Tag Archives: Thief

Surviving and Thriving in the Grim Darkness: More Notes Toward the Daimonic Sublime

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about a concept in game design called the daimonic sublime: an experience of elation in response to infernal grandeur, derived equal parts from the fusion of Miltonic demonic defiance (“better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”) and heavy metal rebellion (heard in this 8-bit version of Opeth’s Grand Conjuration). The daimonic sublime increasingly draws together many threads of design for me, so where to begin in this network is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. I’ll start with two games at the top of my playlist and proceed backward to their roots in an ancient and unique CRPG, then move forward again in time to more recent concerns.

A particular thread in the tapestry of this concept relates to the games Demon’s Crest and Hungry Ghosts produced by Tokuro Fuwara. Fuwara is most famous for his work on Ghosts and Goblins, a series of side-scrolling platformers featuring an armored knight battling supernatural creatures through levels notorious for their brutally unforgiving difficulty. Demon’s Crest is a reboot of a sidestory or gaiden of the Ghosts and Goblins series featuring a red demon named Firebrand. Demon’s Crest is famous for its dark, melancholy atmosphere and intense difficulty, as signified by plunging the player in media res into a difficult and unskippable boss fight in the first moments of the game.  Hardcoregaming101 features an excellent review of Demon’s Crest that concludes by describing Demon’s Crest as “a combination of all the best elements from Mega Man X, Super Metroid, and Castlevania.” In addition to Demon’s Crest, Fuwara also produced a Japan-only horror adventure game for the PS2 called Hungry Ghosts (a.k.a. The Lair of the Hungry Ghosts), which exhibits several features key to my own ambitions as a player and designer. Specifically, Hungry Ghosts uses first person perspective for gameplay mechanics other than shooting—namely, interaction with a surreal and treacherous underworld using a hand that can be extended and retracted using the right analog stick. This immersive perspective and control scheme used to heighten involvement in a dark world evokes the earlier Thief: The Dark Project (a first-person sneaker) as well as the later Amnesia and Penumbra series made by Frictional Games. Yet, what little I’ve played of Hungry Ghosts suggests that it is much stranger than any of these games because, in part, of the alternate cultural background of Tibetan Buddhism and its peculiar vision of an ambiguous limbo between afterlife and reincarnation. Demon’s Crest and Hungry Ghosts are near the top of my own personal backlog, perhaps below the extended King’s Field series that I’m currently working through. Hungry Ghosts is an obscure Japanese PS2 game that taps into a deeper vein of the daimonic sublime, a nexus where mechanical difficulty meets evocative narrative and aesthetic darkness to produce an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

While I’m talking about the daimonic sublime and first-person perspective, I would like to mention a much older game at the heart of my own design philosophy: Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna. The first two Wizardry games pioneered the Western CRPG, with its wireframe dungeons and first-person exploration. The Wizardry series is roughly contemporaneous with The Bard’s Tale series and Ultima, all of which are in some sense direct computer ports of the core mechanics of tabletop RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. Early Wizardry is in some ways starker and more minimalistic than Ultima or The Bard’s Tale because of the absence of a top-down overworld and the strict adherence to wireframe dungeon graphics in black and white.

