Indie Games That Don’t Suck: Trilby: The Art of Theft
Trilby: The Art of Theft is a 2007 2D stealth game by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. Yes, the guy from Zero Punctuation, the motormouthed game reviewer who hates everything. Are his standards as high as those he demands from others?
You might be expecting to see a flimsy vanity project from an internet superstar, but the presentation of The Art of the Theft is professional and the gameplay is very tight and well-optimized. A player quickly grows acclimated to the controls of slipping through rooms, dodging cameras, crawling behind guards, picking locks, and pilfering valuables. Like many great games, it begins simply in order to acclimate the player to what they need to complete more complex levels, which are swiftly coming.
This game does a great job of teaching the skills you need to beat it and then raising the bar. The first level is easy enough with its heavy shadows, idiot guards, and mostly unlocked doors; even a novice gamer should be able to perfectly run through it before long. But the difficulty level raises substantially before long and requires quick navigation of your surroundings, picking locks instantly before the guards can notice you, cutting the power to lights and rushing through temporarily darkened areas.
The Art of Theft is awfully forgiving. Trigger too many alarms or taze too many guards (or if you just screwed up and want to start over) you can exit a stage with no permanent loss and immediately attempt it again without any penalty except for the time invested. As a result you never feel frustrated at a lack of progress and can continue to practice levels and improve your skills until you can beat them flawlessly. The game would be completely different if it had limited lives or took money from you for each loss. As it is, though, you can perfect your runs without having to frequently reset your game like in something like Mega Man Zero. The Art of Theft nearly fulfils the criteria of a game that would be beatable on the first attempt by a player with perfect instincts and reflexes; the only exception would be wirecutting to disable lights and cameras, which have no indicators to help the player and require trial-and-error memorization. Yet this is part of the flow of repeating a level until you can master it and not a serious mark against the game.
The creator’s love of the Thief games is evident, particularly in scattering of loot and the playing around of shadows. More items stolen and more locks picked equals more RP for unlocking new abilities, and not all loot is mandatory to collect. The second level has a brightly-lit treasure-filled art room plastered with movement-detecting lasers and a thief-detecting guard. It’s possible to temporarily disable some of the electronic defenses, but if you’re fantastically skilled you can dip into the room, swipe the precious art, and escape without being noticed. Or if you’re going for a fast time, you can ignore the room and swipe the bare minimum of loot needed to complete the level.
Here’s a stealth game where you don’t slit a single throat. For all the talk of how gruesome and morally bankrupt video games are (and there is certainly merit to this claim, much as my fellow gamers are reluctant to admit), one of the premier game reviewers quietly made a game where violence is both minimal and something to be avoided in an optimal situation. Knocking out (never killing) guards reduces your overall score and therefore increases the playtime required to unlock abilities; an ideal run through a level would be a completely seamless slide around the cameras and security guards (all of which are obviously Yahtzee saying “Hey you!”) to steal objects, pick locks, and complete the plot objectives with nary a murder in sight.
It’s hard to find any flaws in The Art of Theft. The fact that you have to manually save your game is a minor one; since there are no permanent penalties for your mistakes and you’ll always want to improve your runs for more gameplay unlockables, there is no reason to not save as frequently as you can.
Yahtzee was able to justify his constant gripes about other people’s games–before he was even famous–by creating one of his own that is better than the likes of Braid or Minecraft or anything Jenova Chen has ever done, and certainly free of the artgame pretensions of any of his contemporary indie game makers. Yahtzee sometimes has an idea of what he’s talking about when he writes those weekly essays. Trilby: The Art of Theft is not a hugely original idea; stealth has existed in video games since at least 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein going to 2012’s Mark of the Ninja (a similar but somewhat lesser effort than this one). Yet this is a very fine and highly polished project. It’s surprisingly excellent in every area. Play it for free; it’s enjoyable whether you like Yahtzee or not. Pick it up.