I was excited that the Vintage Game Club chose Thief as its eighth game. I’ve never had a very good relation with stealth games (or stealth segments/aspects of non-stealth games); but I’ve heard enough good about Thief (especially from Justin Keverne) to make me cautiously optimistic that I’d like the genre more when I saw it done right.

Which didn’t work out so well at first: aside from my running into slightly more hardware issues with it than with other PC games we’ve played, I found myself spending most of the first couple of levels alternating between waiting, getting caught, and reloading. I didn’t feel a huge sense of accomplishment when making it past obstacles, either, and combining this with my worries about ever using limited inventory meant that I wasn’t having much fun.

One advantage of the VGC, however, is that it’s taught me something about my own play styles. And my early Thief problems reminded my of my early Deus Ex experiences. In that game, I started out frustrated by stealth and by inventory restrictions; as the latter eased, though, I found myself more confident with the range of options at my disposal, and rather enjoyed most of the game. So, combining those memories with other’s claims that the proper way to play to play Thief is to figure out how to actively manipulate your environment, I decided to try to consciously expand my search for options when dealing with obstacles and to be more generous with the tools in my inventory.

Which I dutifully tried to do for the next couple of levels. And, indeed, I enjoyed them more, but not for that reason: I would be proud of myself for using a water arrow to put out a light in an upcoming intersection, but then when I went through it a guard turned out not to be anywhere nearby! Instead, I just had an easier time parsing the levels and knocking out guards.

And then I hit the Thieves’ Guild, the first of the Thief Gold levels. The first section or two was okay, but then I found myself going in circles for ages on end; that was partly my fault, but not entirely, and when I got past that, the game gave me hints that there was quite a bit left to do in the level. I took a break for dinner; after dinner, I asked myself, “is this really what I most want to be doing right now?” And the answer came back that, no, I’d rather spend my time elsewhere.

So I stopped. And I’m glad I did: judging from the discussion in the VGC forums, I would have found the rest of the level quite frustrating, and I’m confident that I put enough effort into the game as a whole that it wasn’t about to magically click for me. (Plus, this frees up time that I can use to learn Haskell.)

I’m not going to say Thief is a bad game or anything; but its style unfortunately ran into several of my personal mental quirks. (Most notably, when given a choice between paralysis and imperfection, I have a bad habit of choosing the former; this game lets me do that in more than one way.) And there are some unfortunate misfits between it and my living situation: the amount of time that I can spend playing video games is fairly limited, and when I play PC games, I have to isolate myself in a room away from my family and play them in a VirtualBox installation that has both sound and control quirks. Also, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the VGC, it’s that even quite good games from the 90’s made design choices that are more than capable of turning away video game devotees a decade later.

I do wish my experiences had led to a better appreciation of the stealth genre, though. (Or, alternatively, a more cogent understanding of the flaws of the genre.) And it makes me sad to have not seen a VGC game through the end, though I suppose that had to come eventually.

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