Lefty Loosey

Thief 2014 is a frustrating experience. It often feels like I have to wrestle with the game to force it to allow me to have fun. It’s an annoying quality but also an illuminating one, improbably enough. Playing a game in a state of agitation primes me to notice more than I would in that elusive and illusive state of flow that game designers so covet. This counterintuitive fact was shown to me most clearly in how Thief handles opening grates.

Garrett is a sneaky little thief and he loves to crawl around in vents, but before you enter a vent, you must open its grate. The first time you encounter a grate, you press [E] or (X) to play a grate-opening cutscene. Garrett’s hands reach out and unscrew the grate using a wrench purchased from the Shady Merchant with your hard-unearned gold. The grate is now exploreable, and subsequent uses of the grate ([E] or (X)) allow you in or out.

This is, again, frustrating for many reasons.

It’s slow. The ethos of seeing your hands at all times may be immersive, but immersion into chores isn’t really what I signed up for. Garrett takes a few seconds to grab the wrench tool, twist the bolt off of the grate, and put the wrench back in his … belt? This time is compounding, each grate adding to the amount of time you aren’t sneaking or stealing. It adds up to a very annoying waste of my time.

It is almost certainly a loading screen. It’s not like they aren’t everywhere in the game. Opening a window? Squeezing through a tight path between two crates? Opening a door? Climbing over a wall with no way back? Most likely the game is loading. It’s a lot of candlesticks to render, I get it, but again it feels like a waste of my time.

There’s no visual indication of whether a grate has been opened or not. It’s impossible to tell where in the process you are, whether you need to unscrew the grate or are able to crawl through. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the grate’s status was persistent over a playthrough, but the state of a grate is reset whenever you return to an area. This means grates are constantly switching back and forth between opened and closed with no way to know unless you try to open it. This often happens while you’re in immediate danger, and guessing incorrectly can leave you scrambling with your tools while an enraged guard slashes you to ribbons.

Have I mentioned it’s frustrating? All of these little details add up to a feature that had me growling at the game often, groaning whenever Garrett pulled out his wrench. It also had me thinking about grates a lot. Much like a thief would.

Frustration highlighted an aspect of the game I would have otherwise ignored. The grates annoyed me and could easily get me killed, so I was always aware of where they were and whether I had opened them. If I’m in a house with two guards in the main room, the first thing I would do is loosen the grates on both ends of the vent, just to be safe. I was vigilant and thoughtful in my route planning. I always had an escape plan.

In thinking this hard about opening and crawling through grates I realized something. This mechanic, the required removal of a vent cover before crawling through it, was something I had seen before. This exact feature is also part of the Arkham series of games, which includes some of my favorite games of all time. I had even come to the same gameplay conclusion in the Arkham games, namely that I remove all the grate covers before I start taking out the guards.

Why wasn’t I frustrated with this mechanic as Batman, while I fumed every time I encountered it as Garrett? Well, to be clear, it was mildly frustrating in the Arkham series. I remember tapping my toes a little every time Batman lovingly ripped the vent from the wall in a stealth encounter, or used his dormant rage to tear the vent in a combat scenario. That frustration just didn’t seem to stick to me like the mire of inconvenience in Thief. The Arkham games are slippery like that.

Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins, and Arkham Knight slip you from fight to fight, story beat to story beat. The polish in the games lets you slide through in a way that Thief’s many brambles don’t. Playing Thief 2014 reminds me in ways of the raspberry bushes that grew alongside my house growing up. To get to the good parts you have to scratch yourself on the many brambles. The Arkham games allow a flow to build that kind of turns off every part of your brain that isn’t related to being Batman. Thief 2014 wouldn’t let me within arm’s length of Garrett without reminding me that I was sitting in my apartment getting mad at a four-year-old game.

That’s the effect that Thief has on me. I notice everything, because everything’s noticeable, because everything’s not refined. The Arkham games polished their mechanics, graphics, and sound to a point where I play through without seeing a lot of it. It’s much more seamlessly designed. Thief by comparison is mostly seams, but it helps me to see how it was put together. Thief 2014 is frustrating and, ultimately, it’s a trait for which I’m grateful.

Girl with needs and fears