The proto-steam punk fantasy world of 1998’s Thief is a world of barons, peasants and priests, where ancient magic clashes with new technologies, and gods of old walk the earth, though mankind fools itself into believing otherwise. Though Garrett will eventually come to realize that the pagan Trickster god is anything but mythological, he first encounters him disguised as a man named Constantine. There are clues scattered throughout the game that hint at his true form, in the whispers on the lips of the City’s peasants, in scribblings in journals and scrolls, and perhaps most effectively, in the paintings and works of art that inhabit the homes of Garrett’s targets. From the very first level, the developers of Thief hint at the Trickster’s true self.
Hung on walls as seemingly no more than another form of loot, currency with which Garrett will stock up his supplies for his next heist, paintings in the world of Thief do a great job of adding flavour and depth to the nameless world. Low-resolution and grainy, they still break up the world’s repeating textures, and give level designers additional props to make a series of empty boxes feel like a person’s library or study. The drunken owner of the first mission’s castle hangs paintings and portraits without pattern or reason, to conceal his new-money status, to aspire to a level in society beyond his station.
2013’s Dishonored, a descendant of Thief’s lineage, uses art assets in the same fashion, portraying a world beyond the levels’ environment maps and giving the player a glimpse of their enemy from their very first moments in the game. Corvo’s escape from prison takes him through a torture room, above which hangs an oil painting of the Lord Regent, the mastermind of Corvo’s imprisonment, and target of his vengeance. Though they will eventually meet at opposite ends of Corvo’s blade later in the game, this is the player’s first introduction, and the level designers place this painting directly in their path to establish Dishonored’s world and its actors, and to inform the player’s motive.
Paintings, posters, and blueprints also give hints of events and regions beyond Dunwall’s borders, and make the game’s levels feel less like arenas and more like locations.
Like in a good movie, proper set dressing in a video game goes a long way towards establishing a world and its tone, and can be used to subconsciously influence the player’s mood and motivations. Building and dressing a video game level is an art beyond enemy placement and managing chokepoints. High-resolution textures and the latest improvements in graphics engines are wasted without a skilled hand knowing how to best put them to use.