"Lord Bafford’s Manor" is the starting point for all the Thief adventures. It’s my first step each time I replay the game, and, after the training mission has greeted you, it will be your first taste of Thief if you’ve never played the games before. It’s a classic mission, enduring because of how perfectly it sets the mood for Thief. It demonstrates, more subtly than later missions, Thief’s penchant for immersive narrative via objects in the environment, AI conversations, and readables (journals, letters, and the like).
To begin my Dark Narrative series, I’ll consider this moody, simple, delicious start to one of gaming’s best stories. Henceforth, for each entry in this series, I’ll be arguing that the design behind Thief lays the most effective foundation for interactive storytelling.
So, without further ado—it’s time to begin.
You start “Lord Bafford’s Manor” plopped down in a city street corner near the front entrance to Bafford’s manor house. If you tarry by the gate for a moment, you’ll hear the first AI conversation of the game. Two guards discuss the “bear pits,” one of them excited by them and the other complaining that they’re not as good as they once were. It’s a great example of the optional nature of much of Thief’s narrative. If you walk by, which you could do even if not in a rush, you’ll dive into the mission without mind for anything else.
Some conversations you overhear clue you in to major story elements of Thief’s gameworld; others just let you learn about trite stuff like bear pits. Being at the start of the first mission, the bear pits set the stage for the Thief series. Like all narrative caches in Thief, it lets you know that there’s a world beyond Garrett’s, and that, as you carry out your loot-nabbing, thieving career, there are other people living other lives. In so doing, Thief follows in the tradition of earlier Looking Glass titles like Ultima Underworld and the CRPGs that inspired them, which added NPC dialogue to help create an immersive world.
Whether you take the time to hear about the City’s bear pits, you’ll proceed down shadowy, empty city streets, chitter chatter heard from within bars and homes. With its environment, Thief conveys narrative subtly with no words or cutscenes. Without reading or hearing anything, you feel that the City is a dark and lonely place that the warm lights of taverns can’t hide, certainly not from outcasts like you.
The directness of Thief's immersion is worth noting here. It was neither a first-person RPG weighed down by character skills and a hefty inventory system, nor was it a first-person action game bereft of story. It balanced between the two, giving players large levels with multiple approaches, but also giving players the simple directness of a first-person action game.
Throughout the rest of the mission, a few readables and conversations clue you in to the backstory. There’s a note from Lord Bafford to someone named “Cedric” complaining about the quality of dinner—the cook’s in trouble. There’s a conversation between two guards on security measures the lord should implement. Most important is a piece of narrative that can easily go unnoticed, even by veterans of the game. In one of the manor’s rooms is a painting with a garbed man wielding a hammer and standing by a tower, casting away a demon-like being who retreats into the woods. This painting hints at Thief’s largest theme: that of the Hammerites, a technologically-focused religious group, and the Pagans, worshipers of nature and magic. Garrett gets caught up in these forces during the game and, thus, on a replay this painting will carry more significance. On a first time, you won’t get the reference, but maybe you’ll glean that this painting is more than just décor.
On Normal mode, you can sneak real quick and end the mission by stealing the lord’s scepter, your main loot goal. On higher difficulties, you have to get additional loot and get back outside. Whichever difficulty level you select, you will experience Thief’s approach to narrative if you observe, listen, and read. No one person may discover each narrative cache, but that’s part of the excitement of playing and then replaying these missions.
Thief is not devoid of standard narration; the mission briefings, narrated by Garrett, lay out his personal goals for each level. The world’s story, however, is told implicitly through the environment. This method of storytelling is the most effective because it mimics the real world. Stories are told through what we observe, overhear, or pick up and read in our everyday lives. We pick up pieces and put them together. We, like Garrett, want to live our own lives and do our thing as we go out in the world each day, but greater world events and stories sweep us up, whether we like it or not. Each Thief game makes it clear Garrett is just out for himself and the loot he needs to survive, but he incidentally gets drawn into world-saving stories, involving all the City’s major factions, each time.
That, and we can stumble upon “bear pit” conversations in our own lives, too.
The experience of discovering narrative bits in virtual environments is the games’ unique contribution to storytelling tradition, and the design of Thief, from environment, to audio, to objects, to scripting, to player-character and AI, is the best foundation for this kind of narrative. Through this series, I’ll make this case as I look at the game’s missions and the stories they tell.