Why Thief 4’s decision to drop Stephen Russell is a big mistake

Let’s start with a statement that should be obvious: I want Thief 4 to be amazing. Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age are two of my all-time favourite games. I’d dearly love for this fourth entry to be worthy of (or even exceed) the series to date.

This isn’t just an echo of my younger self reliving fond memories either; I’ve replayed both recently and the level design, audio and narrative are still the equal of any contemporary release. The Dark Engine-rendered levels are not looking too hot, but the art direction of both mission briefings and cutscenes still hold up well.

Thief: Deadly Shadows was a little less compelling, coming as it did from an era where compromises on level size were made thanks to limitations of the original Xbox. Levels were still decent in scope, but broken up by loading zones. The Shalebridge Cradle mission gets its fair share of plaudits for its haunted house style thrills, but outings like The House of Widow Moira were just about up to the standards of the series too.

Thief 4 concept

So, to Thief 4.

I know, I know, Thief 4 is just called Thief now, but that can make it quite hard to distinguish from the series in general. And I don’t want to have to append The Dark Project to the first game’s title every single time. For clarity, I’ll be sticking with Thief 4.

At present, we don’t know a great deal about the game. No actual gameplay footage has been shown yet, so initial impressions are being formed on the basis of a brief plot synopsis, the talking heads of Eidos Montreal and a pair of teaser trailers. I’ll be the first to admit that’s not a strong basis for making conclusive judgements about the game, but it is possible to infer a few things from what’s been shown so far.

Thanks to the release of the first ‘proper’ trailer, we can now be pretty sure that Stephen Russell will no longer be voicing Garrett. It’s not impossible for voice actors to switch during production; David Bateson returned as Agent 47 in Hitman: Absolution after initially being ruled out (proving that you need more than the original voice actor to match the magic of the originals,) and Russell himself was actually the voice of BioShock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt in an early E3 trailer (later to be replaced by Troy Baker.) However, that seems like a slender hope. Eidos seem to have made up their minds.


Here’s what the developers had to say about the decision not to use Russell in a recent ‘in house’ interview:

“We made the decision to record our actor’s voices and their movement at the same time using a full performance capture technique,” audio director Jean-Christophe Verbert has said. “The actor playing Garrett needed to be able to perform his own stunts. Garrett’s a really athletic guy. We could have pasted Stephen’s voice on top of the actions and stunts of someone else, but this wouldn’t appear natural.”

Last week, BioShock Infinite received gushing praise from almost every single critical quarter for its portrayal of Elizabeth; an AI character who had a separate actress for voice, mo-cap and her actual face. It’s not only possible to make this set-up look natural, it resulted in one of the most convincing videogame companions of recent memory.

Let’s also ponder the implication that the majority of Garrett’s lines will now, apparently, be delivered while he’s performing feats of circus athleticism. “Lord Bafford” (hops off table, leaps to hanging banner and wall-runs up to balcony) “it seems that your sceptre” (dives across to chandelier, swings to rafters) “has been … inter-scepted” (tosses firebomb, flips Bafford the bird, backflips out of window.)

But wait, there was more.

“When it came down to it, we ultimately realized that holding onto Steven as the voice of Garrett … It’s a nice thought, but honestly, it wouldn’t make sense for anything else other than nostalgia,” offered narrative director Steven Gallagher.

It’s perhaps a little concerning that the director in charge of narrative isn’t aware that the a new Thief game exists largely on the basis of nostalgia. If it was just about gameplay mechanics, Eidos would be making a brand new IP called Burglar Man.

Eidos Montreal Logo

Losing Russell’s voice is a major enough blow for fans of the series, but details released so far suggests the changes made to Garrett’s circumstances extend beyond his voice-box and some liberally applied eye make-up.

The Garrett of the previous games was a cynical but pragmatic fellow who lived in a crappy apartment and had to steal out of economic necessity (usually to pay rent to his landlord.) He’s a guy who tries to avoid attention and is constantly frustrated by the Keepers’ efforts to remind him that he’s a key part of their prophecy for the city. Any ‘major’ job has to have a sizeable financial incentive. In Thief: The Dark Project he agrees to steal The Eye, but only in return for a sum that will allow him to “retire in style.”

