Sometimes you pick up on stories you never intended to. A trip to the mall reveals a family's financial troubles or a store manager's unscrupulous practices if you listen in, are at the right place at the right time, or are very observant. Imagine how much you could learn about a university's culture and mission by exploring the campus and reading flyers, picking up a student paper, or observing students (without seeming a creeper). I wager it'd be a much more revealing experience than reading the school's prospective student paraphernalia. Exploring a place, whether you intend to, can give you many stories about that place or about things of the time.
This is part of a continuous series. Read more about Dark Narrative here.
In Thief II’s “Shipping…and Receiving” mission, player-character and master thief Garrett learns about the Mechanists, a new religious group in town that broke off from the game’s other main religion,the Hammerites, in a looting run at the dockyards. The Mechanists are a mysterious group, ostensibly just concerned about technological progress in the City but are harboring a darker design. You, Garrett, learn of them via narrative caches in the environment, delivered through Thief’s singular, strong story design.
As I will stress throughout this feature, Thief’s exact design allows for very effective storytelling that draws the player in; the narrative is told through objects in the environment, conversations between AI characters, and readables (letters, journals, etc.). Rarely, if ever, are these along a set path. Depending on where the player chooses to go in Thief’s open-ended environment, these story bits may occur in any sequence. These story sequences are not essential or even related to Garrett’s purpose at the docks—he just happens to pick them up while being a fly-on-the-wall. (Flies on the wall can learn more than most of us, if they listen.)
The dockyards in “Shipping…and Receiving” have storage buildings, offices, and rented garage areas for different merchants, artists, and traders. Garrett is visiting the place for loot so that he can make rent. In early Thief II, times have become difficult for the thief, as most of his fences and contacts have been stomped on by a new sheriff. He’s having to stoop low to draw quick cash, admitting in the briefing that he’s lowering his standards by pilfering the dockyard.
The premise, then, is not connected with the game’s main story, but by way of visiting the docks, Garrett discovers new aspects of this religious faction that will play a major role in the game. There are a few key conversations Garrett might overhear. Each has to do with the Mechanists’ rise and the consequences this has had on the City.
The first conversation is between a guard and a dock worker as the two discuss the new “metal watchers” that the Mechanists have been bringing into the City. The guard worries these security-camera-like faces will put him out of a job, while the dock worker worries more about their visage, recalling the gaze of one sending chills down his spine. The player has the chance to see one of these security-camera “watchers” in a hallway in the dock offices. It’s a chilling tease at the visual style of the Mechanists’ contraptions.
These two also discuss the imposing shadow the Mechanist tower throws over the City and how it covers up scenery in the distance. Another conversation, this one between two workers, notes the increased presence of foul soot and much plant life dying in the City because of new Mechanist smoke stacks. All this points to the changes being brought about by the Mechanists and the proliferation of their inventions.
The second notable conversation is between a Hammerite, Brother Uriel, and another dock worker, this one of higher import. The worker is annoyed by the Hammerite’s tardiness, and, in his complaint, references the popularity of the Mechanists and the services they provide (both Hammerites and Mechanists are technological groups who specialize in building and crafts). The Hammerite flips, raging against the heretical Mechanists and how they twist holy scripture, and so on. (The Hammerites were the main religious group in the original Thief, but they’ve been pushed to the sidelines in Thief II by the rising Mechanists.)
In addition to these AI conversations, there are readables indicating the Mechanists’ character. One is written by a dock tenant who has been contracted to make fine lenses for the Mechanists’ machines. He worries he may lose the Addonizio Crystal the Mechanists sent him, noting that they’re “tough customers.” Too bad for him if the player decides to steal them. Another dock employee notes irritation at the amount of space the Mechanists take up for storing all their objects. He feels he’s losing control of his own property, even. He gave them an inch, now they want it all. See below:
Two objects frighteningly convey the eerie character of the Mechanists and their technologically fused religion, in addition to the metal watcher, noted above. One is a huge head piece for one of the Mechanists' security robots that always gives me a jump when I stumble on it. The other example is jump-worthy, also: if you peer into one of the large crates in the complex, you may see the eyes of a Mechanist security bot peering back at you. The Mechanists are not just technological, but also frightening.
All these story elements—conversations, readables, objects—are non-essential for Garrett’s mission of stealing loot to pay rent. He doesn’t even reference the Mechanists in the mission’s briefing. Garrett doesn’t care about religious or political groups in the City, as demonstrated in the original Thief as well. But he’s part of the currents of the City, and in Thief II, as in The Dark Project, he gets swept up in them, despite his intentions. The story emerges from the environment, an incidental backdrop as the player looks for loot, and, similarly, it emerges to encapsulate Garrett as he struggles to keep his thieving career alive.