How the art of Thief became 'The Art of Thief'

The final product is substantial.

Large, glossy and heavy in your hands, Titan Books' The Art of Thief chronicles years of development and iteration at Eidos Montreal. Through nearly 200 pages of paintings, renders and sketches, author Paul Davies and the development team tell the story of Thief from the artists' perspective. That journey culminates today with Thief's release on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows PC.

Polygon spoke with Davies and game director Nic Cantin to learn how books like The Art of Thief are assembled, the stories they wanted to share and how rooting assets in the real world changed them in the game.

Books focused on art begin with visits, Davies said. First, a team from Titan traveled to Eidos Montreal's office "to plan overall direction and agree on the best spokespeople." They kept in contact and assembled the artwork so that, according to Davies, "the imagery is telling the right story." He spoke with artists and, with the help of the book's designer, inserted quotes that act as developer commentary alongside artwork. For The Art of Thief, that collaboration included those who created the game's story. The combination forms a narrative wtih art and words.


"Working with Eidos Montreal on Thief was especially interesting because we had the assistance of the narrative lead on the project, since so much of the game's visuals allude to plot elements and character construction," Davies said. "Of course, every page is treated with the greatest respect to the volume of creative work that is represented."

Thief tells the story of Garrett, maestro of the game's titular trade, and The Art of Thief begins with him. It presents page after page of weapons at his disposal, from a bow and its many arrows to the thief's lock pick and blade.

The evolution of Garrett's hands, which are almost always visible to players, exemplifies the kind of story that Davies was looking for. When assembling the insights that accompany the art, he wasn't looking for rote descriptions. He wanted the stories behind them.

"Questions are not so much 'What is this or that thing?' because this is often something that I ought to know," he said. "Rather, let's hear what the thinking was behind this or that thing."

Despite the technology at his disposal, nothing is more important to Thief's thief than his hands. These are Garrett's natural tools, devices so paramount that they dominate The Art of Thief's cover. And they, like many other elements of the game, have their roots in the real world.

Early in the book, amid a two-page spread of paintings and renders of Garrett's half-gloved appendages, an artist reveals their real-world roots.

"In my opinion," said artist Joel Dos Reis Viegas, "the best thief in the world must always demonstrate the most elegant hands. I immediately thought about Nicholas Ferrand, who is seated right next to me in the studio. Nic happens to be blessed with thin and elegant hands. So I took some photos of them and quickly painted the gloves onto them."

The Art of Thief is full of stories like these that show how, throughout the development process, the artists at Eidos Montreal designed and then refined Thief's world, from architecture to characters.

"We need to make sure we are credible in the way we reproduce some elements of the world."

Game director Nic Cantin, whose previous credits include art director on Assassin's Creed, said he found "exactly the mood I was looking for" when he saw Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies also served as an influence. But Thief's world isn't entirely fantastical.

To the game's director, creating The City in Thief also meant pulling from the real world to establish a kind of credibility with players.

"With all the graphic possibilities we have today," Cantin said, "we need to make sure we are credible in the way we reproduce some elements of the world, and the architecture is an important one."

The City's districts are built on that historical credibility, designed to convey the backstory of its inhabitants.

"Thief is set in a fictional city on the verge of an industrial revolution," he said. "So we inspired ourselves by researching medieval, Victorian and industrial time periods for all the props, characters and architecture. Choosing those two eras allowed us to have variation within the City's districts to separate the social classes. As an example, the rich class is set in the District of Dayport where everything is more Victorian oriented."

To strengthen the connection between the fantastical and the real, Cantin and Thief's artists commissioned third parties to create their designs in the real world. With the help of a blacksmith and a taylor, Eidos Montreal changed its game for credibility's sake.

"Garrett's bow and suit share the same history," he said. "For both, we did the concept first and then we sent the bow design to a real blacksmith in Montreal called Les Forges de Montréal, and the suit design to professional tailors in New York who specialize in leather called Urstadt.Swan, to have life size props made from our concepts ... Both of these companies have worked on some major productions, so we knew they'd produce something really strong and both quickly realized they had to do some tweaks to our concepts to make the real props happen, and for them to be usable in real life. So we actually worked with them really closely and incorporated the same tweaks within the game to make sure our props stayed credible in their design."

Those are the kinds of behind-the-scenes stories Davies and Cantin wanted to tell in The Art of Thief. It's not a book about how to play the game. It's a book about how a team of developers worked for years to create it.

"A book such as this is still the most effective reference material for anyone compelled by this side of the creative industry."

As the book's author, Davies sees his role as a narrator who stitches art and words together to tell the development's narrative to those interested in this part of the video game industry.

"While I am involved in linking together the comments and including my own words to help to set the stage for the artwork to shine, mainly it is the artists explaining the process behind it all," Davies said. "I strongly believe that a book such as this is still the most effective reference material for anyone compelled by this side of the creative industry. The Art of Thief is written, approved and passionately presented by the talented people responsible. The Titan team works as closely as possible with them to lock down an appropriate and striking visual style which is then complemented by an accessible editorial tone."

As the game's director, Catin tells a tale of similar goals. The Art of Thief presents a paper-bound reflection of a digital tale. It's also a story of reflection and success. Today, Eidos Montreal shipped a game. The Art of Thief is a reminder of where and from whom it came.

"I made sure the book respected the Thief mood and setting, and I helped to make sure we were choosing all the best concepts to represent what we wanted to have in this book," Catin said. "Bringing years of concept art together was a good challenge, but it was also reminding me of all the good work the concept art team did during the conception of Thief."

Check out our review of Thief here.

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