I remember the time and place well - Christmas 1998. I had but one pressie under the tree that year - a game I had been eagerly awaiting for months. If I had had to wait longer than a couple of weeks from Decenber 25 I might have tried stealing it for an early play - hell, if I had had to wait a month or two I would probably have been bold enough to pinch it from Santa himself. The game of course was Thief: The Dark Project on the PC.
I'm sure most of you know what the premise of the game is, and those who don't can probably guess (it's a bit like Super Mario, but much darker, and the reason you're looking for Princess Peach is to ease her of the burden of her diamonds). I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved this game - it was so moody, so real, you were actually there. I wouldn't go so far as to say it made me decide what I wanted to do with my life, but I still maintain the hobby...
Here's a typical scenario for you: your manager tells you about a local nobleman who has far more money than he could possibly hope to spend in a lifetime, and the kindest thing to do would be to relieve him of some of his wealth. Once you have the location, it's up to you to break and enter, find the loot and make your way out. Sound a bit easy? Well there are guards to contend with too - guards with chronic tunnel vision. You see, so long as you remain in the shadows, it's absolutely impossible for them to see you - but walk into the moonlight or make too much noise and you'll be dead in no time. Basically, you stay in the shadows, you're safe. This makes for some of the most intense gaming experiences imaginable - sometimes passing guards get so close you think you can smell their sweat (don't worry, it's probably yours).
But the tale I'd like to share with you if I may, is one of the most terrifying experiences of my late teens, sure enough, all courtesy of Thief. You see, for the first couple of weeks I merrily broke every rule in the good book (trespassing, GBH, Destruction of Property) and I prospered. But one day, when I turned on my powerhouse PC (Intel 266 Mhz with a whopping 32MB of RAM - I told all the girls that) my manager told me that there was an abandoned mine, with lots of loot up for grabs. "Hmm" says I, "not quite the same as giving Lord Montgomery's place the once over, but money is money".
Sure enough, my manager was right, the place was derelict - not that it mattered, the mine was so dark I'd be invisible to any foe, but either way something felt...odd. As I travelled deeper and deeper into the mine, all I encountered were pesky spiders, indigenous to the middle section of numerous games that want to add some variation.
Soon I found myself in a large chamber with an altar in it - my prize was close at hand. Everything so far had gone like clockwork - but as I approached the altar housing the treasure, I saw a figure standing there. 'Strange' I thought, why would anyone else be here? One guard at the end of the level almost seems pointless. Perhaps it's a friendly sent by my manager to help, or a lost civilian. Bearing all this in mind I approached with the stealth I had come to master.
I eventually got close enough to spy the treasure, but more alarmingly, I got a good look at the figure. He was slightly transparent, completely still and stared eerily into nothingness - it was a bloody ghost! Fortunately my visibility indicator confirmed that I was totally invisible - there was no way he could have seen me in these shadows - I'd just have to give in to fate and leave this poor spectre to his resting place. As I turned to make back for the exit, I noticed a shimmer from the ghost's direction. He was looking right at me. My eyes quickly glanced at the vis-indicator - still invisible. For a long moment I was frozen, staring into cold eyes that impossibly, improbably, met mine. Then it happened. He ran full speed at me - any obstacles in the way were like air to this creature - he ran straight at me, and was on me in seconds.
The next few moments felt like a dream in slow motion: in one swift motion I screamed (I might even have slightly wet myself too), slapped my monitor like the kid in the infamous puzzle movie (we don't condone scaring kids), unplugged my computer by the mains and ran out of the room.
Needless to say, I never actually finished Thief: The Dark Project.