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Thread: Loneliness and isolation in Thief games

  1. #1
    Member
    Registered: Mar 2017

    Loneliness and isolation in Thief games

    One of the main reasons why I have always preferred Thief 1 to Thief 2 is because the former perfectly depicts a sensation of loneliness and isolation. To illustrate my point, I will give you two examples.

    Bonehoard is such a scary venture into a maze-like network of underground tombs and caves. If that was happening in real life, I am sure that it would take an entire night or longer for Garrett to steal the Horn of Quintus and come out alive onto the surface. Every time I listen to that lonesome melody of the Horn itself, I feel like I am trapped in abysmally deep halls where silence and melancholy dwell, much like Moria from Lord of the Rings.

    The Sword is another great example. Constantine's Mansion is populated by human guards, but Garrett quickly discovers that there is something sinister about it. The bizarre architecture, magical traps, and the sound of laughing create a very dense atmosphere of desolation and being left to one's own devices.

    And then there is the character of Garrett. Garrett is an independent person, a loner and natural-born survivalist, with very few associates or friends. He is an outcast used to solitude and working at night. He dares to venture where others perish. The City is a reflection of his loneliness and alienation, it simply oozes with the qualities that characterise the very Master Thief.

    Thief 1 constantly puts you in strange and uncomfortable environments that aggravate feelings of disorientation and isolation. Even seemingly "normal" levels such as Lord Bafford's Manor or Assasins are just thick with a very specific stmosphere that you cannot find in any other game.

    Thief 2 is more predictable in terms of level design and environmental storytelling, because it utilises human-based levels such as mansions, warehouses, museums, and banks. It's still a very good game in other terms and in a few levels I can still sense that familiar atmosphere to some degree, but something is definitely missing.

    What are your thoughts on this topic?

  2. #2
    Member
    Registered: Aug 2009
    Location: thiefgold.com
    Quote Originally Posted by Aemanyl View Post
    One of the main reasons why I have always preferred Thief 1 to Thief 2 is because the former perfectly depicts a sensation of loneliness and isolation.
    I know exactly what you mean. Dark Mod also has that effect on me to a lesser extent, but nothing beats T1

  3. #3
    System Shock 2 was tense, but Thief was terrifying when I first played. The highest point was in "Return to the Haunted Cathedral", when at some point I realized I'd been waiting in a corner for literally 15 minutes, not daring to move. No other game has managed to scare the crap out of me like this, in great part due to the great sound design and how it combines with the environment to create that atmosphere. It does completely reinforce the immersion into a feeling of isolation like you said, it's so well done.

  4. #4
    Member
    Registered: Jul 2012
    Couldn't agree more. There's nothing like the feeling, when you are sitting in a dark corner, waiting for the guard to walk by without any awareness of your presence. The solitude can make the player feel isolated, yet maintaining the solitude is the thing that keeps the player from danger.

  5. #5
    Yes, agreed with the OP, levels like The Haunted Cathedral, Lost City, and Bonehoard are some of my favorite missions from any game. Just Garrett vs both nature and the supernatural, and no humans to be found anywhere. And big, vast areas to explore, that you can easily get lost in. Perfect levels for your typical geeky video game loner.

  6. #6
    Member
    Registered: May 2008
    Location: Southern,California
    i like levels with no enemys ,the best example is melancholic in porto,play that and you will feel like you in a real place from an alt universe

  7. #7
    New Member
    Registered: Feb 2022
    Very good topic. I agree with the Sword being a great one for that. The casual weirdness and seemingly blank acceptance of the servants/guards in that mission really drives home how much of an outsider you are.
    I also get a profound feeling of isolation from a lot of FMs. Not necessarily a bad thing, and it is sometimes very centering. Are there any non original missions that give you those feelings? I also get another layer of loneliness when I play a FM that was made many years ago, and it's a bittersweet experience to scroll through a thread of questions and answers all very interested in that work. but I'm only discovering it now.


    some fms that come to mind

    Black Frog
    any Lady Rowena missions
    really high spots in Melan missions where it's just the wind whipping in your face
    (I might edit this later and add stuff)
    Expansive city missions in TDM where you're so deep in the warrens or really high with the city ambience that seems passive but it's very unwelcoming.

