Parting the Digital Sea

Robbing Gods


“Ye shall not rob from the house I have built,

or commit any theft or unrighteousness,

lest ye be struck down and driven into the earth forthwith,

and the land of the heathen consume you.”

Thief: The Dark Project

In fictional worlds, there is Religion and there are religions.

Religion, the theme of faith or piety, is that element of a fictional world concerned with commentary or making a point. The religions, by comparison, are the actual instances of dogma, tradition, worldview, and culture that form the fictional religion, as opposed to the subtext of Religion as a theme. An icon shown spattered with blood after a gunfight uses the theme; an imagined hymn sung by an idle NPC just to create the illusion of life in the game world is creating a culture.


Some game worlds use religion, and a few even create religions. The world of Thief is unique in that it does both.

As of this writing, there are three games in the series, beginning with Thief: The Dark Project (PC, 1998) and continuing with Thief II: The Metal Age (PC, 2000) and Thief: Deadly Shadows (PC and Xbox, 2004). Recently Eidos-Montreal announced development of a fourth game in the series.

The purpose of religion in many games is to define the outsider. Recent examples of this are Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia, which use religion to define their player characters and roguish outsiders, just as The Dark Project did.

Outsiders make great protagonists because they mirror the player’s experience. We players are often interlopers, entering the game world and upsetting the characters and the action that would theoretically unfold if we didn’t show up. Unlike the characters we may meet patrolling the game levels, we are new to the game’s environments and situations; we’re strangers here ourselves.

When Religion is a factor, the outsider’s point of view becomes more valuable. You can tell a player what a character believes, but you can’t make a player agree with him. Not everyone wants to roleplay through a stealth game or a shooter. Playing the outsider allows us to participate in a game world without agreeing with it – we can admire it, mock it, question it, because our proxy gives us license to set ourselves apart from the ideology without giving up the game.

The quote at the start of this article, from the opening cinematic of The Dark Project, immediately defines Garrett, the titular thief, as an outsider in The City, where all three Thief games to date take place. It explains the whole dynamic of the game, really: dogma, crime, and the migration from one group to another as the consequence of crime and strife. Right away, we’re told that stealing is forbidden and risky in the game world, and that there are two factions – the people who built the houses and the heathens.

The Thief games draw on the common familiarity of fantasy religious tropes – the pious and the pagan, Law and Chaos, civilization versus the wild – and then weave around those old pillars like prowlers in the night. In doing so, these games present terrifically noir experiences by taking things that are so often black and white in fantasy games, like the devilish trickster and the righteous creator, and painting them gray.

Manipulating this common formula is what made the religions of the Thief series so compelling, even as they tapped into those stylized and well-trodden fantasy tropes of Law, Chaos and Neutrality made ubiquitous by Dungeons & Dragons and its relatives. Every faith in the world of Thief is dogmatic, scary, malevolent, villainous, and imbued with actual mystical power. They are cultural forces as well as spiritual forces, permeating the pores of the setting from mud to spire, and the games’ protagonist works with and against every religion in the setting at one point or another. They were the many and varied establishments of the realm, and great establishments make for great outsiders.


Architectural Monologues

These religions are flawed in their harsh zeal, but they also believably offer something that characters in the game conceivably want. It’s a lot easier to think of the 8-bit figures roaming the game world in The Dark Project as people when the religions they subscribe to or resist have some logical appeal.

The Hammerites promise protection from a scary, dangerous world filled with crazy barbarians and cutthroat criminals; they offer electric lights in the dark. The Pagans promise a wild, hedonistic existence free of strict Hammerite tenets and full of honeyed wine; they’re an escape from modern complexity to old simplicities.

That these ideologies are melodramatic abstractions is clear, but they still offer a nuance that a straight-up evil god doesn’t. It easy to see how these groups might have started out all right and progressed into the antagonistic organizations you’re up against.

For me, it was when I heard a particular line of dialog from a Hammerite on patrol that I realized they were fanatics, not lunatics. “If the foundation is weak, do you wail and gnash your teeth? Nay, you tear it down and you begin anew,” says the Hammerite. There’s a reasonable message in there about progress and perseverance, which helps make the Hammerite religion believable. Then he says this next line with some menace and I’m back in the game, remembering that he’s wielding a huge hammer: “So shall it be with all of my children, whether they be stone… or flesh.”

One of the keys to Thief’s immersive world is character, and Religion is used to flesh out the game’s characters. Thief also uses its fantasy religions to evoke the themes of freedom and disobedience that are essential to its gameplay. And it does so without tripping over its own commentary. Gods and fanatics should still be compelling characters, which means they should surprise us sometimes.

Commentary in games often comes in the form of monologues from NPCs. In Thief, it comes from seeing the religions in action as you prowl around their places at night; it comes from excerpts of fictional scripture offered enigmatically during mission briefings; it comes from the architecture. The game’s castles, prisons, churches, and tombs are essays describing the game world and its themes.

The Dark Project’s abandoned cathedral is a monologue on the Hammerite vision and capacity for a medieval steampunk world of stained glass and clanging magical machines… and how that vision leads them to such trouble that they’ll board up a grand cathedral full of zombies and just walk away. It’s about the old versus the new.

In comparison, the insane mansion of the Pagan lord, Constantine, is a soliloquy on the vulnerability of our mortal world to the warping power of the Trickster. Instead of taking a hostage and making us sit through a lecture, the designers put us through a castle built by a trickster god, hidden from the common populace by a veneer of normalcy, and let us explore twisted corkscrew corridors and a room that appears to be outer space, sussing out what we could along the way from found diaries and the sheer surrealism of the environment. It shows before it tells, revealing the Pagan vision by walking around in it.

The Outsider’s Betrayal

If you’re like me, and you were drawn into Thief‘s exploratory and voyeuristic gameplay elements, built on finding and reading personal notes or eavesdropping on NPCs, then all that texture and character-building, based on the game’s fully developed religions, did its job. The deep cultural detail made you curious, it got you to spend more time in levels that you could’ve dashed through, and it made the game more than a stealth pass/fail exercise. It gave you a world worth prowling through.


Simply put, the detail provided by Thief’s religions made stealth gaming work.

We are all intruders. When we first start any new game, we are outsiders. We infiltrate or storm a new space, looking for things of value – things that will make it worth our time to come inside. The Thief games’ gradually revealed their complex and nuanced religions to reward our exploration with colorful and esoteric details, then lured us deeper into their world with the promise of more. It let us peek at the secret texts and sacred tracts of another world, overhear the plots of zealots and poseurs, and all along tricked us into betraying ourselves: we began as outsiders, but let ourselves be drawn in by the dogma, just like the folk of The City.

Freelance writer and designer Will Hindmarch made d20 System stats for the Burrick as soon as D&D 3rd Edition debuted in 2000. Now he writes things like video-game dialog and blogs at

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