The last (good) Thief game, Thief: Deadly Shadows, came out 16 years ago and I adored it. Still do. There’s something deeply empowering about being fully invisible in the shadows, smacking armored guards in the back of the head and dousing torches with fancy water arrows. Playing as Garrett, the agile and greedy titular hero, I feel like a stealing machine. There’s nothing that can stop me from filling my pockets with as much gold as possible before leaving the scene without a trace.
Nothing except a down-to-my-core fear of ghost orphans.
The best moments in the Thief franchise have always revolved around doing, well, thief-y things. For example: There’s a castle having a fancy party and you’ve gotta skulk in the shadows, snagging diamond necklaces and golden goblets. Perfect Thief level. But in the first Thief, things went a little awry when the developers thought it’d be fun to send you into a crypt to fight skeletons and various other beasties. No, not why I’m here, folks. I’m here to steal doubloons and not get my hands dirty, not punch goblins in the face.
Later Thief games learned this lesson, removing much of the required face-to-face combat in favor of letting you role-play as the sneakiest damn thief in the world. Thief: Deadly Shadows, the best of the bunch, deemphasizes the supernatural, instead opting for a more grounded portrayal of a London-esque city during the Victorian era.
So I’m 80% of the way through the game and things are going great. I’ve stolen more loot than I can fit in my house and I’m drowning in fancy arrows and potions
And here come the ghost orphans!
The mission that has stuck with me for the last 16 years is called “Robbing the Cradle.” It’s set in a place called Shalebridge Cradle. In the mission briefing, I learn that it “used to be an insane asylum and before that it was an orphanage.” Yes, you read right, it’s an abandoned insane asylum built inside ruins of an abandoned orphanage. Coooooool.
Things start out fine. You head into the Cradle and start exploring, finding various notes to discover the horrible backstory of this place. Typical stuff: murdered orphans, fires, human experimentation, that sorta thing. The world of Thief is filled with awful stuff, so none of this is too shocking. And that’s when the level kicks into high gear.
Throughout most of Deadly Shadows, you’ll hear guards chatting with one another, beggars asking for change, or aristocrats wondering where to store their valuables. It’s a quiet game but it doesn’t feel lonely. You’re always within arms reach of people going about their daily lives.
Not so in Shalebridge Cradle. You could hear a pin drop in this place. Every step you take echoes through the halls like a cymbal crash. Every door creaks open like a jackhammer. There’s nothing else to distract you from just how loud you’re being.
Twenty minutes into exploring the Cradle, I haven’t seen another soul and the tension continues to build. I start hearing whispers and baby cries in the distance. Shit.
After 25 minutes, I start thinking that maybe this whole level is just empty, meant to creep me out with audio design and the story of a tortured orphan kid.
And then I turn a corner. Before me lies a reception desk, behind it a large, gloomy window looking out on a dark evening. And something walks in front of the window.
That’s it. There was no fireball hurled my way, no glowing eyes in the distance, just a silhouette passing in front of a window for two seconds.
I lose my shit. I’m not even 100% sure I see something but I’m paralyzed at the prospect. I stand there for a solid 10 minutes, waiting to see if they’ll return. They do not. My exploration slows to a crawl. I’m sweating.
I explore deeper, reaching the Inner Cradle, and everything goes south. Suddenly folks in straight jackets with cages around their heads are lurching through the halls. Are these the ghost orphans? No, I suppose not. They seem too tall.
I finally have some company, but I’m yearning for quieter times when my face wasn’t getting ripped off by these straight jacket fools. It’s a tonal shift where I went from being creeped out of my gourd to running for my life.
As for the ghost orphan who really wants me to free her soul from this place ... does she not realize I’ve got taller fish to fry? But fine, I take on the task as the girl leads me from one creepfest to the next, flipping switches and turning keys in various parts of this haunted shitbox of a house.
The only way I can leave is to travel back in time and fool the house (yes the house is sentient) into thinking I leapt from a window to my death. I make a mad dash, dodging cage-heads and random ghost guards along the way, leaping out the top window at a dead sprint. Not exactly a heartwarming end but it does manage to free me from the clutches of this horror show of a level.
Deadly Shadows came out in 2004, alongside GTA: San Andreas and Burnout 3: Takedown. The idea of making a large chunk of your game without a single enemy, relying solely on creepy audio design and lighting to sell the mood, was pretty revolutionary at the time. Hell, even Doom 3 didn’t have the guts to go that long without an enemy. These days it’s a pretty standard trick, highlighted by games like Outlast, Amnesia, and even Gone Home, but back then it was bold, new, and goddamn terrifying.
Maybe I’m due for another trip to visit the ghost orphans? Uh, hard pass.