Stealing History: Dark Camelot And Thief

With Thief 4 bearing down on us like a robber with a toothy smile, we thought it might be interesting to go back to where stealth began: the creation of Thief. Joe Martin stole away with this report.

There’s a line I had wanted start this article with. It is a line from the ironic finale of The Neverending Story and it would have been an obscure reference to the fact that before it was The Dark Project, Thief was originally called Dark Camelot. It was: “Beginnings are always dark”.

I can’t use that line, however, because if you go far back enough you eventually uncover Thief’s beginning wasn’t dark at all. It was red.

“Originally [Thief] started as a concept called Better Red than Undead,” says Marc LeBlanc, Thief’s principal programmer and one of the few who worked on the project all the way through.

Attributing the idea mainly to Ken Levine, Marc says Red would have been an over-the-top action game set in the middle of the Cold War. Casting you in the role of an American agent, the game would have tasked you with single-handedly cleansing the zombie menace from the Soviet Union – a premise amazingly detached from the final game but which carried an important seed; sword-fighting.

“The premise [of Red] was that zombies were basically immune to bullets, so you had to hack them up with swords, [but] the executive team decided Red was too quirky an idea,” says Marc. “They had no idea how to market it and they wanted something where the sword-fighting made more intrinsic sense, rather than a fictional contrivance.”

The result was that Red was scrapped in favour of a more sensible sword-fighting game and it’s here that Thief’s story starts in earnest, with Dark Camelot. Beginnings are always dark, etc.

Unlike Red, Dark Camelot gained momentum quickly – a fact Marc puts down to it’s pared-down scope and more manageable pitch. Looking Glass may now be remembered as an ambitious studio that repeatedly redefined the medium, but in the run-up to Thief there was a concerted effort to rein in that ambition. Marc points to 1992’s Ultima Underworld as the root of that restraint, though it’s likely Terra Nova’s commercial failure played a part too.

“There was a sense among the Looking Glass’ old guard that Underworld represented a missed opportunity,” he says. “Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D came out at roughly the same time and both were ground-breaking…but Underworld was a sprawling RPG in an open, persistent world and Wolfenstein was a game where you ran around with a gun.”

That Wolfenstein entered development a year later and still released earlier than Underworld was like salt in the wound for Looking Glass, says Marc. The feeling was that if Underworld had been only slightly smaller it could have released earlier and it’s similar technology and deeper system would have rendered the granddaddy of gaming completely irrelevant. As it was, Looking Glass was struggling financially and action games were emerging as the genre as choice.

Dark Camelot was to be Looking Glass’ attempt to right that wrong. It would be innovative and ambitious, but it would small enough that the team could release within a year. By keeping the plan as simple and action-orientated as possible, Looking Glass would secure financial success and establish a brand that they could later grow into sort of RPG they really wanted to make.

That was the plan, anyway.

As Red evolved into Dark Camelot, Doug Church came in to lead the project and the ‘all thrills, no frills’ approach was laid down in stone. Marc even remembers suggesting stealth missions in early brainstorms, the idea getting shut down for deviating from Camelot’s action-focus. Camelot’s originality was to be limited strictly to it’s setting – a unique take on Arthurian myth.

Memories of Camelot’s plot have been muddled and lost over the years, but one thing everyone agrees on is that Dark Camelot was a dystopian world. King Arthur was a tyrant who invented the Grail myth as a way to control the populace. Merlin was a dandy psychopath. The Knights were thugs in garish armour.

“The world was more modern than the traditional Arthurian elements. Steampunkish, but with no gunpowder,” says Marc. “I remember seeing sketches of Merlin with a top hat, and there was talk of Knights covered in corporate logos like NASCAR drivers… We didn’t want to be straight up orcs and elves; we wanted to build something unique and memorable. Something we could own.”

Garret meanwhile was originally Arthur’s bastard son, Mordred. Rebelling against his father’s rule, Camelot’s plot involved a one man war against the throne that would show off the unique sword-fighting system.

No sooner had Dark Camelot established itself however than the scope started to grow. In a Thief post-mortem Tom Leonard, Thief’s lead programmer, points to flourishes that crept in over time – branching missions and a variety of multiplayer modes. Dynamic terrain would have played a part too, says Marc – though he isn’t sure how.

So, while Camelot may have got further than Red, it still stumbled out of the gate – and that’s fuelled all sorts of rumours about the project since. Canvassing forums and old discussions reveals claims that Camelot was almost complete when it was cancelled; that there are playable builds to be found on discs in the developer’s attics; that The Mage’s Tower from Thief: Gold was originally designed as Merlin’s home.

