Robbed of Potential: The Role of the Thief

Watching E.R. today, I saw them go behind the counter and steal a coffee from the microwave.  In the real world that's practically theft (yes, even if you're an FBI agent), but in games it's expected for us to peek around corners and kype stuff.
 
I remember going into every house in, say, Phantasy Star III, trying to find hidden chests and stuff under the bed.  We know that these places are laid out for us to explore, yet there's a tension, akin to the tension I talked about earlier between narrative and gameplay, between what we know generally as the system of law that most societies have that frowns upon taking stuff from other people, and the desire for us to fully explore the world that the designers have given us.
 

Dood, werez the loot
One way to address this disconnect  --between the narrative of the environment that tells us these things would be frowned upon by the people standing there, and the game that wants us to find stuff--  would be to create a game that tells the player their role is as a thief.  I don't just mean within the Garrett sense, although that can be awesome, I mean that the player is told at the beginning that their role in the game is to steal.  THEN, through the mechanism of player choice, we don't have to steal to advance in the game.  Say you're given access to a house.  You can go in, con the residents into giving you stuff, sneak around the house and take things, case the joint so at night you can burglarize it, steal their information through conversation so you can learn more about other places, or actually just solve their problems and leave them alone.  By being told that the player can steal, they are allowed to get away with it, but are also given the chance to go the straight and narrow and see if they can survive in this world.
 
I think a fantasy or science fiction setting might be preferred, because I imagine some media outsiders would treat it as a criminal's training guide otherwise (although I can think of a subversive criticism of juvenile delinquency with game mechanics like this).  What I'm talking about, though, is expanding the role of what it means to sneak around and steal.  You define what kind of thief you are, and get a range of options to do this in, rather than telling you this is what a thief does.
 

Specifically, RPGs

 
 How did this CeramKnife get in the party inventory?
In an RPG context I've thought about this working, too.  Thieves in the RPGs I've played tend to be rather versatile.  They're treated as critical-hit attackers, infiltrators, trap disarmers, pickpockets, item experimenters and appraisers, compulsive shoplifters, and of course pickers of locks.  In various builds of the pen and paper dungeons and dragons this role was always expansive and fit into all sorts of interesting niches. Even the first edition had several skills that a thief could know, unlike all the other classes in the game (unless you count spells as skills.  I don't, in this case).  In the third edition this utility was recognized, allowing a thief character to pretty much have several different builds to choose from, benefiting from tons of skill options, many of which were unique to the thief.  Icewind Dale II has some good examples of this through its 3rd-E ruleset, and I think BG II did in its 2nd-E character kits.
 
Even with a team of all thieves, there would be plenty of wiggle room, especially if there was a flexible system that didn't prevent you from having all the fun equipment one might expect in a computer role-playing game.  You could have one who was good at infiltrating places, one that was good at running through town and finding a place to fence things, one that was an assassin-like backstabber, one who was the face of the group and who could con his or her way through high society.  Plenty of potential here for a focused game.
 
That's part of the issue, sometimes, with games that try to let the player do everything: they wind up letting the player do much that the game itself is hamstrung trying to make sure all the options are basically covered.  With a focus on a style, theft in this case, you manage to sidestep the general issue of trying to make all classes or roles equal.  You make a game where stealing and dungeon delving is the focus, you make these almost like minigames or strategical battles even when there's no overt bloodshed, so that every role is potentially appealing.  Full of potential, without needing to fulfill EVERY hero role we've accumulated in pop culture over however many years.  

--
 
Any thief-styled games come to mind that break genre molds?  Thief: The Dark Project, et al, are obvious examples of thief-focused games, but can you think of others?  How about different ways that thieves were treated in games that didn't necessarily focus on thieves?
19 Comments
20 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

Watching E.R. today, I saw them go behind the counter and steal a coffee from the microwave.  In the real world that's practically theft (yes, even if you're an FBI agent), but in games it's expected for us to peek around corners and kype stuff.
 