Based on what’s been revealed so far, new Garrett lives inside a Clock Tower like some combination of The Crow and Batman and likes to steal because, to him, the perfect heist is “a way of life.” That’s … a little different.

The ‘rebooted’ nature of this release means this game probably won’t even factor into the original Thief’s trilogy timeline. If it does, the Clock Tower and Garrett’s mechanical eye (shown in the latest trailer) puts it somewhere between the first game and the point at which the Clock Tower is destroyed in Deadly Shadows (assuming the city council didn’t just rebuild it and take it off the Hammerites for some reason.)

Thief 4 concept

So, this new Garrett doesn’t sound like the old one, doesn’t really act like the old one and most likely exists in a totally separate timeline. At this point, you have to wonder why the team didn’t just invent a new thief character. Nobody who’s coming to Thief 4 fresh will have any history with Garrett, and older fans are already baffled or annoyed by the changes.

It’s also important to note that the loss of Russell’s vocal talent goes further than just the protagonist. He gave life to multiple characters in the series, often performing entire conversations between two versions of ‘himself.’ Those dialogues, too, were a considerable piece of Thief’s charm.

Attacking a game that hasn’t yet released proper gameplay footage isn’t entirely fair, I know. It’s kind of like pointing at a bowl filled with butter, sugar and an egg and saying “that cake looks shit.” The Eidos team has made some encouraging noises about the ability to get through missions without killing a single soul (a vital aspect of the previous games,) and the return of a light gem to indicate how hidden the player is. Some of the concept art is looking splendid as well. Plus, the Eidos team has earned a knowing tip of the hat for giving new Garrett a ‘bow upgrade.’  That’s long been a running gag among Thief fans.

But it’s the same old tired pattern with yet another ‘reboot.’ These statements sound like the opening shots of a desperate PR campaign to placate older fans or (if that doesn’t succeed,) push them into enough of an alienated minority that they can easily be shouted down as “fanboys” by other potential buyers. Sure, things change. Games inevitably move on. But you know what Eidos, the only reason any of you guys are employed making a Thief game right now is because people like me bought the original games. That might be a concept worth hanging on to.

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    • nasarius

      Thief 1 is from that awful era of early 3D games that’s really difficult to go back to, especially for younger gamers. The graphics are quite bad, and the controls/interface aren’t the best. Thief 2 is better, but somehow it still doesn’t hold up as well as Deus Ex.

      I feel like all the 20th century 3D games are doomed to fade from memory much faster than any 2D game. Even old NES titles are largely still playable, but early 3D is a clunky eyesore. The first Mario and Zelda games have continued to influence generation after generation thanks to timeless design and re-releases.

      When games don’t persist like that, their influence is quickly gone and forgotten. Perhaps many of the Eidos developers played Thief 1/2, maybe even loved them. But their target market largely hasn’t.

      Which of course makes the decision to keep Garrett (in name, anyway) all the more baffling.

    • Peter Parrish

      This fan-made trailer has been doing the rounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?&v=YFINNbu2_Vo

      It’s the latest Thief (4) trailer with Stephen Russell’s voice and the original Dark Project theme. Works extremely well, I think.

    • Starker

      “Attacking a game that hasn’t yet released proper gameplay footage isn’t entirely fair, I know. It’s kind of like pointing at a bowl filled with butter, sugar and an egg and saying “that cake looks shit.””

      In this case it’s more like saying “that cake looks shit because that egg is rotten”.

    • Loneck

      You have some mistakes in your article. “In Thief: Deadly Shadows he agrees to steal The Eye, but only in return for a sum that will allow him to “retire in style”.” It is in the first game. Light gem is not in Thief 4 as far as I know.

    • Peter Parrish

      Oh yikes, good catch on the first one. That was a sub-title brain fart on my part – thanks!

      The light gem is mentioned during this: https://www.gameinformer.com/b/podcasts/archive/2013/03/29/special-edition-podcast-thief.aspx

    • misterdigi35

      Great article. I have some input to offer.

      I was very much happy that you mentioned Elizabeth from BioShock infinite as an example of how multiple actors can achieve a cohesive goal of a near flawless character. That being said, the voice has to match the look of the character.

