Thief is a first person stealth action game, developed by Eidos Montreal. Set within a moody steampunk metropolis fused with medieval exaggerated fantasy the player is put in the shoes of a master thief, Garret. Garret has returned from being in a paranormal accident where he lost a thief in training and after returning to the city, simply known as “The City”, he finds it under control of a tyrant known as The Baron, whilst the city is ravaged by a deadly plague known as the Gloom. The world and locales within Thief are emphasised by the tone and theme and convey both the tyrannical grip and the plague choking the life of the city by effectively visually contrasting poor and wealthy districts in architecture, lighting and dressing. Each component supports the spatial environment and cultivates a sensation of citizen separation adding to the title’s global narrative.
The disparity between architecture, the contrast of the run down and damaged buildings of the poorer districts and the grand often egocentric buildings of wealthier districts helps to support the idea that the city is suffering from both the grip of a tyranny and the Gloom plague. The layout of the districts within poor districts are compressed into tight proximity of each other with building and alleyways closely packed. This in turn creates a claustrophobic feeling when exploring but does benefit in the creation of tension when promoting stealth and interesting routes through cramped alleyways and rooftops, immersing the player in the stealth gameplay. The world within the title is separated into individual districts of the larger city connected by narrative cutscenes or fast travel. Each individual district could be considered an individually designed level rather than part of a larger world.
The core design concepts in the levels are:
Line of Sight Breakers
Verticality & Height
Level Design Ingredients
Use of Light & Shadows
The overall core mechanics in Thief are an attempt to culminate in the player becoming immersed in the idea that they are a master Thief, primarily considering Plan, Act and Escape to create macro down to the micro layouts that aims to create a challenging experience in varying locales from back streets to large factories each aims to simulate the fluid movement and tactical stealth expected from a master Thief. Each level is split into districts within separate chapters and can be thought of as individual arena like spatial biomes that are home to NPC patrolling, obvious and hidden approaches, the use of light and darkness and the placement of strategically placed layered cover that helps to direct and protect the player from threats and potential openings to progress to the objective. Each of the levels within the game can be broken down to their macro and micro level to assist in understanding the design concepts.
Focus on the architectural structure of space
Varying intensity of strategic routes to objectives
Navigation routes & props
Second to second gameplay
Granular specific sight lines
NPC roaming paths
Flow of the player through the level
The architectural structure of the levels varies dependant on the predominant visual theme and locale from claustrophobic Victorian fantasy looking houses to large multi-tiered factories. The difference in themes helps to dictate the layout and how the designer has supported the core design concepts that can be seen throughout that supports the core gameplay loop - Plan, Act, Escape.
The first and foremost observation is how the architecture, the macro structures within the levels, have been placed to create the majority of the chokepoints, routes, lines of sight and engagement distances to block and create routes and give the player potential cover that looks and feels correct to the player, utilising the space more and giving the player a potential reason to “use” the space. The different paths that the player can take can be broken down to different grades depending on their size, length, risk and if they are a direct route to the players goal. When looking at routes used Gold, Silver and Bronze grading to differentiate the types of paths the player has access to in a level.
Small paths that are threads leading to loot or hidden areas, no direct threats in players view with plenty of shadows and cover. The player is free to traverse without risk.
Medium sized paths that give the player a route to gameplay ingredients and facilitates flow, features patrolling NPCs with reduced shadows and hiding spots. The player can move through the space but must avoid attracting attention to themselves.
Direct routes that are heavily signposted for the player to reach the objective, the most obvious and often the riskiest choice. Features a lack of cover and hiding spots for the player to use. Features a large presence of NPCs in close proximity to the player, often is the quickest but the most dangerous.
Each level has elements of each of the paths to help give the player options and vary the terrain. This bleeds into creating strategic routes into the space and the chokepoints of the space. The chokepoints are in places that restrict movement and are patrolled by NPCs and force the player to predict the NPCs movements and remain patient helping to slow down the pacing of the level. The intensity and challenge of the level is dictated by the amount of NPCs are on the route, how close in proximity they are to each other and how the routes are intertwined with advantageous routes.
Below is an example layout of the Dust to Dust interior of the level and showcases that it is quite linear with asymmetrical lines that create claustrophobic and tight corners for the player to navigate through, this in conjunction with dark lighting and a uneasy tone create an interesting visual them throughout.
