To catch a thief

In this new 3-D game, the emphasis is on stealth instead of shooting.

Published February 10, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I am standing in the shadows of a palace hall, one nudge away from being killed.

Two sentries make their rounds in the four-cornered hallway before me. If I retreat through the door I came in, its creaky hinges will send them in my direction, swords drawn. If I back-stab a guard as he passes, the scream will likely alert his comrade, who'll shout for reinforcements before finishing me off himself. And that's assuming I can even get close enough to strike at all. But to do that, I'll have to walk on the thick rugs laid along the marble floor -- a single loud misstep onto the polished tile would be the last sound I make.

So I remain still, weighing every alternative, before settling on an even more desperate option: I unsheathe my blackjack and wait for the three-second window during which the first guard is passing while the other sentry has ambled around a noise-shrouding corner.

I run along the rug, right to its edge, then leap out toward the guard and, when I'm hovering just above him, lash out.

The blackjack thuds the back of his head; he grunts, crumbles. Meanwhile, I'm still airborne, arcing down toward the noisy tile. But when my feet hit ground, they land on the edge of a nearby rug, muffling the impact. Behind, the guard pitches forward, unconscious -- and, miraculously, silent -- onto the carpet with me.

After the flurry, I'm momentarily stunned that I've actually succeeded. But the remaining sentry is about to clomp around the corner, so I lift his brained colleague, grunt and move a few steps into adjacent shadow.

A moment later, the guard passes, so close I can see his beard stubble. For a heart-throttling moment he turns, and it seems like our eyes meet. But no: He sees nothing, moves on.

The suspense is exquisite, subtle and near unbearable. It's not an emotion I'm familiar with from other first-person shooters I've played -- the computer game genre to which this new game I'm playing, Thief: The Dark Project, putatively belongs. While it shares the elaborate 3-D environments of Doom and its many successors, Thief offers none of their unrelenting mayhem and firepower. (Indeed, Looking Glass Studios describes the game as a "first-person sneaker.") Since you're playing a master cat burglar pilfering the homes of corrupt overlords, the emphasis instead is on stealthy evasion.

On that score, the game succeeds magnificently, creating a fantastic, medieval ur-city, looming with the vast edifices of the rich and powerful -- which your thief, Garrett, plunders with amoral ease. He's assisted by a clever assortment of rogue's tools, including a bow capable of shooting uniquely crafted arrows: water arrows, for example, to extinguish torches, and rope arrows for climbing to upper windows and balconies.

The resulting experience entirely reworks your expectations for a first-person game, teaching you to prefer caution, observation and premeditated bursts of action over the usual lumbering ultraviolence. While other recent 3-D shooters have offered impressive innovations -- Unreal, say, with its visual design and animation, and Half-Life, with its artificial intelligence and narrative structure -- it's Thief that revolutionizes the form. (Which is not to say that it's consistently groundbreaking in execution: As if momentarily losing confidence in their premise, the designers include several grave-robbing excursions that veer way too close to Tomb Raider territory for my taste.)

What's more, Thief also manages to expand the creative potential of that elusive concept known as virtual reality. That idea -- creating fully immersive, ultra-realistic simulations -- has existed for years. But in practice, it's never been much more than a cumbersome novelty. Indeed, hobbled by the prospect of bulky headgear and force-feedback equipment, the VR torch has been largely passed to first-person shooter games. Those games lure us inside their worlds with a promise of never-ending carnage; but they've never demonstrated why, once we're immersed in a VR environment and the killing begins, we should stick around to notice the world's physical particulars. Thief suggests a primal motive: to avoid a horribly violent death.

In most 3-D worlds, your sole orientation is visual -- almost always, space is described strictly in terms of perspective. In Thief, the dimensions are also aural and tactile. Sound can travel from anyplace in the environment and reach your ears. You can actually hear noises resonating off several surfaces, allowing you to guess their direction, distance and character. Material objects convey their quality with sound: metallic surfaces clang, wood thuds, stone cracks. Even light has perceivable gradations: A jewel icon at the base of your screen changes hue according to your relative illumination. In a sunlit courtyard, it gleams white; when you move into deep shadow, it becomes obsidian.

But these features aren't mere "special effects," cool fillips irrelevant to gameplay. When you're a thief, short of armor and weaponry, such cues are essential. You must maintain constant awareness of the environment, its shapes and textures, as if, literally, your life depended on them. Stumble onto noisy metal grates, forget to listen for approaching footsteps, ignore the proximity of shadow (once in darkness, Garrett is virtually invisible) and guards will quickly spot you, pounce and kill.

Thief makes good on the promise of the old virtual-reality tradition in the same way that genre movies often prove more meaningful than filmmakers' more self-consciously artistic efforts. Where, for instance, Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" is a flat-footed meditation on the unknowability of an alien intelligence, Ridley Scott's "Alien" plays on a similar theme, but with spoogey, Hollywood gore -- and gives it the power of
nightmare. Much the same way, Thief manages to play out the creative possibilities of virtual reality, not through artistic ambition but from the simpler desire to create a great 3-D action game.

Until now, architects of virtual worlds have largely assumed that better object rendering and motion fluidity guarantee a greater sense of verisimilitude. Thief's creators have employed such technologies, too -- and then found a way to imbue them with real urgency. Investing its empirical grid with direct consequence, they raise the emotional stakes of being inside the game.

With perception shaped by meaning, your persona is shaped, too. You learn to see, hear and think like a thief. It's hard to say the same about other 3-D games and VR applications -- unless being a hair-trigger sociopath or a roving pixie qualify as having a personality. But if there is any final criteria for successful virtual reality, it must be that, just like real life, its environment molds the kind of person you must be within its confines.

Poised in the upper recess of a vaulted chamber, where a decadent aristocrat's prize sword hangs in mid-air, surrounded on all sides by surly guards, you have no option but ruthless cunning and insanely bold stealth. As you leap out to a blackened cable and rappel toward your prize, you must become Garrett -- or die.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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