded in reality compared to The Dark Project, a good example is to compare [the missions] Assassins and Ambush. They both have a large cityscape, but you'll notice pretty quickly that Assassins has a lot of winding paths, underpasses, and dark and twisty alleyways, while Ambush has mostly 90° angles, little to no street elevation, and most buildings share the same height. There's something pretty disturbing about Assassins’ cityscape, it's sprawling and complex, while Ambush’s is very simple overall. I totally agree with you about using the original models, with thick necks and prism feet! I love the way they look, which again ties into the surreal aspect of the game. I'd love it if it was possible to have a proper software renderer in newdark [note: a patch for the game], I dislike texture filtering.
TR: That's a valuable distinction between T1 and T2 I wish I had noticed! Very true, too, now that I think about it. I'll have to replay Ambush again. I guess a question for another time would be: could Thief 2 have been done in a more surreal style, or could it only have worked as it was done? Anyway, that question aside, what specifically does the mission title “Between These Dark Walls” refer to? It's referenced in a journal entry of one of the noble’s wife’s as she feels she is trapped in her husband's manor. Is this the only thing the title refers to, or does it have other meaning?
skacky: Thief II still retains a bit of the feeling of dread and anguish The Dark Project has, most notably in Running Interference, an empty countryside mansion with a skeleton crew and some very bizarre and oppressive ambient loops. I wish Thief II had more levels in that vein. Thief II could definitely have been done with more surrealism, it's interesting to compare the demo mission The Unwelcome Guest with Life of the Party. They're essentially the same level, except The Unwelcome Guest is stylistically closer to The Dark Project.
So, the title "Between These Dark Walls," in addition to being a title drop from Lady Beric's diary, is also a little nod to a map of the same name for Unreal Tournament ‘99, which I played a lot when I was active in that community back in the day... the title mostly refers to the Keeper compound itself [note: an area in the mission], that's located below the manor and, I imagine, tucked between a few different structures in order for it to be efficiently hidden.
TR: So I don't have to hide my love of Thief II's first mission anymore! I thought I was alone. I mean, Running Interference isn't the best mission, and it doesn't come close to A Keeper's Training or Bafford as an intro or first mission, but there has always been something about its empty atmosphere that drew me in. I wish its sound effects were used more - I was pleased when I heard them in Random_Taffer's Godbreaker campaign [a Thief II fan-made campaign]. And I've played The Unwelcome Guest, and see your point. A Dark Project-style reinterpretation of Thief II is an interesting prospect to imagine. And being a UT player myself, I'll need to look up that map now!
And the next question is on mission design in general: Was Thief your gateway into level design? If not, what game inspired you to get into it? When did you start?
skacky: Melan actually remade The Unwelcome Guest for a contest on TTLG, I believe it was for the "Classic Thief Experience" contest. Since he also loves The Dark Project far more than The Metal Age, his remake Unbidden Guest has a very big Dark Project vibe. I won't hide the fact that I and a few other people toyed with the idea of remaking a few Thief II missions from the ground up for The Dark Project, most notably Blackmail.
Thief wasn't my gateway into level design at all. I've been making levels since I was 11, and I'm almost 27 now. Counter-Strike was the first 3D game I seriously designed levels for, but I was mostly inspired by classic level designers such as American McGee or John Romero when it comes to actually diving into it.
TR: Oh, now that I see that, it must have been Melan's remake that I played, because I remember it having a different title. I would love a project like that. Another question for another time from me would be: why Blackmail? Myself, I'd love to see Framed! or Eavesdropping [other Thief II missions] remade in that style. Maybe I should try to learn Dromed again? [Dromed is Thief’s level editing utility.] I love hearing that you've been designing levels since a kid, and were one of those "original" 90s PC games level or mod designers. I wish I had started at a young age! Anyways, next question: You use a lot of Thief 1 sound effects, and place them pretty well throughout a mission so that each sound flows with the atmosphere. How important do you think background noises or ambiance is in FM design? Do you think that the background noises contribute strongly to the story?
skacky: The idea with Blackmail was to fuse it with Life of the Party and Trail of Blood. Basically: drop the player into a huge vertical cityscape during a dark and rainy night, have them infiltrate Truart's mansion with a ball still going, reach Truart to confront him but oh no! He's been murdered! He managed to wound his pagan beast assassin that escaped with schematics for some mechanist metal beast prototype that Karras gave Truart, and that Garrett was after. So the player would have to follow the trail of blood the beast left across the rooftops before they get washed away with the rain. It's pretty ambitious, but I'd love to work on that concept one day.
I think that sound design is supremely overlooked in games in general. I think sound makes for a good 80% of the atmosphere, and that's why I try very very hard to have great sound in my missions. I think The Dark Project's sound library is just insane and I seldom use custom sounds in general. So I'd say, if you're a fan-mission designer, or even a game designer, pay very close attention to sound. I don't necessarily think background noises inherently contribute to the story, but they certainly can (to reinforce a sense of evil if the place you need to get to is evil, for example). It's more atmosphere and “indirect” narrative than pure storytelling.
TR: Wow, that sounds like a great mission! Why didn't Looking Glass think of that? Of course, all great ideas build off other great ideas, and they planted the seed and made something great themselves, so definitely nothing against them! But, yes, that is a great mission idea. I agree with you about sound design being overlooked. I also agree that the Thief games have sound libraries ripe with great effects for any given mood or setting. On the subject of storytelling, how do you approach integrating readables into your missions? [Readables refers to any scroll, parchment, book, or similar item that the player can read.] Do you assume the player will read them? Should they mostly tie in with the main story, or mostly be side story?
skacky: Blackmail is one of my favorite missions in Thief II, it's very story heavy but it's never thrown in your face. Progression is mostly linear, but there's still some leeway so you don't feel like you're on rails. And, wow, that red corridor going to the top floor with the guard yelling "Hurry! Sound the alarms! Seal off the area! Sheriff Truart has been killed! The killer must still be in the building!", this is incredibly memorable and just really damn masterful.
