Entry #1: “The Circle of Stone and Shadow: Gathering at the Inn” (Thief II, 2003), by Team CoSaS (Daniel Todd, a.k.a. Digital Nightfall, et. al.)

Most of the highly active, highly talented contributors from the early days of Thief II FMs were involved in this one. Gathering at the Inn is a delectable treat. Not massive it is still ingenious. It contains a small building – the inn – with a small cityscape surrounding it. It has superb gameplay and level design, clever ideas and puzzles, original and excellent ambient noises and voice acting, solid story and subtle humor, and much replay value. Along with such FMs as The Inverted Manse and Calendra’s Legacy, this is an early-era classic.

In Gathering at the Inn you play as Dante, one of the thief characters from the greater “Circle of Stone and Shadow” fiction. He is on a trial run for Lord Nightfall, the warden he’s recently signed with, and the objective is to steal a bunch of scepters from members of a scepter owner’s club who are each staying at the “Grieving Burrick” inn. The main goal is a fire mage’s scepter but to disguise the theft of this one item all the scepters, six in total, are to be stolen. Dante must also pick up some loot and, on the highest difficulty, avoid harming anyone but the guards. (Using a blackjack is harmful.)

Gathering begins like the best Thief missions do: by establishing an atmosphere that sucks you in.  After a moody, Thief-y intro cut scene you begin in a pleasant, snow-laden cityscape with complementary ambient sound and a monologue from player-character Dante. Depending on the turns you take you will soon overhear a guard conversation, voiced by the excellent Loanstar, which references the bear pits dialogue. All this lets you know you are in for a treat.

The mission never lets down from the initial good impression. When you’ve entered the inn from above or below, a new catchy ambient track plays and you discover an intricate world of backstory, readables, and puzzles. While navigating all this, you also have to duck past guards in tight little hallways. It’s a challenging mission.

The objectives task you not just to steal the six scepters but also to tamper with four of the guest’s businesses (Master Nightfall is pulling strings). One of the guests, Lady Verrilli, is a sculptor who sells ice sculptures as crystal ones. You have to find a way to ruin her reputation. Then there’s a politician, Lord Pearsall, who must be made so as to not give a speech the next day. And there are a couple of business bigwigs. Foiling them involves swapping a couple documents, replacing an ice pick with a fire wand, and using a handkerchief and a baby burrick in combination (don’t ask) to make someone sick. For all the details you may consult an online walkthrough – here I’ll leave it at: this is a very clever bit of puzzles and scripting. Gathering is in the class of missions that task the player with using atypical items to complete objectives.

To navigate the hotel there is a chimney system that transports you between a few of the rooms. This gives you a backway alternative to the hallways. Getting through the hallways is difficult given the guard presence but if you’re not ghosting you may blackjack them. You may also turn off the power in the basement connected to the electrical lights. This is where one of the more ingenious elements of the mission comes into play. One of the guards and, apparently, a power expert, will turn the generators back on each time you turn them off.

Okay. Easy – knock him out! But here’s the catch: his head is wounded and bandaged up. So if you use the blackjack on him, he dies. Not killing guards is optional, but it still may rest on your conscience. If you want to conveniently turn off the power you have to kill someone.

Now, you can’t knockout the hotel staff. So why didn’t the authors make this guy a staff member? Then you would have to avoid knocking him out and no head injury rigmarole would have been needed. But the hotel staff are apathetic to thieves. So this guy had to care about you – else he’d let you keep the power off . So his head is injured. And each time you turn the power off he says “Holy crap!” so that you can hear him wherever you are. He also mutters a reference to a line from Ultima Underworld and about his application to a power plant. (I love this guy!)

The characters’ voice actors are each excellent. They would go on to voice many NPCs in Thief 2 X. As in that campaign, the dialogue is very amusing.

(Speaking of an Underworld reference, names of the hotels guests, listed four paragraphs up, reference Looking Glass staff members. I’m sure there are more references I didn’t pick up on.)

So the level design is excellent, intricate with multiple paths, and there’s some clever humor. Back stories told through narrative caches are also an important in any Thief mission, as I’ve written elsewhere. In Gathering one set of readables is very memorable: a journal in the attic and in the dining area of the inn. The former is of a man and the latter of a woman describing a wedding that involves burricks and a snake. They’re funny in tandem – you’ll see!

There’s also an amusing journal by “Fang”, the new owner of the inn (he’s the one behind the bar whose drunk and talks like a pirate). And there’s a to-do list for the head-injured power-guard guy.  Plenty of humor to go around!

Once you’ve completed all the tasks and enjoyed the humor of the inn’s staff and guests, you’ll be back out on the streets to meet Sheam, voiced by the excellent Wynne, another member of the circle. The missions ends and is followed by another well-done Thief-y cutscene that makes you want more – and more would come in 2008 with Mission X. That’ll be another entry. For now I leave you with these words: if you want an ingenious and humorous Thief mission Gathering at the Inn is one of the best.

-Below are two videos of my most recent playthrough followed by a shorter “highlights” video.-

 

 

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