Thief’s City is not a world of good guys and bad guys. It’s hard to know who is right, if anyone at all. But there are relatable, common people: the guards. Players dodge, outwit, or perhaps even eliminate these NPCs. If one of the guards from the City Watch or a noble’s private security spots Garrett, they’ll raise an alarm or attempt swift justice. Despite this antagonism, one can sympathize with the guards. They are ordinary people caught up in the power struggles of the City, performing their duties because they must earn pay to survive.
This is part of a continuous series. Read more about Dark Narrative here.
It is appropriate, then, that often the guards are humorous. Finding them complaining about trite matters, puzzling over simple issues, or stumbling about drunk are some of the most charming moments from this series. Additionally, it is in these moments that we the players enjoy seeing the everyday side of life in the City. Since most of the time in Thief we are lost in Garrett’s detached world of subterfuge or awing at the schemes of the higher-ups, humorous-guard-moments are welcome interruptions.
The guards transmute the grander schemes and movements of the City into an everyday vernacular, stumble about drunk while on duty, and complain about their chores. They can be so childish, so innocent, and so stupid as to gain players’ sympathy and make them regret ever having to bludgeon them on the head. These security forces, supposed enemy NPCs that player-character Garrett must circumvent or confront, are the comedians of the Thief world—legitimate sideshow actors. They are the simpletons at a local restaurant talking about world affairs, the Abbott and Costello comedy duos, and the totally inept drunk sluggards who can’t work eight hours without indulging themselves of a bottle of alcohol. They are the clowns of the City and as such give life to enemy NPCs, making them more than that.
Below, I highlight some of the best examples of the Thief guards’ humor, everydayness, and silliness.
The Good Ol’ Bears
At the beginning of the first main mission of Thief, “Lord Bafford’s Manor,” occurs the classic “bear pits” conversation. This dialogue struck up betwixt two guards gives players a window into the everyday life of the City’s commoners.
One guard asks the other, “I’m going to the bear pits tomorrow. You want to come with?” which implies that attending these bear pits must be acceptable enough to ask anyone if they want to go. These pits are likely based on the antiquated activity of bear-baiting, though the City’s people like seeing two bears actually fight each other. It must be an old form of entertainment: one of the guards talks on what the bear pits were like when he was a kid. It’s clear that they were once a more ferocious spectacle. “They don’t make bears like they used to,” he bemoans, just as we may complain about the changing nature of television shows or movies.
Coming as one of the first things you can experience in the game, this conversation contrasts with the otherwise serious tones set early on, in the Training mission and the briefing for the Bafford mission. It’s the first and most memorable example of guards engaging in a funny conversation and giving players a peak into the more trite, common side to the City.
Drinking On Duty
The most humorous guard encounters are when the guards have had one bottle too many. Drunk guards are the free spirits of the City. Though on duty, they throw proper procedure to the wind and indulge. As one guard says to himself in Thief II, “Who come up with the stupid idea of ‘no drinking on duty’? About the only thing that makes a cold watch go fast is a nice bottle.” Indeed, guards love nothing more than to drink. Their stammering stupor is a hallmark of the Thief experience.
The first drunk guard players encounter is also in the Bafford Manor mission. Standing outside a wellhouse, this officer addresses Garrett very jovially with, “Hey there, friend, what’s with the crazy getup?” All is innocent in this guard’s world. In truth, Garrett is a thief who is about to pickpocket him and then steal a local lord’s famed acquisition. Yet currently to this guard, wrapped in the mirth of drink, Garrett is a friend, dressed all “crazy-like,” just stopping by for a chat. The innocence and good-naturedness here should ward off players from wanting to harm him, though they will still pickpocket him for the needed key.
The best drunk guard also happens to be the best guard overall: Benny. Ol’ Benny can be found in Thief II’s “Blackmail” mission, set in Sheriff Truart’s estate, in the second floor gameroom. Benny’s very, very drunk. Conversing with the barmaid, Benny bemoans that someone has spilled mead over the rug, that “these taffers have no appreciation for such beautiful things!” It was he who spilled the mead, ironically. Benny proceeds to proclaim that he patrols better while drunk, and enacts how he’d shout if he saw a “bad guy.”
