Dante Must Die?
I’ll say this right from the off – I don’t like the new look Garrett from Thief 4.
There’s partly that he looks like the lovechild of Alice Cooper and Criss Angel; a sort of horrendous mash-up of Thirty Seconds To Mars (who are okay by the way!) and Twilight (Please ensure this never happens ever!). Garrett never had much of a physical appearance, it is true, because the game was in first-person. But we do have some small clutches of artwork; canon images that denote Garrett not to be the emo reject of the Mortal Kombat ninja line-up. Garrett was quite well-built, simple and rugged, who liked big swooshy-style cloaks. The new Garrett in comparison is terribly off for me.
“But Kami! You LIKED the new Dante look! Didn’t you say change happens?”
Damn. Okay, you have me. But hear my reasoning out on this one first!
DmC: Devil May Cry was, technically speaking, a reboot. If you can’t continue on, you get the chance to just set up a new story or an alternate timeline/universe thing. DmC was, for me, that kind of start. Old Dante is still there, and is still very likely one day to make a return. He hasn’t been thrown away entirely; just in this very specific instance, the new people making a game were given the opportunity to make a new Dante, and they took it. The end result was a more complex beast than the original. Not as altogether likeable, but altogether perhaps more human as a result.
This is, supposedly, Thief 4. Let’s stop right here for a moment. Thief 4. the “4” denotes continuity. And when it comes to continuity, I am a proper stickler for it. I am that rare breed of person who asked why Darrell in Bewitched suddenly changed faces when I was a kid. I like these little details, I find them fascinating, but I also think there’s a real problem when you don’t follow on from tradition. Thief was never really a triple-A franchise but it had a large fanbase; a fanbase which, it would seem, the new look has created mixed reactions. Some like it, others don’t. Whether we like it or not shouldn’t be the issue here – thing is, it’s clearly not Garrett. Not traditional Garrett, anyway. Something has happened; that something was marketing people who want this new Thief title to appeal to more people.
This seems logical to men in suits who have spent a decade having any imagination and personality vampirically sucked out of them. “There are lots of Twilight fans who like the androgynous look. Lots of people like Ninja looks. There are lots of people who liked New Dante. This will work. This will expand our market.” The problem is that it’s easy to think by appealing to more people that you expand your market, however let’s do something they wouldn’t expect us to do. Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves, for we are about to do…
… MATH! *thunder and lightning*
No no, really, this will be fun. Right, let’s look at, say, a franchise. You have a first instalment, let’s call it “Game On: Game One!” and it sells 1 million units.
You carry on and make a sequel. Good word of mouth and reviews help pick up the sales and it’s a natural evolution of the series. “Game On: The Second One!” sells 3 million units.
Now let’s say some marketing man comes in and throws a bunch of money at them on the proviso that they double that number to six million sales. So they look around and suddenly “Game On: Third Time Unlucky!” looks different. Sounds different. The budget, and the attempt to aim at another market to attract them, causes many of those original fans to not want to buy it.
So, instead of needing that extra 3 million, the old audience splits in half over it. Now you need 4.5 million people to buy it to get that 6 million units figure.
The reason we went through that little mental arithmetic exercise is that when you look at the idea of “broadening an audience”, it’s actually more dangerous than you’d think. Any fan turned off means another person who needs to be convinced, and if you turn off more of the old fans – you need new people to fill the gap. In other words, whilst getting more sales is certainly admirable and necessary when someone throws money at you, it’s often not wise to burn bridges with your traditional market either. Their sales are important. Their loyalty is important. Their opinion is important. Otherwise you need to attract a whole new audience; at which point, why wheel out a licence when you could start from scratch?
It’s here continuity is important. DmC: Devil May Cry, as a reboot, could get away with such a radical redesign ethos of its lead character because it was a reboot. The rules of a reboot are much more broad and allow that space to deviate from the traditional blueprint, giving the creator much more room to manoeuvre around the thorny issue of continuity. Had DmC been called “Devil May Cry V”, I think I, and many others, would have been far less tolerant of the new Dante direction. Context is really important when it comes to continuity; if you’re going to tear up what a game used to be about, or completely change the lead role, then you need that space. Space that doesn’t come from a directly numbered sequel.
