Entry #13: A Better Tomorrow (Thief II, 2012), by DrK

DrK of One Night in Rocksbourg fame blessed us taffers with this superb horror mission for the Halloween Contest of 2012. A Better Tomorrow is an I-can’t-believe-this-is-a-contest-FM fan mission; DrK whipped this up in four months! True, it is short, as expected for a contest FM, and he used the map from Greenbay as a base, but the unique experience of this one and its atmosphere of dread are top-notch.

In the beginning you’re locked in a room in the sewers, a Viktrola playing a message from you, Garrett, as the briefing, and an encapsulating ambient noise sounding in the background. The visuals are rendered in black-and-white, adding to the horror effect.

Some creature has Garrett cornered in the sewers. The most effective line from the Viktrola recording and the most spine-chilling line in any Thief mission is: “It knows I’m here.” SlyFoxx delivered it just right.

The dread is thick, and once you unlock the door of your little hide-away room you experience one of the best terror sequences in Thief FMs. Never have I so often escaped to the pause menu, not even in Rose Cottage. DrK’s technique here is similar to the start of the third  Rocksbourg mission, just a little more in-your-face.

Better Tomorrow, screenshot 1

The monsters that have invaded the City are towering humanoids with no defining facial features. They move fast and emit unsettling growls and yells, and gurgle and slobber when they idle. These things make the hair on my neck stand on end and will freak you out. Scarier is that no one knows where they came from. One journal in town takes stabs at guesses, hoping one of them is true. These are Pagan beasts, right? Undead? Victims of a plague? The disturbing truth is that these monsters don’t fit into a comfortable explanation. They’re a mystery, an unknown eldritch force that has exploded from beyond Cragscleft mountains.

Once you’re out of the frying pan of the sewer complex and into the devastated City, you need to find food supplies for your journey to Markham’s Isle, a place Garrett is betting will be safe, and then make your way to the docks. You will pass through ruined buildings – homes and shops both.

Journals relate the final days of normal life in the City. The weight of the desolation pressed heavy on me – DrK uses ruined textures, a gloomy sky, and a depressing set of sounds to create a desolate, depressing atmosphere. Creature moans in the background enhance a feeling of loneliness. The spooky loop that plays when reading journals is chilling. One of the most important sounds in the mission plays whenever you pick up food supplies. If I were a musician, I could tell you the exact kind of noise it is, but, as the person I am, all I can write here is: it’s a dramatic noise that makes you feel that the item you have just picked up is precious. On my first playthrough back in 2012, I paused each time I got a food item. I still do. The noise signals that it’s an important event, worthy of a moment of silence. Every bit of the atmosphere creates a feel of desolation, bare survival, loneliness, and abandonment. You feel scared and left behind. DrK did a phenomenal job with this.

Better Tomorrow, screenshot 2

A few scripted events are implemented to make you cry like a baby and even possibly have an accident like a baby. One shop throws a moving statue trick at you. In one home you’ll hear a slight snoring sound, and soon hear a door bust open and see the source; your way of entrance now blocked, you slink, terrified, out an air duct in one of the other rooms, creeping under the gaze of the now-woken interloper and praying that it doesn’t notice you. When in the Mechanist library, a creature bursts through the front door, jarring you similarly. These well-paced scripted moments keep you unsettled and prevent the tense atmosphere from stagnating.

The Mechanist library is its own world, separate from the rest of the mission. An air raid siren plays, conjuring in my mind all kinds of associations with bombed cities, wars, panic and doom. It’s the kind of crying that makes one feel all is lost, so appropriately here Garrett mutters to himself “I guess I really am the last man standing.” He has seen the dead body of another holdout, the person who had the key to the docks. You hear this victim’s final cries for help as you enter the library. When I heard the creature burst through the door, as noted above, I was ready to bolt this town and leave it far behind. One can only take so much.

Better Tomorrow, screenshot 3

I hope Garrett is right about Markham’s Isle. What if he gets there and, no sooner setting foot on land, hears the sounds of one of those terrible creatures? What if no place is safe from them? What if Garrett is the last man standing, period? Until he reaches the isle, though, all Garrett can do is hope for a better tomorrow, which is all any of us could do in such a situation. Sadly, tomorrow never comes, remaining an elusive time we can keep putting all our hope and plans into, never worrying that they won’t come to fruition, because it’s always the next day.

Don’t put off A Better Tomorrow to tomorrow – play it today. Whatever else you were planning to do can wait.

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