As with almost all stories about thieves, Thief begins with a job that goes wrong. Your thief pal Erin dies, and the game’s protagonist Garret goes missing for a year. When he wakes up, he has no memories of that intervening time, but he doesn’t seem to care. He gets back to work almost immediately, taking jobs from his fence friend Basso. In this way, Garret is the antagonist of his own story. The mystery of his missing year is the initial driving force of the plot, but Garret is so uninterested in it that even expository cut scenes don’t provide much information or answers. This makes him a frustrating protagonist, but not a cruel one. That comes later.
The lack of a conversation mechanic in the game means that Garret is, of course, prohibited from talking to people. That’s fine for the most part since you’re usually robbing empty homes, but in the few instances when you’re not robbing empty homes, that limited gameplay inadvertently emphasizes Garret’s indifference to the point of cruelty.
You can explore the city and sneak into apartments and steal every shiny thing in sight without context, or you can accept minor jobs from Basso that give you a little bit of back story concerning what you’re stealing, from whom, and why. It’s not a lot of story, but it’s better than nothing. However, there are two instances where these minor jobs insert Garret into the middle of someone else’s story, and it’s then that the gameplay limitations force him to be an asshole.
You’ll hop through a window into a woman’s bedroom. Unlike most apartments in the game, this one is populated, as the woman is sleeping in her bed. This is not an issue, and you’re free to move about as you wish as long as you do so quietly. If you pick up the collectible notes in the place, you’ll learn that her father is trying to marry her off to various suitors, except that he has no intention of actually letting her marry. He’s just collecting the expensive gifts sent by her would-be suitors and plans to sell them for his own enrichment. If you read the daughter’s journal, you’ll learn that she’s also planning a betrayal. She knows the combination to his safe, and one day she’ll steal back all her gifts and run away.
The father is awake and pacing the apartment. He enters her room, stands at the foot of her bed for a bit, then leaves to go stare into a fireplace. He repeats this cycle over and over, and it could mean multiple things. His pacing could be an expression of guilt. He watches his daughter sleep, and then ponders her future by the fire. It could be an expression of lust. He comes into her room with the intention of attacking her, but then decides against it at the last second. This family’s story is interesting, the father’s actions make it intriguing, and then you’re thrown into the middle of it.
Sadly, you can’t actually do anything for them or to them. You just sneak in, steal their limited wealth, and run away. You can’t talk with either daughter or father, you can’t choose a side, and you just take all that they have and screw them both over. At least, I assume you screw them both over, but it’s only an assumption because once you leave they’re never seen again. The game sets up an interesting conflict, puts you into the middle of it, and then prevents you from doing anything about it.
The second frustrating side-job in Thief has Garret hopping through a kitchen window, only to see a woman in the corner of this well-lit room crying over the body of a dead man. It’s a shocking scene to enter into, and it raises all sorts of questions. However, once again all you can do is steal a few items and leave. You can run and jump and steal and smash things and not once does the woman look up from the dead man. Once again, it feels like you’re just adding misery to an already miserable situation.
These moments stand out because they’re two of the few moments when the city in Thief feels alive. Most of the places that you visit are empty, and most of the places that house living civilians are places that you can’t enter. These two jobs feel like the leftovers of a more ambitious game in which all side-jobs had a story, before production on Thief was rushed and all that content was cut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the nature of making video games, but it begs the question, “Why was this content left in?” These moments are disparate from the rest of the game, tonally jarring, and they portray Garret as a man of almost sadistic indifference.
At one point, during one cut scene, it seems as if one writer wanted to explore the psychology of this odd character: As a building burns around him, Garret goes off searching for a legendary treasure vault because, “It’s who I am.” It’s a moment that seeks to explain why Garret is the way he is—that thieving isn’t just a way of life, it’s a compulsion, one that forces him to put himself and others in danger. He is indifferent, but not because he’s cruel. It’s because he has a genuine mental problem, which explains the limited gameplay. All you can do is steal because all that Garret can think of is stealing. He’s an addict in the throes of his addiction.
Thief is a competent, full, working game, but it is moments like these that make it feel unfinished. Stories and interactions are teased but never followed through on. It’s too bad because there are crumbs of something grand within Thief.
At first, I thought Garret was just an asshole, but now I see him as an addict. I’d like to help him, but all I can do is enable him.