      What Eidos montreal has done is take the original Garret (a much more mature, and less hip looking version), and turned it into a man that looks to be about twenty-eight years old (or very much like the lead character of assasins creed which I don’t care to even know the name of), given him the tired trendy stubble look, and have him (as you mention) perform needlessly flashy acrobatics (which would probably get you caught if you were really trying to steal something for real). No longer does he remotely look like Garret, we can clearly see his face, which we never really could in previous titles, and it all spells out young, and hip. He now resemble more of some strange amalgam of spiderman/batman/assasins-creed-character than Garret the Thief. I half expected there to be a directed by Marc Webb and Christopher Nolan at the end of the trailer. That was a joke, but the rest I’m serious about.

      Putting Stephen Russell’s voice onto all that flashy, hip, rebooting is, of course, not going to look right. That’s why. If they had actually created a Garret that was less a marketing stunt to new gamers (that were a fetus at the time of the first Theif’s release which was fifteen years ago) and more of a hey people who originally played Thief, Garret is back then we would be hearing Russells voice. But that’s not Eidos Montreal is interested in. There are more 15 year old boys playing video games now, than there are of people like us who played the game when it was first released, and the money will be coming from their parents wallets. Just like it did when we were 15 (excepting those few times where we did odd jobs to pay for that one game that was coming out that we wanted to buy ourselves. What memories.)

      Sorry everybody, welcome to 2013. Thief will always have a fond place in my heart. I can’t cry over the loss of Stephens voice for too long. It will just drive me insane. I’d rather play a new thief title with his voice, but it looks like I will have to play the old ones instead. Ask Eidos Montreal to put Russell back in. If they don’t, well at least we have a game that was supposed to be the next theif.

    • Anonymoose
    • Bruxath

      Stephen Russell’s voice IS Garrett. This is where this debate begins and ends. (1. best VA ever-for me 2. his voice is so defining, so motivating etc that I learned English by listening to him – or at least the core of the professional jargon 😀 joking)

      But: I don’t mind that at last his face looks cool. (yeah, I’m a woman) Based on concept art (I mean mainly the cover of The Metal Age) I always imagined him in fact exactly like this. Btw we could see his face many times during the previous 3 games, such as at the end of Deadly Shadows-and that was like: gimme a break.. 🙂 Or: cutscene in the Dark Project, where a Keeper recruits him (ok, young version), Half of his face when Victoria tears out his eye, Face when he talks about that those sons of b.tches have his eye (based on that eyeliner’s not a new thing either :-D)
      and so on and so forth

      All in all: new look+Russell’s voice: OH MY GOD, IT’S PERFECTION

    • Bruxath

      Plus, if my memory serves me well-played the games many years ago, Garrett had 2 reasons for stealing sthing: 1. challenge 2. circumstances-e.g. let’s save the world or rather his ass and just as a bonus, the world, too
      But how could he have become THE MASTER THIEF if he only stole because “the rent is due”? I think saying in the new trailer that it’s a way of life for him is ok, as it truly is.
      I’m conservative, my all time favourite game will always be Thief, and I don’t want to play a stupid jump-kill-run AC-like game.
      But as far as I see, so far the only but huge problem is that Garrett has a new VA – and his voice would be great in any other game, but Garrett=Stephen Russell’s voice.

    • Real fan

      I completely agree with article author. This dev. team absolutely don’t understand what is Thief. They make a parody to original game. Not only a voice but main game conception is wrong.

      Looks like they make the game for themselves, because gamers don’t need another ordinary foolish game. We need oldschool hard game.
      If game will be a kind of Assassin Creed with japanese ninja as main character. The City without magic, surrealism and fraction and of course Stephen Russell – I don’t buy it.
      Dev team – don’t reinvent the wheel. Look at old Thief.

