Thousand Threads opens outside a tent in an unknown land, a dirt path presenting one potential way forward. If you stray from it, odds are a wolf will take notice and attack; you might fend it off with a stick, you might outrun it, or you might accidentally lead it to a house and watch in horror as it attacks the two randomly generated occupants that were sitting calmly a moment before, minding their own business. You might seek out more people and start performing little odd jobs for them; you might also return to the path and find the dead body of the region’s mail carrier, still carrying a sack of undelivered letters.
It’s a hell of a setup for Thousand Threads, a first-person exploration game that, over several hours, delivers on few of the promises these opening minutes set up. Nothing I experienced in the game after quite matched the excitement I felt in those opening minutes up to the point where I found the dead mail carrier. That’s not to say the game isn’t charming in places, though–this large open world has stories to tell and sights to see, even if they emerge at an achingly slow pace.
You start Thousand Threads in the Foothills, a large, verdant area with plenty of residents to meet, a store to visit, flowers and plants to forage for, wolves to avoid, and mail to deliver. There are five other areas that you’ll eventually travel through, but your goal remains the same throughout: Meet everyone and involve yourself in their lives. Each resident is randomly generated at the game’s opening, meaning that each player will encounter different people, although there’s not a lot to distinguish them in terms of personality. Some will give you tasks to do in exchange for money, such as acquiring an item from another character, finding someone and giving them a present, or knocking one of their enemies unconscious. Money is essential to progress, although you don’t need to complete many jobs to unlock the full map and deliver all the mail.
By the time I stepped away from Thousand Threads, most of the requests I was receiving were for me to knock out other characters with my stick or slingshot–possibly because, by then, I’d committed plenty of violent acts and stirred up a certain hostility across the game world. It took me a while to realize that there was no larger mission to the game; you can deliver all the mail, you can fulfill as many requests as you want, and you can explore the full map, but there’s no overarching narrative to uncover.
The fact that there’s no wider sense of purpose beyond whatever enjoyment you can reap from being a part of this world isn’t an issue at first, as it feels like you’re on the verge of stumbling across something interesting. But by the time I unlocked the last area, four hours in, it became clear that this wasn’t the case–and I had been trying to stave off boredom for the last hour already. You walk everywhere in Thousand Threads, and going for a stroll through a new area can be fun in the same way that it’s enjoyable to walk down a street you’ve never walked before. But it means that travelling back between regions to deliver mail, or getting out your map to make sure you’ve uncovered every near-identical quadrant of an area you suspect a resident you’re seeking is living within, becomes tiresome. You can ask people you encounter if they know where you can find someone you’re looking for, but it’s total luck of the draw if they have a lead or not, and there’s never clues to follow–they either know and your map updates, or they don’t and it doesn’t.
It’s possible to play Thousand Threads without much conflict. Avoid the wolves and bears that can kill you, refuse requests to knock people out, stay away from the fights that sometimes break out between residents, and you can live the life of a gentle helper. But you can go the other way, too. Your scant inventory contains both lethal and non-lethal weapons–the pickaxe you need to break rocks (which can yield useful resources) can also be used to beat people to death. In truth, I killed a few villagers in my playthrough not because they deserved it, but because I’d become bored and wanted to see what would happen. Not a lot, as it turns out. They’re gone, but there’s still plenty of other characters to talk to, many of whom will serve up identical dialogue.
There’s not a lot of personality to most of the people you meet in Thousand Threads, unless you open and read their mail (and you should, because there’s absolutely no penalty for doing so). The mail contains interesting story threads and personal dramas, which are, unfortunately, not at all reflected in the tasks the characters ask you to perform. The fact that the characters are randomly generated rather than crafted is to the game’s detriment in the end, as you’ll see the same dialogue come out of many mouths.
This is a shame, because there’s a hint of something great here. One letter I delivered was meant for a dead man; I found out that he was dead well before I found his home (you can ask people you encounter if they happen to know where someone you’ve only heard of lives), and once I found his corpse I was able to retrieve and deliver several letters intended for his son. This didn’t unlock any unique interactions, though–the tragedy unfolding is largely left unsaid outside of the mail. Since I delivered the mail to the son’s mailbox, I can’t say for sure whether he would have said anything powerful about his dad, but no mail I delivered directly sparked any interesting revelations. The letters tell of spurned lovers, estranged families, and burgeoning relationships, but these elements are only reflected within letters, not the game’s dialogue.
There’s a web of connections between the characters, and it can change as you play thanks to the “rumor” system. It’s amusing to see your own actions reflected back at you hours later; as I slowly moved back through the map, looking for things to do, I encountered characters who thanked, chastised, or attacked me over things I’d done hours earlier. It’s fun to see the rippling impact of your actions, but there’s very little sense of them having a tangible effect on these characters, because they’re so thinly sketched out. It’s impossible to keep track of what you did to characters to make them dislike you; there’s one character I encountered who I would describe as “creepy” (he asked me to steal another character’s baby teeth), but I’d otherwise struggle to attribute adjectives to any of the other dozens of villagers I encountered.
As you explore, you can also find artefacts and ruins that hint at something below the surface, waiting to be uncovered. But there just isn’t that much there. Handing the artefacts to a specific NPC turns up a bunch of interesting lore drops, but if there’s a deeper meaning behind everything, or a huge secret to uncover, it’s extremely well hidden. Over time, it became clear that the menace and mystery that the game promises with these structures, with its dead bodies and reports of random attacks, have little payoff behind them.
Amid all of this, though, there are moments of grace and beauty. Walking into a new area and watching as the color palette of your environment slowly shifts is lovely, as the game’s simple but striking visuals serve up some great views. The chaotic systems at play within the game can occasionally lead to wonderful moments, like watching two bears run through a trading post before turning on one another, or approaching a new character only to have them attack you because they’re related to someone you knocked out earlier. The rudimentary crafting system (which lets you upgrade your health and items with the plants and objects you collect) gives you some sense of reward when you’re eventually armed with a slingshot and pickaxe that can fend off attacks fast. By the time I walked away from the game there was a sense of, at least, personal progression in how much metal ore I’d gotten my hands on (which could have crafted bullets for a rifle I’d chosen not to buy, since my slingshot was already so powerful).
Thousand Threads cannot deliver on its initial promises of small-town intrigue and simmering maleficence–as you uncover the map and meet more of the people living on it, the less the game’s world feels like a real place. While I enjoyed the game’s atmosphere and sense of discovery when I started, by the end I had lost all interest in the interpersonal disputes of the game’s inhabitants, none of whom felt like real people anymore. The strange colonies of Thousand Threads are enjoyable if you’re just passing through, but stay more than an hour or two and you’ll find that there’s not much to do there.