A Top Down Map of the Dust to Dust Level - Showing the Linear Structure.
Light & Darkness
Whilst the general layout of the separated districts is intrinsically different they do feature design concepts throughout such as the use of light and darkness. Light plays an integral part in Thief and acts as the chief mechanic that encourages stealth. Like many stealth games the player must stay in darkness to avoid detection by NPCs and can be easily seen when in bright light. The layout design of the maps or “districts” lends itself well to support the light mechanic as often there are corners, terraces and alleyways with dark corners, dimly lit rooms and routes hidden from guards view ultimately enabling the player to explore whilst retaining the stealth ingredient the designer needed to consider in the design of their space. Additionally, the light mechanic is pushed further with patrolling NPCs carrying torches, a mobile light source fundamentally making the static pockets of darkness, that the player often relies on to be safe, become perilous creating an element of tension and difficulty. This concept can often be observed in the layouts emphasising the player’s vulnerability.
The game heavily relies on the use of light to:
Highlight traversal props
Highlight environmental storytelling
An Example of How Darkness is Contrasted with Light in this Prologue Mission.
It is clear that when designing the layout of the area the best route a patrolling path could take to maximise the effectiveness of their AI to maximise the light and darkness mechanic to solicit challenge. This helps to create strongpoints and counter strongpoints. The lighting also helps to create atmosphere within levels. An interesting way that lighting is used is to project the silhouettes of oncoming NPCs that are yet unseen by the player this helps in foreshadowing upcoming threats giving the player a chance to strategise and is a nice visual to compliment the level.
An Example of a NPC Patrolling Path Fused with Light Hazards and a Safe Hiding Spot.
In the screenshot above there is an obvious safe section of the NPC patrolling path where there is no cover and light is covering the hallway.A noteworthy design concept is the placement of locked doors that the player can choose to lockpick to open up an access route or shortcut. Often the locked doors are in illuminated corridors which in turn are act as a risk or reward scenario adding to tension and the agency of the player if successful.
The worldbuilding, the process of creating an imagery of the world the player is a part of, is done throughout the title in each district through nuggets of information from newspapers or notes that the player can stumble upon through exploration and inquisitiveness assisting in contextualising the location the player is in and the events that direct the player’s actions. Despite the game being quite linear with traditional rendered cutscenes the world building and a lot of backstory to the lore of the current events are uncovered by the player’s inquisitiveness assisted by detailed level design that actively supports the players curiosity with hidden areas and obscured routes by compelling the player to discover locations of loot and information this helps to invest the player in to the story and the world they are “fighting” in. The level design supports this concept by making levels filled with pockets the player can find the world building objects in both on the main path and alternate routes.
An Example of How the Light Accentuates the Environmental Storytelling within Levels.
In addition to the interactive items each level includes several environmental storytelling elements that showcases the tyrannical grip that the district and the overall city is under. The combined improvisational exploration and environmental storytelling means that the player’s success hinges on their ability to uncover the backstory of the level. The different narrative elements within the levels helps to create the portrait of a dense and rich detailed universe that exists outside of the immediate mission footprint, aiding in immersing the player.
The levels in Thief have a consistent visual tone that helps to communicate the progression within the level design of an area with increasingly larger and complex levels that require increased patience, skill and the use of previously unlocked skills to traverse without detection, an example of this is being able to unlock grates to give the player access to different often secrete routes. The designers considered the theme and mood of each mission to communicate their level of challenge and adjust the player’s expectations such as increased light sources, spatial barriers and props that populate the levels to reinforce variation of increase in power, tyranny and hostile technology helping to bring locations to life. The world that Thief is situated in is segmented into are a series of smaller linear encounter arenas with strict limits on how they connect to each other as each can feel separate from the last with no coherent connection from the previous gameplay beat, each level feels separate despite the narrative association to each.
To help immerse the player the flow plays a key role in creating the “feeling” of controlling a master Thief and by creating the levels around the idea of retaining the speedy movement and always having a goal the levels predominantly facilitate good flow through each of the levels. The spaces have been designed to utilise the freerunning mechanic as often as possible inherently creating an element of flow within the levels, reducing frustrating. The fluid movement designed into the levels such as gaps and routes that use the freerunning movement is carried over into the environment art of the space with props placed in such a way that creates a path, vaulting points or jumping points that give the player multiple options to use to navigate the space.
