The Black Parade is a Thief mod from a team including a dev at Arkane and an original Thief designer

Hear ye! This month marked the 25th birthday of Thief: The Dark Project. While not as infinitely mutable as other 90’s icons like Doom (which just turned 30, and can be played on a pregnancy test), stealth gaming’s grandpappy has maintained an enduring appeal and influence, especially for those more inclined to sneaking than slaughter. Buckets of digital ink have already been spilt examining this legacy, so I won’t dive into the weeds of a hagiography. What I want to highlight is a major event that marked the 25th anniversary – one that makes today as great a time as any to explore Thief’s still-thriving mod scene.

Notable: After a quarter-century, stealth fans were gifted a new, 10-mission Thief campaign called The Black Parade. Pitched as a prequel to the first game, it features a new protagonist, new story, and new heists, built by some of the most lauded modders on the scene. More notable still: The team lead is Romain Barrilliot, a fan-turned-pro designer at Arkane, where he, alongside other former Thief acolytes, iterates the immersive sim tenets in their patented im-sim laboratory. Mostest notablest? One of Thief’s original designers, Daniel Thron, joined The Black Parade’s team – and simultaneously released a new Thief short film, featuring the original game’s voice actors.

Holy gaming ouroboros, Batman! How ever did we arrive at this glorious glut of sneaky goodness? Well, Thief fans have been creating and sharing custom heists since 1999, when developer Looking Glass Studios released their in-house editing tools. These mods, called fan missions (or FMs), now number in the many hundreds. They run the gamut from quirky experiments to intricate multi-mission campaigns, of which The Black Parade is arguably the finest example – and a direct result of all these years of communal creation.

“It is a wonderful world,” Barrilliot says of The City, Thief’s magical-steampunk setting, “with just enough fleshed out elements to build upon, in pretty much any direction one sees fit. So there’s an entire mythos that has been built by fan mission authors. It’s like a new canon within the canon, so to speak.”

Barrilliot had been tinkering with classic games like Thief and Quake for years before stepping up as a professional level designer, first at 3D Realms, then Arkane. But throughout, he kept working on Thief missions, like the RPS-featured Endless Rain, and in 2015 he sketched out the idea that would become The Black Parade. “The plan was to make a retro expansion that could’ve been released back in 1999, like the mission packs for Quake,” Barrilliot explains. “Thief has such a rich universe and such cool mechanics that it was a no-brainer.”

The team became a who’s-who of the mod scene, all with predictably, delightfully eclectic handles. Prinxellier and Firemage joined Barilliot (who goes by Skacky) early on; they then enlisted heavyweights Dr Kubiac, Dirk Bogan, marbleman, and Schlock. (The solo missions made by each of these folks are all extremely worth your time, too.) As work progressed, other fans contributed art, music, voiceover, and hours of QA testing, making it a true village effort. The result is a campaign that both weaves into Thief’s existing lore and references other classic FMs, without ever feeling overindulgent. It also uses an engine upgrade that leaked in 2012, allowing for gargantuan labyrinths thrice the size of the original levels.

A red and white checkered floor sinking beneath an upside-down tree in Thief mod The Black Parade

To be clear, the code itself is still from 1998. The Black Parade, while boasting many upgrades under the hood, is intentionally old-school, with chunky characters and textures that blur when you press your pilfering mug up against them. But that’s a major part of the appeal. “For me it was all about Thief’s atmosphere,” says Rob Strain, who composed music for The Black Parade, and is producing a separate, expansion-sized campaign called Broken Goddess. “I hadn’t encountered anything like it. There’s something special that clicks, that is absent in much AAA slop – something unique in a sea of achievement hunting.”

In other words: The vibes, man. Twenty-five years on, the vibes of Thief remain immaculate. It established a gamefeel capacious enough for noir intrigue, supernatural horror, and steampunk shenanigans to overlap without friction. And a big part of these vibes is that retro aesthetic – which The Black Parade tastefully heightens, using custom textures, animations, and soundbanks to flesh out the world. Every winding alley and haunted tomb feels like a place worth exploring (or, depending on the degree of haunting, desperately worth escaping).

I’m being light on details because the thing is so jammed with fun surprises that anything more than a sketched overview feels like a spoiler. Rest assured you’ll find all the Thief hallmarks here, from opulent mansions to forgotten sanctuaries – often with a decidedly macabre twist. And it’s all great. Like, truly S-tier quality stuff. Even if it weren’t free, the cost-benefit ratio of playing this thing would still be asymptotic.
(My only caveat is that if you’ve never played a Thief FM before, the sheer scale of The Black Parade may be…overwhelming. It is the deep end. You may drown in its luxuriant abyss. As a gateway drug, I’d suggest something like the single-mission gem Heist Society, or if you’re into puzzles (and Doctor Who), Malazar’s Inscrutable Tower. If you dig those, then check out The Black Parade, along with other gorgeous campaigns like The Scarlet Cascabel and Godbreaker.)

A Dark Souls-esque bonfire with sword in Thief mod The Black Parade

A city graveyard in Thief mod The Black Parade

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Romain confesses happily. “I expected it to be shared around a bit, but never did I imagine it would be to this extent. I just hope the release encourages newcomers to try their hand at Thief’s editor, too. It’s a small community, but it is quite welcoming. I have no idea if the game will still live on forty, fifty years from now, but I hope it does, and I hope people keep playing fan-made stuff for it.”

This atmosphere of a welcoming, collaborative community is a hallmark of Thief’s legacy. It’s also how this ouroboros really chomped on its tail – and brought it all full circle. During The Black Parade’s production, Barrilliot was recording the Thief podcast Inside At Last. This episode’s guest happened to be Daniel Thron – one of Thief’s original writers and designers. Spurred by that communal alchemy, Barrilliot naturally asked if Thron would voice a few characters in The Black Parade. And Thron naturally obliged. “I love Thief and I’ve always been noodling in the background, wanting to interact with it again somehow,” Thron says. “And The Black Parade looked amazing. 100% like the old vibe. It felt exactly right.”

Players may know Thron best as the voice of Thief’s blustery guards. But he, with the Looking Glass art team, also established the iconic blend of silhouettes, ink etchings, and animated watercolors that defined the game’s storytelling aesthetic. (The vibes, man.) It’s remained a source of inspiration and pride for twenty-five years; he even released a brand-new Thief short film this year, in the classic style. Unsurprisingly, it features Looking Glass alumni, notably writer-designer (and SHODAN voice actor) Terri Brosius.

A crowded city street in Thief mod The Black Parade

“It’s obviously exciting,” Thron said of plugging into fan projects inspired by own work, “but it is also an extension. To me, the entire Thief community is so creative and they’re all so free with their ideas. It reminds me of working at Looking Glass. It’s an extension of that same vibe.”

Prodded to reflect on the full circle of his time at Looking Glass and the subsequent proliferation of those ideas in the gaming ecosphere, Thron considered, and offered a coda. “The culture at Looking Glass was rare. It was a really special group of people, incredibly creative, open, kind folks. And something about that culture was encoded into what we did; it seems to communicate with like-minded people. And that’s what makes me really happy. Because every fan culture has its own vibe and style, but something about the Thief crew is unique. Every time I talk to them, it’s like going back in a time machine. To know that there’s an enormous amount of people out there like that, and all of them communicate over something like [The Black Parade] and share that same mindset about creativity…it keeps me positive. It is incredibly gratifying.”

You can download The Black Parade from the Thief fansite Through The Looking Glass or from Mod DB. It can be played using the mod launcher included in the GOG version of the game, which you can also download separately for Thief and Thief 2.


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