Wizardry IV intensifies these darker tendencies dormant in Wizardry and turns the mechanics of a dungeon crawler on its head in order to produce what several players, including CRPG historian Matt Barton, have called the most difficult CRPG of all time. Specifically, the game reverses the scenario of the first game, in which a single player controls a party of adventurers who descend through a ten-level dungeon to recover an amulet from the evil wizard Werdna. In The Return of Werdna, a single player takes the role of Werdna himself, who must ascend through the same ten-level dungeon in order to recover the amulet stolen by the part in the first game. Stripped of his powers, Werdna fights his way through a dungeon prison that has morphed into something exponentially more difficult than what he first faced. Whereas the dungeon of Proving Grounds was a standard orthogonal maze that could be fairly easily mapped on graph paper, Werdna’s prison culminated in a vast and ever-changing three-dimensional Rubik’s cube of corridors, chutes, staircases, and teleporters. (The director of the excellent film Cube was either deliberately inspired by this concept or unintentionally evoking it; either way, the Werdna concept has the same existential resonances of the film, in which a perpetually changing maze serves as a metaphor for pure disorientation and a desperate struggle to survive by only one’s wits). Werdna also featured save points in the form of pentagrams which re-set all the enemies on every level and served as the game’s only opportunities to gain back Werdna’s library of spells. The game actually featured a keystroke logger that invisibly recorded player’s every typed character and then penalized them for wasted strokes by only granting the Grandmaster ending to those who finished below a number of keystrokes. Werdna rewards caution and cunning, eking out every possible advantage from a system of RPG mechanics that have been exploited to produce complex and subtle puzzles. Unlike many CRPG series, Werdna does not simply extend or expand the world and mechanics of the previous games in a way that would be accessible to a newcomer. Rather, the game assumes and demands knowledge of the series’ gameplay systems (“for expert players only,” said the box cover) because it uses these systems to twist and subvert the conventions of the dungeon crawler, turning an RPG into a twisted puzzle adventure game.

And this shift in difficulty accompanies and resonates with an accompanying inversion of the storyline to become darker and more evil. Evil is as evil does, and a diabolical narrative and art style should naturally be accompanied by equally insidious difficulty in mechanics. This is one lesson at the heart of Demon’s Souls and its upcoming sequel, Dark Souls. The difficulty level of the game is inseparable from the grim darkness of its world as reflected in its narrative, art style, and audio. Moreover, part of the difficulty of the game stems from determining exactly what is evil. When players are deliberately prompted to identify with the evil nemesis they themselves defeated in the first game, the world has become topsy-turvy and ambiguous. Who ultimately is more cruel: an evil wizard quietly lurking in the bottom of a dungeon, or the opportunistic adventurers who blithely stole his amulet and left him imprisoned in a torturous prison? Which is worse, a demon king Allant, the demon-possessed Maiden in Black who spurs countless souls to struggle against him (for reasons never entirely explained), or the players who harvest the souls of monsters and other player to fuel their own doomed quests? “Evil be thou my good,” says Milton’s Satan, just as Clive Barker’s puzzle-wielding cenobites dub themselves “demons to some, angels to others.” To succeed in the world of the daimonic sublime, we must either become demons or develop a sympathy for the devil.  It’s a hard lesson to forget.

When I first read an interview with lead designer Andrew Greenberg (whose reversed name is encoded in Werdna), Wizardry IV became my second archetypal game, the Platonic Idea that has governed virtually everything I’ve read, played, or designed for many years. (The first archetypal game was Brian Fargo’s adventure game, The Demon’s Forge, which has recently been rebooted as the modern dungeon crawler Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. Hints of the daimonic sublime were already in the original Demon’s Forge, in which a player must escape from a surreal dungeon ruled by a demon by solving a serious of difficult and twisted puzzles. The game must have sparked much of my early feeling that the universe was a prison that could only be escaped by solving its puzzles and mysteries).

Cue the King’s Field franchise, a series of notoriously difficult first-person RPG’s for the Playstation, of which Demon’s Souls is the avowed spiritual successor. King’s Field privileges exploration and caution over blind monster-slaying. Reading through the reviews of the series from its fans, the devotees of King’s Field consistently stress that the draw of these games is their darkness and genuine mystery, the way that players slowly solve puzzles to move forward through cryptic labyrinths, meticulously mastering relatively small levels in order to make incremental but exquisitely satisfying progress. The King’s Field series sows all the seeds of Demon’s Souls, and I’ll observe that King’s Field II (King’s Field III in Japan) may do the most to sow these seeds more successfully. I would argue (and will argue in a later blog) that the King’s Field and Shadow Tower series are crucial and iterative approaches toward Demon’s Souls, so close that they together almost constitute a shared world or set of parallel universes across which the soul of the franchise has been transmigrating.

