Commentary on Eidos-Montreal's Thief Trailer "Uprising" (2013).


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I've been an adherent of the Thief series since 1998, and if anyone doesn't know of them, the series is now being ret-conned by Eidos-Montreal. Here is the youtube link for their trailer.

Well, what do you think of that? I was really taken aback by the intensity of its anti-industrialism, like a statist-inspired Industrial Revolution being the focal point of total misery. The original games, particularly the first two, I can happily defend as being broadly of Romantic Realism (not perfectly so, but certainly when you see it in contrast to the Naturalism of Deus Ex).

I think this trailer reveals the game will be almost hysterical in its denunciation of capitalism. Where all progress and all industry exploit everyone to the point of rebellion. Past historical periods where this kind of conflict occurs is typically when nobilities repress the surrounding populace through force, combined with a derogation of individual rights. When countries progress in (scientific) industry there is, overall, a rise in population because of a rise in the standard of living. Right? I think if such a city portrayed here had this potential level of technology, it would have to have a decent socio-political structure to support it. The previous Thief series did take place during a Dark Age, but the rift of rich and poor came from (medieval-esque) ideological suppression, not evil industrialists—and it never looked so hellish as this. You could argue that whatever industrialisation the original Thief had was in stasis anyway, and that its unique brand of supernaturalism basically shortcut it from having a profound impact on the culture.

A good book on this scenario is Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1990. Tilly, a well-known sociologist, shows how a state (or nation or government) that is coercion-rich is as a corollary capital-poor (e.g. historically, Russia). To be very brief, when the two dynamics are made to balance, you have the rise and dominance of the modern national state. That is, a state that utilises and encourages capital (trade, property rights etc.) to finance stronger and more stable coercion (taxation, military, then later social services). And behold, our modern, mixed economies. Such states today are better equipped to survive (militarily) against other forms of state­—hence the disappearance or elimination into the modern age of city-states, their leagues or empires (Venice) and of the bulky empires (Ottoman).

After the Baron delivers his authoritarian speech on sacrificing the weak for the sake of technological progress, Garrett makes his captatio benevolentiae with his definition of this progress being “taking jobs from the poor; padding the pockets of the rich.” Wait, what? Who is taking these jobs from the poor? Are the rich working these jobs themselves? Are they using ghosts? How is the elimination of urban workers still producing wealth to be stolen? Maybe all their manufacturing and construction is automated. If so, how are they limiting such products for only the wealthy? How is the suppression of a rising market of new industries causing a singular outcome of riches for the rich? Who are the people inventing or producing new technologies? Do they have a right to their products? Wealth is not made in a vacuum.

One man dictating all industry in the name of “progress” is more aligned to fascism. Even taking into account that it is a fantasy (although the series have been deliberately made less steampunk over the years), you cannot have a coercive-rich society that is blind to rights yet somehow be technologically progressing for only the nobility. (Eidos-Montreal are perhaps blending into one indistinguishable soup hereditary nobles, capitalists, industrialists, Bertie Woosters and the plutocrat). It asks us to believe that you could simultaneously have an industrialising aristocracy while the rest remain in medievalistic poverty. Any sovereign would have to place so much force and control over the populace that outcomes of “industry” and “progress” (let us say for example with the modest prospect of improved textiles, mining and shipping) would be negligible, if even achievable. You cannot run a city into the ground while producing endless quantities of wealth. I think it is unfortunate because it helps reinforce the concept that capitalism is all zero-sum, and where selfishness is equated to riding roughshod over anyone. Implicit also is the idea that innovation just pops new things into existence. And judging by the trailer, Eidos-Montreal have simply pushed this notion of capitalism to extremism for their plot-theme ("the central conflict determining events"). In short, I think the trailer shows their philosophical naivety with this contradiction that you can somehow have significant and meaningful industrialisation without freedom.

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