At its heart my Dark Narrative series is a celebration of Thief’s uniqueness. I write with the conviction that this game series, especially the Looking Glass originals, are matchless. This is especially the case with any narrative design—thus “Narrative” being forefront in this series’ title. So in this entry I continue on with this theme by bringing up something that Thief does best and, as far as I am aware, does alone.
This is part of a continuous series. Read more about Dark Narrative here.
Monsters are a highly-used staple in games. We slaughter and brutalize them by the thousands via up-close shooting, bird’s-eye-view strategy, sideview jumping, and role-playing tactics. If the blood of demons, undead, hostile aliens, and other like creatures were recorded, our hands would be soaked and heads weighed down heavy. Thankfully, we gamers are just playing games, and no one cares if you murder monsters.
But in the Thief community, some people might care. These are those who ghost. Ghosting is a playstyle first crafted in the Thief forums of Eidos that fans practice still. By ghosting, you try not to leave a trace of your actions, as much as is possible. Like any fan-made playstyle there are variants of ghosting ranging from the more easy to the more extreme. I’ve taken to the soft variety of ghosting whereby one does not put any AI in full alert, uses items as minimally as possible, and – most importantly – does not knock out or kill anyone. Or anything. That’s right – not even monsters.
In most stealth games you sneak by humans almost exclusively, but Thief gives you a variety of NPCs. In the second main mission of The Dark Project, you’ve got zombies. Then, in the very next mission, you’re in a crypt. By the end of the game, you’ve seen so many undead, spirits, giant spiders, burricks, and other monsters that you’ll swear you were playing D&D. And that’s kind of the point: you’re like the thief in a D&D adventure.
Even Thief II, with its focus on technological progress and away from the supernatural, there are the horrifying security robots called the "Children of Karras." These brass-masked, creepily voiced monstrosities are much more interesting than your typical security machine. Both titles considered, the Thief classics’ cast of creatures is an important and unique characteristic that separates them from other stealth games.
So if you’re not killing monsters, but, instead, sneaking by them, this then leads to the question: How does the player approach a monster in a stealth game? Or, do monster NPCs differ from human ones? Does one approach a cavernous crypt with undead the way one does a highly secure bank? Does one crouch by a giant spider the same way one would if said giant spider were a guard? That giant spider is far freakier than a guard – and it’s got eight eyes. And the large crypt is far more otherworldly than a bank. Even if technically the AI for beasts may be the same as for humans, aesthetically frightening monsters offer a different kind of obstacle to sneak by.
One, monsters sounds different. A couple giant spiders are not going to converse about going to the bear pits or wanting to see the cloak-check girl. At least, we wouldn’t be able to understand them if they did. When the player is near a monster, they don’t hear conversations or familiar human sounds like humming or whistling. Rather, they hear the sucking of a giant spider, the groans of a zombie, the clicking of a crayman, or some such other frightening audible. A monster’s noises represent an unknown or an undecipherable.
The original’s ape-beasts and Thief II’s Children of Karras robots are exceptions. The former speak in disordered English and the latter in pre-recorded voices that are nonsensical at moments. Different phrases, recorded by the Mechanist leader Karras, come through innocuously. “Please be warned…a misguided soul…all should hear the words of Karras…the words of Karras,” one might speak when it sees Garrett. These phrases that the robots play back are odd enough that they are distinguishable from human AI, even if they are still in human language. They, like The Dark Project’s monsters, offer frightening variety in addition to the human NPCs.
This difference in speech also means that the player cannot as capably know how much a monster has been alerted. A crayman clicking its tongue is not as clear a signal as “I heard that, taffer!” One also does not know how beasts communicate with one another. When a giant spider calls for others of its kind, what noise does it make? How can one tell? Longtime players pick up on these specific noises, but it takes more time and experience to clue in to monster’s alert signals for new players.
Past the difference in speech, how do monsters stand out as a singular feature? Simple: they are scary. This may be the most obvious point made in all of Dark Narrative, but it bears emphasis here. For, in a stealth game, players are always scared. We creep around, hide, or leap for cover because we are afraid of getting caught. When enemy AI are monsters, this fear is twofold. We don’t want to get caught, and we especially don’t want to get caught by them.
I have already written about Thief’s unique horror design, but the presence of monsters is a separate subject from pure horror. Burricks are not necessarily horrifying, for example, but there is still something peculiar in the strange, alien nature of their being. To hear them baying and crying while you are hiding in a corner of their lair is a terrifying experience. You feel like an intruder in enemy territory, more so than when deep in hostile human territory. When you see the burrick's burial grounds in Bonehoard, for example, you feel as if you have come into a separate culture.
The same can be said of the other creatures, even the undead. As you breach their crypts and catacombs, great unease overcomes you. You know you are an interloper, disrupting their rest. This sense is potent in places like the haunted Hammerite cathedral or the Shalebridge Cradle wherein you get the odd feeling that you have caught the attention of a great evil. The Mechanist's robots make you feel alien as well. In the Mechanist’s Soulforge Cathedral, you are infiltrating a base filled with mechanical beasts. In any of these examples, you are an interloper among a group of beings who look, sound, communicate and, perhaps, think differently from you. Within a human structure with human guards you are an intruder - as a thief. Thief or not, you are not welcome in the lairs of monsters.
This is the essential contribution of monsters to stealth games: they cause the player to feel worse about being caught and weaker about their situation. Among human guard NPCs, a player, even when sneaking, can feel some sense of connection with the AI. But with monsters there is nothing but the dread of indifference. Players are the odd one out when they desperately need to hide.
Whether in the depths of the Bonehoard or the bowels of Soulforge Cathedral, hiding amongst monsters is a different kind of stealth experience. The use of creatures to instill even more fear into players and more intimidation into game environments is another of Thief’s narrative strengths. Stealth with human AI guards has you sneak in a world still familiar, but stealth with monster AI gives you the chance to see a world that’s truly other. By proxy, you, the thief, feel all the more other. You are an intruder in territory very different from your own.