  8. #8
    Member
    Registered: Apr 2000
    Location: The Bardo
    I think I felt this right from Lord Baffords Manor when I took a break from running around the night streets trying to avoid the guards. I stood near a pub window, avoiding its orange glow, and could hear the people inside talking and laughing and having a sociable time while I stood in the shadows, in the dark and the damp and the cold thinking, "Why aren't I in there with a freshly pulled mead, laughing and talking and being warmed by the fire...", then I remember who I am; that I am invisible in the shadow, and I chuckle and say to myself in Garrett's voice, "Hehe, suckers - you left your bedroom windows open", then shoot a rope arrow into a 2nd storey beam and pull myself up.

  9. #9
    Member
    Registered: Jan 2011
    Location: Wild and Wooly West of Ireland
    2019 was our last big vacation as a family, before the pandemic clipped our wings, as it were. We travelled to Philadelphia, my wife has family in the old city, plus Philly is a pretty neat place to spend a couple of weeks just chilling out (craft beer at the Race Street Cafe mostly and The Plough and The Stars for Guinness and potato related victuals).
    Anyhoo, what has this to do with lonely ol' Thief you might say? Stay tuned..
    We headed to Atlantic City for a night to check out the famous Salt Water Taffy and infamous Casinos, like a bunch of shoobies. We took lodgings at The Showboat Hotel, as it wasn't booked to the hilt and prices weren't too steep, but boy, was that ever one hell of an empty place to stay.
    The Showboat, we learned, was a "non gaming" hotel. It used to be, and by all accounts, was a pretty swinging joint back in the day. However, it took a series of financial setbacks and ended up as a "spill over" hotel for the very much "full gaming" Hard Rock Casino next door. Upon entering this faded edifice, we were struck by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. EAF (Empty As F**K). Vast concourses, bereft of the activities they were specifically designed for, yawning corridors devoid of life or laughter. The hostelry was quite dimly lit and made the initial experience a tad unsettling. But hey, we were there to have some fun and this place was as good as any for a (cheapskate) traveller to rest their weary bones, despite its lack of vibrancy. The surprising thing was, after a while, I quite liked this atmosphere. Even more surprising, my son absolutely loved being there and held his stay at The Showboat as one the chief highlights of his sojourn in America. He took several photographs, such was his enthusiasm for this once vivacious gasthaus.
    "What giveth, oh fruit of my loins?" I enquired.
    He then uttered, and subsequently explained, a phrase that set my soul entirely free, like finding a lost piece of a long, long forgotten jigsaw puzzle: "Liminal Space".
    Liminal Space, he explained, was a particular aesthetic that concerned itself primarily with places of transition, loneliness or abandonment.
    This from The Vigornia.com:
    "What are some examples of liminal spaces in the physical world? A liminal space is usually a shared space but feels “off.” It mostly occurs when these spaces aren’t filled with people or are used in times of emptiness. Some examples are stairwells and elevators; their primary purpose as a threshold is to get you from one place to another. This is why lingering in an empty stairwell or elevator can feel a bit creepy – liminal space-time can impact the way you think. An elevator may feel normal during the day when crowded, but it can cause that unease at night.
    Hallways are another excellent example of a liminal space. Their purpose is to get you from one place to another, and in most cases, you pass people in busy hallways, making it familiar. At night, however, it can feel shut down, like one shouldn’t be there. Hallways in your home are different because they are familiar, but these spaces can be as unfamiliar and unknown as a hotel hallway. Even an empty school is a liminal space. It is a common shared place for many, usually filled with noises and people, but when open, you experience a silence which causes confusion and unease. Lastly, empty parking lots are examples of liminal spaces. A parking lot is undoubtedly an in-between space. Its principal function is in conjunction with another room: the distance you are going to. The parking lot itself is not your actual destination, but the place adjoining or nearby the lot.
    When these spaces become empty, their purpose as a threshold seems to disappear. This can cause you to question why you are there and may give you that uneasy feeling. A liminal space or surfaces is a state of the question, a place of transition: mentally or physically. While the goal of a liminal space or feeling is different for everyone, it is a commonly shared experience. You might have experienced a liminal space or feeling, or maybe you haven’t. The next time you find yourself experiencing these things, step back, and understand why this change is happening. You never know what a liminal space or feeling might bring. That is the mystery of liminality."