Yet, the cunning struggle for survival of Werdna , King’s Field, or Demon’s Souls isn’t necessarily morally evil, although options abound to pursue that Faustian path of greedy destruction. Rather, the games thrive on players who face the grim darkness in which they are thrown and then thrive on it through caution and cunning. There is a place where difficult mechanics, diabolic puzzles, a gorgeously dark color palette, an infernally twisted storyline, neoclassical heavy metal, and an immersive first-person perspective all meet. That’s the place that I perpetually strive for as a player and a designer. It’s a place that subverts and transcends genre, turning RPG’s into adventure games, adventure games into survival horror, and survival horror back into into RPG’s. These games teach us that when we are are thrown into a grim and cruel world, our best response is to fall back on our wits, becoming cunning and methodical. The eponymous Dark Project of the first Thief is literally the Trickster’s attempt to give free rein over the world, but it is also the dark project in which Garrett and, by extension, the player engages in order to survive in this world of shadows and deception. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Stay tuned for Chaos magick, Hassan i Sabbah, William S. Burroughs, and Assassin’s Creed . . .

Garrett: Thief as Magician

Despite the title of the game Thief, Garrett is more a magician than a rogue, or rather his thievery is a form of magic when successfully enacted by the player. Garret’s training in the monastic order of the Keepers involves abilities to become invisible that border on the supernatural, as well as the acquisition of arcane knowledge, including glyphs of power. The classification of Thief and the associated image of a dimunitive, cowled figure hiding in the shadows derives in part from the thief character class that originates in Dungeons and Dragons as well as the fantasy characters that inspired it, including rogues like Fritz Leiber’s Grey Mouser. Yet, Garrett’s abilities and actions are not constrained to hiding in shadows or backstabbing; he is a quintessential opportunist who does whatever he needs to get the job done. An extra objective available at higher difficulty level in the prison level of Dark Project involves retrieving Garret’s favorite “Hand of Glory.” The Hand is an infamous black magical artifact described in the Petit Albert grimoire as the severed hand of a hanged corpse taken from the gallows and used by cat burglars to evade detection by otherworldy means. As the Petit Albert explains, “The hand of glory [ . . . ] is used by villains thieves to enter houses at night without hindrance.”

In addition to this talismanic magic, Garret plunders magical artifacts and even engages in complex acts of counter-magic as he disrupts the extra-dimensional ritual of the Trickster in the Maw of Chaos or activates the glyphs in Deadly Shadows. It’s not surprising that Garret’s cowl and long flowing robes are equal parts monastic garb and magician’s robe. He is a Master of hiding and the hidden: literally, the occult.

When skillfully guided by a player, Garrett’s magic consists in his ability to “keep silent,” one of the four powers of the sphinx extolled by French occultist Eliphas Levi in The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. Levi argued that magicians must learn “to know, to dare, to will, and to keep silent,” powers that he attributed to the four elements of classical antiquity (air, water, fire, and earth). To keep silent means literally to maintain the secrecy of the mysteries of initiation, but it can be extended as a metaphorical principle of efficiency and noiseless grace: in other words, stealth. As British occultist Aleister Crowley explains in his Confessions, “to dare must be backed by to will and to know, all three being ruled by to keep silence. Which last means many things, but most of all so to control oneself that every act is done noiselessly; all disturbance means clumsiness or blundering.” A stance of self-controlled noiselessness is the strategic condition of success in Thief and a style of gameplay that activates Garret’s full abilities as an avatar. “Disturbance,” “clumsiness,” and “blundering” are the fail conditions of the Thief series which assure detection and death.

Garret’s apparent physical weakness, signified by hit points sufficient only for a few sword blows from a guard, is counterbalanced by preternatural abilities of stealth. Ordinary mortals risk detection when they hide in shadows, because only the deepest darkness can reliably block out peering eyes. But when a player guides Garrett into shadow and reduces his light gem to pure black, Garrett can vanish, even as a guard walks a few inches beside him. These abilities are built into the game systems of Thief, which rewards ritualistic behaviors of stealth: always tread in the shadows, walk rather than running when possible, extinguish light strategically, and close doors behind you. While we never learn the ultimate essence of Keeper training (which is itself shrouded within the game systems of Thief), our success in Thief depends on our identification with Garrett and his training, which forces us to ask “What Would Garrett Do.”

