It's the difficulty levels. That's what I love most about Thief. Looking Glass's genre-exploding first-person sneaker epic is an incredible work for many reasons, but I think it's best summarised by the difficulty levels.
Garrett, a master thief, works independently of the three societal groups that populate the game's expansive city. He's a loner, trained by the Keepers, but has long since abandoned them to pursue his own interests. Your first adventure is to break into Lord Bafford's Manor to steal his jewelled sceptre.
But here's the thing: On the Normal setting you're charged with successfully breaking into the building and finding the sceptre. Hard raises the stakes in more predictable ways such as having to escape the manor once the prize is stolen, and asking you to loot 350 gold pieces worth of items while you're there. But it's the final requirement that's significant. "Don't kill any of the servants; they're harmless." Bring it up to Expert and now you're tasked with getting 700 gold, but also: "Don't kill anyone while you do the job. No servants, no guards, no pets... no one."
It's this that captures the spirit, the essence of this most extraordinary game. This is a game where turning the difficulty up reduces the number of enemies you have to kill. Certainly it also increases the number of guards (but slightly and smartly, never feeling unfair or unrealistic), and repositions them into more strategic patrol routes. But it doesn't make your weapons less effective, or raise enemy hit-points, or artificially hinder you in any 'gamey' way. It simply asks you to be a better, subtler, smarter thief.
This particular phrase from one Expert mission briefing says it all perfectly: "Violence is the mark of the amateur. Don't kill anyone."
Out of darkness
Well, actually, what I love most about Thief is the darkness. I love making the room dark before I play. Lots of games have that gamma check at the beginning, asking you to make sure the logo is barely visible in the box or whichever, but it's rarely of much importance. With Thief you tape the curtains to the window frames and stuff socks in the crack under the door.
I love entering a heavily guarded location, crouching in a safely shadowed corner, then snuffing the wall-mounted torches with a couple of water arrows. In the darkness I make quick methodical work of the patrolling guards, thwacking them over the back of the head with my trusted blackjack, and quickly depositing their unconscious bodies in a secluded, neat pile. Then having the safe run of the place, robbing every chest, shelf and hidden lockbox.
The use of lighting was remarkable in 1998, and still feels special 11 years later. Finding a shadow, watching your light meter fade to that comforting dark green, and waiting for your victim to stroll past - it's a feeling of incredible power, but power without armoured rifles or rocket launchers. Needing to pass through a room lit by non-extinguishable lamps, powered by this steampunk Middle Ages' mysterious magic, creates a sensation of helplessness, the nearest dreary corner looking homely and welcoming. The more you play, the more you crave the darkness, until you find yourself flinching when walking into your fluorescently lit kitchen, or instinctively picking the darkest path when walking home in the evening.
But of course it's the carpets I love most about Thief. After the light, the second most important aesthetic character in the game is the floor. Of how many games could you write that sentence? You're always acutely aware of what you're standing on. Tiled, stone floors make up most of the streets and buildings you encounter, loudly registering your clip-clop footsteps. (It does seem that if Garrett really wanted to be a master thief, he might consider not wearing the high-heel shoes that can only be responsible for the ludicrous noise he makes while running.)
Exaggerated it might be, but it allows you to register exactly how much of a racket you're making. Crouched down, inching forward, disguising your footsteps can be astonishingly difficult. And then you spot the worst sights of them all: gravel or ceramic tiles. Each makes such a noise, and if you're out of moss arrows to soften your step, drastic long-cuts may need to be taken.
But then, there it is: carpet. Sweet, blessed carpet. On carpet Garrett can run, jump and be merry, producing nothing more than a soft scuffing. Sneaking up on the enemy is a cinch, picking their pockets and being long gone before they've a clue you were ever there. Oh, heavens, a completely dark carpeted room: sheer bliss.
No, obviously what I really love most is the story. Thief's mythology is just extraordinary. Perhaps that's what most surprised me going back to it. The people at Looking Glass already had a reputation for their ability to tell a story with grace and subtlety. System Shock and Ultima Underworld 2 had proved this four years earlier. But it was Thief that demonstrated them as the masters of this art. The mythology that enwraps the game is massively complex, and yet almost invisible.
