By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
The stillness of Thief: The Dark Project.
he cinematics of the heart of Thief: The Dark Project are composed of moments, frozen images which are "animated" purely by sound. The visuals resemble sketches from some forgotten notebook, looking as if shaped from grains of sand, the edges fading into a muddy, dreaming whiteness. These still shots are brought to life through voice, a strangely distancing technique that is appropriate when one considers that the tale is supposed to be a flashback. Thief's stillness is a welcome addition to videogame cinema.
Developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Eidos Interactive, Thief: The Dark Project is actually broken into two cinematic sections, an opening which resembles the typical music video approach of dark montage sequences linked to a menacing score, and a more narrative introduction to the story. Both have their merits, but the second piece is by far the more intriguing.
The general introduction actually features a range of movement. Some of it looks like cut-out animation, sliding across the darkened landscape. Ironically it gives the animation a creepy marionette-like life. Arcane symbols pulse in time to the music, while live action moments startle the viewer with their skillfully subtle insertion. Quotes of supposedly ancient texts build a history while deepening the mystery. Psuedo-philosophical passages like "the essence of balance is detachment" may sound a little hokey, but they work in this context. The colors are decadently rich, inky dark and soaked deep into the images. The figures themselves have a sickly look, a pallor fitting to a plague infested world.
It's quite a pretty package, but Thief's main achievement is found in its inner pieces. The cinematics of the game's interior, more narrative fragments are mainly flashbacks, which establish the history of the main character and the premise of the game. We learn that our hero was once a street urchin whole stole to survive. One day he chose to rob a rather odd monk and wound up as a member of a spooky order of mystical mystery men.
The remarkable thing about this narrative set-up is that the "animation" takes the form of still drawn images over in which the only movement comes from that supplied by the "camera" sliding across the pictures at various angles. As I mentioned before, the images are quite stunning, hazy sepia tone snapshots, smudged and dreamlike. It's like looking at a picture book.
Despite the concessions to pop trends (the techno score and rapid montage cutting) Thief charms its way into the viewer's eye. How often does stillness play this big a role in the narrative construction of such a kinetic art form? Well, it's not as rare as all that, but in this game the technique finds a new sincerity of expression.
Thief's stillness reflects a major component of the game: the idea of stealth, a technical requirement of any would-be successful thief. The viewer immediately gets a feel for this world of shadowy intrigue in which the action is so quick that everything seems frozen. Threats are hidden in ancient coded texts, the stillness of enigmatic words promising a sudden revelation of truth, and are seen in the distance, backlit figures that menace by their very silence.
Thief: The Dark Projectís cinematics are split between two worlds, a strange slow motion rapidity followed by a glacial stillness, the present and the past colliding. It's a darkening sketch, a watercolor alternatively blotted with color and fading into white.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1999 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.