The Lighting Here Signposts a Rappel Rope.
Navigation & Flow
Thief relies heavily on providing the player a number of opportunities to navigate in various ways within the mission’s spaces to encourage the player to use the fluid movement system and to assist in promoting positive flow whilst utilising reinforcing the use of the tools at the player’s disposal. Through strategic placement of ropes, crates and blackjack climbing points it helps to instil the quick movement needed to avoid detection space as seamlessly as possible, assisting in retaining the stealth orientated character idea.
The level design in Thief could be considered that it focuses on creating meaningful relations between spaces, the world events and stories rather that fully realising interesting geometry shapes to make navigating through the space particularly more interesting, it’s more about how and why the player needs to reach a point rather than how. Despite this, the regular arrangement of staggered and repeated navigation elements or motifs gives the player a consistent and constant visual cues and recognisable themes that benefits the player to understand why the motifs are used, generally making the player understand how to navigate spaces effectively.
Additionally, a core concept seen in many stealth games is the amount of approaches that are considered into the layout of the mission the player can utilise to progress or reach an objective. For example, in an early level the player must infiltrate a jewellery shop and steal a gold mask. The player has the objective in sight when first entering the level from the cutscene with it signposted and framed well. After the cutscene ends the player can see the golden route to the objective however to remain inconspicuous they can navigate to entrances that are not as obvious or not patrolled by NPCs to enter the jewellery shop unseen. This design consideration is repeated throughout the layouts in the title. Whilst there are ingredients to support navigation it is ultimately down to the player to navigate to the objective point by scouting out the mission area, reach entry points and navigating critical mission areas. The levels are not cinematic, beat to beat levels rather they are open to interpretation by the player whilst retaining a relatively linear structure to them, in consideration of their granular layout.
An Example of a Basic Encounter with Patrolling NPCs, Cover Placed in a Hiding Spot, Light Hazards and Routes to Side Entrances.
In each of the levels the paths that the player takes are occasionally contested by enemies, attempting to force the player to avoid the enemies by giving the player options to bypass them as effectively as possible, often it is due to the player's mistakes that rather than frustrating level design that fails objectives. This design strategy reinforces the player’s tension and replayability. An example of this is when guards split in to two groups and move into different directions or can abruptly turn around or stop if they spot you. This in conjunction with tight and claustrophobic geometry lowers the chance that the player can easily move through levels unchallenged. Also, within the environment itself the player is subtly lead through the space by using pipes, cables and varying angles of geometry again assisting in the navigation within the levels. Each district or level features focal points scattered around the space such as church spires, signs or backdrop props providing visual identity to the levels helping players to orientate themselves within the space and allow the player to create a mental map of the level, inherently assisting the player’s navigation by reducing confusion and frustration.
Routes and objectives are often framed with interesting geometry and visual cues such as lighting to make particular paths, cover or NPCs stand out from the backdrop ensuring that the players know exactly where to go. Often the player will find that alleyways and rooftops provide an interesting experience by providing loot, backstory or alternate paths again encouraging the player to explore and utilise the space around them. Throughout the game there is a good mixture of narrow claustrophobic alleyways and open spaces such as courtyards or larger rooms. The contrast and variation in the size of spaces within the levels helps to provide the player varying challenges and increases or decreases intensity appropriately. The screenshot below shows an example of good framing with a lamppost placed directly in view of the player through the alleyway giving the player a cue on a route to take and an alternate route to the right by using their climbing tool, the player knows a route to go but can choose to follow another path if they want to.
An Example of a Light Signposting a Route to Alleyway.
As the game relies on free running fluid movement there are scratches and white paint on props and walls to suggest potential routes to the player they can climb up at this particular spot, this helps the player to flow through the space by highlighting key routes. In each of the levels the combination of obvious and obscure routes adds an element of complexity to the layouts of the levels which leads to the player feeling smart and rewarded for their efforts when they do eventually reach their objective.
The levels can be seen to be a mixture of asymmetrical and symmetrical levels that feature varying sized rooms, raised and lowered terrain and a mixture of interior and exterior themes creating an interesting contrast. The macro structure of each level defines the player circulation from one location to the next which has inherently defined the structural layout, the objectives and obstacles will ultimately define how the player will navigate through the space. Whilst the micro layout in the game defines the several granular paths in each of the levels that the player can take to reach the objective, an example of this are the rooftops and high walkways whilst the macro layout are the open spaces such as alleyways and roads.