The merging of stealth and mysticism gives rise to the arcane discipline of the Hassassins in Assassin’s Creed, whose credo “nothing is true, everything is permitted” conceals a mystical insight under the veil of anarchic nihilism: a Neoplatonic belief in the irreality of the sensible world. Altair, like Garrett, “works in shadows to serve the light,” or rather to unwittingly maintain the balance of the Keepers against which he rebelled. Thief teaches the gamers and game designers inspired by it that direct confrontation is often counter-productive, and that the ability to judiciously “keep silent” and move quietly is a higher magic than a carelessly tossed fireball or a poorly chosen word.

Retro Gaming and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Tower of Brass

The Tower of Brass

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of nineteenth-century English artists who chose to emulate the style of painters before Raphael. This stylistic choice was a deliberate, countercultural move that involved eschewing the muddied, realistic style of painting taught in contemporary art schools in favor of an ideal of perfection derived from early Renaissance, neo-medieval, and Byzantine painting. Art schools of the time encouraged their students to use a dull palette of grays and browns, even going so far as to prescribe the use of a wash or “gravy” to create a uniform and supposedly “realistic” appearance in landscape and portraiture. The Pre-Rapahelites rebelled, favoring a palette of rich reds, golds, blues, and greens reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics, as well as a set of lighting effects often involving an otherworldly golden glow.

Above is a painting by one of my favorite painters, Edward Burne-Jones, which exemplifies that color and lighting.  Rather than attempting to render nuances of shading in the folds of the red cloth, Burne-Jones uses a pure glowing red that pops against the golden background: a trick used to great effect in the art direction of Demon’s Souls and its precursor, Shadow Tower: Abyss.

The Pre-Raphaelites exerted a powerful influence on some twentieth-century fantasy artists, such as Robert Gould.  Gould, one famed illustrator of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion saga, formally organized a circle of artists who would emulate the Pre-Raphaelites.  The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is readily apparent in this cover art from The Knight of the Swords, right down to color palette, lighting, and the crisp rendering of cloth in a neo-medieval scene.

The Knight of the Swords cover art

The Knight of the Swords cover art

There are many connections between videogames and the Pre-Raphaelites, including Irrational Game’s recent declaration of gray as the “color of girly-men” in their E3 manifesto on the art style of Bioshock: Infinite.  A videogame with a deliberately Pre-Raphaelite art style would be an interesting alternative to much of the gray murk found in RPG’s and shooters, and careful use of cel-shading and lighting could no doubt create a haunting, otherworldly experience in a fantasy RPG.

That said, the Pre-Raphaelites are ultimately less interesting for their specific stylistic features than for their deliberate decision to emulate a past style for a particular aesthetic effect.

Matthew Weise, the lead designer at M.I.T. Gambit whose insights I never cease to quote, has observed that indie game designers often see the art styles of games from the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit era as valid stylistic choices rather than limitations.  (Think Cave Story, Braid, or symphonically stirring chiptunes).

It’s because of the extended stylistic palette afforded by retro-gaming that I’m often more excited about discovering strange, obscure, or otherwise unique PS1 or Dos games than I am about playing recent current-gen games, and I find my backlog from 10 or 20 years ago much more urgent than the one from 1 or 2 years.  I’d rather be playing Thief: The Dark Project than Dragon Age 1 or 2, and a refrigerator box full of unopened Dos adventure games holds more wonders than most of IGN (as does the Japanese-only PS1 remake of Wizardy IV: The Return of Werdna and Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom that I accidentally discovered while researching this post).

It’s not that older games are “better,” whatever that might mean, but that some of them have powerful design lessons to teach. The first lesson I’d like to look at in a future blog post is that first-person perspective can be used effectively to increase immersion when players are allowed to do something other than shoot. From first-person dungeon crawlers like Wizardry blossoms a lineage that leads to Thief, the extended King’s Field franchise (including Demon’s Souls), and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  And that’s why I temporarily rolled my nVidia drivers back more than a hundred releases this morning, because such a hardware nuisance is worth it to play a gem like Thief, even though I know I’ll have to roll them forward again everytime I want to work with 3ds Max or Unity.

More soon . . .