So many given scenes in the City tell a story. You can be crouched in a street corner looking towards a shop stand or lurking in the dark corners of a cozy study room and see an arrangement of objects or artworks that captures, in microcosm, the major themes of Thief. As I play missions, I frequently take screenshots of these miniature scenes.
This is part of a continuous series. Read more about Dark Narrative here.
In this entry of Dark Narrative, I have selected five screenshots from the 20th anniversary Thief contest fan missions. I extrapolate on what I observe in them or how they tell a story and how they demonstrate Thief’s narrative caches. The following are examples of how you can piece together pictures with the objects that designers give you. It requires only your observation and imagination.
Miniature Scene 1: The Sad Tale of a Burrick (from The Scarlet Cascabel)Game designers weave tales very subtly. They place pieces of a story into the game world, and you put them together, regardless of the order you find them in. When the picture is finally fully formed in the mind of the player, the denouement strikes more harshly because of its lead up. That is how it often is in Thief missions, when the player is a fly on the wall in the houses of all sorts of people. Tucked away in the private recesses of one’s home stories lie a fuller truth than those presented by the occupants in public. Go on a journey through a person’s desk and closet to learn more about them than a conversation could tell you.
Thus we come to the butcher’s shop in the village of Wychwood. Here I encountered a sad story of a burrick—really, several burricks—and a man who may be a little bit crazy.
It started when I entered the yard. Here, unexpectedly, I bumped into a burrick. I love these little beasts and all the noises they make, though I do believe those who hold them as pets are a little, shall we say, mentally imbalanced. (Would you keep a burrick as a pet?) These were my thoughts exactly as I heard the singings of the home’s tenant. He’s got the same voice tracks as Raul beneath the opera house in Thief: Gold, so as he’s pacing his place he’s chanting stuff like, “Lady Velarius, cruel and carnivorous, do you think you have beaten me?”
I thought, “Okay. A crazed burrick owner.” Then I entered the house and, in the sitting room, noticed a burrick trophy. I was horrified: this man who owns these things as pets also hunts them? How does that make sense? He must be more perverted than I had initially thought.
But the grand climax was yet to come. As the classic eerie windhowl ambiance that I love in Thief set in, I walked upstairs and beheld a terrible sight: cooked burrick legs hanging from hooks.* This man was the neighborhood butcher! As I realized the reality behind the poor little burrick I thought was this man’s pet, the scales fell from my eyes and I felt as if all of reality had betrayed me.
Surely if I had come into this place from the front door, the brutality of the establishment’s nature would not have clobbered me so. But coming through the back, seeing the little burrick first—putting the pieces together that way—made this episode particularly gruesome.
*In game, these objects are called "deer legs," but given the context here they are clearly "burrick legs."
Miniature Scene #2: What Has Been Stuffed in a Closet (from The Sound of a Burrick in a Room)Here we have a tucked away closet I ducked into while exploring Lady Blexham’s manor in The Sound of a Burrick in a Room. What can we learn about someone by what they stored in a closet? Details very exciting or … not interesting at all. What do you store in your closet? In mine you can find stacks of containers and piles of book bags filled with items I think I need yet never touch. If I were ever to open my closet door and see them all vanished, though, I would certainly feel a great void.
So what does Lady Blexham not need but would miss if a thief made it vanish? The first object to catch my eye was the torn Hammerite banner. The Lady’s given up religion, or she had to store a damaged tapestry and can’t get around to repairing it. Her expenses are directed towards burrick-proof walls at the moment, after all.
Next there are two tables turned on top of the other and three chairs. These are either unneeded or damaged. The rich can easily shove furniture pieces in a closet, I guess. She really needs to get them reupholstered, refinished, or something similar.
Could we say the same for the candlesticks? She’s got a candlestick holder with a stick, and two sticks lying aside elsewise: one thick, and one narrow. Are candlesticks the type of item you toss into a closet? I mean, has anyone reading ever stored candlesticks in a closet? Lady Blexham does. They could be spares, or she's recently run into a large supply of candlesticks she has no idea what to do with.
I don't know what’s in those two sacks, the next item of interest, and I’m guessing the Lady doesn’t either. Why do I guess so? Quiz me on what’s inside the backpacks in my closet, and I will answer with a blank face and several head scratches.
Then we have a little pile of…I don’t know at all. You see this appear a lot throughout the games. Trash? A makeshift bed? A burrick litter box? Perhaps it's best to leave it alone.
And lastly, the cream of the closet: a stack of coins! Exactly what I was looking for, though why the Lady had this stored away I do not understand. Surely even the richest would want to keep a tight grip on every last coin they have.
Maybe I’m kidding myself thinking the Lady even bothered to tuck stuff away in a closet. Obviously she leaves this to her servants. So really this is Reginald’s storeroom for his do-it-yourself hobbies and saved-up change he picks up off the ground during his shifts.
Note also the perpetual light. There’s no switch – so it’s just…on. All the time.
You could make quite a few different stories from this closet, if you wanted. Open any given closet and try for yourself. What tales might you construct from the unidentifiable, seemingly unimportant contents?
Miniature Scene #3: Through a Bedroom Window (from Downtowne Funk)
One of my favorite scenes from Downtowne Funk came when peering through this window. I find peculiar joy looking through windows into rooms or houses that I can’t get inside of, and for this reason enjoy small house decorations. It’s the tease of a separate world.
Through this window, I’m seeing into a subset of the City – a look into one of the many families set down within its walls. What can I learn about them?
There’s a small loot chest right by the sill – the first target of any thief. Why place this next to an open window? Carelessness. Next to it sits a potted plant - simple décor. But just behind this, we see not simple décor: an elaborate painting and a trophy. This painting is one that you’ll see elsewhere in Thief. Depicting three magi standing amidst fantastic scenery, its representative of the magical themes in the backdrop of Thief’s world. I’ve always thought of it as an actual setting you might be able to find when you travel far out enough from the safety of the City’s walls. Perhaps the painter was an adventurer who caught such a scene himself, while hiding behind shrubbery, furiously scribbling on a notepad. However it was captured, it is one of my favorite art pieces from the game.
Overlooking all these items is the crayman trophy. It’s quite a sight: these beasts lurk in the murky depths of the sewers and underground caverns. This, obviously, suggests that the homeowner is a hunter. Further, this homeowner likes going on adventures. Perhaps this adventurer also traveled to the wilds and captured the magi scene in painting. Or, perhaps they just bought both items from an art sale.
I prefer spinning the more interesting story when not given enough details to form a conclusive story from. So this person is an adventurer, who's seen sorceresses and hunted crays.
Miniature Scene #4: Dead Child's FaceThe Burning Bedlam has one of my favorite moments of environmental storytelling. Like the sad tale of a burrick I relayed above, this one has pieces. The grand climax gets you, but in a different way.
Entering a crumbled section of the Old Quarter ruins, you hear ghostly whispers – a commonly used ambient track in haunted Thief areas – and also see the corpse of a man fallen down on his back from off a rope. The note lying next to him adds a new angle to the ambient whispers: this place was an orphanage. More chilling, the man had fallen down the rope due to shock at seeing an orange face staring at him. With dread, you then turn to face upward, knowing that you must now climb the rope yourself, but knowing you really do not want to see this orange face.
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I started climbing the rope, slowly, then jolted as I heard a door opening somewhere in the distance behind me. (A clever trick on the designer’s part.) Next, I finally reached the top of the rope, and peered over the ledge.
I jumped, but as soon realized there was nothing to be frightened of at all. What faced me was a golden skull piece, one of the loot items in the game. I nabbed it and climbed back down. The whispers still frightened me, though just a little now.