Three Violent Minutes with a Game That Remembers Why It Hates You
'Thousand Threads' gives its NPCs just enough memory and motivation to create a Hobbesian hellscape.
The basic pitch for Thousand Threads is something that a lot of games try: A world in which characters remember your actions, form opinions about decisions you've made, and react consequently. "Give, take, save, kill, inform, hide, be loyal, betray," says the game's description.
Then, equally interestingly, "with every new game, the characters' traits and relationships are randomized." This is a style of game design that I love. Whether through the carefully manicured courtly chaos of Crusader Kings 2 or the bars and ports full of distant relatives in Sol Trader, the prospect of wading through procedural characters appeals to me greatly.
"Watch what can happen," said the email subject line, "in three minutes of Thousand Threads." I wasn't quite sure what I was expecting. When I'd last seen the game, it was called Great Cascade but it had faded into the background as development continued quietly. I remembered its art style, though. Flat, rich colours: one part Eidolon, one part Proteus. Figures in broad hats walking through fields of tall grass.
I was not expecting the three minutes to be quite so surprising and funny.
The demo begins when the developer, Brett Johnson, encounters an NPC called Dorinda, who recruits him to help find out who stole some items from her. "Here is what I need," she says, "and a bit about what happened." A timeline unfolds on the screen. "[Unknown] attacked Dorinda. [Unknown] knocked out Dorinda. [Unknown] stole from Dorinda."
Here is what has been stolen from Dorinda: Three healing items. Three rocks. 78 coins. I wonder what she misses most.
The player receives a clue, too: a list of possible witnesses, who he hunts down. One of the witnesses quickly identifies the culprit, Sung, who is lying unconscious on the floor, clearly the victim of a previous fight. The player recovers the items from the Sung's body, and then all kinds of procedural hell breaks loose.
This is at around minute one.
The real star of this video, which I have now watched numerous times, is the surprise Johnson's voice as increasingly outlandish encounters happen. Any pretense at a polished, scripted development video is dropped almost immediately when somebody witnessing him recovering the stolen items mistakes him for another thief and attacks. He begins to try and describe the game's systems but interrupts himself gleefully as other NPCs join the fray. "The characters all have unique opinions, and personality traits, and memories, and goals—".
Somebody else begins to chase him. "Oh shoot. Sung's awake."
At around this point he mis-throws a rock and it hits Dorinda and it's just a complete disaster. Just a real mess.
As well as the surprise in Johnson's voice, a very clear sense of pride shines through: the weird computer children he made are acting out, sure.
They're also acting out in a way that is extremely entertaining. There's a precociousness to their grudge-driven animosity that hints at the kind of game Thousand Threads could be.