Thief: The Dark Project

Thief: The Dark Project, or simply Thief, is a stealth-based first-person computer game and the first game in the Thief series. The game was developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Eidos Interactive in 1998 for Windows. Set in a medieval steampunk fantasy world, Thief casts the player as a professional thief named Garrett. Unlike most first-person games at the time, the development goal of Thief was to create a "first-person sneaker", where gameplay is based on the concept of avoiding combat.

Thief was well received critically, and was one of Looking Glass Studios most commercially successful projects. The game was highly influential in the development of later stealth games, and has often been hailed as one of the greatest games of all time.

Game structure

The gameplay in Thief takes place in discrete levels known as missions. In contrast to many first-person games of the time the levels are not contiguous. The player does not advance by moving through a level. Instead they must achieve a goal and make it to the exit before being taken to the next. Thief missions consist of an individual location or area that the player must enter, complete a series of objectives and usually must make their way out again.

Prior to embarking on a mission players watch a mission briefing. These are video clips mostly comprising animated ink-on-parchment style artwork and narrated by Garrett (voiced by Stephen Russell). Briefings are where Garrett explains the present situation and the task ahead.Players then see the objective screen where they can select the difficulty level for the mission from normal, hard or expert. Changing the selected difficulty alters the objectives for the mission but also makes changes in the mission itself, such as guard numbers or placement and opening up new areas to explore (a concept borrowed from GoldenEye 007). The difficulty level also alters the options the player has for violence towards NPCs, with 'hard' difficulty generally stipulating that no non-combatants can be killed and 'expert' difficulty requiring that no humans be killed.
The loadout screen follows this and here players can spend whatever loot they have found or stolen on weapons and tools. Loot can only be spent on an upcoming mission and any amount remaining does not carry over to later missions, so players are encouraged to spend up. On completing a mission players can also view a statistics screen which displays a count of events such as the number of times the player was spotted, the number of times bodies were discovered by enemies, knockouts, backstabs, damage dealt, damage received and so on.

Setting and story

Thief's story takes place in what is best described as a steampunk world (specifically fantasy steampunk). Thief's setting is a conflation of late medieval society with early industrial revolution technology and magic in a dense urban environment.

Guards wear metal armor and are armed with arming swords and bows. Cobbled streets of half timbered houses and stone mansions are lit by electric street lights. The classical elements of earth, fire, air and water naturally form into crystals that can be bought or found around the levels and used as tools. Characters in the game generally speak using modern English (with some exceptions; see below) in variations on British and New England accents. The game also has unique fauna such as Burricks and Craymen (see Opponents).

Thief's narrative is elliptically told, leaving much of the detail regarding characters, events and the game world to be inferred from observation and documents found in the game. The story is progressed through the briefings, several elaborate cutscenes and the missions themselves. In the missions players can read books and scrolls, overhear conversations and Garrett himself often makes comments. The core plot of the story is told via Garrett's narrow perspective, which rarely describes things that aren't of immediate concern. However external aspects and influences on the story are constantly being alluded to. Three groups from Thief society are of particular importance: The Keepers, The Order of the Hammer and the Pagans. The Order of the Hammer features in the game itself, but neither the Keepers or the Pagans are ever explicitly described. They are known primarily through the long quotes that open each briefing video. These quotes are presented as excerpts from the writings of each group and, though not always relevant to the mission, are effectively incluing players in general.

  • The Keepers are the group with whom Garrett served a lengthy apprenticeship. A secret society, they are enigmatic to the point that it is unclear if a member of the Keepers carries on any public life outside the group. They are preoccupied with the idea of balance in all things and typically portrayed as hooded figures engaged in some scholarly work or observation. The Keepers believe Garrett is too skilled to be left to his own devices.
  • The Order of the Hammer, or The Hammerites, are a militant theocratic religious group with a long involvement in the City's history. They are named for the favoured tool of the Builder, a messianic figure who led mankind to leave primitive life. The hammer is present in all of their iconography right down to their weapons. Hammerites speak and write in a distinctive fashion, derivative of Early Modern English such as that found in the King James Bible.
  • The Pagans in Thief: the Dark Project are barely present. Their quotes are taken from poems, songs and fragments of parchment found in abandoned temples and other ruins. They are noted by their use of an, at times barely comprehensible, rustic dialect. Their writings speak of the destruction of the natural order by the 'manfools' and a belief system that has a cyclical view of existence. For example: "Builds your Roofs of Dead Wood. Builds your Walls of Dead Stone. Builds your Dreams of Dead Thoughts. Comes Crying Laughing Singing back to Life, takes what you steal, And pulls the skins from your Dead Bones shrieking."
    -Clay tablet in an abandoned Trickster Temple
    (taken from the briefing to The Sword).

