Math, Mysteries, and Thievery

Welcome to the FM Author Spotlight, a series of interviews that provides an exclusive peek into the world of fan mission creators. In this episode, we are talking to Trefoilknot, an author of several intriguing levels that introduce mathematical and philosophical concepts into the world of Thief.

Aemanyl: Please introduce yourself and tell us how you discovered the Thief games.

Trefoilknot: I’m Matt, a 34 year old professor at a university in Philadelphia PA, USA. I got into Thief in 1998 at the age of 9. We had just gotten a Windows computer (always had just Macs before) and home internet, and the first thing we did was look up if any cool new games were coming out for Windows. We saw an article about a recently released first-person stealth game, and thought it looked cool- it was! My brother (3 years old than me) and I played through it over the course of the next couple months, occasionally getting stuck (e.g., not knowing what a "grotto" was in Haunted Cathedral or a "keystone tree" in Undercover), but we were hooked! I discovered DromEd in 1999 with the arrival of Thief Gold, but I didn’t find out about the FM community until a couple years later.

Aemanyl: Judging from the content of the three missions that you have released so far, would it be accurate to assume that you enjoy puzzle-type missions? Additionally, do you have any other preferred genres, styles, or themes of fan missions?

Trefoilknot: Yes, puzzle-centric FMs are far-and-away my favorite. I love when there’s an emphasis on puzzles and exploration, rather than on difficult stealth (sacrilege, I know). I enjoy a stealthy sequence here or there, but I much prefer piecing together clues, solving puzzles and exploring. Some of my absolute favorites would be: Ominous Bequest and Broken Triad, Sepulchre of the Sinistral, Malazar’s Inscrutable Tower, The Den, Death’s Turbid Veil, and Ink and Dust. Haplo's missions are also up there - they always bring some fun new ideas to the table. Towers of Twilight is a recent favorite of mine.

They’re often looked down upon, but I actually really enjoy a well-paced keyhunt style mission, so long as the key locations are logical (looking at you ANiR1!). I tend to find that gated progression works really well; I enjoy the sequence of curiosity, wonder and progress that comes when you finally get through that locked door to find out what’s behind it. Seven Sisters, Rowena’s Curse, Ominous Bequest, Broken Triad, Rose Cottage, Seventh Crystal, and most of Eternauta’s and Gaetane’s work pull this off nicely, in my view. I know that many people prefer more sandboxy freedom (e.g., the allure of wide open city maps). I enjoy these too, but often find them a bit daunting/overwhelming. I usually prefer a more curated experience that dictates a sequence of events, and gives me that emotional arc of curiosity/suspense → surprise → wonder → achievement. I don’t want to feel "on rails", though; it’s a tricky balancing act.

Aemanyl: Can you walk us through your typical DromEd workflow? Where do you typically begin, and how do you approach the different stages of mission development?

Trefoilknot: I typically start each mission with an idea for the theme, story and an assortment of puzzle concepts I want to incorporate. Then my actual DromEd work is often a little scattershot. I usually go room-by-room, building out the important pieces, often with a particular photo or architectural feature inspiring what I want to do with the room. I rarely have an overall idea of the entire layout when I start (the exception to this being The Sunken Temple of Dielya). I instead just build as inspiration strikes, and occasionally realize I’ve boxed myself into a corner that I need to find a way out of. I’m sure I could be more efficient, but I doubt I’ll make any major changes to my workflow at this point. Until I start collaborating with someone else (always a good way to enforce better habits), I’ll probably keep doing it the way that’s familiar.

Aemanyl: What would be your proudest achievement in DromEd?

Trefoilknot: Hm, it’s hard to narrow it down to a single one. But three especially impactful ones would be:

1) The "Projection Room" in Bertrand’s Forgotten Tomb was the first puzzle I designed in DromEd that made me think I could actually complete a fan mission and release it to the public, and have it be worthwhile. Without this one, I probably would never had released anything.

2) The "Spectacles of Extra-Dimensional Experience" and the Paintings; their use to extract the Aleph Stone is probably my best-designed puzzle, to-date. It’s tight, subtle and clever, but still just straightforward enough that most players seem to have figured it out on their own, without needing assistance.