So my approach to readables is pretty simple. I don't like to read too much in games, so I tend to have my readables rather short and to the point. I love to have both story-related readables and flavor text in my missions. Flavor text is usually short and usually can't be picked up, and it mostly serves to establish some background and give the player the impression the world does not revolve around them, and that they are only a cog in a bigger machine that doesn't really care about them. My plot-related readables can usually be picked up since they tend to contain critical information (such as the location of a valuable, or information about a potential guarded area), and I like players to be able to read them whenever they want. I also try to stay close to the original texts, so very little profanity and usually no purple prose. I feel like I really found my style with Endless Rain when it comes to readables, Between These Dark Walls sometimes falls into the trap of purple prose and audiolog syndrome (though Endless Rain is also pretty heavy on audiolog syndrome with Monsegur's documents). [Note: Audiolog syndrome is when a written text reads as if it was an audio recording. A good example would be reading a journal that ends with “They’re coming for me! Ah!”]
TR: That is one of my most memorable moments in Thief II, as well. I don't think about that level [Blackmail] much when I ponder "best of Thief II," but now that you say all that, it is a great mission, including the Hammerite chapel converted to Mechanist worship, and the secret underground area. I did play Endless Rain for one of my Thief Diary entries last year, and had played it before around when it was first uploaded. Definitely a great mission - I'll pay more attention to the readables next time I play it, with that in mind. One last major question: what about NPC conversations? Would you place much value on them for storytelling? Or are NPC's "soliloquy" mutterings to themselves enough for the atmosphere of Thief?
skacky: NPC conversations are as important as readables, for sure. The reason why I have not included them before is simply because it's not easy to do. You have to find someone with a good microphone and who can act convincingly, and then you have to put that into the game. The Black Parade, the expansion-sized campaign for Thief Gold that I once led but still closely follow, uses a lot of NPC conversations in addition to tons of readables (written with the same philosophy as above). We even have a lifelike Benny impersonator who cracks me up every time I hear him!
TR: That's true, I've read before in the forums how difficult it is to setup conversations, and they tend to mess up a lot in-game even when setup near perfectly. I, myself, try to impersonate Benny all the time...really, I try to impersonate all the Thief NPCs. (Don't we all?) I need to post my info in the voice actors thread [at TTLG]. Anyway, I have a few quicker, more "for fun" questions to wrap up here. First: what is your favorite Thief mission? It can be from any of the main Thief games. Just pick one – the absolute, essential Thief mission. Or do you have a single favorite?
skacky: My favorite Thief mission is definitely Song of the Caverns, there is no contest here. It is just perfect. The switcheroo is very clever, the themes are great, the scope is grand and the opera is a joy to explore. It's a bit ugly in places, but the rest really makes up for it. I'd say Break from Cragscleft Prison would be a close second, mostly for the same reasons (minus the switcheroo). [Note: The switcheroo refers to a change in the mission's direction.]
TR: Dang, you resonate with me yet again! I love Song of the Caverns! Back in 2012 I even tried to make a haunted version of the Opera House for one of the contests, but I was trying to learn Dromed at the same time, and eventually gave up. It's got one of the creepiest settings. I wanted to make it completely empty except for one NPC, that you know is there, for a kind of "phantom of the opera house" vibe. If I ever open up Dromed again, that'd be the mission I make. Shame the whole thing was in jorge when I opened it in Dromed [Jorge is the name of the default texture in Dromed.] Having to retexture everything was a big turn off. Maybe I should use T1's Dromed? Anyway - I guess all that's an aside! Next: is there one fan mission author who inspired you more than the others? If you’d be comfortable sharing, of course. This could also be: is there a single FM that inspired you?
skacky: That sounds like a really neat concept! I'd definitely play a mission like that! As for your question, my biggest influence is clearly Melan, and his mission Disorientation is, I think, the absolute best fan mission ever made. I don't see that one being topped anytime soon.
TR: Now I need to double check if I've played Disorientation. That could be one FM that's gotten by me. I guess if I haven't played it, I'm in for a treat! Last question(s): Least favorite thing about Dromed? Favorite thing about Dromed?
skacky: Disorientation is the mission I try to beat but fall short every time. It's a massive cityscape with an insane amount of ways to take. It's an amazing experience, and it's even more impressive when you realize it was made during the old engine days.
My least favorite thing about Dromed would be the lack of any vertex and clipping operations; creating very precise architecture is a huge pain and there's always going to be imperfections. Favorite thing is definitely the light preview, much like Unrealed's, and the ability to switch between editor and game on the fly. I have worked and still work with editors that are fullbright and do not have any sort of light preview, so you have to compile your levels and get into the game to find out how your lighting looks. It's tedious and annoying, and Dromed having that is a huge advantage over those other editors
TR: Excellent, and Disorientation is now on my to-do list. And, well, that wraps up the interview! Thank you very much for your time!
skacky: Thanks for the interview!
The interview stopped here, but I could have kept discussing Thief design and narrative in games with skacky for much, much longer. If you’ve never played Thief before, I encourage you to start with the original, The Dark Project, or its re-release, Thief Gold. After you’ve played that and its sequel, you can check out skacky’s excellent fan missions.
You can buy Thief on Steam or GOG (Affiliate), and then check out the Thief fan mission forums at TTLG.
You can download skacky’s FMs here after searching for “skacky.”