Book Review: The Art of Thief

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Eidos Montreal’s rebooted Thief has launched and the game’s critical reception has been all over the map. I’m dying to play it for myself, but I haven’t had any luck getting a copy yet so I can’t join the debate of its quality at this time. However, strictly from an artistic point of view I can tell you that the game’s art team did a remarkable job conceptualizing and giving new life to Garrett, the original Master Thief, The City and its atmosphere of oppression. I know this, of course, because of The Art of Thief, yet another impressively assembled art book from Titan Books.

The first thing that catches the eye with The Art of Thief is its cover. I know it doesn’t come across to full effect in pictures, but when seen in person the portion of the cover with Garrett’s hand reaching out is ever so slightly embossed with a smooth, shiny surface, while the background has a faded matte finish. This gives the cover a really neat almost stereoscopic 3D effect, as if to represent Garret hiding in the shadows while grasping forward to lift some loot using his most reliable tool. It will certainly grab your attention if you happen to walk by it on a book store shelf (if anyone even goes to book stores any more), just make sure to check your pockets for all your personal effects just in case.

Inside the cover, The Art of Thief contains 192 pages of design concepts and commentary divided into four chapters. Chapter One focuses solely on the process of redesigning Garrett, his repertoire of stealth moves and his arsenal of thieving gadgets. Chapter Two introduces other characters important to the plot, like The Baron and Erin, the female thief turned assassin who was modeled heavily after Eva Green’s performance as Sibylla of Jerusalem in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, as well as the key factions that make up The City’s populace, like the downtrodden Graven cult, the mutated Freaks haunting the catacombs beneath the Old Cathedral, the creepy mannequin-like Automatons, and the Baron’s elite military guard known as The Watch. Chapter Three moves on to highlight concepts for puzzles, traps and props Garrett will interact with, as well as the precious loot he will have the opportunity to steal. And finally, Chapter Four wraps things up with a complete tour of The City, from the gothic skylines of the Auldale District to the taxidermy-laden insides of Northcrest Manor to The City’s oldest landmark, the haunted clock tower Garrett uses as a hideout.

Aesthetically, the world of Thief is very shadowy and depressing, so don’t look to this art book expecting a bright color palette that regularly goes beyond blacks, whites, greys and midnight blues. You’ll find brief moments of relief in images of priceless jewels, warmer interior locations like the House of Blossoms opium den and brothel, fire lighting up the night as buildings are set ablaze by the Graven revolution, and the eerie green tint brought on by the hallucinogenic, supernatural effects of Primal energy, but that’s about as broad as it gets. That’s not to say Thief is without contrast. In fact, contrast is a driving force behind the art direction — light against shadow, Victorian and Industrial architecture mingling together, medieval and steampunk technologies, and the overarching theme of prosperity versus suffering that is the dark, beating heart of the game’s atmosphere and narrative history.

Thief wouldn’t have its name without a true Master Thief as a protagonist, so the opening chapter about Garrett proves to be the most intriguing section of the book. I always find it fascinating to learn about the influences behind a character’s design. For example how Garrett’s darker personality traits were inspired by Brandon Lee’s character Eric Draven from The Crow and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Sweeny Todd, and costuming elements like his mask and the way he wears his thieving gear were based on Han Solo from Star Wars and G.I. Joe ninja, Storm Shadow. The book also goes into great detail, using cartoony storyboards, quick illustrations and pose studies, about the intricacies of designing all of Garrett’s movements to convey his prowess as a burglar and stalker of shadows. Given how much Garrett’s hands are seen by the player — quoting concept artist Joel Dos Reis Viegas, “The hands became Garrett.” — painstaking effort went into getting his digits to the perfect balance of elegant and nimble. It’s also fun to look at comic panels showing how different stealth takedowns might animate from different positions, or the manner in which he might draw his bow and nock an arrow.

Speaking of storyboards, the first three chapters are divided by special Interlude spreads showing some of the storyboards that were used for laying out specifics events of a mission, such as Garrett cutting the finger off a corpse to steal a precious ring and then proceeding to avoid alerted guards and spotlights, or his desperate escape from a crumbling tower. Just staring at pretty artwork is enjoyable, but it’s always nice to see the connection between art direction and gameplay. Great art isn’t simply about presenting a visually attractive experience, it also has a direct impact on the mechanical design of a game, as pieces like these demonstrate.

Containing environmental portraits, pose and animation sketches, weapon and gadget concepts, architectural blueprints, costume material swatch boards, propaganda banners and posters, and even a full two-page map of The City, The Art of Thief is brimming with concept art and design commentary that is every bit as insightful as it is visually stimulating. The narrow color palette and depressing atmosphere may not hit the spot for everyone’s artistic sensibilities, but there definitely is a dark, gothic beauty to the Victorian architecture and medieval themes that Thief fans and art book collectors will appreciate.

The Art of Thief is available now in a standard edition for $34.95 and a limited edition featuring a slipcase, a specially designed dustjacket and an exclusive set of three 150mm X 566mm posters for $75.

Disclosure: A free review copy of The Art of Thief was provided to VGBlogger by Titan Books.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!