Some in-game documents show characters using the same dialect, indicating that the Pagans have not been completely overridden in the City's culture.

The notion of assembling scraps of information by seeking it out, stumbling upon it or being presented with it is key to Thief's narrative structure and gameplay.


Thief is played in the typical mouselook and keyboard control scheme for first person games. In addition to the usual health indicator and item displays at the bottom of the screen, Thief has a visibility indicator known as the 'light gem', informing players of how well lit they are at any time. When the light gem is at its darkest Garrett/the player is practically invisible and enemies won't know he is there unless they bump into him or are otherwise alerted. Speed of movement, standing or crouching and holding the different weapons all affect how noticeable Garrett is.

The essence of playing Thief is sneaking around somewhere unfamiliar that you are not allowed to be and doing so largely unnoticed. By design Garrett is not a particularly effective combatant; the game manual advising players to remember "You are not a tank", and playing to Garrett's strengths is important for success. As such the gameplay experience is often one of moving quietly from shadow to shadow, avoiding opponents or knocking them out while on the hunt for loot. In difficult circumstances players often find themselves crouching unnoticed and observing the activities of non-player characters (NPCs) for some time, deciding how best to proceed (see Reception).


To create an immersive environment for such adventuring the game's NPCs are often persistently active in a level and always make use of thorough pathfinding. That is, the game's AIs carry on their movements whether the player is around or not (guards patrolling a mansion for instance) and are able to navigate level architecture almost completely. For example, if the player is walking through the courtyard of a mansion and a guard on the second floor sees this through a window, the guard will then run to the nearest stairs and out through the building to attack (even if the nearest stairs are on the opposite side of the building). The aforementioned guard's excitement may cause any other guards he passes to join him in the chase. This and other complex interactions NPCs can have (such as servants running to fetch guards to where they saw the player) coupled with the elaborate level architecture allows for a considerable degree of unpredictability in the gameplay.

Thief missions are variously populated by the following:

Humans and wildlife

  • Male and female servants: these are no physical threat but can raise the alarm.
  • Guards: carrying either sword or bow, each house's guards have their own distinctive uniform and can also include different ranks.
  • Hammerite Brothers, Priests and Novices: the first being tall armored men with metal war hammers, the second, shorter older men who can hurl bolts of magical energy. Novices are rarely seen young men clad in purple-grey and offer no physical threat. Hammerites wear metallic collars that shield them from arrow attacks in that area.
  • Mages (Thief Gold only): The mages come from the East and their goal is to achieve enlightenment through the conquering of fear. They come in four varieties: earth, air, fire and water. Each mage attacks with spells based on their chosen element. The mages have a Keep built outside the city, and they are so secretive that even the Keepers know little of their aims. They speak in a strange, echoey voice, although to all intents and purposes they are completely human.
  • Spiders: these come in two sizes, the smaller is about the size of a human head and the giants stand at about waist height. Both kinds bite.
  • Burricks: pony-sized bipedal lizard creatures that inhabit underground caverns and run-down places. They are known for tunneling and defend themselves by belching a poison gas. In rare cases, they are kept as (rather problematic) pets.
  • Craymen: bipedal humanoid crustacean-like creatures with large claws instead of forearms. They also inhabit underground caverns and run-down places. They make chittering, clicking sounds.
  • Fire Elementals: Sentient balls of fire that typically roam near lava flows. They require unique tactics to avoid, as they light their own path. Can be killed with a water or broadhead arrow.


  • Zombies: These conform in most respects to the traditional aggressive, moaning re-animated corpse of horror fiction from the 1950s onwards (see Zombie). They are impossible to kill by normal means, however they can be killed with holy water and fire arrows. They are often found in catacombs and cemeteries. The most common sort is extensively decayed but occasionally fresher specimens are found. There is no clear explanation for the dead rising as zombies in the game; there are often cases of zombies rising near to corpses which remain at rest.
  • Apparitions: appear as a spectral Hammerite Priest that hurls magic skulls. Their utterances sound like warped backward speech. They can be killed by Constantine's Sword, requiring quite a few slashes. It is unknown if a normal sword can kill them as they aren't encountered in the storyline before obtaining Constantine's Sword.
  • Hammer Haunts: skeletal warriors with swords. Rising from the graves of Hammerites whose burial site was desecrated, they are very fast and dangerous. They are noted for their howls of laughter and haunting phrases such as "Flames surround you, nothing but flames, burning your flesh" and "Join us, join us now!" They can be killed normally in hand to hand combat; by backstabbing with the sword - either normal or Constantine's Sword (only works if they are unaware of your presence) - one slash is required. They can also be killed by several flash bombs, but a single flash bomb will often stun them for long enough to allow them to be easily dispatched by sword.


