Square Enix started the new year off right by holding a recent showcase for members of the press, where we got to go hands-on with the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. In what could be considered the grand finale, we interviewed Thief‘s game director Nicolas Cantin in-between sessions with the game. We sat down for a loose, conversational interview that gave insight into Thief‘s development, its mechanics and balance. We had even more prepared questions, the answers to which were given organically in our, up to that point, 90 minute playthrough and via a 30 minute presentation, and have been incorporated into our hands-on preview.
First off, I didn’t know that you had worked on Assassin’s Creed, which is funny because I always intended to ask about your inspirations for Thief after you listed some of them alongside Stephane [Roy - producer] during a video interview with GameInformer, accompanying its reveal. One of them was indeed Assassin’s Creed, so I’m just wondering if there was ever a point in pre-production or development where you felt you were following too closely in the footsteps of that game, or any other for that matter?
Not that much, because Garrett was really strong already. The only thing was maybe when I realised… it was funny, because it was not even a question for me that Garrett would have his hoodie. And so when we first presented the character of Garrett to people, they’d say “hey, he has a hoodie like Altaïr” and I was like, “dude, I need to show you the cover of the first game. Look, it’s a white hoodie in 1998… I think, maybe we copied Garrett!” but we didn’t do that because Altaïr was really coming from the Muslim references. But in the end, yes it’s true – I think it’s the edgy aspect of the character. So maybe there is a small percentage of my spirit in this. [Laughs] Overall though, Garrett has always had a strong personality and the main reference for Garrett was Garrett himself. We didn’t want to reinvent him too much as it was really about respecting who he was; the main pillars and the DNA of him, and I think from that we had enough material to create him. I can say, though, that maybe the fluidity of the animation in the game is inspired a little bit by the fluidity of the animation in Assassin’s Creed.
Onto the specifics of the Thief – and some of these questions may be very specific – was the ‘Swoop’ ability ever considered to be tied to the ‘Focus’ meter as a way of balancing the power of the player?
The ‘Swoop’ has been there for a long time as part of the main navigation, and, like we say, the ‘Focus’ is there to outline your thieving skills and ‘Swoop’ is more about your ability to navigate. You always have it, and it just adds some more of that feeling of Garrett being in the shadows; he’s faster than everyone, but we really made sure that it was not too empowered as a tool. It was really important that it feels natural as well, and for me the favourite use if the ‘Swoop’ back; when you’re at the corner and you then see a guard, “*gasp*, oh my God” and you ‘Swoop’ back – the feeling is so great. I’m still impressed by it.
That’s something that I was immediately impressed by as well, because it is the perfect visual representation of how you as the player feel when you realise you may have just entered into a guard’s eye-line – you want to be able to literally, quietly, dash backwards. I also love the quickness of the ‘Peek’ feature, and how once you let go of the thumbstick, Garrett just snaps back… it really reinforces the dangers of a given situation in a really nuanced way. I think you guys nailed those elements…
Being a first-person game, it was really important for us to feel the emotion of Garrett, to show who he is through his hands, body language, awareness, how he touches things; he really has his own style and it’s all about that. So yeah, the interactions with the world… picking up objects – it’s a Thief game so when you steal an object, you want to look at it, not only press ‘X’ and take it. This is all important considering the density of the world too.
Right, and there’s even balance and pace to be factored in with those moments that people sometimes neglect, such as the length of the animation – you don’t want to take control away from the player to look at a cup you’re stealing for 2 seconds…
Exactly! So what we did was we kept that beautiful animation only for the special loot. Because if you steal a fork to add more money in your economic system, you’re not gonna go “ooh, beautiful fork!”, you’d just *swipe* quickly. But the main, main, main, main special mission loot, you will rewarded for acquiring it. But you’re right, the representation of those emotions juxtaposed with efficient pacing is really important. You don’t want the player to go, “oh no, not another 5 second thing”.
