Shining a Spotlight on an Intriguing Game From a Bygone Era
A far-more advanced and accessible game than its predecessors, Thief: Deadly Shadows is actually the third installment of the gothic Thief franchise. Though obscure today, Thief pioneered the concept of combining stealth with horror many years before Amnesia, Outlast, or Alien Isolation. Luckily, you don’t need to have played the original two games to appreciate the third. Mods are necessary to run it in widescreen, but locating and downloading the “Sneaky Upgrade” patch is quick and painless, and allows a lot of extra tweaks and fan-made content.
Originally conceived by legendary studio Looking Glass before it went out of business, the fantasy series was revived by members of that same team – including Randy Smith, Doug Church, and Warren Spector – reunited at a new studio called Ion Storm. The script and score were delivered by Terri Brosius and Eric Brosius respectively, ensuring continuity, a fact that will become painfully important later on.
Like the defunct Looking Glass before it, Ion Storm also dissolved soon after despite impressive critical reception. Still, their games managed to maintain a devoted following over the years, fans enamored with the thoughtful, dark tales which adhered to the basic tenets of hardcore stealth design. There is no regenerating health to accommodate sloppy play. Alert states are communicated by analyzing enemies’ body language and the pitch of their voice, not a blinking screen prompt. It’s an elegant design philosophy where players must depend on their senses and not simply rely on an objective marker or map icon to guide them past every threat.
A Simple Yet Addictive Gameplay Loop
The appeal of the series lies in the premise of playing a criminal invading the personal space of his fellow townspeople, getting so close you can practically smell the booze on guards’ breath, valuables indicated by a shimmering glow. However, they aren’t completely helpless. Leave a door open, and enemies will comment. Douse a torch, and they will investigate. Alert a civilian, and they might come back with a gang to skewer you. Danger is always tangible, and the numbers are never in your favor. A blackjack to the dome renders threats unconscious, a dagger puts them to sleep for eternity. It’s your choice.
If you didn’t already realize, this game takes place entirely at night, and it is by necessity. Your main tool isn’t a grenade nor an exploding arrow, but the light gem, a light meter that indicates whether you are safely in darkness, semi-visible, or fully exposed in the light. Where this game diverges from its stealth brethren like Deus Ex, is that you simply can’t cheese the game by abusing conveniently-located, oversized air vents to skirt trouble every five seconds or turn on an invisibility mode, a trend that has only grown worse over time in stealth games.
Weapons are limited. Our hero, Garrett – if you can call him a hero – is best suited to running and hiding when in danger, not dissimilar from a cockroach scampering to a crack in the wall, or in Garrett’s case, climbing up the wall. His toolset, though impressive, offers little offensive power. Direct confrontation usually results in death. Garrett excels in extinguishing candles from afar, knocking enemies out with gas, tripping guards with oil, and distracting them with firecrackers. These arrows serve multiple purposes from lighting oil on fire to temporarily suffocating guards with an arrow of moss to the mouth.
Your second best tool is your own ear. There are no danger indicators, minimaps, or x-ray vision tags highlighting the location of every enemy in a square mile. Deadly Shadows is best experienced with a pair of headphones. Monitor the direction and volume of guards’ footsteps, and only run when on carpet or moss that can muffle your own feet. It’s a very intuitive system that is rarely used anymore, and that’s a shame.
Characterization as Foundation
Writing has always defined the Thief franchise. Dialogue is often terse, but fits each character in the social strata accordingly. You slink unseen, accumulating information about the medieval-inspired town simply referred to as “The City.” The boundaries of the settlement contain docks, a marketplace, street vendors, upscale mansions, pagan shrines, several religious chapels, black-market dealers, and even a museum. A short, horror-tinged segment notably features a quarantined pirate ship full of the undead.
None of these setpieces work without multi-faceted characters and meaningful conflicts to flesh out the world and social milieu it takes place within. The game invites you to sneak into people’s house to spy on the rich and demented, and also ransack a few regular people too. Eavesdropping is a major part of the game. From the shadows, Garrett investigates tips, finds shortcuts, uncovers dirty laundry (figuratively and literally), and stumbles into intrigue against his better judgment. Reading diaries and office memos, you quickly get a glimpse into the petty internal politics of aristocratic households, clergies, and bureaucracies – exposition and world-building at its most subtle and naturalistic.
The cross-section of society runs the gamut, containing murderous spouses, disgruntled servants, rent-a-cop guards, and eldritch abominations that live in the sewer; the unnamed town a living, breathing place, not a mere facade. As you play, you read the shopping lists of spiteful wives accumulating supplies of belladonna and arsenic. Several missions later you encounter a widow who has broken from reality, locking herself up in her attic waiting for signs of her dead husband’s return which will never happen, her servants robbing her blind.
Stumble on a holy shrine and overhear cult members in a trance, whispering inspirational mantras to themselves as they prepare to cave your head in for god. Peruse the notes of an asylum administrator to discover what “treatments” he prescribed to his doomed patients. The city is compact. At the time an open world to explore was a novel concept, but it does pale in comparison to modern games’ humongous maps. To its benefit, it never risks feeling empty, bloated, or full of busywork like Metal Gear Solid V or an Ubisoft open-world.
Though creepy, the game maintains a mostly lighthearted tone. Our attitude to each new revelation and character is reflected by Garrett, who is a remarkably-relatable character despite his kleptomania. He is annoyed by the smug Keepers, who judge themselves above the fray of the city, yet he still feels a pang of loyalty to them from past association. The struggling thief is more preoccupied in his never-ending quest to pay his landlord but, like a Bill Murray character, shrugs and obeys when he is coerced to save the city from the supernatural, up for the challenge when called upon.