I remember going into every house in, say, Phantasy Star III, trying to find hidden chests and stuff under the bed.  We know that these places are laid out for us to explore, yet there's a tension, akin to the tension I talked about earlier between narrative and gameplay, between what we know generally as the system of law that most societies have that frowns upon taking stuff from other people, and the desire for us to fully explore the world that the designers have given us.
 

Dood, werez the loot
One way to address this disconnect  --between the narrative of the environment that tells us these things would be frowned upon by the people standing there, and the game that wants us to find stuff--  would be to create a game that tells the player their role is as a thief.  I don't just mean within the Garrett sense, although that can be awesome, I mean that the player is told at the beginning that their role in the game is to steal.  THEN, through the mechanism of player choice, we don't have to steal to advance in the game.  Say you're given access to a house.  You can go in, con the residents into giving you stuff, sneak around the house and take things, case the joint so at night you can burglarize it, steal their information through conversation so you can learn more about other places, or actually just solve their problems and leave them alone.  By being told that the player can steal, they are allowed to get away with it, but are also given the chance to go the straight and narrow and see if they can survive in this world.
 
I think a fantasy or science fiction setting might be preferred, because I imagine some media outsiders would treat it as a criminal's training guide otherwise (although I can think of a subversive criticism of juvenile delinquency with game mechanics like this).  What I'm talking about, though, is expanding the role of what it means to sneak around and steal.  You define what kind of thief you are, and get a range of options to do this in, rather than telling you this is what a thief does.
 

Specifically, RPGs

 
 How did this CeramKnife get in the party inventory?
In an RPG context I've thought about this working, too.  Thieves in the RPGs I've played tend to be rather versatile.  They're treated as critical-hit attackers, infiltrators, trap disarmers, pickpockets, item experimenters and appraisers, compulsive shoplifters, and of course pickers of locks.  In various builds of the pen and paper dungeons and dragons this role was always expansive and fit into all sorts of interesting niches. Even the first edition had several skills that a thief could know, unlike all the other classes in the game (unless you count spells as skills.  I don't, in this case).  In the third edition this utility was recognized, allowing a thief character to pretty much have several different builds to choose from, benefiting from tons of skill options, many of which were unique to the thief.  Icewind Dale II has some good examples of this through its 3rd-E ruleset, and I think BG II did in its 2nd-E character kits.
 
Even with a team of all thieves, there would be plenty of wiggle room, especially if there was a flexible system that didn't prevent you from having all the fun equipment one might expect in a computer role-playing game.  You could have one who was good at infiltrating places, one that was good at running through town and finding a place to fence things, one that was an assassin-like backstabber, one who was the face of the group and who could con his or her way through high society.  Plenty of potential here for a focused game.
 
That's part of the issue, sometimes, with games that try to let the player do everything: they wind up letting the player do much that the game itself is hamstrung trying to make sure all the options are basically covered.  With a focus on a style, theft in this case, you manage to sidestep the general issue of trying to make all classes or roles equal.  You make a game where stealing and dungeon delving is the focus, you make these almost like minigames or strategical battles even when there's no overt bloodshed, so that every role is potentially appealing.  Full of potential, without needing to fulfill EVERY hero role we've accumulated in pop culture over however many years.  

--
 
Any thief-styled games come to mind that break genre molds?  Thief: The Dark Project, et al, are obvious examples of thief-focused games, but can you think of others?  How about different ways that thieves were treated in games that didn't necessarily focus on thieves?
Posted by JJWeatherman

Wait, so you want every game in which you can take things from others to have a story element that places the protagonist as a thief?
 
You sir, are one wacky individual. That's not a bad thing though.  : )

Edited by ahoodedfigure
@JJWeatherman:  Are you one of those people who sees categorical statements everywhere?  Because if you are I'm not sure I'll be able to help you :)
 
I altered the language slightly to make it sound less like a declaration for all games, but I'm not sure why it came across that way.
 
And yes, I'm some version of wacky, sure.
Posted by emkeighcameron

I think most of the things you'd call "thievery" are simply ways to get past boring stuff in video games. I don't want to have to go find food, push a shopping cart around, wait in line, count out my money, go to my car, etc. in a video game. I want to just find some goddamn food lying on the side of the road. Sometimes I'm in people's houses doing stuff. So if there's food in there, good. 
 