3) As far as technical achievements go, the portal in The Sunken Temple of Dielya is by far the most impressive thing I’ve produced. (see FenPhoenix’s NSFW reaction to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jggorA2eS7I&t=768s) The mission itself is somewhat barebones (though I was pleased with how most of it turned out), having been a speed-build mission that I built in about 4 days of solid DromEd time. But I truly believe the portal technique I developed is among the cooler technical effects implemented in any thief FM out there. I had hoped it would catch on, but so far no one else has wanted to wrestle with it (understandably…). I’m planning to use it quite a bit more in future work.

Aemanyl: Your magnum opus, Heist at Hilbert’s Highrise Hotel, incorporates numerous mathematical and philosophical concepts and problems. Where do you find inspiration for your fan missions?

Trefoilknot: Not just Heist at Hilbert’s Highrise Hotel, but in fact all three of my released missions. Bertrand’s Forgotten Tomb was about Mathematician/Philosopher Bertrand Russel, who was famous for his self-referential paradoxes. Heist at Hilbert’s Highrise Hotel was primarily about Hilbert and Cantor’s work on the nature of infinity, and the resulting feuds with Brouwer, Kronnecker and Poincare. There were some Cameos of other mathematicians thrown in for good measure. Sunken Temple of Dielya was all about Lobachevsky’s work on non-Euclidean geometries (hyperbolic geometries, specifically), along with Einstein’s adaptation of this work into his theory of general relativity.

I’m a huge math nerd, and love learning about math and its history. I especially enjoy ideas that are counterintuitive and initially met with fierce resistance, but subsequently come to be accepted. I expect that going forward, many of my missions will continue to involve real-world mathematicians, their mathematical contributions, and fantastical re-tellings of their histories. Watching educational YouTube channels such as 3Blue1Brown, Numberphile, Veritasium and Vsauce often gives me new ideas.

Aemanyl: Are there any creators whose style is similar to your vision of design?

Trefoilknot: The FM authors I’m most inspired by would have to be Eshaktaar, Haplo, Nameless Voice, and Nicked. I wouldn’t say our styles are similar, exactly, but I often try to learn from their missions and emulate certain aspects of their designs.

Aemanyl: Heist at Hilbert’s Highrise Hotel appears to be the first act of a series titled Triptych on Infinity. Do you have any specific plans for creating additional levels in the near future, building upon this initial installment?

Trefoilknot: Yes, Acts II and III are underway. Hard to say when they’ll release. At least a couple years off, still. My plan is to release them both together, but perhaps if I get too bogged down, I’ll release Act II first, while I keep working on Act III. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but Act II will pick up right where Act I left off (going through the White Gate into Cantor’s Paradise), and there will be some time manipulation involved.

I’m also working on a couple other smaller scale projects. Recursive Incursions will be a quicker puzzle mission that sees Garrett infiltrating Isaac Newton’s dreams, Inception-style, at Leibniz’s bidding, to steal Newton’s ideas. It’ll be a puzzle/platformer-style thief mission, with a focus on exploration and spatial reasoning, and will introduce some brand new game mechanics.

Aemanyl: What are some of your other interests, pastimes, or hobbies that you enjoy in your free time?

Trefoilknot: I’m a musician, an athlete and a father. I enjoy playing trumpet in a symphony orchestra (especially music by Mahler and Strauss), and also weight-lifting, [American] football, ultimate frisbee, and table tennis. But mostly, I like to spend time with my wife, Erica, and our daughter, Isabel. (She’s turning 4 next month and loves Fables of the Penitent Thief!)

Aemanyl: Is there anything else you would like to add or share at the end?

Trefoilknot: Just a big thank you to everyone for keeping this community going strong for over 25 years!


Thank you for reading! We hope that you've enjoyed this insightful interview with Trefoilknot. Every Thursday you can look forward to a fresh interview with fan mission authors, featuring both the rising stars and the seasoned veterans of our beloved community.

Stay tuned and see you in the next issue of FM Author Spotlight series!