Now, it was mentioned before that the A.I. is very intelligent, to the point of knowing certain potential hiding places. I’m wondering, with success in most stealth games relying somewhat on the ignorance of the A.I., how do you then balance yours to where it doesn’t go the complete opposite direction and frustrate the player, making them feel like perhaps they can’t “catch a break”?
Yeah, we had to think – you know it’s not that you are fully safe because you are in the shadows. One of the biggest things was the credibility of it; are you believing what is happening in front of you as the player? It was a real challenge, especially with all the new graphics and animations, it is so realistic that we needed to ensure it stayed credible. If you always stay in the shadow, they will probably catch you at some point. It was important for us to have that kind of variety, but also to disallow the player to trick the game. The A.I. is strong; they react to a lot of different stimuli, so it’s up to the player to really take care and avoid being caught.
The thing that struck me when first starting up a campaign on this build was the depth of the options in the ‘Custom’ difficulty setting. You have really provided the player with every possible option to cater to their exact, desired gameplay experience.
We wanted to add a lot of things like that from the beginning, and more and more as we’re advancing, and more and more we’re seeing the feedback from the fans we thought, “okay, this’ll really please them”. We want to make sure that it’s your own experience. We want them to jump in the game and have a cool experience, but we don’t want to force things. We also added all this customisation, in part, as a PC homage.
It’s funny, and this relates to what we were talking about earlier [pre-interview] when people are inclined to jump on anything new; changes, additions… for some, their expectations are for the Thief game that they remember from childhood. They immediately get frazzled or upset, like after the gameplay reveal when some combat was highlighted. I think this ‘Custom’ difficulty setting will go a long way in alleviating those fears and show people how premature they were.
It’s great. I think if they have the ability to customise it as a plus, they will really enjoy the game as an old fan. Also, for the newcomer, I think it’s important for them to feel comfortable to jump in the game – it’s a new story, but they’ll all have that complete Thief experience, I’m sure.
And I think once they do play it as well, they will realise that the combat is not an easy way out of a sticky situation. That blackjack doesn’t do insane damage, not by a long shot.
Exactly. Garrett is not a fighter; he’s not a killer; he’s not an assassin. You really need to avoid confrontation. Yes, if you’re caught in a situation we give you all the tools to defend yourself – I saw last week that was just good. He was not using ‘Focus’ and he got rid of three guards… I have difficulty myself doing that! [Laughs] It will depend on the player, but the core of the gameplay is avoidance. The blackjack itself is a little bit stronger than before, but again, we push for that stealthy approach. For me, the combat at some point was called ‘hit-and-run’. You don’t want to stay there and fight; you’re not an Irish fighter. It was really important for us to give those windows of opportunity to flee every time.
I don’t know how much you can tell us, but what exactly happened in that story trailer? The supernatural elements, the ritual, the cultists…
They are attempting to use the ‘Keystone’ to funnel ‘primal energy’. The overarching story is about who is going to control that energy, or who is managing it in fact. The ‘Focus’ abilities of Garrett – you saw the accident – is part of that. Thief is still a world where lots of things happen and it doesn’t exist. So we had some freedom to add some mystical elements. It’s not something we want to spotlight that much, but it’s still ever-present.
Finally, I’d just like to touch upon the companion app actually, and how much that can add to the gamers’ experience on a whole… of course, it’s never a surprise these days to see people freak out at priced companion apps too. It’s optional!
Yeah, you don’t need to buy an iPad! [Laughs] If it was integral to the gameplay itself, then it should be free on all accounts. It was more about giving fans a little extra if they want to learn more about the story details and background. If you want to know more about the world, about the city… if you discover certain buildings and want to know the history behind it, the app will allow you to. It’s just an added layer of immersion.
Cool, well thanks so much for your time!
Thanks again to Square Enix for the previews, and to Nicolas Cantin for making the long trip to Australia. Thief releases for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and PC on February 27. Look for our full review closer to that date.