Why Thief 4’s decision to drop Stephen Russell is a big mistake
Let’s start with a statement that should be obvious: I want Thief 4 to be amazing. Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age are two of my all-time favourite games. I’d dearly love for this fourth entry to be worthy of (or even exceed) the series to date.
This isn’t just an echo of my younger self reliving fond memories either; I’ve replayed both recently and the level design, audio and narrative are still the equal of any contemporary release. The Dark Engine-rendered levels are not looking too hot, but the art direction of both mission briefings and cutscenes still hold up well.
Thief: Deadly Shadows was a little less compelling, coming as it did from an era where compromises on level size were made thanks to limitations of the original Xbox. Levels were still decent in scope, but broken up by loading zones. The Shalebridge Cradle mission gets its fair share of plaudits for its haunted house style thrills, but outings like The House of Widow Moira were just about up to the standards of the series too.
So, to Thief 4.
I know, I know, Thief 4 is just called Thief now, but that can make it quite hard to distinguish from the series in general. And I don’t want to have to append The Dark Project to the first game’s title every single time. For clarity, I’ll be sticking with Thief 4.
At present, we don’t know a great deal about the game. No actual gameplay footage has been shown yet, so initial impressions are being formed on the basis of a brief plot synopsis, the talking heads of Eidos Montreal and a pair of teaser trailers. I’ll be the first to admit that’s not a strong basis for making conclusive judgements about the game, but it is possible to infer a few things from what’s been shown so far.
Thanks to the release of the first ‘proper’ trailer, we can now be pretty sure that Stephen Russell will no longer be voicing Garrett. It’s not impossible for voice actors to switch during production; David Bateson returned as Agent 47 in Hitman: Absolution after initially being ruled out (proving that you need more than the original voice actor to match the magic of the originals,) and Russell himself was actually the voice of BioShock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt in an early E3 trailer (later to be replaced by Troy Baker.) However, that seems like a slender hope. Eidos seem to have made up their minds.
Here’s what the developers had to say about the decision not to use Russell in a recent ‘in house’ interview:
“We made the decision to record our actor’s voices and their movement at the same time using a full performance capture technique,” audio director Jean-Christophe Verbert has said. “The actor playing Garrett needed to be able to perform his own stunts. Garrett’s a really athletic guy. We could have pasted Stephen’s voice on top of the actions and stunts of someone else, but this wouldn’t appear natural.”
Last week, BioShock Infinite received gushing praise from almost every single critical quarter for its portrayal of Elizabeth; an AI character who had a separate actress for voice, mo-cap and her actual face. It’s not only possible to make this set-up look natural, it resulted in one of the most convincing videogame companions of recent memory.
Let’s also ponder the implication that the majority of Garrett’s lines will now, apparently, be delivered while he’s performing feats of circus athleticism. “Lord Bafford” (hops off table, leaps to hanging banner and wall-runs up to balcony) “it seems that your sceptre” (dives across to chandelier, swings to rafters) “has been … inter-scepted” (tosses firebomb, flips Bafford the bird, backflips out of window.)
But wait, there was more.
“When it came down to it, we ultimately realized that holding onto Steven as the voice of Garrett … It’s a nice thought, but honestly, it wouldn’t make sense for anything else other than nostalgia,” offered narrative director Steven Gallagher.
It’s perhaps a little concerning that the director in charge of narrative isn’t aware that the a new Thief game exists largely on the basis of nostalgia. If it was just about gameplay mechanics, Eidos would be making a brand new IP called Burglar Man.
Losing Russell’s voice is a major enough blow for fans of the series, but details released so far suggests the changes made to Garrett’s circumstances extend beyond his voice-box and some liberally applied eye make-up.
The Garrett of the previous games was a cynical but pragmatic fellow who lived in a crappy apartment and had to steal out of economic necessity (usually to pay rent to his landlord.) He’s a guy who tries to avoid attention and is constantly frustrated by the Keepers’ efforts to remind him that he’s a key part of their prophecy for the city. Any ‘major’ job has to have a sizeable financial incentive. In Thief: The Dark Project he agrees to steal The Eye, but only in return for a sum that will allow him to “retire in style.”
Based on what’s been revealed so far, new Garrett lives inside a Clock Tower like some combination of The Crow and Batman and likes to steal because, to him, the perfect heist is “a way of life.” That’s … a little different.
The ‘rebooted’ nature of this release means this game probably won’t even factor into the original Thief’s trilogy timeline. If it does, the Clock Tower and Garrett’s mechanical eye (shown in the latest trailer) puts it somewhere between the first game and the point at which the Clock Tower is destroyed in Deadly Shadows (assuming the city council didn’t just rebuild it and take it off the Hammerites for some reason.)
So, this new Garrett doesn’t sound like the old one, doesn’t really act like the old one and most likely exists in a totally separate timeline. At this point, you have to wonder why the team didn’t just invent a new thief character. Nobody who’s coming to Thief 4 fresh will have any history with Garrett, and older fans are already baffled or annoyed by the changes.
It’s also important to note that the loss of Russell’s vocal talent goes further than just the protagonist. He gave life to multiple characters in the series, often performing entire conversations between two versions of ‘himself.’ Those dialogues, too, were a considerable piece of Thief’s charm.
Attacking a game that hasn’t yet released proper gameplay footage isn’t entirely fair, I know. It’s kind of like pointing at a bowl filled with butter, sugar and an egg and saying “that cake looks shit.” The Eidos team has made some encouraging noises about the ability to get through missions without killing a single soul (a vital aspect of the previous games,) and the return of a light gem to indicate how hidden the player is. Some of the concept art is looking splendid as well. Plus, the Eidos team has earned a knowing tip of the hat for giving new Garrett a ‘bow upgrade.’ That’s long been a running gag among Thief fans.
But it’s the same old tired pattern with yet another ‘reboot.’ These statements sound like the opening shots of a desperate PR campaign to placate older fans or (if that doesn’t succeed,) push them into enough of an alienated minority that they can easily be shouted down as “fanboys” by other potential buyers. Sure, things change. Games inevitably move on. But you know what Eidos, the only reason any of you guys are employed making a Thief game right now is because people like me bought the original games. That might be a concept worth hanging on to.