The truth, however, is that Camelot never entered production proper. The only playable output was a handful of tech demos to showcase the engine’s capabilities, but even these took place in a wildly different setting. The largest, called Stargate, was a multiplayer shooter that pitched superheroes with different abilities against each other and existed purely to demo what was then called the Portal engine.

An unused bow concept.

An unused ogre concept.

An unused wizard character.

“Dark Camelot was still in preproduction when it became Thief,” says Marc. “So, there weren’t any even art assets built. There might have been design ideas that were harvested for Thief, but I don’t think any levels were designed.”

Like Red then, Camelot was abandoned before it really got going. It’s concept bled very obviously into Thief’s placeless City, but no content was ever shared between the two – for the simple reason that the team had been unable to create an effective sword-fighting system. What you see in Thief is as far as they got and, without that, Camelot was a hammer without head.

Realising the project was in trouble, Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath suggested dropping the Arthurian theme and turning the came on its head. Mordred became Garrett. Camelot became The City. The Knights became The Hammers. The rest became history.

In fact, not only was no content ever shared Camelot and Thief, but progress was apparently so straightforward once Thief’s final shape was agreed that it’s doubtful it would have helped to share anyway. It’s something Randy Smith attributes to the barebones documentation that the sudden change of direction resulted in.

“I don’t remember the levels changing very much,” says Randy, who created both The Haunted Cathedral and Return to The Cathedral.  “The original design document was very broad strokes. There was just a one or two paragraph description for each mission. As a level designer, this was handed to me to interpret and fill in.”

“So, for Return to the Cathedral, the broad strokes were a treasure you’d seen previously from the outside and a trap that was sprung when you finally snatched it. I filled in the architecture of the cathedral and, because it’s religious architecture, that wound up informing the Hammers’ previously undocumented beliefs.”

“I filled in the moment to moment gameplay [and] I also designed the hoops you have to jump through to exit the monastery. The original documents only mention ‘Maybe there are some other buildings back there or something’. I don’t remember lots of significant change to the design [after that].”

Likewise, while Thief inherited some lore from Dark Camelot, the world-feel hardly changed at all. Josh Randall, who provided Garrett’s face in addition to producing the game, says the approach was already finalised when he joined the team.

“Greg LoPiccolo had a very specific look in his head of how he thought we could tell stories,” he remembers. “Sort of like a animated collage, layered with textures and symbols that implied meaning and established the vibe of the world. We’d just done Terra Nova, which had an hour of full motion video and we knew we didn’t want to do THAT again, so we came up with something that better fit the world of Thief. Playing with shadow and texture to reveal bits of motion or story.”

“From a production standpoint it was relatively cheap to do [and] in recent years I’ve seen a few independent animations using similar techniques. I think it’s a great look, so I’m not sure why people don’t do it more now.”

There were some changes to Thief as it developed, of course – but few that trace back to either Red or Dark Camelot. Tom Leonard’s post-mortem mentions three planned multiplayer modes that were culled early on, for example, and the idea of branching missions was trimmed out too. The Mage’s Tower was originally planned to ship with the full game too, as was The Song of the Caverns – but both were removed purely because of time constraints.

Few of these changes seem to matter as far as Thief’s legacy goes, however. Looking Glass’ original plan may have been to create a pared-down game with a fuller sequel, but Thief 2 didn’t reintroduce any of those ideas. Thief has never had multiplayer and the swordplay has always been basic. It wasn’t until Deadly Shadows’ open-plan city that branching missions became part of the series and they proved controversial even then.

Arguably, the series is all the better for that consistency. None of the team claim a single regret about the way Thief turned out and the first two games continue to be help up as all-time classics. It may have taken time to find the right premise, but once the final concept emerged the team stuck so closely to their singular vision that the original plan of sequels iterating in other directions could have been an awful mistake.

But don’t get me started on Thi4f.


  1. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Thiaf sounds like a Japanese gasoline/electric hybrid car.

  2. Don Reba says:

    “They had no idea how to market it and they wanted something where the sword-fighting made more intrinsic sense, rather than a fictional contrivance.”

    And it actually made the game much better, eh? Maybe big dumb publishers are not always bad.

    • lowprices says:

      I think it’s just that the original idea was crap in this case. Thank christ no-one ever heard from this ‘Ken Levine’ fellow ever again, eh?

    • FakeAssName says:

      And yet Bethshitia is furiously pounding away at its ePeen about how their version of Wolfenstine will be gods next gift to gaming ….

    • The Random One says:

      Honestly, the good thing about Thief is the execution, not the concept. And that concept sounds a lot more interesting than “you’re a guy wot steals stuff”.

  3. outoffeelinsobad says:

    link to

    Includes a series of podcast interviews with the designers of Thief. Great stuff.

    • captain nemo says:

      The podcast “Looking Glass Studios Interview Series – Audio Podcast 9 – Terri Brosius and Dan Thron” is one of my favourite gaming retrospectives; containing Creativity, Business, and making-it-up-as-you-go-along.

  4. povu says:

    It was very impressive how they got such an indepth stealth system right the first time around, with light and shadow, sounds (different amount for walking depending on what material you’re walking on, muffled by closed doors) and consistent predictable AI.

    I still think Thief 2 is the better game though. Thief 2 was the game I imagined when I first heard about Thief: Sneaking through city locations, stealing stuff, avoiding human guards. Thief 2 was that, and pretty much only that.

    I wasn’t expecting half of the missions in Thief 1 to be so heavy on undead tomb raiding, which I never really liked personally.

    • DrScuttles says:

      As much as I love to wander the streets babbling about the legion of sequels constantly inundating us and lamenting at how no game is safe from a prompt, cynical follow up from Greedy McPublisher, I sometimes halt at a bus stop and ponder all the sequels I prefer to the original. Doom 2, Fallout 2 (and for the purposes of this list, New Vegas), Thief 2, Bioshock 2, KoToR 2.
      The implications of this train of thought is sometimes too much for me and I stand there, dumb as a post, staring at the commuters until I am moved on.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I love them both, but Thief 2 is definitely my favorite. The level design is much better and the game benefited from making a stronger focus on stealth.

    • itsbenderingtime says:

      I feel the opposite (I’m a wierdo, please bear with me). Thief 1 was incredibly compelling to me because every single mission threw something new and wierd and alien at me, something that made me pause, slink back in the shadows, and just observe what I was looking at, trying to figure out what was going on.

      Even though it was a more solid game, Thief 2 and it’s almost exclusively-human enemies kinda left me bored. I stopped playing when a late-game level simply wanted me to case some dude’s house, and there was no promise of it being anything more than some dude’s house. And apparently the next level was infiltrating that same house AGAIN.

      And First City Bank can burn down for all I care.

      They lost the sense of alien wonder and tried to recapture it by doubling down on the steampunkiness (wait, is that a submarine?). I know I’m in the minority, but I liked it better the first way.

      • Skull says:

        This is absolutely the thoughts which were going through my mind. I played the first Thief when I was young and at the time I felt the zombies, ghosts and supernatural enemy’s were a bit too much and often rushed through those levels.

        Now I look back at it after many more years of gaming and realise how clever and efficient it was at scaring me shitless. No game bar Amnesia has been able to do that for me and I really owe a lot of respect to Thief for a game with ugly as hell graphics (even at the time). Getting chased by a zombie through a labyrinth of levels, not knowing where each corner would take me or what would be round it whilst constantly hearing those terrifying moans at my back…. it really is a experience I haven’t had in games since (forgetting Amnesia of course).

        One of my favorite levels, The Lost City, was truly massive and I swear it would be impossible to memorise the whole thing. Getting truly lost in there and feeling I would never escape…yet still somehow doing it with the loot was one of my proudest gaming achievements, and at the time, I didn’t even realise. I thought it was the future and soon all games would be making sure I was constantly lost and exploring for myself. How little I knew….

        And now for something truly controversial…as much as I love the Thief series, my favorite is Deadly Shadows. It deserves this accolade for The Cradle, a level that still haunts me when I think about it. It was so clever, to go around in the dark hearing the strange noises, wishing you had light. And then when you do turn on the lights, you instantly feel vulnerable and trapped…everything can see you and you can’t hide. I sometimes wish that the whole game had been like that and then I am instantly glad it is not as I would never have completed it.

        But yes, all round a very high calibre series (for now).

      • RanDomino says:

        The exact moment I quit playing Thief was in this one level where you sneak/murder your way around a little ground-floor entry area, then go down a rope to a casino or something, and you apparently have to sneak across the casino room by waiting for the exact moments when no one is looking in order to leap to the next shadow. Way too frustrating.

        • NathanH says:

          That one is probably the worst mission in Thief history.

        • Ironclad says:

          That’s a mission that was included in the gold edition of Dark Project. Generally speaking I think that the gold levels (and the additions to other levels like little big world) are sub-par in quality compared to the vanilla game.

    • Turkey says:

      What’s even more amazing is that they’re just about the only developer who’s gotten first person stealth right.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        Yeah, pretty much, but it’s worth pointing out that no one else has really tried an exclusively stealth first person game. They’ve all gone for a Jack-of-all-master-of-none with their mechanics, so stealth ends up being OK at best (that said, I still love stealthing around in Dishonored and Deus Ex — but they’re no Thief).

        It would be interesting to see what some other developers would come up with if they tried their hand at a stealth only first person game. I bet there are a lot of ways to do it well and Thief is just one of them.

  5. webwielder says:

    I bet Jim edited this article. Because it has typos.

    Thief 3 is my favorite Thief because it’s got the best NPC chatter, beautiful lighting, the open city is cool, brilliantly memorable levels (the Hammerite clock tower, the Cradle, the Keeper HQ, etc.), lots of NPC vs. NPC battles, and those lizard men who talk kinda like Pagans but even more hilariously. The bad guard AI is a plus for me as I am bad at video games, and the small environments are as well since I get lost easily.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      The clock tower was really disappointing for me. It was just a metal box that may as well have been deep under the sea for all the difference it made. I was hoping for a vertigo-inducing traipse on the outside of the clock, with the glow of little toothpick-lamps far below. As I recall, I didn’t even get to use those stupid useless climbing gloves either.

      I’m going to shamelessly toot my own horn by claiming that “A Long Way Down”, my first Thief 2 FM ever, is a more satisfactory vertical descent.

    • zain3000 says:

      Sounds like you’re gonna love Thi4f!

  6. Michael Fogg says:

    action games were emerging as the genre OF choice

  7. ZB says:

    For the love of god RPS, “it’s” means “it is”.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      It could also mean “it has”, depending on context. In a similar fashion, “its” can either be a possessive pronoun or a plural form.

      English has always been avant-garde when it comes to orthographic mind-fucks.

      • inachisiojexus says:

        Plural third person neuter would be “they” or “them”.

    • cunningmunki says:

      We should just give up and ditch apostrophes from the language altogether. Theres very few people who get them right all of the time (myself included). They either stick them in when theyre not needed, or forget them when they are. They serve no purpose that cant be inferred from context alone. Im serious, its time for an apostrophe revolution and Im starting it with this post!

      Remove your apostrophe keys brothers and sisters! Whats that? The @? Can’t we just stick the @ on the 2 key like the Americans? We dont really need quote marks, we can just use two…. oh. Damn.

  8. Bugamn says:

    That unused ogre character! I remember seeing it in a games magazine when I was a kid.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      The unused wizard character is not unused though, as far as I recall. The wall textures are also some of the most common ones in the game.

  9. Lusty Argonian Maid says:

    I’m going to the Bear Pits tomorrow. Ya wanna come with?

    • Faxmachinen says:

      T-uh. Couldn’t pay me enough.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      The other guard’s response to that is basically the exact same thing that gets posted over and over for months on the TTLG forums every time a new installment is announced.

  10. DonDrapersAcidTrip says:

    Constraints and limitations have produced some of the best things in films and games. Maybe sometimes it’s best if you don’t have a million dollars from kickstarter and all the time in the world to work on some initial idea.

  11. WJonathan says:

    How rare it is that a series with such a muddled beginning could end up so great in final execution. Usually any project with that many drastic design changes ends up a total mess. Now I see what influenced the zombie levels from the first Thief.

    • Angel Dust says:

      I’d say it’s probably not at all uncommon for a new property to have such muddled beginnings – you just don’t always hear about them.

    • Prime says:

      It also helps to have masterful designers like Looking Glass as developers. Thief 4 is in trouble but at this point I have no faith it will emerge as something I’ll enjoy playing.

  12. Hulk Handsome says:

    Erm, didn’t Wolfenstein come out AFTER UU? I remember reading that in a magazine years ago. Wikipedia agrees with me (not a great source, but still). UU: March, Wolf: May.

    Good read!

    • Wedge says:

      I think they’re talking about if it had had like, a years lead time, as opposed to a month so Wolfenstein could steal all it’s thunder.

  13. ziusudra says:

    Easily one of the best games ever made. Gaming art. I wish it was nostalgia but its simply not, the level design, the sound design, the world building, the style, its all there. I love Thief. Many people will disagree with me, but to me this was the defining moment of the fps genre in the late 90s. Its something more than a simple fps actually…

    • Prime says:

      I recall my little brother showing off Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 at the time,marvelling at the ‘stealth’ in that game, hiding in cardboard boxes, etc. He was quite disappointed that I wasn’t showing more enthusiasm for it – I didn’t have the heart to tell him I just couldn’t; I’d been playing the Thief demo for months by this point! MGS looked terrible by comparison!

  14. Prime says:

    Terra Nova needs some love, RPS. Retrospective?

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Terra Nova is still the only game with fully procedurally animated characters who don’t look like ass (Trespasser).

  15. cunningmunki says:

    “King Arthur was a tyrant who invented the Grail myth as a way to control the populace. Merlin was a dandy psychopath. The Knights were thugs in garish armour.”

    I want to read this, I want to watch this, I want to play this. I don’t care what the medium, someone make “Dark Camelot”!