‘Help! I’ve been spotted!’ Terry Pratchett on Thief, his favourite video game

·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

In the early 2000s, the Discworld author frequented a forum dedicated to the Thief series of stealth games. His posts provide a fascinating insight into his fondness for gaming

In November 2001, Terry Pratchett was in Chester, famed for its Roman ruins and well-preserved medieval architecture. Staying at a hotel in the city centre, Pratchett opened the window of his room, and looked across the historic skyline. “I realised I could drop down on to a roof,” he wrote later. “And from then on there was a vista of roofs, leads and ledges leading all the way to the end of the street and beyond; there were even little doors and inviting attic windows …

There is a line break, and then he adds. “I’m going to have to stop playing this game.”

Pratchett was not considering a new career as a cat burglar. He was reflecting on his favourite video game – Thief II: The Metal Age. Released in March 2000, Thief II was the sequel to 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, a pioneering stealth game set in a gothic fantasy world. In both games, players donned the cowl of Garrett, a laconic master thief partly inspired by Raymond Chandler’s PI Philip Marlowe. Thief charged players with breaking into medieval mansions, rooftop apartments, banks, cathedrals even police stations, stealing as much coin and valuables as they could while avoiding patrols of sword-wielding guards.

Pratchett’s relationship with video games is well documented. Always technologically savvy, he was an early adopter of PC gaming, and enjoyed everything from Doom to Deus Ex and Call of Duty. He even helped to create a mod (an unofficial add-on) for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, writing lines of dialogue for a character. But Pratchett held a particular affection for Thief. He played all three games in the series, and often contributed to a Usenet newsgroup named alt.games.thief-dark-project.

That newsgroup, analogous to a modern forum, has long since been deactivated, but its posts survive in a Google groups archive. Combined, they provide a fascinating record of Pratchett’s evolving relationship with both the Thief series and video games in general.

Pratchett first appears on the forum in August 2001. Like so many players who become involved in online communities, he posted because he was stuck. In a post titled: “Help! Spotted Every time” he requests assistance with Thief II’s eighth mission Trace the Courier, in which players must follow a Lieutenant of the City Watch as she carries a secret message to an unknown recipient. “Whatever I do, the game ends on the basis that I’ve been spotted – even if, as I head up the slope, I go invisible. Can anyone help, please?” Pratchett wrote.

But he soon begins to share his own thoughts on the game. In a post titled: “Favourite Thief II Mission”, he chooses Life of the Party, an expansive level wherein Garrett gatecrashes an extravagant reception hosted inside a vast, mechanised tower, infiltrating the structure via the city’s rooftops. “Life of the Party before you get to the tower seemed to me what [Thief] should all be about,” he wrote. “High above the city in a world of your own, exploring every opportunity, with no other goal than ‘nick anything you find’, and the sounds of the Watch are floating up from below …”

Pratchett liked that Thief II was a game that you could finish without killing anyone, which appealed to his personal morals. “I get edgy in games that require killing as an objective,” he wrote in July 2002. “But being able to hide from guards who appear to have amazing acuity sometimes is a talent in itself.” He also liked that Thief II let you solve its problems at your own pace, and in your own way. “I think a game goes wrong when you start to fight the programmer rather than the game,” he observes. “The Thief games are good in this respect – there are plenty of problems, but they can be solved by forethought, care, cunning, lateral thinking or running like hell.”

There was shared lineage between Thief’s nameless city and Pratchett’s own work in the Discworld novels. Both take popular fantasy tropes and recontextualise them into a more human world, unafraid to explore the weirder edges of fantasy. Thief’s bumbling, grumbling guards share certain traits with Pratchett’s own motley crew of city watchmen. Pratchett was fascinated by Thief’s rich and distinctive atmosphere. “I wonder what the quintessential ‘Thief’ quality is? The sense of ‘being there’? The feeling of free exploration?’” he pondered in 2003. “THE Thief moment was me dreamily roping my way from beam to beam across that big hall in the Bank, while below me the guards patrolled. No other game has offered that, although Deus Ex had its moments.”

Posting under his own name, Pratchett’s presence on the forums did not go unnoticed by the wider community. “Having Terry involved was a very cool experience,” says David Geelan, an associate professor at Australia’s Griffith University, and a contributor to the alt.games Thief forum during the same period as Pratchett. “This was an early example of an author I was a big fan of engaging with something else I loved.” This sentiment is shared by another user, Mika Latokartano. “Being a big fan of Discworld novels, it was naturally great to see him on the forums and to be able to exchange a few words with a world-famous author.”

