Magic Words

One moment, you’re neutralizing a pawn to complete a mission objective and capture points. The next, you’re a vile murderer ambushing a penniless grunt to get your hands on the castle’s loot. What happened?

The guard opened his mouth, that’s what happened. You’re playing the first of level of the “immersive sim,” Thief: The Dark Project, in 1998, when the polygonal soldier whose gullet you were about to lance with an arrow mumbles to himself on his patrol.

GUARD: Everyone above me gets all the favors and I haven’t had a thing to eat in days.

Words change everything. Like dousing or lighting a torch changes the nature of the environment in Thief, hearing, reading or missing a line of text changes the intellectual landscape for the player. Consider how this note, pinned to the kitchen wall in that castle, changes the way you render the environment in your imagination:

“Cedric –
Please speak to Cook about last night’s dinner. While, technically, the menu conformed to my instructions, I suspect that the lamb was somewhat older than this spring’s, and I am in no way fooled by his practice of warming the salad to disguise wilting. If Cook is incapable of finding adequate ingredients, he can be replaced.
– Lord Bafford”

By itself, it’s just a simple tool to evoke an opinion about the absent lord whose stuff you’re stealing. (Probably, you get more satisfaction out of robbing a whining schmuck.) But, if you happened to overhear that first guard’s mumbling, the words amplify each other. Now, Lord Bafford is complaining about the technical conformity of his meals while his soldiers are going hungry.

Are you going to try harder to boost every scrap of his loot, ’cause that’ll show him? Or will that just get his hungry guards punished for incompetence? What’s going to happen in the castle after you’re gone?

It doesn’t matter. Nothing happens after you leave the castle – when you’re finished, it ceases to exist. What matters is you bought into it implicitly for a moment or a minute or 10 minutes, while you played. You enjoyed the illusion. So, it does matter.

GUARD: What is that smell? Smells like… old meat.

The devil’s in the details. One line of dialogue makes a room smell like rot. One note conjures a person out of nothing. In Bafford’s castle, his journals show he suspects someone called Ginny is stealing from him, and he’s trying to dig up dirt on “Viktoria.” In your imaginarily rendered game world, these people exist out in the city somewhere now, but you don’t know who’s just background or who might step into play. Anyone could be Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.

This background isn’t just color, it’s vital for creating a living environment, and that’s vital for stealth games. For the player to feel like an intruder or a sneak, the environment can’t seem to be waiting on him. Guards must seem oblivious to the player’s presence (even though they exist solely for him). So, overheard conversations and peeked-at notes may be unconnected to the game’s story and inconsequential to the successful completion of the level, but they’re essential to the voyeuristic atmosphere that defines stealth gameplay. For a stealth-minded player, each uninterrupted conversation is a reward for quality quiet – proof that she’s a masterful sneak.

A living background creates an illusion of agency for both the player and the environment. When Doug Church, a designer on the original Thief, talked about agency at Gamasutra, he was speaking mostly about how players need to feel their actions have meaningful effects on the game world. “Agency is more important for playfulness than entertainment,” said Church.

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In Thief, the illusions of agency enable play. It’s possible to complete the Bafford castle level without stealth, killing every bloke in the joint and running like a maniac through the halls. It’s undeniably entertaining, but what makes stealth play exciting is the expectation that consequences exist for such behavior, even though no one can actually step out of the background to punish you. The next level begins how it begins, regardless. Words making you think the background environment is more powerful than it is fool you into thinking you’re susceptible to forces that have no actual agency over you. The sim has immersed you.

The illusion has a real voice. When words change the choices you make, they have genuine impact on gameplay. In the first level of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, as NSA ninja Sam Fisher, you’ll overhear a pair of guerillas talking during a heavy thunderstorm. One of them describes how he witnessed his father’s army unit get killed by American commandos during another thunderstorm decades ago, in Guatemala. The Americans spared the women and children.

GUERILLA: The Americans are not butchers. Their weapon is fear, and fear does not spread among the dead.

If you grab and interrogate the guerilla, he says:

GUERILLA: I knew you would come to finish what you started. Kill me. I long to see my family again.

This creates a context for the action you take next. If you kill him unnecessarily (butchering him), you’re un-American. Plus, Sam Fisher’s greatest weapon is fear – is it smart to throw that weapon away, or let the guerilla live to spread fear? Kill him and you bring a poetic symmetry to his story. Leave him unconscious and you change his life, maybe for the better.

Except none of that’s true. Nothing happens to that guerilla after this level. Outside the game environment, you’re just picking a shoulder button to pull. But if you grabbed the guerilla instead of shooting him because you wanted to hear more of his story, the words affected you. Whether you chose to knock him out or kill him, your choice was informed by his words. If they changed the way you played, the conundrum was real.

In an interview with, Chaos Theory writer Clint Hocking said, “I think those kinds of conundrums make Sam’s character more engaging. You’re kind of playing Sam the way you think Sam is.” Thus, if we react to the guerilla’s dialogue differently, you and I end up with different Sam Fishers. My Sam Fisher wouldn’t kill a soldier he could spare. Yours might. We come away with different agents in the game. It makes your play experience that little bit different from mine.

The illusion is fertile enough for imaginations to take root in, to grow fan missions like the dozens at The Circle of Stone and Shadow, the Thief fan hub. Players are invested enough in the background to catalog and keep it in compendiums. Kieron Gillen’s feature-length article about the terrifying Shalebridge Cradle level of Thief: Deadly Shadows shows how fear conjured into the game through journals and ghostly voiceovers – from words – lives on after the console is off.

For these players, the words have created a world. Like magic.

Will Hindmarch is new at this. He is also the developer for Vampire: The Requiem at White Wolf Game Studio.

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