The Shalebridge Cradle in the third Thief game remains the scariest experience I’ve ever had in all of gaming. For so much of the game, it’s this ominous building you pass by on your way elsewhere in the city. You hear rumors about it, hear its name muttered in fear, until it already possesses a sense of terror before you ever need to go inside.
When you do, it’s so much worse than you could have imagined. This section of Ion Storm’s stellar game, overseen by Dishonored’s Harvey Smith, is a masterpiece of environmental storytelling. Yes, there are awful, shuffling creatures to be feverishly hidden from among its dank, cruel corridors, and yes, they scare the bejesus out of me, but they’re not The Cradle’s true horror. The real menace, that makes this a level you can never shake from your consciousness, is the building’s history.
You know that at one point Shalebridge Cradle was once a sanatorium for the clinically insane. You also know that at one point Shalebridge Cradle was once an orphanage. What you learn as you play (and for goodness sakes, if you haven’t, stop reading now and go play it) is that the two things happened at the same time.
This moment of realization is so brutal, as you put together that those poor children were living in permanent fear of the murderous, dangerous patients, all while cruel doctors performed experiments, and, well, there’s a witch too.
This catastrophic moment rewrites your entire understanding of the place, and makes the rest of the already-terrifying section feel so, so much worse. It’s bad enough as my muscles lock up as I try to evade a shambling, masked monstrosity, leaning into my monitor as if that makes me smaller and less likely to be spotted, but it’s a whole other level of awful when you hear the ghostly fearful voices of the long-dead child inhabitants of this terrible place. Brrrrrrr. —John Walker