Thief: Keys

Regarding Thief: The Dark Project (1998), Mr. Christopher Franklin* talks about an awkward control scheme.

That wasn’t my experience in Thief: TDP, but I’m left handed, and play and compute using my mouse with my left hand. This means not only did I not use the default controls in Thief TDP, but I’ve never used a default control scheme in any game in which I had a choice, even if it meant editing some config file somewhere.** So this is not to say he is wrong, but that aspect of his experience is profoundly different from mine.

Rather, I found the the binding options for Thief TDP were rather versatile (this was before it was typical of me to create macros with Autohotkey). Thief TDP allowed for some actions to be either toggled with a tap, or active when held (and inactive when released.) And the configuration page allowed me to bind actions to multiple keys, which was rare in games at the time.

The control scheme also allowed the player to lean left, right and forward (great for looking down long chasms) and creep, walk and run, each bound to a single key. This made the game extremely immersive for me, so that a few minutes into playing, I would lose myself in the game, and walking and leaning would be all second nature, actually the opposite of what I’d expect from a game with an control scheme.

I suspect that the folks at Looking Glass looked at Star Wars: Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight which allowed the player to bind Force powers for one-key use, which allowed an enthusiast to integrate Force use seamlessly into their normal FPS play. The Thief devs probably took the same idea and applied it to actions that an ordinary (if athletic) guy could do.

The new Thief, as Mr. Franklin notes, has removed the gradient of visibility that fueled much of the suspense in the earlier Thief titles. You’re either as visible as Robin posing in the spotlight or shrouded like Batman… being Batman. And this, for me, means that I’ll have to wait until someone creates a proper spiritual successor to Thief TDP. (It seems that’s a thing in the indie sector, to make spiritual successors of games where the franchise-rights holders failed.) In the interim, one can scratch the stealth itch a bit in Sir, You are being hunted. But you don’t get to steal big fat shiny valuables that glimmer and gleam and give you points.

This started as a Thief TDP gush, mostly because it’s a game that yearns for updates, and Mr. Franklin found words that I hadn’t about why it works so well. But then I got to talking about input schemes. Obviously, waxing ad absurdum about control schemes is a thing I will have to do at some point.

* I keep coming back to Christopher Franklin (His Patreon page calls him Christopher but Shamus Young calls him Chris, and I don’t want to presume a familiarity that I have not yet earned). I follow Mr. Franklin’s YouTube series Errant Signal, often agreeing with his conclusions, or at least recognizing the perspective from which he arrived at them.

In this case, I was looking up his Far Cry 2 critique and came across the Thief TDP critique which was made a month before the release of the Thief reboot / rebirth / WTF-thing. He seems pretty spot on, though it’s noted that he tore apart the scappy level (That is The Thieves Guild) inserted from the Thief Gold edition. Yeah, no-one likes that level.

** As a southpaw, I’ve never found default control schemes adequate, and instead would rebind movement and abilities to the number pad. As a result, I have no knowledge of default keyboard layouts. Rather I am a pretentious cognoscente of how games manage their key-binds, and how they allow the player to twiddle with them, whether through a GUI or by editing the config files.

The first time I’ve ever had to create a right-handed control scheme was for a fellow gamer that I was indoctrinating for the first time into first-person shooting, and wanted to introduce her to Left 4 Dead. That said, the left side of the keyboard is (IMNSHO) an atrocious layout for gaming. Even the WASD is angled in the wrong direction. It’s no wonder that there are so many keyboard devices available for right-handers who feel that default control schemes are awkward.

It’s actually become a regrettable convention that most games will feature a sprint ability, but only by a second control that is chorded with the forward control (often exclusively!). Leaning left and right are similarly chorded with the left and right keys, a different control than the sprint (so it’s not really button-economical).

These days, I will grumble a bit about quality control and proceed to create macros for one-key leaning and sprinting. Still I’m uncertain why developers insist on continuing hackneyed conventions. I type this from a QWERTY keyboard, though.

From what I’ve seen of games, especially ones that are multi-platform, very little effort is put into the input side, hence there’s lots of awkward control schemes. I expect it’s getting worse at least in the AAA industry: GTA V is notorious for the aim discrepancy between over-the-shoulder aiming and iron-sights aiming in (when you switch, you’re not aiming at the same point). Among indies, I hope that the growing popularity of early access titles will help assure they are thoroughly tested, and such annoying idiosyncrasies have been thoroughly combed out.

I also want to rave a bit about the Thief TDP ability to empty both hands, tucking away whatever was in each one. (If you have gear out, it increases your visibility). This gave me a routine protocol where I’d find a dark spot, scamper off to it, crouch and holster my gear, hence going quiet (or not, in those cases that I discovered I wasn’t as hidden as I expected) and from that spot I’d scan for guards and plan my next move to circumvent them.

In Return To Castle Wolfenstein there were secrets that contained nothing useful but gold bars. The only thing the gold bars did was give you a keen award chime and add to your level-end gold-bars-found score. And yet they were strangely satisfying. In Star Trek: Elite Force 2 (which used the same engine) there were gold ships that weren’t as satisfying but still fun to find.

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