It’s of course amusing to see a guard letting loose like this and sounding so confident, all in a charmingly drunken voice. Moreso, this encounter with drunk Benny demonstrates how human the guards are. They are not just lifeless security forces, serving only as gameplay obstacles to the player. They are also side characters – narrative backdrops whose presence adds life to the City. They don’t just patrol, but also get drunk. Additionally, they put player-character Garrett into something of a “perspective crisis.” As drunk Benny indirectly reminds players, Garrett would be nothing more than a bad guy for him to confront – a prize to attain in order to demonstrate his competence and, perhaps, impress a barmaid.
Toss ‘Em Into A Well!
Guards’ conversation can also give a down-to-earth or everyday perspective on grander currents in the City. At the front of Ramirez’ manor in the “Assassins” mission, two guards, one who sounds like Benny and the other his “straight man” counterpart, discuss the Cragscleft prison complex. This is part of a larger mountain facility that the Hammerites run. Benny relates a rumor he’s heard: that the Hammerites are going to close it down. The other guard says this is nonsense.
This leads into a discussion on the Hammerites’ declining influence and dwindling numbers. “Used to be the power,” the skeptical guard says, “now they’re just a bunch of guys wishing for the old days.” Thus players are given an example of how an average citizen in the City sees the Hammerite Order. There is a sense that the Hammerites are losing their influence. If two guards are discussing it, then any average Joe – or, more properly for the Thief world, any average “Joric” – could be discussing it as well.
The best example of this conversation’s spirit is in one of the guard’s suggestions. If Cragscleft is closed down, a problem emerges: what to do with the prisoners? Benny says, “Dunno – toss ‘em into a well, or something.” This shows that no seriousness can be attached to what these guards are saying. Benny isn’t joking, only continuing to carry on the discussion. Thus, this conversation is clearly an example of light small-talk, and thus a way the guards’ behavior adds a layer of lightheartedness.
By commenting on matters in the City using everyday vernacular and the thoughts of simpletons, the guards transmute greater power struggles down into digestible topics for chit chat. The City becomes more real for players as a result. Most players in real-life are not involved in our own world’s grand conflicts, nor do most players really snoop about complexes like Cragscleft. Players are more likely to hear and engage in small talk about real-world matters with friends close by.
Internal Manor Politics
Breaking into manors opens a doorway into a new world of characters, idiosyncrasies, and power structures peculiar to that noble family. One example of sights into this internal world occur when eavesdropping on discussions among a manor’s staff.
The Ramirez estate has a conversation particularly droll. Apparently, there is one duty in that house no one likes. Ramirez keeps the tunneling, gas-belching burricks as pets, so guards must take turns watching after them. Keeping them company is part of the task, as one guard learns, much to his disagreement. In the courtyard of Ramirez’ manor, one guard is ribbing another on this duty: “You’ll be down there, rubbin’ their tummies.” The guard in question is not enthused at the idea.
This little bit of humor offers a fresh perspective on two things: one of the game’s monsters and guards’ feelings about their lord. Thus far players have only encountered burricks as monsters. Here, they are not only cast as pets but also as a subject of annoyance for these guards. Additionally, that the guards are not eager for “monster baby-sitting” fleshes their characters. These guards do not mindlessly serve their lord but grumble with their tasks.
Guards can also get into arguments over a manor’s security. In Bafford’s manor, two of them strike up a discussion on internal security improvements. Bafford’s improving his exterior security, and one of these two guards questions it: why not improve security on the inside? The other guard is quick to scold him: “No, but then you catch before they get inside, you taffer!” Like the exchange on burrick-rubbing noted above, this allows players insight into the world of the guards. They have their own ideas about the security layouts they are a part of.
The most demonstrative example of a sight into internal squabbles is another infamous conversation. Like the bear-pits conversation from the first Thief, there is one exchange in Thief II’s classic “Life of the Party” level that is particularly memorable.