  • Apebeasts: sword wielding furry humanoids with tails. Can be blackjacked or backstabbed.
  • Bugbeasts: humanoid praying mantis-like creatures that spit clouds of stinging insects. Can be blackjacked, very difficult to kill by backstabbing.
  • Frogbeasts: Small green frogs that attack by hopping at the player and bursting. They might be regular fauna but since they only appear in the third act they are associated with the other minions.
  • Red Spiders: A variety of giant spiders that can shoot damaging projectiles and webs to entrap the player.

The Trickster's force also employs Fire Elementals, two types of Craymen and regular Giant Spiders.


Garrett has a variety of weapons and tools at his disposal. His weapons are an arming sword, a blackjack and a bow. The sword and blackjack are used as one might expect; the blackjack can render unaware opponents (even most creatures) unconscious and the sword is usually for more open combat. The bow has broad uses thanks to the range of arrows that are available for it:

  • Broadheads are the basic sharp-headed battle variety. Only Broadheads and Rope arrows can retrieved after shooting, provided they impact on a wooden surface.
  • Water arrows have a water crystal on the head that shatters into water on impact. These are used to put out torches and fires and wash away blood.
  • Fire arrows have a fire crystal on the head which explodes on impact. They have the highest destructive power.
  • Gas arrows are tipped with an air crystal. On impact it shatters into a cloud of incapacitating gas that knocks out (living) opponents.
  • Moss arrows are tipped with an earth crystal that, when broken, causes a large patch of moss to grow rapidly on the ground. Its main use is to provide a quiet surface to walk on.
  • Rope arrows can be fired into any wooden surface, at which point a rope is deployed that can be climbed. Can be retrieved after use.
  • Noisemakers are arrows designed to cause a diversion. They whistle loudly through the air and then mechanically rattle for some time, alerting any nearby NPCs and causing them to investigate.

Other important items include flash bombs, which blind opponents and damage the undead, explosive mines and eventually lockpicks. Holy water can be used to temporarily turn water arrows into powerful weapons against the undead. The combination of the mantling ability with the rope arrow creates enormous opportunities for climbing and many of the missions cater to it.

Story outline

The game opens by telling of Garrett as a youth living on the streets of the City. One evening he tries to pickpocket a strange man standing in an alley, who catches Garrett in the act. He is a Keeper and the fact that Garrett can see him at all is unusual. The man offers to take Garrett in and show him the Keeper ways. Garrett accepts and enters into Keeper education for some time, but instead of staying with the Keepers, Garrett leaves to put his skills to other uses (The Keeper Annals state that Garrett left out of the "folly of anger". The nature of this anger is not explained).

Some time later Garrett is working as an independent thief in the City. He steals an expensive scepter from a noble, breaks into the Hammerite prison to spring his fence (who dies while still in prison) and ventures deep into the catacombs looking for treasure. Shortly after this thugs working for the local Warden, Ramirez, attempt to kill Garrett for non payment of tribute. Garrett turns the tables, escaping and going on to humiliate Ramirez by looting his mansion. This brazen display of skill attracts the attention of Viktoria, a somewhat mysterious independent fence. She contracts Garrett to steal a magical sword from the eccentric nobleman Constantine. Upon successfully returning from Constantine's bizarre mansion Viktoria reveals that she and Constantine are old associates who were testing Garrett. Constantine offers Garrett a fortune for the job of retrieving the gemstone known as The Eye.
Getting to The Eye means Garrett must venture through the abandoned and walled-off Old Quarter of the City to the old Hammerite cathedral. A mysterious catastrophe, rumored to involve great fires and many undead, caused the area's abandonment decades ago. Garrett finds the cathedral sealed, but the Eye itself tells him of an old Keeper library hidden nearby. Writings there tell of where the talismans that open the cathedral are hidden and how the Keepers almost revealed themselves in order to assist the Hammerites in containing a great evil. The first pair of talismans are found in a place called the Lost City, the ruins of an ancient civilization buried beneath the existing city, its entrance hidden by the Keepers. To get the second pair of talismans Garrett enters a Hammerite temple in disguise. Successful, he then returns to the cathedral and collects The Eye from amid the many undead, escaping with the help of Hammerite Brother Murus' ghost.

