Of all the video game genres, few are as taxing – or rewarding – as stealth games. Whether they involve sneaking past security cameras in a future dystopia, or hiding from bloodthirsty guards in the ancient past, stealth games are often slow and stressful affairs, lacking the pizzazz or immediate gratification that so many other experiences offer. But when everything comes together, and one squeezes through their quiet gauntlets without leaving a trace, the sense of satisfaction that they provide is unlike anything else.
For a generation of gamers, few other experiences epitomized this better than Looking Glass Studios’s Thief: The Dark Project. Where competing stealth titles like Metal Gear Solid allowed players to go full Rambo at the drop of a hat, The Dark Project forced its audience to keep to the shadows, and use every affordance its mechanics and environments provided in order to avoid being caught. It was among its genre’s most formative experiences, and it was followed shortly after its release by a sequel that all but improved its greatest qualities – establishing both as being among the greatest gaming duologies of their era.
Unfortunately, no sooner had the series made itself known than Looking Glass was forced to close its doors, and its ownership was passed on to Ion Storm’s Austin branch. The latter would do its best amid trying circumstances to do Thief justice, and deliver a game that, while not perfect, would have plenty of strong points. But like a curse from on high, this third entry would neither save Ion Storm from its own subsequent demise, nor prevent the series from resting afterwards in peace.
Were this all that there was to Thief’s history, one wouldn’t be remiss calling it tragic. Yet in between all of its mainline titles, the series saw no shortage of support from its fans, who did their best to keep its memory alive with pro bono projects of stunning ambition. And when these fans were also triple-A developers, the games that they produced rarely failed to do the same.
This is the rise and fall of Thief.