However, an aspect the levels lack in terms of navigating is the player affordance, the idea of giving the player an expected outcome from real life. This can be observed as often doors that the player would expected to open are dead ends, resulting in the player having to needlessly back track on themselves. Often doors and windows that can be open are part of the linear structure of the layout hampering the flow of the level somewhat.
In the screenshot below the player has managed to reached the wooden roof beams to gain a tactical advantage and to remain stealthy, changing their terrain and reducing their vulnerability.
Player Uses the High Beams to their Advantage.
Height & Verticality
The levels in Thief feature a varied sense of height, vertical traversal and scale making the player feel smaller and increasing the sensation of vulnerability. In each of the layouts there are a number of different layers within the level that the player can explore including sewers, ground level path ways and rooftops culminating in a varied sense of rhythm and movement in each level by often complimenting each other with routes and clambering points to easily reach each "floor" of the space. Often the player can use the rooftops to scout and safely navigate to a dark corner and move towards the lower sections of the map often leading to obscure entrances or loot. The constant change in terrain helps to keep the levels interesting to the player, instead of a flat terrain the player will find themselves looking up and down constantly to quickly escape or hide.
The player can reach the variations in height from the use of navigation props that have been placed specifically on a potential route to the objective to intrigue the player taking another route and altering the gameplay. Each of the props shimmers blue when the player is near to reinforce the attraction to the player.
Navigation Props Include:
Pipes attached to walls in a cluster
Blackjack Climbing Points
Within each of the maps the scale of the buildings, props in and outside of the level footprint helps to create a relationship between objects and helps to place the player in the larger world, also assisting in worldbuilding. An example of this can be seen when a player is in an alley they can choose to go down stairs to reach a sewer or choose to go higher and reach the walkways on the rooftops. By giving the player choice they again can choose their own way to navigate the space successfully making both the level and the encounter interesting, unique and ultimately provide a fun experience.
An Example of the Highlight Mechanic in the Prologue Tutorial Area.
Level Ingredients & Cover Placement
In each level and within the world in general there are various ingredients that add to the challenge, risk and complexity of an individual encounter such as broken glass, water, birds. Each ingredient aims to alert the guards to the player’s presence and as such the designer has scattered ingredients on or around the pathways that the player will most likely take and by placing them on main paths it inherently strongly encourages the player to alter their route or their playstyle. However, there are times that these ingredients are optional and can be completely bypassed by finding another route around or climbing over a prop, circumventing the intended design. An example of this is in the Chapter 2, the Dust to Dust level.
An added element in the levels throughout the game is the weather, for example in Chapter 1 – Lockdown, the player must time their movements with the flashes of lightning or risk getting spotted due to the additional light lighting up the dark areas of the level, an interesting ingredient that adds a definite element of risk and reward gameplay. A key design element that is evident in each of the levels is the cover placement as it facilitates the player to remain undetected in areas that have patrolling NPCs. Cover props have been placed to utilise the ‘dash’ mechanic with props placed in such a way that facilitates routes across dangerous zones letting the player progress unharmed or to gain a tactical advantage.
An Example of a Route Behind Wooden Planks that Create a Hidden Area from Patrolling NPCs.
Another ingredient that the designer had at their disposal was light switches which give the player a potential tool to distract and purposely move guards away from their stationary guard post to a specific location and give the player the option to create darkness. This ingredient is a routinely placed component in the levels that can aid in the disposition of NPCs which can often be placed in rooms where NPCs are blocking the main route or there are no instances of darkness for the player to use.
In summary the levels in Thief share common stealth design traits seen in similar games particularly Dishonored and Splinter Cell, reinforcing the multiple routes and the darkness mechanic it helps to create an intertwining maze-like level that often utilises the 3D space surrounding the place by effectively placing traversal props to facilitate free flowing movement as much as possible, a key element in any stealth game. By designing the levels around the skills and mechanics rather than having to design to a strict grounded in reality concept the locales have an element of fantasy to them inherently giving the designer an element of freedom on the toys they include in each level, creating a fun small stealth sandbox in each level.