Garrett visits Constantine to hand over The Eye and collect his payment. Instead of paying, however, Constantine reveals himself to be the fabled Trickster (aka The Woodsie Lord) and Viktoria, his consort. They bind Garrett in vines and pluck out one of his eyes, using it to seemingly activate The Eye stone, and leave him for dead. Some time later two Keepers find and free the unconscious Garrett from the vines. The Keepers then leave Garrett to escape by himself through the caverns beneath Constantine's mansion and amongst some new and strange beasts. Once he reaches the surface Garrett decides the only thing to do is visit the Hammerites and tell them about what has happened. He heads for the temple but discovers that the Trickster's minions have gotten there first. Venturing inside he finds the remaining Hammerites in a hidden sanctuary down in an underground cavern. With stealth being the only hope against the Trickster's army, the Hammerites provide Garrett with a booby-trapped copy of The Eye. Garrett descends into the Trickster's realm, where he finds the Woodsie Lord performing a ceremony with the Eye. Garrett stealthily swaps the Eye for its trapped copy, which then explodes, thus striking down the Trickster as he attempts to finish the ceremony.

The coda shows Garrett walking back to town alone through the snow. Life appears to be returning to normal. A Keeper approaches. The two converse and The Keeper warns Garrett, telling him of a book he should read. Close observation reveals Garrett now has a mechanical eye. Garrett rejects Keeper 'help' in his life and says to tell the other Keepers that "I'm through. Tell them Garrett is done". He then walks away into the city streets. The Keeper says quietly "I will tell them this: Nothing is changed. All is as it was written. The Trickster is dead. Beware the dawn of the metal age." [Note: This foreshadows the title of the sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.]


Thief: The Dark Project was very well received by critics on its release and remains one of the more highly praised and respected PC games. Thief garnered consistently high scores and numerous outright raves with reviewers calling it addictive, unique and, when compared to its first-person-shooter peers, revolutionary.

Thief is without a doubt my Game Of The Year. Where other games like Unreal and Half-Life promised revolutionary gameplay, Thief delivers.
- John 'Gestalt' Bye, Planet Quake Released so close in time and with both games attempting new things in first person immersion and story-telling, Thief is frequently compared with Half-Life and often favourably. Reviews repeatedly mention the game's attention to detail, original style and high production values. In particular many note the game's achievement in making stealth-action, a counter-intuitive concept for some, a tense, rewarding and enjoyable experience.
I can't really explain how this worked on me. Five-minute waits for anything drive me crazy, yet I was content to stay in the corners and slink my way toward victory.
Brett Todd, Games Domain The game was also praised for its potent immersive qualities, with some reviewers calling it a look at the future of gaming and virtual reality. The most prominent factor in this immersion and the most lauded aspect of the game generally is its audio system. Critics consistently noted the game using sound to an unprecedented degree as a gameplay element. The fidelity and artistry in this department allowing players to accurately determine their own audibility and the location of enemies as well as being a major contributor to the game's atmosphere.

However, Thief's graphics received a mixed reaction. The game used 8-bit colour textures at a time when PC games were moving up to 16-bit colour. It is also dark and low contrast, making it difficult to play in lighted rooms. Raising monitor brightness harms the visuals and arguably damages the experience of the game. Its character models and environments were lower in polygon count than other first person shooters of the period. Few reviewers found this an outright negative, many not mentioning it at all. For those that did notice, it did not harm the game; rather it was simply not up to the standard set by its other aspects.

The game's content occasionally drew criticism also, some reviewers feeling that after establishing an excellent premise in stealth thievery the game failed to follow through, with missions too often straying into traditional fantasy fare of dungeons, catacombs and monsters. Such enemies confused the gameplay for some. Although all enemies can be treated exactly the same with regards to stealth in Thief, the inclusion of zombies and the like implied a need for combat to some players.

Reviews and awards

Thief co-winner of the award for Outstanding Achievement in Character or Story Development
Nominee for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design

Thief Gold

Thief Gold is the 1999 expanded re-release of Thief: The Dark Project, which was common for Eidos Interactive-published games at the time (for example Tomb Raider Gold, Tomb Raider 2 Gold, etc). Thief Gold features numerous bug fixes and enhancements on the original game with many missions having their guard placements and patterns changed, areas retextured, and some missions gaining whole new areas. It also adds three new missions, fulfilling the original intent of the designers to have one mission per talisman.

  • "Thieves' Guild" features Garrett raiding the Downwind Thieves Guild's sewer hideout. This group was previously only read about in The Dark Project.
  • "The Mage Towers" introduces a reclusive magicians sect known as The Hand Brotherhood to the game.
  • "Song of the Caverns" has Garrett searching some underground caverns and the opera house built atop them.

The package also contains Windows Thief themes, the DromEd Thief level editor and a special "blooper reel" mission, as well as a "making of Thief II" video.

Notes and references

External links

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