Trilby: Art of Theft Critique

January 29th, 2009

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This was written several months ago and was going to be featured somewhere else, but I changed my mind as I found it more suitable for this blog.

Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is most famous for playing the role of court jester in this industry void of influential game critics with his remarkably popular video segment Zero Punctuation on The Escapist. Trilby: Art of Theft (a freeware adventure title) showcases Croshaw’s natural aptitude to solid game design and clever writing.

You play the role of Trilby, a sophisticated cat burglar versed in the ‘art of theft’. While Trilby is sharper than most, he’s not yet professional, a point which aches at his perfectionist nature. Trilby’s concern over his imperfections provide the means to connect the protagonist (and his character) to the experience at hand.

Preluding each heist is a narrative scene featuring a block of scrolling text in which Trilby prescribes his thoughts of the events layed before him. The text is sort of like a mini-blog that allows the player to get a feel for current Trilby’s woes and worries. This brief insight is interesting not only because it acts as a free ride for Croshaw to display his fine writing skills but also to build understanding between Trilby’s character and the player. This works well in two ways. Firstly, it acts as a driver to encourage the player to be endeavorous with each heist – just as Trilby’s personality exerts – and secondly to justify the game’s difficulty which is steep enough to fall in line with Trilby’s continually high aspirations.

Heists are presented in a two-dimensional doll’s house perspective, allowing the player to see into each room of the building or complex. Throughout each heist is a series of obstacles for the player to crawl through. The obstacles are smaller chunks of gameplay wrapped into the stealth thematic which together constitute the gameplay. Their simple forms and native structure make them flexible set pieces for the environments.

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The layout of each area often presents several interweaving, multi-branched passages for the player to traverse. Much like any thief on the late night prowl, you’ll need to understand your environment and plan the best course of entry before leaping into the exercise. While there are some routes obviously more difficult – and usually shorter – than others, quite often there is enough flexibility that you’ll be choosing routes based on personal preferences. The difficulty of each route depends on the obstacles presented. You may find that taking on guards is easier than dodging lasers and so forth. As such you need to have an awareness of where your in-game strengths lie, an attribute which likens itself to the process of assessing and then selecting the most risk averse path. Much like the mindset of a real professional burglar.

The next attribute of theft that Trilby sinks into is observation. Observation is obviously needed in the planning stages, but even more so before the execution. In the same way that a thief sits in the shadows, watching and waiting for the right time to strike you’ll need to do the same. The game complements cat-burglar-like patience and observation with its fundamental mechanics. You can hide in low light, cling to the walls in shadows and in emergencies stick to the ceiling for a limited time in bright light. Each of these options mean that a hiding place is never too far away, allowing you to duck out for a quick second to observe movement patterns of laser, guards, flashing lights before jumping back into play. You’ll need to do this quite frequently as well, which reinforces the importance of stealth.

There are additional techniques which can be bought between heists in exchange for loot as well as existing techniques and attributes. There is quite a diverse make up of options available and all prove useful with no real excess. It is one of the small ways that makes Trilby varied, despite being a largely linear game.

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Finally we have execution. Strategy and observation can only get you so far, in reality it’s all up to the execution. That is coming from out of the shadows and making the move to the next progressive area. The game imposes a few restrictions which can be loosened (again, in exchange for loot) such as a limit on alerts and taser uses. The taser (attached to the end of Trilby’s umbrella) stuns enemies for the course of the entire heist and is a safety measure for when they spot you and reach for the alert.

As mentioned Trilby enjoys quite a diverse skill set and even when the scope of techniques begin to tire, the game is sure to throw in new distractions to spice things up. Lock picking is a good example of this, safes and the odd door require the player to jump into a small microgame in which you feed a wire through the key hole.

Trilby’s greatest asset is its ability to place you in the role of the protagonist. The gameplay constituents and the way they click together, all act as building blocks for these exercises of strategy, observation and execution, related to the discipline, and art of theft. Trilby’s characterization then layers on top providing stimulation to the player within the environment. When you fail at a heist, you begin to think just like Trilby as the game’s well executed formation of the core principles of theft (strategy, observation, execution) guilt your failure. It’s all very well thought out and designed, and is one of the more developed independent titles I have played.

You may also be interested in reading this review of the title written by L.B. Jeffries of Pop Matters.

  • I really enjoyed how the game mirrored Trilby’s desire to be a great thief with the game design. Like you said, the perks and challenges to get that hat score are so varied that the game opens itself up to a variety of players. You can jam through quickly and see how the game ends, then you can go back and challenge yourself to unlock more content.

    I loved the white suit challenge in particular. Getting through any of the levels without shadows to help is a helluva chore.