Thief in the Night
Darkness is your friend, and the dynamic lighting in Deadly Shadows holds up years later, despite the game being older than your average Twitch streamer. The map looks believable. Rather than steer into the M.C. Escher-inspired fantasy absurdity of the first game, or opt for the steampunk aesthetic of the 2000 sequel, this installment aims for traditional horror, and takes advantage of then-cutting-edge technology to infuse every level with real shadows. Every light source emits its own light beam that can be snuffed out.
This game does suffer from the limitations of the tech at that time, compelled to comply with technical handicaps of the Xbox, requiring the inclusion of frequent loading zones and shrinking many levels down so as to not fry the console’s relatively weak hardware. The loading zones can at least be modded out on PC. Because of that advantage, it is the preferable system to play this title on.
Spector and crew adapted to the challenge, cutting out the filler content and throwaway missions that plagued the first two games, keeping only the best levels. The city itself now plays a more pivotal role. As a result, the maps tend toward cramped residential slums, and more accurately approximate cluttered medieval cities and casbahs than the old games ever did, lending it a greater authenticity. Mansions no longer feel like half-furnished hotel lobbies, but replicate legit, centuries-old estates. The art design aged well despite being made to run a glorified toaster. The jagged, gothic skyline resembles a German expressionist film, whereas the older games look more like something built in Minecraft.
Adding a hub world yields a new dimension to the gameplay which allows the player to take in the sights and to align yourself with or against certain factions in the game, which can help or hurt you later on based on your actions. Consider it a karma system with light RPG elements. Storefronts offer a place to buy and sell and provide a respite from the goons on your tail. Some players will find this feature unnecessary and irritating, especially when you need to traverse the city full of hostile just to reach the next level. As a clever easter egg, if you should die in the street and don’t immediately hit the reload button in frustration, you are rewarded with an optional, hidden bonus mission where you wake up in prison and must escape. Humiliating the city watch by locking them up in their own prison cells is also optional, but deeply cathartic.
A Trip to Shalebridge Cradle
The rumors of “The Hag,” a local legend, plays prominently in the game, and is neatly weaved into the game’s lore. At first we only overhear snippets of conversation about the tale. Garrett was raised on the streets, his only option to crime was being sent to the notorious orphanage called the Shalebridge Cradle. He was lucky.
Inside this dreary building, starving children evaded cannibals to steal bread, harassed day and night by the living and undead. One of those grown-up children is Garrett’s informant and a member of one of the factions you interact with in the game. The survivor has spent his life investigating the mysterious entity who murdered his friend. Now-condemned, the insane asylum once administered lobotomies and electro-shock therapy with minimal oversight by quacks who used patients as guinea pigs, the place finally overrun by criminals. To say Shalebridge has skeletons in the closet is putting it mildly. The whole town wishes it didn’t exist.
A self-contained mini-story within the larger plot, itself housed within the larger trilogy, the Shalebridge-Hag plotline connects both the main plot thread and overarching mythos of the city and orphan Garrett. Little surprise why this disease-ridden, haunted city full of violent cults produces so many orphans. It adds context to the character, our protagonist seeking to right a decades-old wrong involving his fellow orphans who were not so lucky as him. And after ten minutes in this place, you will find out quickly why he chose the streets over the horrors of the orphanage, the Shalebridge Cradle holding hostage the souls of those who never had the chance to escape its curse.
The stoic, sarcastic figure of Garrett is provided some motivation, as we see why he chose his lifepath. This is also the only assignment that unnerves him. In a smart move, the writers don’t have Garrett dwell on his trauma and give overwrought monologues, which speaks to the degree he has suppressed every squalid moment of his childhood, covering up his abandonment issues with humor – clearly not respecting any title, dogma, bloodline, or institution.
An Overshadowed Gem
If you are a stealth fan or a horror fan, there’s nothing before or since that quite combined these elements so well. Its age does show in a few spots, and certainly is not without its fair share of issues. NPCs will sometimes block each other’s pathfinding. Platforming is clumsy, and jumping animations will occasionally break, the glitch leaving you floating above the ground until you equip your bow and pull back the string, which resets the animation.
Flaws aside, it plays much better than stealth games of its era like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Hitman: Blood Money. If you fail at stealth, it’s your fault, not because a guard saw you through a wall. Conversely, if you evade detection, it’s not a matter of bad programming, it’s because you showed patience. Compared to its peers, Deadly Shadows had (and arguably still has) more consistent artificial intelligence, the most important aspect of any stealth game, and the one feature most games routinely bungle. Because when a stealth game screws up AI, the whole game crumbles to bits in comical fashion. For that alone, the Ion Storm developers deserve credit.
A troubled fourth game would arrive a decade later, bearing little resemblance to the gameplay or sense of flow of the first three, and with none of the original voice actors, developers, composers, writers, or directors returning to reprise their roles in the production. For long-time fans, this sequel/reboot lacked the charm of the original trilogy. The 2014 sequel is part of its own universe, taking only surface-level inspiration from the Looking Glass/Ion Storm games, and has fewer horror elements.
Deadly Shadows wraps up the saga at the right time. It should be considered the terminal point of the franchise, and, sadly, also marks the end of the golden era of stealth-game design. Simplification only followed, stealth less a gaming genre in 2022 than it is a perfunctory mechanic on a checklist. The dependence on managing sound and darkness was largely tossed aside in favor of action-centric power fantasies. Available for very cheap on Steam and GOG, Thief: Deadly Shadows offers a solid twenty hours of challenging stealth gameplay, some tense horror chapters, and an engrossing story.
Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004) Official Trailer