On Thief’s Level Design: Maps and Territories

There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borge’s called “On Exactitude in Science” where he describes an impossible map:

“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”

These same ideas—maps and territories, degrees of abstraction—are at the heart of the Thief series. They are what give life to its level design, and distinguish the series from all of the stealth games that have followed.

Each Thief game presents a series of missions where the player usually has to break into buildings, avoid detection, and steal valuables. In setting, the games are a kind of steampunk medieval city, and the protagonist, Garrett, is a kind of film noir hero fit to face the city’s darkness. It’s weird, but kind of works in a pulp fiction way.

The levels themselves are big and spatially nonlinear, requiring the player to explore and gather information before completing the objective. Combined with the tension of hiding from guards—or sprinting through mazes of rooms to avoid capture—and the hours it can take to complete one mission, it is easy to become lost. Because of this, where other stealth games are about gadgets or waiting for gaps to phase in to guards’ patrols, the Thief series is about its level design. Each mission gives the player a hand drawn map of the level they are exploring, but the detail and accuracy of the map varies between missions.

The map has also changed between the games. With Thief 1, the map highlighted the player’s current room. In Thief 2, the map also marked the rooms the player had visited and let the player write notes on the map. Thief 3 stepped back, made its maps less detailed and no longer highlighted the player’s progression through the level. It’s an improvement Thief 3 made on the series that almost makes up for the removal of rope arrows.

In Thief 1’s third mission, a tomb named “Bonehoard,” the map doesn’t reflect the labyrinthine tunnels monsters have burrowed. If the player checks the map, instead of highlighting a room, the highlight appears over the text “Where am I?” Instead of relying on the map, the player must follow the notes left by the dead adventurers who came before and hope the markings they left are reliable. The limits of the map become part of the level’s history and the player’s story.

constantine mapConstantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

In the seventh mission in the gold edition of Thief (the sixth mission in the original version), the player is tasked with sneaking into an eccentric’s mansion to steal his magical sword, and here the map only shows the exterior of the mansion, and the first few rooms beyond, which is about as much information as the player can gather in 5 minutes of wandering. Where a more detailed map allows the player to plan a course of action and then quickly execute it, as in Rainbow Six where a player can spend more time on the map screen than in the mission, an incomplete map forces the player to slow down, pay attention, and create a mental map in lieu of a drawn one. “Constantine’s Sword” pushes further in this direction by including traps, secrets, and disorienting architecture. The player who treats this mission the way they treated the less complicated manor missions won’t make it far.

When the player checks their map at the start of Thief 2’s third mission, a police station where the player must frame a lieutenant, they will find 5 detailed pages. The map’s rooms are labeled, and important areas are annotated. Instead of aiding the player, the map overwhelms and disorients. However, through the process of playing the level and checking the progress on the map, the map’s abstraction and the level merge, and the player leaves the level with a feeling of mastery.

police stationOne of the five pages of the police station map (from Thief 2)

Because Thief 3 doesn’t mark the player’s position or progress, and because the maps are less detailed than those in the previous games, the player has to rely on the way the rooms on the map are labeled and the way the rooms in the level are decorated. If the player is hiding in a room with few furnishings except paintings and statues, then this may be a gallery, and by checking the map and notes for mention of a gallery, the player can reorient.

Even the details in Thief’s levels are overloaded with meanings like this. In other games, a texture may be a designer or artist’s arbitrary choice, but here the floor material tells the player how slowly they must move to remain silent, how far away they will hear a guard’s approach, and how visible they will be. It also tells the player about the room, whether it is public or private, how many guards and servants they should expect, and where the room lies on the map. All of these details matter as the player determines whether this route is safe. And that’s merely the information expressed by the floor material.

overlook mansionOverlook Mansion is bigger and more complicated than this map suggests (from Thief 3)

With all of this information to process, a map is useful as an abstraction. It culls the trivial or redundant and preserves the essence. It gives us a literal big picture. Instead of marking the furnishings of a room and requiring the player to infer the room’s function, a map labels the room at a loss of detail: bedroom, study, library, atrium. A detailed map requires the player to infer upward (if the room is furnished with a bed, it is a bedroom), but an abstract map requires the player to infer downward (will there be valuable loot or information in the bedroom? Maybe the key you need? What about guards?). What we call the levels in the Thief series exist somewhere between the physical obstacles and its abstracted representation; they come to live in the mind.

This matter of map versus territory invites other questions. What makes a building a house instead of an office or a factory? What makes a room a library, or a study, or a bedroom, if they all have bookshelves? Do these labels describe or prescribe the behavior within them? How is privacy encoded into these spaces (why does sneaking through a bedroom feel like more of a violation than sneaking through the main hall)? Thievery becomes not just a matter of mastering the physical obstacles, but understanding the social values that are attached to architecture: class, power, secrecy, the divisions between public and private spaces. Of course, this deeper exploration of a level is only true in recognizable structures, like houses, cities, factories, and cathedrals. The more unusual levels—tombs, caves, labyrinths, and ruins—are often too alien, forcing Thief back on its fundamentals as a stealth game.

constantine mansionA corridor from Constantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

Of course, many other games have maps, but these are often perfect replicas or pulled directly from the game’s level editor. The map in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like Rainbow Six before it, is basically a wireframe view of the level’s geometry, even when the fiction shouldn’t allow for such detailed information. Because these maps lack bias, error, and are often too complete, they offer none of the mystery and delight of exploring a level in the Thief games. It is through the discrepancies of map and territory that we learn about the person or people who created the map, what they valued, and what they chose to ignore.

Thanks for reading

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