I'm willing to admit it's a cop out, but it's certainly a cop out I want to have in my games. If you're going to design a really thieving-oriented experience, it has to be built around that, like the Thief games were. It's amazing those were never revisited in any good way......

Edited by ahoodedfigure
@emkeighcameron:  They wind up being spaced out, anyway, often, as a sort of secret item to find.  Like finding a turkey sandwich in the middle of a burned out lumber mill rather than just buying it from Polly, and they're treated as rare things in many ways.  Persona 4, citing the other E.R., was one of the few games that actually acknowledged the existence of multiple restaurants, even if food wasn't as useful, and games like GTA: SA made fast food ubiquitous enough that you could fill up rather than simulate grocery shopping, anyway.  It doesn't have to be a sim-or-steal dichotomy.
Posted by JJWeatherman
@ahoodedfigure said:
" @JJWeatherman:  Are you one of those people who sees categorical statements everywhere?  Because if you are I'm not sure I'll be able to help you :)  I altered the language slightly to make it sound less like a declaration for all games, but I'm not sure why it came across that way.  And yes, I'm some version of wacky, sure. "
It's definitely more clear now. It may just be me but the first time it definitely came across how I originally described. Although my brain does tend to go into categorical mode at 3:30 in the morning sometimes, lol.
Edited by mrfizzy

In Oblivion i got into a blacksmiths at night, got up stairs and stole the blacksmiths key. From then on i could just waltz into the shop each night, clear it out of stock and then sell it to my fence the next night. I thought i was the fucking shit, actually scratch that, i WAS the fucking shit. Problem is i could never get the lock picking mini game right, so i was never very good :(  
Good post btw.  

Posted by emkeighcameron
@mrfizzy said:
" 1) this would work better as a blog than a forum topic. 2) in Oblivion i got into a blacksmiths at night, got up stairs and stole the blacksmiths key. From then on i could just waltz into the shop each night, clear it out of stock and then sell it to my fence the next night. I thought i was the fucking shit, actually scratch that, i WAS the fucking shit. Problem is i could never get the lock picking mini game right, so i was never very good :(  Good post btw.   "
s'what the skeleton key was for man
Posted by mrfizzy
@emkeighcameron said:
" @mrfizzy said:
" 1) this would work better as a blog than a forum topic. 2) in Oblivion i got into a blacksmiths at night, got up stairs and stole the blacksmiths key. From then on i could just waltz into the shop each night, clear it out of stock and then sell it to my fence the next night. I thought i was the fucking shit, actually scratch that, i WAS the fucking shit. Problem is i could never get the lock picking mini game right, so i was never very good :(  Good post btw.   "
s'what the skeleton key was for man "
Yeah i never got that far into the game i dont think. lol. Note to self, try oblivion again. 
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@mrfizzy said:
Good post btw.   "
Thanks.  And yeah, the blog/forum simul-post thing can be confusing at times.
Posted by Walker_after_dark

 "How about different ways that thieves were treated in games that didn't necessarily focus on thieves?"
 
The one that I've seen recently that handled this the best was Fallout 3. While you don't necessarily play as a classic RPG-style thief, there were specific thief abilities such as lock- and pocketpicking. Owned items were designated with a red name; if you took those you would suffer a karma hit and if an NPC saw you steal it they would attack you. The 'stolen' status was also maintained in your inventory and those items would be confiscated if you ran afoul of what little law enforcement there was. Also since there was a day/night wake/sleep cycle that the NPCs followed, you could do exactly what you're talking about: case out a place during the day then break in at night and rob them blind.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Walker_after_dark:  That reminds me of what Bethsoft did with Morrowind (and maybe Oblivion?), where everything in your inventory that you stole (whether or not you knew it was considered stealing) was marked, and would be confiscated if you were caught for even a minor offense.  You'd lose everything that was marked, along with Dwarven items I think.  
 
