GDC 2013: Talking stealth with developers of the new ‘Thief’

Miguel Concepcion

How does a game studio follow up a highly anticipated–and ultimately well received–reboot of a beloved PC franchise? Why, reboot another equally revered PC series. From “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” to the simply titled “Thief”, Eidos Montreal clearly like to challenge themselves, even if it might feel like countless invisible PC gamers are looking over their shoulders. MTV Multiplayer caught up with “Thief” producer, Stephan Roy and lead level designer, Daniel Windfeld Schmidt to comment on our reaction to their recent gameplay demo.

Being mindful of the original game’s staff and what they’ve gone on to do, I assume you guys are ready to hear the “Dishonored” comparisons. You crafted this gritty, believable world, that is a bit of a contrast to the abstract look of “Dishonored”, so I’m also recalling the originality of “The Witcher”.

Daniel Windfeld Schmidt: We’ve played “Dishonored” and we loved it. We also played it knowing that it was a game we didn’t want to make. We’re just happy that there’s a market for stealth games that people want to play.

As we’ve noted, there’s no fireballs, there’s no high level magic. We want to keep things realistic and grounded with logical mechanics that makes sense and the player can relate to. That was very important for us. We wanted to bring back the gameplay of working in the shadows.

Stephan Roy: Seeing Garrett’s hands as he peers around corners is one of the things we do to connect the him to the player. He feels human, not supernatural, but he takes you to places you shouldn’t be.

DWS: You saw the melee combat but you did not see the non-focus melee combat, which is a lot harder to do in terms of 1-on-1 combat. You’re not a trained soldier, so you can’t take your enemies for granted.

Not many games dabble in both third person and first person views, though I’d like to think that your studio’s experience with “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” helped with “Thief”. 

SR: At first we tried to make it a fully third person game and we said, “No, this is not ’Thief’.” For the vertical sections, we made it an isolated aspect. It’s also a tool to give the game a certain rhythm. The game is primarily a first person experience and we’re trying to make sure you don’t get sick transitioning between the two views. How do you feel about it?

I grew up watching music videos with frequent camera cuts, so I’m used to it.

DWS: We made it very first person because we wanted to keep it close to the original “Thief”. First person especially makes a lot of sense during pickpocket sequences or when you’re backing into a wall.

Lockpicking isn’t exactly a popular feature in games though it’s clearly not stopping you guys. You’re even going with a very realistic approach, both functionally and visually.

DWS: This goes back to the grounded level design of the game. Garrett’s resourceful but he’s not a magician. He can’t go through doors magically. The hands are your tools and lock picking is a skill that you expect a thief to have. I’m glad you find it immersive.

SR: The goal we have is to avoid repetition. If we have it so that you’re lock picking every 5 minutes, we’re sure you’re going to be throwing your controller or keyboard.

DWS: The balance comes in the amount of work we’ll make you spend picking a lock versus the amount of times your find a locked door. That’ll be the difference in a gamer reacting negatively, “Oh, another locked door.” versus the positive, “Yes! Another opportunity to lock pick!”

Was there ever a question of not making Garrett an anti-hero?

SR: When working on this franchise, the one surprisingly thing I learned was the inclusion of the word “passion”. Fans have expectations. Let’s say that Garrett is more of a Walt Disney character. If I announced that, I wouldn’t survive another day. In bringing back “Thief”, we have to respect a heritage. Making him a hero was not possible.

DWS:  Saving a princess gets old.

With the focus mechanic in “Thief”, I recall the instinct environmental hint feature in the recent “Tomb Raider”…

SR: Compared to the instinct feature of “Tomb Raider”, our focus mechanic is linked with our story. I’m looking forward to giving you more information about the story because then you’ll see what I mean.

DWS: There’s a dualistic aspect in this focus. There’s the aggressive aspect but there’s also the “get out of jail” cards. The latter is the familiar stealth mechanic, where some players would use focus to speed up a lock pick or a pick pocket. This can be useful in time sensitive situations.

We think that players who fear failing a section and restarting will be stimulated by having this focus option to fall back on. Old school fans who want don’t want to use it won’t have to. It’s optional.

This most recent demo shows Garrett navigating his was through the city toward this red light beacon. While it looked like the distance he had to travel was hundreds of yards away, it was unsurprising that you made the open city navigation look easy. It’s one thing to know the level design because you made the game, but how will the average player know how to best navigate through this large and often dark city?

DWS: We have free roaming city districts where we won’t tell you what to do or where to go. There are a lot of level design tricks that make it easy to roam; how to use verticality to give you a sense of direction. 360 freedom can make it hard for players to know where is north and south. We use elevation and landmarks to help with navigation. Also, we have big roads to distinguish from the small roads, roads that are always lit, and so on. A clock tower is very effective in giving you a sense of direction.

SR: It’s really a story driven game. The narrative aspect is very important for “Thief”. If you just love the story and just want to know more and more, you’re going to play mission after mission. But between each mission you’re back in your hideout.  From your hideout, you can visit the city before starting the next mission, you can spend 20 minutes on side missions, whether it involves eaves-dropping on a conversation or pick pocketing someone, or both.