It’s worth pausing at this point to ask: how did the community know this was the real Terry Pratchett, and not some impostor masquerading as the author for a jape? Geelan points out that Pratchett didn’t make a big deal out of his identity, and his purpose on the forums appeared earnest. Geelan believed he could “recognise [Pratchett’s] ‘voice’ from both the novels and the various interviews with him I’d read and seen.” The most compelling evidence, however, is the email attached to that particular usenet account - tpratchett@unseen.demon.co.uk – an account fans had used to send emails to Pratchett since the early 90s.

Pratchett and his daughter Rihanna at home in 1998.
Pratchett and his daughter Rhianna at home in 1998. Photograph: Alexander Caminada/Rex

“I tried to be cool and just be a fellow gamer and not​ behave like a fan,” Geelan says. Nonetheless, the community sometimes couldn’t help but wonder about the relationship between Discworld and Thief. Pratchett addressed their questions patiently but definitively. When one community member asked whether Pratchett had spotted any references to Discworld in Thief, he answered: “I’ve been careful not to look for DW references. There’re quite a few similarities between the city and Ankh-Morpork but that is because they’re drawing on the same general tradition.”

When another user asked whether any of Thief had inspired Ankh-Morpork, Pratchett was a touch more sarcastic. “Well, sure. From now on I’ll definitely set my books in a quasi-medieval city with anachronistic modern touches, like a police force, and I’ll definitely have these guys who wear black and sneak around the rooftops)”. That said, Pratchett makes minor nods to Thief in some later Discworld novels, such as Night Watch. In July 2002, months before the book’s launch, Pratchett mentions a “moment” that is “only a reference for taffers” (a slang insult used by Thief’s guards). “A corridor, one lamp out, barely any shadow … you’ll see,” he teases.

Thief II was Pratchett’s first experience with the series, and his favourite. He called The Dark Project “Tomb Raider with edged weapons”. The third game, Deadly Shadows, didn’t come out until 2004. “I sure hope T3 takes after T2,” he wrote in December 2001. “The ‘genius’ of the Thief world is in levels like The Bank, or Life of the Party – proper honest thieving.” Deadly Shadows didn’t quite live up to Pratchett’s expectations, but he praised the game’s most famous mission – Robbing the Cradle – for its intense atmosphere and cunning use of horror. “I’ve always said I play Thief for the immersion, but on that one I came closer to drowning,” he wrote about the infamous orphanage-turned-insane-asylum. “Insofar as it does exactly the job it sets out to do, this is a wonderful level.”

Outside Thief II, Pratchett’s favourite Thief experiences were delivered by Fan Missions, or FMs. Thief has a small but dedicated community which, over the years, has created hundreds of custom maps for the game. Many of these are enormously ambitious, and Pratchett frequently praises the talent on show in FMs such as Durant, Lord Alan’s Fortress, and Calendra’s Legacy. “I can’t help being amazed again at the quality of so many FMs.” he wrote in July 2003. “I recently played through T2, and some original missions paled by comparison.”

Pratchett continued posting until the end of 2006. By this point, he’d been introduced to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a fantasy RPG that featured stealth systems similar to Thief, but in a much larger world to explore. Ironically, it was a user of the Thief forums who put Pratchett on to Oblivion. In April 2006, Mika Latokartano asked Pratchett: “Have you tried Oblivion yet?”, to which he responded: “No, but it’s now been ordered.” Two days later, Pratchett posted again, writing “Aaargh! What have you done to me? Bought the game on your recommendation, and now I see my life slipping away.”

Pratchett’s posts on the alt.games Thief forum are a unique record. Not only do they evidence in detail an artist’s heartfelt affection for another type of art, they also represent a mode of interaction between a creator and fans that is far less viable in the age of mass social media. Geelan, who around this time also frequented a cyberpunk forum visited by William Gibson, notes that “authors could react more directly with the few hundred or couple of thousand people who might have been on a web forum or usenet group in the mid 90s, than with the millions or tens of millions who would want that contact now.”

On the alt.games newsgroup, Pratchett may have been posting as a famous writer, but he was also posting as a fan, with all the unabashed enthusiasm, obsession with minor details, and debates that entailed. Thief established common ground between him and the rest of the community, allowing them to talk on level terms, and share in the devious delights the game offered. Nothing demonstrates this better than a post he made in June 2002, titled “Back in the dark”. “Brothers and sisters, I hay-ave sinned,” Pratchett began. “I forsook the true path, and took the way of Medal of Honour, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and even of Alien v. Predator 2, for the new games machine here was top of the line.

“And then I reloaded T2 the other night, and how nice and calm it all is. Just me, the night, the occasional jingle of a key, and the thwop of blackjack on helmet. Here’s to stealth gaming. I’m back.”