I guess I didn't like that I wound up loading just to see what items were considered stolen, as some of them were taken from places I would have considered to be fair game.  Morrowind's morality is a bit wonky in places, and the all-knowing guard approach, while meant to prevent from abusing the system outright and creating absurd situations where you steal from people around town to sell to other people in the same town, makes things feel a bit too nailed down.  I would like there to be a time limit, a statute of limitations, on stuff you've taken.  The karma hit makes perfect sense in the context of Fallout 3...  I wonder though if there could be some other way to do that.
Posted by ArbitraryWater

The way thievery was handled in oblivion was alright, as was the way the thieves' guild progression worked (you had to fence X gold worth of stolen goods to get the next job). I assume the same for fallout 3, considering it's a similar mechanic in the same engine. Thief did the act of going into some wealthy dude's mansion and taking everything not bolted to the floor quite well.
 
However, unlike real P&P D&D, I never really understood the use for stealth in any D&D video game. Sure, you could scout, but the ability to reload your save doesn't make that information as critical. You could backstab (or sneak attack, depending on what game we are talking about) fools, but setting up backstabs in Infinity Engine games is a pain, and there are other ways to sneak attack in 3rd Ed.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater:  I use stealth all the time.  Not so much for the backstabbing, which so far has been wonky in just about every game I've ever played (especially Infinity Engine, though), but for positioning for crossfire, for scouting that doesn't manipulate save games, for getting away from people who have been mind-controlled, for setting up distractions, and in general, justifying splitting up the party.  
 
In Icewind Dale II I have 3 characters with decent ranks in stealth right now, I'm looking forward to using them to increase my facings against enemies (surrounding them or whatever) even if I won't be able to pull off sneakabackastabbas very often.
Posted by PenguinDust

I've always wondered about the nature of loot and how it seems to turn all classes in thieves in many games.  More often than not, it goes beyond the spoils of war to cracking open every chest, container or fallen body wherever they are found.  Isn't it odd to be rooting though boxes in the Citadel for stuff and just wandering off with it?  How unconscionable is it to walk into someone's home in a Zelda or Dragon Quest game and just start busting up the barrels and pocketing what spills out?  But, these are mainstay elements of modern RPGs.  When they're taken out of the game, like in Mass Effect 2, players complain that it's not really an RPG. However, be the player an actual thief class or a clumsy barbarian who likes to hit stuff, all are turned into criminals by the nature of the game design.  Maybe game developers need to employ a salary system for the non roguish characters in a game.  How would gamers feel about being restricted in their looting by the classes they chose to play?  You can't just go around taking stuff from every crate you see in Oblivion, but you are paid a level appropriate wage with incentive bonuses for a job well done. 

Posted by ahoodedfigure
It would be nice if changing it to "first to last," so I didn't have use the quote button, didn't erase what I was trying to say. 
 
@PenguinDust:
 
One of the undercurrents of what I was writing is that, yeah, we're almost expected to ransack places by game systems that reward having sufficient supplies.  There's still room, I think, for shaking things up a bit.  We don't need to pretend that games have to be one way--  it's kind of the theme of a lot of my essays or whatever you'd want to call them. 
 
I'd say Mass Effect 2 still had loot, it was just simplified into a few point and click areas.  I don't think there's ever going to be a single definition of an RPG experience, but as long as it's fun or rewarding in some way I'm willing to let it into the flock.  It's actually kind of fun to crush barrels and pick up rocks for rupees, but we don't have to do the same thing over and over again for every such game.  I will say that ME2 not being considered an RPG goes beyond the loot system, but I frankly don't give a damn about things fitting genres.  Some of my favorite games bend genre conventions (like Cryo Interactive's Dune).

And on a salary note, Final Fantasy VIII actually had a salary system.  You'd get paid based on your rank or whatever, although you would still kill stuff and loot houses for items like the ruffians that you were.  There are other ways to do it, like bounties and contracts, mission rewards.  Morrowind does that, where you get legitimate pay and then you steal stuff if you really want to; like @Walker_after_dark: and I were talking about, they tag items as stolen so it's not as though you can just run mindlessly through without expecting some sort of consequences.
 