    Personally, this explains why I keep returning to the hallowed cobblestones of Thief. Be it another playthrough of the originals, or a new FM release. The sense of loneliness, of being the outsider, of being where you are not supposed to be, but with purpose. I've felt this so many times IRL but was utterly unable to articulate the sensation. My son had provided for me, a key to certain feelings I had experienced throughout my life, and indeed, while playing Thief, that I could have never put a finger on. Out of the mouth of babes. Cheers, Ben.
    Further exploration:
    https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/Liminal_Space
    https://thevigornia.com/1273/blogorn...liminal-space/


    Last edited by Purgator; 5th Mar 2022 at 20:39.

  10. #10
    Member
    Registered: Oct 2013
    I do love it when games have out of the way places that are isolated, and are far from and inaccessible to enemies.

    Like that section in Lost City just before you come out on a ledge near the top of the "Grand Staircase". You go up some stairs and there are a couple of rooms that, before the elementals spawn in, are completely cut off.

    Also better for that feeling when the enemies aaren't human? Maybe The Lost City was more "lonely" before the Mages of Gold?

  11. #11
    Member
    Registered: Dec 2001
    Location: Marlboro, MA, USA
    The Bonehoard for me was the epitome of what you're talking about, and in my book, pure magnificence. There was an early test mission created for TDM that mimicked it to good result, can't recall the name offhand though.
    The Keep for Thief 1 and 2 FMs, Shadowdark for Thief 3 and Dark Mod FMs

  12. #12
    Great post, Purgator!

    You all might also appreciate this. Lots of cool photos demonstrating that eerie, abandoned feeling.

  13. #13
    Member
    Registered: May 2008
    Location: Southern,California
    i love when i play a mission and its very lonely but at the very end right before mission ends you hear the people in the bar through the door,i ussaly just sit there a bit by the door and relax before ending the mission

  14. #14
    Member
    Registered: Nov 2010
    Location: Alberta, Canada
    Quote Originally Posted by rachel View Post
    System Shock 2 was tense, but Thief was terrifying when I first played. The highest point was in "Return to the Haunted Cathedral", when at some point I realized I'd been waiting in a corner for literally 15 minutes, not daring to move. No other game has managed to scare the crap out of me like this, in great part due to the great sound design and how it combines with the environment to create that atmosphere. It does completely reinforce the immersion into a feeling of isolation like you said, it's so well done.
    Yes - well said Thief was truly terrifying in my first playthrough. The Cradle level in deadly shadows matched the terror nicely.

  15. #15
    Moderator
    Registered: Jan 2003
    Location: NeoTokyo
    Quote Originally Posted by Komag View Post
    The Bonehoard for me was the epitome of what you're talking about, and in my book, pure magnificence. There was an early test mission created for TDM that mimicked it to good result, can't recall the name offhand though.
    In its original incarnation people just called it "the Bonehoard map", but when it started turning into its own map, it eventually got rebranded as The Dead Gathers, which Greebo & Angua were working on, and then later they handed it off to a campaign team, I think Crucible of Omens.

  16. #16
    Member
    Registered: Dec 2001
    Location: Marlboro, MA, USA
    Ah, good to know, I'll have to replay it sometime

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by Overlord Nexus View Post
    Great post, Purgator!

