Subverting the architecture.
I’ll say it again: Subverting the architecture, motherfuckers. It’s the best thing you can do in games, and Thief is the best at it.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Missions in Thief usually start near the front entrance of some mansion or fortress. There’s generally a straightforward route to your objective: Through the front gate, down the hallway, up the stairs and into the throne room. Just a short jog for any normal citizen.
Unfortunately, you’re a thief. This means that the main thoroughfares and access routes that the building has been designed to support are actually dangerous. The main hallways are brightly lit, full of people, and usually paved with clangingly loud marble floors. To get to your objective without being caught, you have to deliberately flip off the architect at every opportunity.
So: front doors are out, back doors are in. You scan the outer walls with a practised eye, looking for structural weaknesses. Cellar doors are good, open windows are better, but the best possible scenario is getting onto the roof. Up there amongst the rafters, the guards crawl under you like ants. It’s beautiful.
Every level in the Thief games throws up a new type of architecture to fuck over. One particular example in the second game takes place in a multi-floored tower built around an elevator. The elevator’s stupidly loud and deposits you right in the middle of guard-posts, so the entire level revolves around figuring out ways to get to the other floors without it: crawling up vents, jumping down from balcony to balcony, and at one point even jumping off the elevator as it descends to cling onto a roof rafter and watch it crawl down without you, confusing the hapless guards below.
This is absolutely my favourite type of level design, and hardly anything does it. Deus Ex took the concept further by making two separate games out of it: The action style has you go with the flow of the architecture, with the stealth style has you subvert it. Apart from that, I can’t think of anything – it feels like years since a game has even let me go up on a roof. Games! For the love of god, give me more roofs to climb on! Assassins Creed doesn’t count; if you can’t go inside the building, then a roof is nothing more than a glorified platform. I’m starving here, roofless and grounded in a maze of corridors.
At this point, all any of us can do is look to Thief 4 and pray.