Another solution could be...  well, first I'm reminded of Darklands, one of my favorite RPGs.  In it you could get money from the brigands and such that you kill, or money from contracts you make.  You could also get money, though, from doing jobs during downtime.  You would hold out in an inn, brewing potions, training for skills, studying in libraries, or doing odd jobs.  Depending on certain skills you might make quite a bit of money.  You would use this down time to heal and recover some cash before you struck out into the wild again in search of corrupt villages to burn down.
 
Similarly, you could have a game where downtime was an integral part, merging a bit more of the expected sleep-to-heal-up mechanic we've come to expect in a lot of RPGs.  Most characters would do things fitting their station, while the thieves would have to steal.  It could be minigames, it could be full solo adventures, it could just be a quick pause with rewards based on skill. 
Posted by PenguinDust
@ahoodedfigure:   I like the idea of "downtime".  I think that was one of the strengths of the Persona games.  I believe in P4, you earned cash by defeating enemies and used their specific resources your acquired to help the local weapon smith make new and better items for higher level adventuring.  In between forays into the shadow world, you'd develop your social skills or work an after school job.  The mundane can be fun if it's an option among many choices. 
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@PenguinDust: I'm using downtime in a pen and paper campaign I'm running, where characters increase their skills and recover from injuries, and do research on their next assignment and any topics that interest them using a set mechanic.  From what little I've experimented with it so far it seems to add a cool pacing element to things.
 
I think if you described a lot of P4's mechanics to someone they'd laugh, because talking with people and getting good grades on tests sounds a bit like someone who hasn't ventured outside of the hut very much might find interesting.  But as long as the game makes it interesting or engaging, even that stuff can be fun and not a chore.  ME2 missed the boat on this, I think, making mining physically painful for people rather than letting it be a sort of meditative downtime mode.  They could have even said that the more time you spend mining, the more time they have to research upgrades...  possibly balancing that with your losing time against the attacks on human colonies (but secretly making it so the timing synchs up with your progress).
Posted by PenguinDust
@ahoodedfigure:   When I played pencil & paper RPGs "back in the day" I remember that downtime was when most of the fun happened.  Players were able to let their imaginations run free since they weren't being pressed by a quest.  
 
Mass Effect 2 could have taken a page from Persona for the mining.  Let's say that mining is a two man job in game.  One person to fly the probe and another to scan for minerals.  In game, Shepard would invite any number of the crew down to the probe guidance station to help during the process.  Mining could have been made more automatic by Bioware, and instead, players would have conversations with their mining partner developing those relationships.  The developer creates a whole series of short interactions between Shepard and whoever which advances their relationship beyond what the loyalty missions do.  Similar to the Wrex and Garrus missions from Mass Effect 1, newer more personal quests might be unlocked this way. Or maybe just more moments like getting drunk with the doctor.  However, players usually like to get something for their effort, so maybe some sort of reward is achieved as well.  I liked how in P4, new moves were unlocked for the other party members.  Maybe, some sort of sacrifice or health transfer between the party member and Shepard.  Actually, these "Social Links" could also be a means to receiving more loot rather than the tried-true-and-tired way of grabbing it off the dead.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@PenguinDust:  Whoa.  Some of that is eerily similar to some ideas I've had recently about how splitting a party up will mean different friendships develop, and different tasks will be able to be done while the others are on missions.  It's certainly different in some details, but yeah, I wonder if they couldn't try something like that.
 
Pen and paper games are best when imaginations are free, I think.  It's a bit unfortunate that quests that limit that imagination are expected to be part of it :)  I do like to have the players assume more control than you might if all the quest was laid out, but I see what you mean, since there's basically no restraint in downtime except the physics of the game world.
 
One of the funnest RPG experiences I've had in recent memory as a player was when we did a discussion-based epilogue for our characters.  No dice rolls, really, just each person talking about what their characters did with the things we found, and how we dealt with the situation that emerged from that.