Thief developer Randy Smith says "immersion is totally incompatible with ego"
The Looking Glass veteran talks about Garrett's past, present, and unlikely future
Some developers spend their careers inching towards their dream job, leapfrogging between roles in a grand strategy game of their own making. Others, like Randy Smith, simply show up on their first day and find they’re exactly where they’re meant to be.
“The approach that Looking Glass had to creating games was pretty unique,” he says now. “Even to this day, there are few studios who have that same ideology and mindfulness in how videogames are made.”
Thief: The Dark Project had a great director, in the form of Greg LoPiccolo, who later became a pioneer in the world of music games with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. And before him, Ken Levine had laid down the cobbles of Thief’s setting, defining its noir-ish tone before heading off to work on System Shock 2. Yet Looking Glass games weren’t driven by a singular 90s auteur. In fact, the very absence of ego in the studio’s culture meant its many “bright stars” were happy to adhere to a shared vision.
“There were various individual superheroes,” Smith says. “Terry Brosius, Dan Thron, Doug Church, Mark LeBlanc. But somehow, the goal wasn’t to be like, ‘I’m Mark LeBlanc who made this system in the game, and everybody knows me’. You were measured against the game we all created together. The game’s as good as its weakest link. Ego wasn’t the focus.”
As disciples of the studio know, Looking Glass were unusually dedicated to submerging players deep into the world and atmosphere of their games, and used a number of then-innovative tricks to do so - including the first-person perspective, intricate level design, hypnotic audio and rudimentary physics simulation. “When I joined the Thief team, I was very much on the wavelength of that ideology,” Smith says. “But at the same time I was a rookie at it.”
For Smith, the magic of games like the ones Looking Glass made comes partly from immersion. “And I think immersion only happens when you’re careful to take all the contrivances and conceits out of your game,” he says. “It’s just totally incompatible with ego. If somebody is trying to put themselves in the game, then necessarily they’re creating a contrivance.”
Thief is often credited, alongside the likes of Metal Gear and Tenchu, with inventing the stealth game. But many of its traits have proven to be recessive. Thief forced you to grasp for information in the dark, listening intently for footsteps so that you clocked a guard before they tripped over you. And that deliberate obfuscation carried over to its storytelling, too, which was subtle and oblique.
“Looking Glass was one of the very few outliers who were like, ‘Yes, we are making a first-person game, but there’s no guns’. And we paid for it.”
“I love it when games take that approach,” Smith says. “And in a lot of ways, it’s just common sense. Exposition is a little bit of a necessary evil in writing, and lore is the exposition crutch of videogames. When I play a game and it's like, ‘I put something in the Codex, and you can go over here and read a paragraph about this faction’, I don’t want to read it.”
After Thief’s sequel, The Metal Age, Looking Glass went out of business. “Starting my career in the 90s, there were five publishers and three different kinds of games you could make,” Smith says. “Looking Glass was one of the very few outliers who were like, ‘Yes, we are making a first-person game, but there’s no guns’. And we paid for it.”
In the aftermath, Smith was given the opportunity to finish the Thief trilogy as project director at Ion Storm Austin - the closest spiritual equivalent to Looking Glass, then fresh from the success of Deus Ex. The resulting game, Thief: Deadly Shadows, is still remembered for its standout horror mission, the Shalebridge Cradle. But despite having spent long hours with Cradle designer Jordan Thomas to codify and build on the very best of videogame horror, Smith can’t actually stand to play scary levels himself. In this sense, he is the Jamie Lee Curtis of games. “When you put that magic of interactivity in a horror game, it’s just too much for me,” he says. “I watch horror movies in part to coax myself out of being worried about that stuff.”
In retrospect, Smith is most proud of the open world segments that connected Thief 3’s missions. “From reading people’s reviews, it sounds like we took the turn into the open city environment successfully,” he says. “That was a pretty good accomplishment, to be able to pull that off in addition to ramping up a new team, switching to consoles, and just building another Thief game.”
The latter challenge alone has bested talented teams since. Even the mighty Eidos Montréal, who managed the impossible by bringing Deus Ex back from the dead with Human Revolution, stumbled when it came to the Thief reboot in 2014. “I did not play it, because it sounded like I was going to be disappointed,” Smith says. “The idea of an IP that in a lot of ways is one of my babies being manhandled by some other studio that didn’t do it well, despite trying - I didn’t want to have that experience.”
Having ended the initial Thief trilogy by tying off its story and teeing up a new, female protagonist, Smith was dismayed to see the “gothed out” Garrett that Eidos came up with. “I actually met with that team, and they asked if I had any suggestions,” Smith says. “I was like, ‘Why don’t you guys just make your own character? If you really want to expand this franchise, show us a different person who’s similar to Garrett in this world, but has their own characteristics. Just give him a different name.’ That would have been interesting to me, to explore more of the world.”
Smith himself has spent many of the years since Thief: Deadly Shadows applying its lessons in unexpected places. As a founder of Tiger Style Games, he led development of the IGF award-winning Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor, a mobile game in which you play an arachnid flitting from chair to lampshade, spinning webs to trap and eat insects. While bearing no superficial resemblance to Thief, it’s still fundamentally a game about watching the patrol paths of your opponents until you’re ready to step in and trip them up. And as the subtitle suggests, Spider’s setting is stuffed with environmental storytelling in the immersive sim vein.
“We found the opportunity to give the players an experience that did have a lot of the hallmarks of Looking Glass-style immersion and mechanical freedom,” Smith says. “You could get invested in the world, realise on your own terms that there was a story here to care about, and eventually do something interactive to respond to the story. “I think Spider was my haiku,” he adds. “The smallest unit of game that could still have, even though it’s a very different expression, immersive sim qualities.”
Since then, Smith has worked on both Waking Mars and Jett: The Far Shore, two games about experimenting with an alien ecosystem of plants and creatures in order to awaken a sleeping planet. Waking Mars is played from a side-on perspective in an underground cave system, where ricocheting seeds and scrambling organisms can very easily collide to create unexpected results. This reactive world is so successful, in fact, that it might cause you to wonder whether immersive sims have been made in the wrong perspective all this time. “We lost the first-person immersion, but we did gain a better sense of the environment, and your ability to move and respond to it,” Smith says. “And that’s actually what Waking Mars is about, it’s a space gardening game.”
If Smith were to be handed the reins to the Thief series today, the female protagonist from the coda of Deadly Shadows would become one of a few playable characters in a loose band of thieves, led by an enigmatic master (“secretly, that’s Garrett”). But as much as he’d enjoy returning to that formula, he’d rather not give over another eight years of his life to it, and would prefer to give others a chance to do it right. Besides: Smith got to play a great, modern successor when Dishonored came out.
“That was the first time I played a Thief game,” he says. “If you work on a game, you can never play it the way a player will.” Despite having plenty of connections at Arkane, Smith stayed well away, until Dishonored was finished, released, and patched. “And then it was like, ‘I’m playing Thief,’” Smith says. “‘This is the experience other people have. And they’re right, it is really good.’”
Today, Smith is pitching a new idea to publishers: a nonviolent RPG with Looking Glass values, about a young woman who travels from America to a remote village in Eastern Europe in search of her missing uncle. “One of the things that the people I pitch to always say is, ‘I really love Thief’,” he says. “And in the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Should I just be [spiritually] rebooting Thief?’ Because I know I’d get that contract in a heartbeat.” But to do that would, surely, make ego the focus. And that's not how you make a good immersive game.