The Thief series has always been a spooky, shadow-laden franchise, but The Forsaken is an exercise in sheer, unadulterated terror.
There are plenty of great horror franchises in the gaming world. Resident Evil is arguably the king, paving the way for similarly spooky, blood-soaked offerings that have become trademarks of the genre. If Resident Evil initially focused more on bloody thrills than genuine terror, series such as Silent Hill and The Evil Within explicitly exploited psychological horror in a bid to carve out a niche. Dead Space, meanwhile, took the sci-fi premise and, in a homage to franchises like Alien, brought nerve-shredding terror to the far reaches of outer space.
The thing about these series, however, is that they all bill themselves explicitly as horror titles. Few could pick up a copy of Left 4 Dead or Outlast and conceive them to be anything other than games designed to shock, thrill, and terrify in equal measure. Because of this, players go into these games knowing what to expect and are able to mentally prepare themselves from the outset for what lies ahead — something gamers likely would not be able to do when picking up a copy of Square Enix‘s Thief.
The Thief series has always indulged in the smoky, gothic fantasy aesthetic but, Shalebridge Cradle aside, it rarely truly tips over into outright horror. Set in “The City,” players take control of veteran thief Garrett as he uncovers a supernatural conspiracy and unlocks the secrets of his former assistant’s disappearance. It’s not the finest entry in the series canon, but 2014’s Thief stands out for one level in particular: The Forsaken.
Having experienced a vision telling him that his former partner Erin was once held in a mental institution, Garrett travels to Moira Asylum to investigate any record of her incarceration. While the game dabbled in the supernatural and the darkly fantastical up until this point, The Forsaken plunges players into a masterclass in how to render a horror level to elicit the maximum, terrifying effect.
The Asylum isn’t an inviting prospect. Only accessible by rowboat, the institution’s imposing grey edifice feels cold and authoritarian. It was a miserable place for its inhabitants even before it was closed and abandoned, its grounds and surroundings cloaked in an eerie grey smog that never quite seems to clear. Inside, it’s the perfect realization of how to construct a map to fit the level’s purposes, with wide-open staircases replaced by long stretches of the corridor. Each wing runs parallel to the other, meaning that players standing in one wing can see the other side. When a light mysteriously comes on or off from across the building, one can’t help but feel a sense of cold, creeping dread that something odd is going on inside the now-derelict institution.
Troublesome lights aren’t the only psychological trick Moira Asylum plays on its unwelcome guests. From the moment Garrett steps inside the hulking Victorian facade, it’s clear he isn’t alone. What isn’t so clear is the extent to which he has company. What makes The Forsaken so terrifying is it rarely reveals its full hand, instead showing glimpses of horrors that may not even be real. Players can look into cell rooms via keyholes, but they rarely get to see the entire space. The most effective of these is the level’s use of peripheral movement. Players may turn and spy a ghostly figure before it slides quickly away down another corridor, just too late to be seen, if indeed it was ever there. Just like the inhabitants themselves, The Asylum has players questioning their own senses.
Things become more nakedly horrific as Garrett descends into the bowels of the Moira Asylum and discovers that most of the inhabitants of the asylum have been killed or else corrupted into so-called Freaks. Here, the level evolves into a clear fight for survival. While it trades off the psychological terror of the higher levels for simpler, more tangible scares, there’s certainly nothing comforting about being trapped in the lower levels of the building with little hope of escape if things go wrong.
The Forsaken is so terrifying because it is so unexpected and does what all great horror does: show just enough to evoke fear, then leaving the rest to the imagination. Instead of blatantly showing the horrors within the Asylum’s walls, The Forsaken only provides hints. This means the player is always in a state of terrifying tension, second-guessing the horrors that may lie in store. Thief may not be the greatest game in the series, but it’s worth revisiting for The Forsaken alone — just make sure to put the lights on first.
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Harry Alexander (38 Articles Published)
Harry Alexander is a writer from London specializing in gaming and TV. If he’s not currently out trying to pet strangers’ dogs, he can be found watching reruns of Fawlty Towers and playing Age of Empires II. This is his Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarryAl55.