While traversing the City’s rooftops, players are likely to come across two pairs of guards, each facing the other, who belong to two different nobles. Apparently, these guards get into some scuttles while on watch, and another of these is breaking out. This one, however, involves more than words. Violence breaks out.
As you can see, these guards go beyond conversing. They become so riled up defending their nobles and insulting each other that arrows start flying. Murder charges will be brought to any survivors (on most playthroughs, at least one guard is left alive), so anticipation of consequences has been ignored. This demonstrates the level of loyalty guards can feel for their manorhouses. In the real world, people can become so angry over trivial matters that they become violent. So too even Thief’s charming guards can lose it.
This exchange is another window into the inner world of nobility and their underlings. Even more than the Ramirez’ one written on above, this one reveals the kind of internal squabbles that run throughout the ranks of security forces. Private security forces may see each other as factions and competitors. Their sense of rivalry likely extends beyond their posts and into the tavern. Gossip and insults, like in the conversation above, could flow as freely as mead. One guard could be a “Bafford man” and another a “Ramirez man.” All private forces may feel animosity towards City Watch guards. There could be scuttles whenever private forces feel threatened by their public authority. The fight in “Life of the Party” shows that guards are not a monolith. Even when Garrett doesn’t get involved with them, the peace can be upset by silly insults and rivalries.
When Duty And Feelings Don’t Mix
Benny is quite the character. In Thief Gold’s “Song of the Caverns” missions, Benny – at least, I think it’s him (it sounds like him!) – is desperate for an excuse to talk with the cloak-check girl. She stands alone in the front wing of the opera house. Benny is concerned as she has no one to talk to. His mind, so innocent, is on love.
Business is business, however. As is one of its unfair habits, business here blockades the charming interests of a young man. Benny’s superior, the “straight-man” guard who always seems to hold Benny is disdain, is quick to assert protocol.
If the alarm is raised, all guards must proceed posthaste towards Lady Valerius’ quarters to protect the Water Talisman, this mission’s main objective. Benny doesn’t care about this “stupid watery stone,” asserting that Lady Valerius is the only one who does. In fact, Garrett cares about the Water Talisman too, though only insofar as it can get him into a certain sealed cathedral. The straight-man guard sternly rebukes Benny, saying that, were he a captain, he could guard whatever he cared to: cloak-check girl included. However, as things stand, he must follow proper procedure.
This conversation clues players into the possible inner emotions of guards. Though they pace their patrols dutifully, their thoughts could be elsewhere. Forced to guard a certain hallway, one guard, like Benny, may wish to be near his crush. Rules restrict him to worshipping from afar. Many of us may relate to having feelings for someone in our workplace, but holding them in check as duty and rules constantly keep us from them.
Perhaps Benny’s yearning for a chat with the cloak-check girl is the stuff of school-crushes – not something to take too deeply. However, from it one still gleans the personal side of guards. Playing as Garrett, one sees guards stationed outside of important locations, like Lady Valerius’ room, and sees them only as a security obstacle. But these guards could very well be daydreaming about cloak-check girls, wishing they were somewhere else, their mind not even on the treasure they’re guarding because they don’t even care about it. Thus, this “cloak-check girl” conversation connects players with a non-power-hungry, non-corrupt, non-devious side to the City. There are the treasure-hunters like Lady Valerius, and then there are the simple souls like Benny.
Conclusion | The Guards’ Contribution
There is a layer of simplicity and humor in the world. The guards in Thief are that gameworld’s representation of this. A funny exchange or a comical drunk are a couple ways that these NPCs help relate the gameworld to the player. They bring the grander power struggles of the City down into everyday dialogue and give players charming characters in a world of much viciousness. They also mirror our own petty annoyances or crushes. In this way, the guards are like most real people players may know, assuming most players don’t know nobility. In terms of gameplay guards may just be enemy AI that are obstacles to the player, but they are as fundamental a part of the story and world as any other major character or object in the game. They give players normal folks – drunks, doofuses, bitter whiners – to sympathize with in a world dominated by the untouchable mighty and powerful.