Truth is, I wouldn’t mind the new-look Garrett if, somehow, this was a reboot. As a first-person game, what matters to me most isn’t Garrett’s look (although we’ll often have to see it in artwork and feel a little dirty about it), but his identity. Garrett was always a reluctant hero. He wasn’t and isn’t a natural heroic type. He’s bitter, biting and sarcastic. He doesn’t like being a hero; he’s a thief, he steals stuff, and always seems bemused and bewildered when he somehow ends up in the middle of some grand scheme that he wouldn’t ordinarily volunteer for. He’s not a killer either; the old games were quite clear that Garrett wasn’t an assassin, or a ninja, but a thief; a thug whose greatest strength was the desire to not be caught, because he doesn’t have the super-powers required to defend himself at times. Garrett is our doorway; and he commentates on the world he inhabits on our behalf, mocking people and making remarks about the absurdity of it all.
The problem is you can tell a lot by the redesign of a character and this new look Garrett doesn’t at first glance really fit into that idealised concept; he looks very cold, vampire-like almost. He doesn’t look like the sort of person who has a sense of humour about his life, or his work. It’s all very serious, very utilitarian, very black. The idea we are told was to make Garrett less “Gothic”, but all they seem to have done is moved him firmly into the “Goth” identity. It’s… strange. And I suppose that’s the worry. How much of Garrett, as a character, are they prepared to change for the sake of this game?
It continues on thanks to the games director, Nicolas Cantin. Here are a few quotes;
“Time’s moved on… We wanted to bring him more for the modern audience of today’s console market.”
“He’s now in the game doing more action moves and that’s how we wanted the costume and the suit to reflect that.”
“We turned down all the things that feel more gothic. For example: black nails and things like that – we don’t have that any more. We want to make him a little bit more mainstream on that.”
Does this sound like someone who cares about the identity of the original games? Of course not. Times have changed but Thief never had complete mainstream appeal; the marketing speak so far suggests people who have taken Thief and want it to be more Assassin’s Creed, more Dishonored, more Splinter Cell. And they are valid markets. They really are, and I love each of them, but here’s the thing; those markets already have games filling those gaps. Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored, Splinter Cell. They will require more than a few passing resemblances to be sold on a game like Thief 4.
And even if they do, there’s a very serious risk that it will alienate the old audience away from the game. If they don’t want it, then yes, you’re going to need to rely on these new markets to sell your product to the numbers you need. You don’t HAVE a fanbase any more; you may as well be starting with a new IP, for all the good it will do.
Change happens; but change for the sake of change is never an easy thing to get right. As new technology comes in and methods become more streamlined and simpler to attain, games will naturally grow into these new gaps. The industry has found that out for years; as power increases, so too does the scope of what they can achieve. The problem is that even with a next-gen on the horizon, we’ve hit a point where graphically we’re going to hit the ceiling. So instead of growing up, the market will grow sideways – like any good plant – to accommodate the space being granted to it. When it cannot grow upwards, it will grow elsewhere. Thing is, if you take a cutting and plant it at the base of another wall, you have forcibly encouraged change. There has been unnatural intervention. You have taken something from one market, and transplanted it into another, hoping it will grow just as it used to. Without a proper sense of continuity, that this is aimed at old players as well as new ones, you may as well put it in a box and call it Schrödinger.
I think that is the problem. Whilst there’s been a lot of talk about what they want, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, not enough has been made of its old roots. Nothing has really reached out to ensure that we know it’s business as usual. Thief seems like one of those titles where the creators are quite happy to cut off the old market in the pursuit for a new one; and this is never the way to grow a franchise. It’s the way you kill it. Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 stand out here as examples of how, in the drive to find new markets, you can effectively stifle your own sales by not really being any one thing at all. Jacks of all trades, for sure, and masters of none at all.