    You all might also appreciate this. Lots of cool photos demonstrating that eerie, abandoned feeling.
    Kenopsia.com's definition:

    Kenopsia
    n. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.
    articulates something I didn't know what to call before. In games that progress you in a linear fashion from area to area, sometimes you're able to go back quite a distance through previous areas, although you're not really expected to. In these games, there's almost like an intangible sphere of "life" or "action" or "presentness" that you would normally follow, but you can go back to previous areas where it used to be but isn't anymore. Previous areas where you've cleared out the enemies, solved the puzzle, met the new character, watched the cutscene, whatever... and there's less than nothing left. If you were to go back to a very early area, it feels deader than dead. It's still there physically, being correctly rendered and behaving as designed and all, but the intangible feeling of livingness has left it. There's a very strong and foreboding feeling that you are not meant to be here. That you're in a place "forgotten by the game".

    The game that always comes to mind is Resident Evil 4, with the village area. It's quite a large area and if you look at the map, you can see the path you came from and look all the way back to the start of the game, and think "what if I went back there?" At least to me, that gives me a creepy sort of feeling imagining how deader than dead the old areas feel. That's also the case with linear dead-end paths, like the lake or the house with Luis. When you go down them the first time, it feels like you're heading towards life, but if you were to go down them after finishing them already, it would feel like you're heading away from life and toward emptier-than-empty deadness.

    At least that's the feeling I get, anyway.

    It would be cool if a game were to exploit this effect intentionally. And I don't mean like Portal 2, which masterfully exploits this in an in-universe sense (the sealed-off "old Aperture" section), but in a meta sense. Like if you went back to old areas, they would be subtly modified to amp up the deader-than-dead feel on purpose. Like with creepy "hollow broadband noise" type ambience (there's one ambience in Project Eden like that, that sounds "dead", but I can't find a video or anything of it atm) and various small changes that you can't put your finger on that make it feel like I described up there. Or, maybe make it look like the game has so "expected" you not to come back here that it "can't quite remember" how this area should look, and it ends up making it be almost but not quite right, with things not in quite the right place, or not quite as they should be. Or make it like slightly "digitally rotted". I dunno. I think with some creativity, some really cool horror thing could be done with that.

  18. #18
    Member
    Registered: May 2005
    I had a similar experience with Resident Evil 4. After clearing a large portion of the castle, I got stuck and erroneously assumed I must have missed something earlier. So I went all the way back to the very first rooms, looking for clues. It was quite the trek. The longer I walked the now empty halls, the creepier the place felt. Where previously, enemies had attacked at every corner and shouting had filled the air, there was now dead silence. Blank walls and empty rooms with no movement. It felt like I was being watched. I started to hope for something to happen to break the tension. That feeling of isolation and foreboding got so bad I hurried back to the room where I originally got stuck in. It was such a relief when I finally figured out how to move on from that room and enemies started attacking me again as I progressed in the game.

    Quote Originally Posted by FenPhoenix View Post
    There's a very strong and foreboding feeling that you are not meant to be here. That you're in a place "forgotten by the game".
    This nails it. This was how it felt for me as well.

  19. #19
    Member
    Registered: Aug 2002
    Location: Point Nemo
    I guess I didn't think about the difference between T1 and T2 atmosphere until this thread. I think the ambient sounds in T1 really set the tone of lonely isolation, but at the same time you always feel that you are not alone and that something is near whether it's a guard or something else. The first FM that comes to mind that really has the same look and feel as the original T1 missions is Autumn in Lampfire Hills with it's lonely foreboding. The only mission in T2 that comes close to the same feeling is Shipping and Receiving and I think that it's mainly because of the ambient sounds. Loneliness in a video game is kind of a strange feeling to enjoy but yeah when you blackjack all of the guards and pop all of the zombies the game gets even more lonely. I think that is the angle. The immersion into the character of Garrett and the ability to suspend disbelief makes the game what it is and has been for so many years. Garrett in T1 missions are at times like looking at a photograph that has bit of important pieces cropped out and you strain to see the missing bits ... That's what draws people in.

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