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Thief Would Have Worked Better With a Bigger Sandbox

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You know why it’s called an ‘overworld’, right? ‘Cos whenever a game has one, I say ‘OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE’. Except I slur it a bit so the F sounds like a V and I stop just before the ‘fuck’ and say ‘world’ instead, because of self-censoring. Sorry, that was a little tortured, wasn’t it. And speaking of things that were tortured, Thief. Man, this was the best paragraph ever. Almost seems a shame to have to move to the next one.

The game made me want to talk about overworlds, because it has one, and a rather boring one at that, while my favorite game in the series – Thief 2, if I haven’t made that abundantly clear – does not, just missions and briefings in between. Now, on the surface, the overworld seems like a noble pursuit. It could create a sense of connectivity between the various gameplay sections, offer the player choice and freedom in movement, and allow for plenty of opportunities for world-building. That’s the best case scenario. They very often just get boring.

There’s a difference between an ‘overworld’, and a ‘sandbox’. In a sandbox, you can go wherever you want, and the stuff you can get up to in the sandbox is the actual meat of the intended game experience. The mere act of getting around a sandbox is fun and you can make your own entertainment, usually by running people over or throwing them into the sun. The missions are little more than a system for forwarding the plot, tutorializing mechanics, and having the odd fancy boss fight, and mostly take place in pre-existing parts of the sandbox. Skyrim, GTA, Prototype, these are sandbox games. I’m glad you’re coming with me on this.

The ‘overworld’ almost takes the exact opposite route. You can’t usually go absolutely anywhere, it’s restricted to a handful of important locations connected by linear paths. In such games, the missions are the meat of the experience, and usually have areas to themselves, not taking place in the connecting world. Although the missions are still where the plot and tutorials and fancy boss fights happen. So, on reflection, you might wonder why there has to be a connecting world at all, and now we encroach upon the point of this article. There are good games with overworlds – Deus Ex and Mass Effect for example – where the overworlds exist as a sort of breather space for world building, trade and quest exchanges, and where new adventure and happenstance can strike you at any time as you navigate its hallways. In games like Thief, more often than not the overworld is just a commute.

Thief screen

Maybe Thief would’ve worked if it’d gone more sandboxy, did the Assassin’s Creed thing of allowing free running and climbing anything remotely ledge-like. Then the world would have been fun to get around, rather than connecting its overworld maps in seemingly the least fluid possible way every time, often with the requirement that you interpret a climbing path from a mess of unnecessary and useless details, complete an irritating button-mashing QTE to open a window, move across someone’s bedroom, then do another button-mash to open the window opposite.

But personally I think that both the latter Thief games that did the overworld thing somewhat undermined both the well-realized setting and Garrett as a character. Beforehand, he seemed like a much more single-minded bloke, who disliked randomly picking pockets in the street, who cased the joints, acquired maps and tip-offs, and generally gave each heist his undivided attention. In turn, the game would do likewise, and the locations for each mission had a grand, focused design.

The inherent problem with an overworld system is that it’s often the gaps between events that fire the imagination. The mystery is attractive. What is can never match up to what we imagine it to be. When the City was a thing we only heard about in gravelly-voiced mission briefings, or glimpsed as a skyline or lone tower looming over the perimeter wall of a big sprawling level, it was a thing of mystery, and therefore intrigue. An endless maze of dark alleys, probed by fingers of cold mist, with an occasional burst of thrumming life. And Garrett, what did he get up to between his jobs? Well, we know at the very least that he slept in a bed, ate dinner somewhere, and occasionally did a poo. But how did he pass the time when not on the job? What did he wear when he was out buying groceries and didn’t want to be immediately recognized as a thief? Just a casual polo shirt, perhaps? Because it could’ve been anything, he had literally infinite depth.

But then they introduced an overworld, and filled in all those blanks. And the City, that had been this mysterious, amorphous land of intrigue, was now just a bunch of boring streets full of people whose AI kept buggering up. And we saw what Garrett does between nicking stuff – more nicking stuff. Doesn’t so much as put on a dressing gown and stay in with a nice cup of hot cocoa of an evening. It’s the Batman thing again – a character who bases their entire identity on their job and does nothing else is a character without flaw, and therefore without interest. Maybe doing it in Thief 3 could be put down to over-optimism for new ideas, but to then do the overworld thing again in Thief 4 is just being willfully shit.

Maybe there’s something to be said for keeping things to a film length. In a film, you don’t have to watch the characters go through their entire daily routine as well as all the relevant and interesting things that happen in the course of the story. We didn’t have to watch Batman leave little apology cards on the bodies of all the people he beat up and then get a sandwich on the drive home, unless the sandwich was his love interest. But if you’re going to leave us in control of a character in between all the relevant parts as well, then there’d better be a continual stream of interesting and relevant events. A sandbox can do that, you just have to throw someone into space every time you make a turn. Overworlds can’t. That’s all there is, really.

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