Thief: Locks

No. I couldn’t resist.

Check In: Things have become rather active in my life, so I am turning to things that are simpler to write about, which includes the subset of I like this thing in games. More of this please! Also, a friend is coming in from out of town on Saturday, and Thanksgiving preparations are beginning, this may be par for the next few days. Also a landlord / tenant negotiation hearing is coming up, and I’m dreading dealing with that.

Thief: The Dark Project (1998) featured an elegant, delightful lockpick system that remains unique to to the Thief series. It was kept around in The Metal Age and then Deadly Shadows switched over to a relatively inoffensive mini-game.

Mr. Franklin of Errant Signal fame noted the suspense caused by fumbling through a pocketful of keys trying each one while exposed. The lock-pick system is designed similarly, not so much to create a failure state but only to cause delay and suspense while fumbling around in front of a door, often fully visible to any onlookers that might round a corner.

This contrasts to many other (later) lockpick system designs which included a failure state. In most games, fail states would just force the player to try again from the beginning. In other games it could break an (expendable) pick. In other games still it might block further attempts, meaning that only a key could open the door once a pick-attempt fails.

This is how lockpicks work in Thief DPS:

In the Bonehoard*, Garret scores a considerable haul, which he uses to upgrade his tools. This means some lockpicks. Garret gets two picks: the square pic and the triangular pick.

~ Easy locks can be opened with either one. Sometimes it’s slow, and you see progress as the doorknob rotates. There’s also a lot of metal rattling which I assume guards can hear if nearby.

~ Normal locks require one pick or the other, usually the square pick, but sometimes the triangle pick.

~ Tricky locks can be opened partly with the square pick and partly with the triangular one, so Garret has to alternate between the two until the lock is picked. Sometimes there are only a couple of segments. Sometimes there are several.

~ Pickproof locks respond to the lockpicks much like the wrong key. It just doesn’t fit. Once a lock begins to respond to a lockpick, it’s pickable.

I also appreciate how Thief DPS sells the feel of picking a lock without resorting to popping out an additional interface. Using lock picks is identical to using keys.

This raises the question of design mindset by the people who develop these games: are we seeing more and more elements of a game designed to pop out and be conspicuous over elements that fit seamlessly and quietly in with the rest of the game?

Is this an indicator of a need for individual developer recognition? Do bold, conspicuous game elements look better on a developer’s resume?

Is there a trend in AAA about making every design choice bold and awesome rather than subtle and seamless?

Something to chew on in future posts.

* The Bonehoard is an extensive crypt. It is the closest I’ve seen to a plausible AD&D-style dungeon played in first person, and Garret is exactly the sort who would endeavor such a raid without a team. It is one of my favorite first-person levels in gaming history.

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