The city is populated by three sects. There's the Order of the Hammer, or the Hammerites. They're a dogmatic, theocratic religious group who follow the works of the Builder, their deity. And as is so often the case for those who approach life as a hammer, they see everything as nails, including Garrett. The Pagans, almost unmentioned in this first game of the Thief series, but absolutely integral to the plot, are a primitive, almost animalistic group. Equally unexplained are the Keepers, the secret society who trained Garrett, and aren't as ready to let him go as he is them. Their involvement is gentle and refined. (Both groups are explored in much greater detail in the following two Thief games.) How much you learn about them really depends on how much effort you put in.
Take notice of the details, read the quotes from various texts during the beautiful cut-scenes, make sure to pick up all notes and parchments you find, and listen in to the conversations of others you sneak up on, and you can start to piece together an intricate and involved world that's been meticulously conceived and realised. This graceful design would go on to be bettered by Deus Ex two years later, but Thief's delivery will always be the subtler.
It's the size that counts
Oh, come on, how can I love anything more than the epic scale of the game? It's enormous. Even the first few missions are vast, sprawling events, surprising you with twists and turns, events changing your previous goals, tunnels taking you on huge diversions. You're negotiating ancient trap-filled catacombs, or fleeing bizarre dinosaur-like beasts in rugged caves, or taking out perimeter guards of opulent mansions, for hours and hours before the game's central story even begins.
Games just aren't half this big any more. One mission just before the midway point gives you a few simple tasks, breaking into the Downwind Thieves' Guild to steal some valuables from Lord Randall. It seems like an elementary couple of buildings to pick your way through. It's anything but. The buildings are the iceberg's tip, concealing the miles of caverns, underground living quarters for the thieves, and enormously complex sewage system, that winds its way under the city. Stealing a sapphire vase has never been so involved. And this is all without such nonsenses as load points - just acres of uninterrupted content.
By the time the key themes of Viktoria's tasks, the Eye, and the elaborate triple-crossing conspiracy come into play, you're so expert with your lockpicks, so adept at traversing hazardous environments with your water, moss and rope arrows, and so capable of blending into shadows, that you feel you deserve the title of a master thief.
I fear I trivialise the game with my silly gimmick. But as I play it, I can't help but have those thoughts of competing love. Its ability to make me feel affection toward carpet may sound trivial, but it's emblematic of its overall achievements. It's so complete, so engrossing, so terrifying. And it's so adaptable. If you love killing everyone in a room, play on Normal and go for it. If you love entering and exiting a building without changing a single thing but for the volume of wealth left behind, then go ahead and leave every soul untouched. Or if you're me and you love knocking them out by sneaking up right behind them, or luring them into your trap with a distracting noise, then piling them up in a dark corner, then play that way.
Looking Glass's reputation has become legend, but it's going back to games like Thief that reminds you how it's more than deserved. Thief is an embarrassment to modern stealth games, each of which produces only a faded parody of this masterful original. It makes me sad for a lost era of truly epic, truly intelligent, truly brilliant gaming. Many games manage one or two of these, but so few achieve all three. However, being sad is ridiculous when you can go back and play this masterpiece again. There's so much to adore.
Addendum: The Thieves' Codec
To adore it, however, now requires a few tweaks. I strongly recommend getting hold of Thief: Gold, not only because it has three extra missions that elaborate on the main story, but also because it fixes many bugs and improves textures throughout.
However, if you want it to work on your XP or Vista machine, you're going to need to do a few tweaks. There are no more helpful pages than this one on the Eidos forums and this one at TTLG, which solve the most frequent issues.
But let me tell you right now you'll want to install the VP7 codec and definitely, definitely follow the instructions on the previous links to ensure Thief is only running on one processor if you've a dual/quad-core machine - it will definitely crash without either of these. Also, if you're using an NVIDIA graphics card, then I strongly recommend getting the NVIDIA Driver 5x.xx Fix from Thief-TheCircle.com. It will prevent the horrible texture memory usage bug that will make the game pretty unplayable otherwise - but be warned, you'll have to have the original disc in the drive when you play if you do this.