Thief, Thief! What a great set of games that so many of us are familiar with. But I’m not here to talk about the immersive gameplay, the thoughtful stealth mechanics or the incredible level design of any of the entries.
No, I’m here to discuss something often neglected at the hands of critical analysis. The narrative. I largely regard Thief as a franchise to have one of the most thematically satisfying arcs in any game trilogy I have ever played. Everyone loves Garrett, the titular Master Thief, but few talk about the game’s amazing cast of villains and antagonistic factions.
The City in Thief is a living, breathing environment that is both timeless yet clearly present. An anachronistic city-state bubble in a medieval flavored era, it presents an atmosphere not too far off from the tech-fantasy realm portrayed in The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind.
The hand of The Builder is in the smallest nail, the tiniest gear, if they be worked well. The hand of The Builder is in the tallest tower, the grandest bridge, if they be worked well.– Hammerite Scripture
It isn’t quite steampunk.. and it isn’t quite high fantasy, Thief’s setting relies on clockwork machinery and steam engines maintained by a mechanist masonry religious order called The Hammerites. One part catholic church, one part applied divine geometry. The center of the Hammerite’s religious doctrines and pantheons is The Builder, a patriarchal deity that is the dominant figure set against the chaos of naturalistic grove worshipping Pagans.
And I suppose that’s what I like the most about Thief’s setting, its holistic approach to the narrative that allows for a fully fleshed out trilogy.
I am a Wallbuilder. Let my walls endure, from season to season, year to year, and age to age. Let my walls stand, while families toil, armies march, and empires fall. I am a Wallbuilder, and my walls will stand always as a shield against evil. This I pray, that will the Master Builder grant.Wallbuilder’s Prayer
The Hammerites aren’t just a stand-in for Monotheistic influence in europe, they act as a tangible spiritual metaphor for the material heart of The City. Thief’s environment has it’s own thriving life-force in the form of its denizens and the mechanisms driven by steam. The Hammerites act both as erectors and maintainers of The City’s form. They carry their craft throughout the body and purify the toxins therein. They plan generations ahead to preserve the legacy of this city state without reflecting on how or why, for in their eyes that is the purview of the divine.
And when the Hammerites do choose to deviate from this and disrupt the order, they lose sight of the Builder’s plan and plunge the city into chaos, requiring Garrett’s intervention to restore balance in The Metal Age. The Pagans in their role as a stand-in for the natural world are just as much of a vital element to The City’s health as the Hammerites, The Keepers, and Garrett.
In painting, “Chiarioscuro” is a lighting technique employing contrast to affect a larger composition, and Thief demonstrates this technique extensively throughout all of it’s design, not just lighting. There is a level of systemic play that incorporates every element from the pacing, level design to even the narrative approach. Thief leverages this method to present all of it masterfully. It is a fitting choice to utilize in a game evocative of a distant era.
In time, we will continue to revisit Thief’s narrative through retrospectives on the other factions like the Pagans, Keepers and individual characters in the game.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice