I have this clear memory of playing the first Thief, crouching against the wall in a dark stairwell as a guard walked closer. I held my breath until he passed, hidden in a shadow inches away. The games in the original Thief trilogy were all about light and darkness, with a “light gem” at the bottom of the screen to indicate whether you were really in the dark, reducing the guesswork created by the oddities of first-person bodies and your own screen settings. It's an obvious idea more stealth games should borrow.
A a lot of things from the original Thief games didn't become standard in the genre, and even the 2014 reboot/sequel didn't pick up on some of them. For that we have The Dark Mod [official site].
Modders had been making fan missions for the first two Thief games for years before organizing themselves into Broken Glass Studios (in homage to Thief creators Looking Glass) and making The Dark Mod. The catalyst was Doom 3, another game all about light and darkness. Its engine, with real-time shadow propagation and solid physics interactions, was perfect for a stealth game. The first version of The Dark Mod required Doom 3 installed on your system, but with the release of its source code in 2011 The Dark Mod became a standalone game with a growing library of missions to download from its in-game client – over 100 of them so far, with new ones still being made.
To prevent legal trouble The Dark Mod has its own steampunk-ish setting that modders agree to use, one that resembles the original Thief games closely – even more so than the remake, to be honest – but uses different names. The religious zealots are Builders rather than Hammerites, the skeletal undead are Revenants not Haunts, and the backdrop for all this is called Bridgeport rather than The City and is part of an alternate history Europe instead of a fantasy setting. In play it still feels like Thief in spite of these changes.
Here are some of the missions that demonstrate that best.
Thief's Den is a small map. There's a street, some rooms accessible via rooftops, and a building belonging to a rival thief who has stolen a scepter that you stole from somebody else. Thief's Den is tight, both in the sense of feeling enclosed and lacking extraneous clutter. I wish there were more fan missions like it. There are several follow-ups, all much bigger. Thief's Den 3: The Heart of Lone Salvation is a strong one, tasking you with stealing a lucky gem from a corrupt lord. You can choose from three different amounts of guards in the level, which is a more interesting way of setting difficulty than just choosing how high the loot quota is.
At the other end of the scale, Requiem is a multi-stage mission with changing objectives. It begins as a break-in at a Builder cathedral during a memorial service, but expands in different directions before it's done. Requiem is one of several missions to build on The Dark Mod's cosmology, differentiating the Builders from their Hammerite inspirations – that means there are a lot of books and scrolls full of history to find, as well as the expected letters where someone records their last words and ends with ellipses.
William Steele: In The North
In The North is another mission that adds to the setting, this one taking place in a town called Braedon, north of Bridgeport (hence the name). You won't see the town, as the entire map is the inside of a snowbound mansion converted from an old Builder church and still haunted by its past. The current owner's no saint, with a secret network behind the walls for spying on the women in his employ, just in case you need some motivation for robbing him blind.
Thomas Porter 3: Glenham Tower
Every Thief game needs to abruptly shift into horror halfway through, and The Dark Mod makes frequent use of undead if that's your thing. Glenham Tower (part of a series starring the same protagonist, but playable in any order) is about descending through a building full of zombies and revenants to steal a grimoire, with the additional complication that the tower's falling apart. Stairs and even the floor break beneath you, and at one point I wound up stuck down a hole shooting rope arrows up at wooden protrusions that broke off as soon as I hit them while skeletons mocked me from the top. Good times.
Talbot 2: Return to the City
Talbot's another returning protagonist, one from a fan mission for the original Thief called Prowler of the Dark. In Return to the City he has to make it through heavily patrolled streets full of guards wearing helmets, which means they can't be blackjacked – a nod to realism that stymies my preferred playstyle of piling everyone in a corner then exploring in safety. The ultimate goal is to steal explosives from a Builder workshop. The Dark Mod's object manipulation means you can grab things with a right click, then centre-click to spin them round. Return to the City makes clever use of that once you find the explosives and need to squeeze them out of a barred cell.
Tears of St. Lucia
A couple of missions come pre-installed with The Dark Mod, including a Training Mission that's both tutorial and a decent set of challenges to play around with. Tears of St. Lucia is a full-fledged story though, depicting another break-in at a Builder temple. There's some nice world-building, with posters stuck on walls that refer to characters and events from other missions. That's common to Dark Mod levels – friendly references to the community's other work that connects them and contributes toward the sense of a larger world, as well as connections between creators. There are no Keepers or characters like Viktoria, but The Dark Mod's setting has grown into its own thing, in spite of borrowing a lot from Thief before filing off any incriminating owner's marks.
I've saved my favourite for last. The Creeps is another horror level and another small one, so I won't say too much to spoil it except to say that it does a clever thing with lights that gave me a start. Another thing I like about The Creeps is that it has a voiced protagonist who mutters a few lines at relevant points. Something I miss from Thief is Garrett's cynical commentary, musing to himself about whether the books in someone's fancy library even have words or are just for show. Much as I like The Dark Mod it is missing Garrett and the sense of continuity his story gave those games – when I finish a mission in The Dark Mod there's usually just a stats screen waiting at the end, and an unconnected mission in my download queue.
The Dark Mod's flaws are few though. I've encountered a handful of bugs, and I'm not a big fan of the lockpicking minigame – all about listening to a series of clicks and a clunk, finding the precise moment of silence between them to let go of the mouse. Still, The Dark Mod is a better homage to the Thief trilogy than the official 2014 release and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it over that. This is a game that understands the pleasure of waiting in shadows for someone to walk past, that has no boss fights or scripted events that jarringly move you into position for a cutscene.
The Dark Mod's a living thing too. New missions are still being made, with three new additions already this year. It made it through Steam Greenlight in March, and will come to Steam at some point. There's no reason to wait though, there's plenty to be getting on with already and those scepters and gemstones aren't going to steal themselves.