In a world where identity matters, I find the new-look Garrett to be a telling reminder that the industry still at times doesn’t quite respect its consumer base enough, and doesn’t give it nearly the credit that it deserves. Thief is a franchise that yes, could do so much more with all the shiny new technology that we have. I don’t want it to stand still; but evolution needs to happen naturally. If you can’t evolve a game, then you can reboot it. And I wouldn’t be averse to a total Thief reboot. I dare say that people would perhaps grow to like it. It would at least draw a line in the sand, so to speak.
But when you ensure that it is known as “Thief 4”, the old fans will demand and expect a certain amount of continuity, a nod to the past. You can’t just expect them to love it; you have to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that this is still the same old Garrett. He’s changed; perhaps in the decade between game times, he’s not been well. Perhaps this is why he is so thin and pale. Perhaps he’s been cursed by something, and needs to undo it. Maybe this is why he’s now wearing such a tight-fitting corset-holstered bodysuit, because perhaps he is now sort of undead and is trying to undo it, because he stole something he shouldn’t have (very Pirates of the Caribbean, I know!) . It’s details like that which help bridge the gap, and link the old with the new, allowing an evolution to look less forced for the sake of it and more because this is something the character is going through. It gives people the bridge to cross so that they can feel like they are still traversing the trials and tribulations of Garrett, the Garrett they know and love, whilst simultaneously doing new stuff with new technology that allows for more interesting gameplay mechanics.
For all the detail in the new Garrett visually, it’s detail that is wildly misplaced. Without the specifics, without some knowledge of the story and why this Garrett looks so strange and different to how we have come to visualise him, it comes across very poorly. Give players a reason why the new Garrett looks like this narratively; forget “mainstream appeal”. Forget “The Twilight Audience”, and “Ninja’s are cool!”. None of these are good reasons to tamper with the character design. Give people a reason for the new look in terms they can handle; link the old with the new, and ensure that the bridge is clear for navigation.
And for those who say they want to be surprised, we’re only a few weeks on from coining the new term “Gearboxing”. Keeping a lid on things is also now treated with suspicion and derision in equal measure; and when you’re showing off new screenshots and a new-look lead character, you’d best be on-point with the details of “Why?” Because people will ask why – people will want to know why. You don’t outright have to give the whole game away; again, you could say “Let’s say he stole something he probably shouldn’t have.” It’s detail that is sufficiently vague to allow interest whilst giving you the in-game narrative reasoning for the change. The art of informing people without spoiling the whole game is an art that has been dying for years; but that means it is more important now than ever before that developers and publishers learn to differentiate between how to do it right, and how to do it wrong.
Without that connection, that reason, that continuity, for many traditionalists and older fans, this will never be “their Garrett”. And that’s hugely important in a game where the lead is the whole point of the game, the central focus, the person on which everything ends up hinging upon. They want the Garrett they know, the Garrett they love. Asking them to love a different Garrett is going to be a mountain to climb; and risks not only reducing your potential market, but puts you in a position where they will give you negative press and comments and quite likely dissuade others from purchasing. No matter how good the game is and how much it cost and how it scores, the gaming market has in recent months and years become very adept at both encouraging the growth of good games, and stifling the sales of others they deem less worthy.
It has to be a Garrett that everyone can love, old and new. And that there has been a deep division suggests that realistically, this probably wasn’t as successful as they had perhaps hoped. Maybe they will carry on and hope we soften up, or maybe they will tweak it and try and make Garrett more tolerable to those who are frankly revolting at this look. It’s not a nice place to be. They had the goodwill of so many fans for reviving Thief, and now they’re finding many of those people are now brandishing pitchforks and lit torches in an attempt to remind them who, ultimately, is supposed to be their market.
The only thing I can say to that is, change happens.
But it’s how you change that is important; only then will you know what you’re changing into…
Header image from Game Informer.
Thirty Seconds to Mars image from YouTube video.
Old artwork courtesy of Google.
Bad jokes by me.