Thief-bots: non-traditional enemies

Hey! Remember enemy thieves in old computer games? Maybe not? They’d steal your equipment or your weapons and you’d have to chase them down to get your things back. I remember that. I remember how frustrating and painful those moments were. And yet, I look back at them with a certain fondness.

I started thinking about this while I was playing Descent 2 recently. There’s this Thief-bot that steals your ship’s equipment and your weapons; there’s exactly one in every level. He (or she(or it)) is this little mother fucker that scurries around at alarming speeds and pops out of nowhere to steal your shit. Sometimes the only knowledge you have of his presence is the console message that says something like, “Thief-Bot stole headlamps.” Then you go spinning around trying to spot him but you can’t because everything is dark because your headlamps were stolen and the guy is super fast, like a small athletic rat. God damn Thief-bot. So, while playing Descent 2 I was more terrified of the Thief-bot than any other enemy in the entire game. I didn’t feel safe in a level until I’d killed the Thief-bot. I my tactics During Thief-bot were very different than After Thief-bot. In D.T. I would creep along the level, hugging the walls and tentatively peeking around corners. I’d try to always keep a dead end, wall, or known route at my back so it couldn’t sneak up on me. Once spotted I’d try to corner him in some dead end and spend many minutes trying to route him from his hiding spot while not letting him escape. In A.T. I’d go careening around the level at full speed blasting away at everything that haphazardly swung into my vision.

“Nobody does this anymore in game design, probably because it’s frustrating,” I thought to myself in this article. “But isn’t this interesting, here’s this enemy that’s more worrisome and terrifying than all other bad guys, and he doesn’t even target my health. I can never die to this guy and yet I fear him. I’m changing my entire approach to the game for long periods of time because of his existence.”

It reminded me of one other memorable example of a Thief Enemy.

When I was a kid I’d play a game called Scarab of Ra on my dad’s black and white Apple SE. Scarab of Ra  is(was) a turn based maze exploration game set in the levels of the recently discovered Pyramid of Ra. As you found keys to descend through the increasingly elaborate mazes you’d find treasure, traps, gold, equipment, food left by previous explorers, and wild animals that had wandered into the pyramid. How long you lasted was determined by your health and hunger and how well you tended to each. While lions, cobras, and various traps could damage your health, the monkey was much more terrifying because it could steal your stuff.

Sometimes a monkey would steal inconsequential things like a piece of charcoal or one of your six bottles of snake bite cure. However, they were just as likely to steal something important like the key to exit the level, treasures that are necessary to winning the game, or your food. Also the monkeys would steal your lantern which, with Descent’s Thief-bot, begs the question, “What the hell is with these thieves stealing your lightsource?” Point is, I was more scared of monkeys than any other enemy including the nigh-invincible mummies. Take a look at this walkthrough video that perfectly illustrates what I mean. Start at 1:30 for the monkey:

This player has the misfortune of running into TWO monkeys which proceed to steal everything he has and then, once he has nothing, twit his nose.

Now it’s really rare to run into two monkeys on one level in Scarab of Ra, but the point remains: monkeys will fuck you up worse than any other danger. I mean, who cares if a snake bites you. Just drink some snake bite cure, you’ve got like five bottles. I once drank all my snake bite cure just to see if I’d get drunk. I didn’t. The  only solution to being stolen from? Either give up and try to continue, or go through the tedious dance of getting it back. Since monkeys only steal from your inventory you can drop everything safely on the ground. Keeping only some shiny gold (monkeys like shiny things) you just keep walking into the monkeys in the hopes they take the gold and drop the other items. Then you’ve got to pick up all your items that you dropped and try not to meet the monkey on the way to the exit.

The monkeys changed my strategy completely. If I had a net, which could be used to immobilize an animal, and I ran into a lion or a snake I didn’t bother with it. I just let those animals maul me and staggered on my way. That net was reserved for a monkey. I always tried to have a contingency for monkeys.

It was frustrating, but looking back I notice it added a lot of character to that game. It added a bit of depth to the gameplay and made the pyramid a little more frightening.

[TVtropes cites some other enemies of this sort here:]

When I mentioned all this to a friend of mine he pointed out that part of what makes Thieves so terrifying is that they attack the player as opposed to the player character. They are meta-enemies and their non-physical, social violence is a meta-attack. As my friend pointed out, Grondar the Bold probably would prefer to lose his axe than his head; Grondar fears death more than the player since Grondar can’t quickload, while the player fears theft more than Grondar. Theft doesn’t hurt Grondar, but it hurts the player; the player has to waste time trying to get his items back and while he doesn’t have weapons he can’t have as much fun; the game is put on pause, essentially.

A similar argument can be made about enemies that blind or disorient the player through weird visual effects are briefly changing key binding. While those are attacks against the player’s avatar, the meta-attack against the player is much worse. The physical functionality of his electronic equipment has been broken; the meta-attack distances the player from the game by derailing the physical access to the game.

So that’s pretty bad; the player should never be attacked, only his avatar. Still, I do look back at that monkey in Scarab of Ra with a certain fondness. This type of enemy did add extra character and extra wrinkles to Descent 2. So, I fell that somewhere the heart of this gameplay device (thief enemy) there lies some great gameplay innovation waiting to emerge. I think designers should look more into this.

Usually if a game designer wants an enemy to be more intimidating they make it bigger, faster, hit harder, or soak up more damage. A Thief-bot is threatening but not from physical violence. The meta-violence is a little too much, too frustrating, but there’s something there.

There are some other enemies that straddle the middle ground between Thief-bot and regular enemy. There are enemies that heal, resurrect, or spawn other enemies. There are enemies that buff other enemies (Dante’s Inferno actually has a good example of the latter kind of enemy). Both those cases involve increasing the strength of your opposition however which isn’t a big leap in enemy design. There are some enemies that attack you by making other enemies aware of your presence like those vomit guys in Left For Dead, or like security cameras.

What about an enemy that rearranges the environment as you play? Or who shifts gravity? How about an enemy that opens and closes doors on you (I’m reminded of your shadow in the original Prince of Persia)? Or an enemy that grabs and uses consumable items before you can get to them (shadow in PoP again)? What about an enemy that starts pick pocketing and stealing from you if you get too rich in Skyrim? What about an enemy that shoots you, but with a portal, so you get teleported to a random location? Actually that last one makes me think that many of the guns found in “Guns that don’t exist” One and Two could be attacks used by non-traditional enemies that don’t use physical violence.


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