    • Bruxath

      I agree – partly. So far we’ve seen a trailer and some pictures. I love the game Witcher. Have you seen its trailer (of the 1st part)? It doesn’t have to do anything with the game/gameplay/anything, just a good trailer with good music and some nice moves that CDPR thought will make players want to play with the game. I honestly do hope it is the same case regarding this new trailer of Thief.
      I’m willing to give it a chance and wait until more information – because I read that devs promised they’ll make it the stealth game we love, and I want to believe them. Signed the petition though for Russell 🙂 (never ever did that kind of thing before)
      (Btw back in old times there were different ways to play the Thief games, too: stealth, doesn’t blackjack anyone – same except blackjacking – killing by shooting in the back with arrows+hide bodies – firearrows and ruuuun (not life insurance though) If I will be able to choose just the same way, I don’t mind some alternatives made for retards for whom more than 3 buttons is too complicated)

    • Loneck

      To Peter Parrish: Yes, I was wrong about the light gem.

    • 7ypHRx

      I’m really going to miss Stephen Russell’s sexy voice.

    • thewatergamer

      “actor of Garrett needs to be able to perform his own stunts… Garett’s is a really athletic guy… Wouldn’t seem natural”
      Why is it necessary to have this movement capturing technology implemented?
      tons of other games have not done it and they have been incredibly immersive and cool,
      Look Eidos, Rebooting the franchise is already a turnoff for me and many fans, but replacing THE garrett voice actor, the guy that (in mine and many fans opinions) MADE thief,
      “would make no sense other than nostalgia”
      Look Eidos nostalgia IS the basis of this game and its sales, long time fans are the ones that will be buying this game, don’t expect to many new people to buy this game, since most already have dishonored for their stealthy survival game
      Bring Back Stephen!

    • TKozlows

      Honestly I don’t know why we bother. Whenever it comes to old franchises you have a bunch of punk developers who aren’t really interested in adding to the franchise they just want to make their own game and leach off the fan base for sales. Evidence of this would be the Silent Hill series which is rife with the attitude I just mentioned. They take the name but cut out the heart. To be frank, I am 90% sure I will not buy it simply on the basis that it is an insult to me as a consumer and as a fan of the original intellectual property. And I do mean an insult. They are trying to smoke screen us into buying a product that is not what we want. To me that is an insult as you do not believe me capable of critical thinking. Kind of like games trying to sell me on sex. Fun fact, I stopped buying those games a decade ago.

    • eclypticz

      So….. from all I’ve read so far: No, taff, none of the original voice actors, no other storyline element besides stealing things, hopping into different camera angles, no humor, no monsters, no zombies, cursing guards, whore houses….. Can anyone who has played through every other thief game like I have, tell me how exactly this game is remotely related to the previous 3 enough to even be considered a reboot? This doesn’t even sound like a spinoff. If people don’t believe excellent narration and sound creates incredible immersion and entertainment- maybe they’re just underexposed or ignorant? Look back at the voices behind the legacy of kain series, Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (John Hurt- the storyteller), Sir Ian Murray McKellen’s narrative skills while playing Gandalf, the musical scores of movies like the Harry Potter Series, Predator, Nightmare Before Christmas, etc… Everything I’ve read about this game so far points to no substance; it just seems to blend with most other games today (based on what I’ve described above)… I hope this game studio never decides to resurrect the legacy of kain series! This is just depressing. 🙁

    • Thief Kepper

      Garrett= Stephen Russell …without any doubt

    • Shawn

      QUOTE: There are more 15 year old boys playing video games now, than there are of people like us who played the game when it was first released: UNQUOTE

      I seriously doubt that. Pretty sure us older gamers still out-number the kids by a good amount. And if it wasn’t for me letting my children play the original thief games, they probably wouldn’t be excited about the new game either.

      I was happy with the Deus Ex reboot. But Garrett = Stephen Russell. Instead of messing with the lore of the first three games, they should have introduced a new protagonist.

    • ajwrighter

      The reason why we want Strephen Russell as Garrett, is the same reason why none of us could ever imagine watching a Vincent Price film with Jason Statham’s voice. Both are fine actors, but it just isn’t the same.

    • Dan Ess

      Eidos are fucktards for changing every single thing and still expect it to sell on nostalgia points. I WOULD buy “Burglar Man”, but I won’t pay for this shameless, asswipe attempt to cash in on previous greatness.
      I hope it crashes worse that Kane and Lynch, and I hope heads will roll in the development department of the company. Literally.

    • Lazerbeak

      well lets face it everything gets dumbed down, because it means a broader audience and more sales