On a recent sanity walk away from my home office, I stumbled upon a locked gate.
Given my current level of physical fitness, which is below zero, I gave up almost immediately on the idea of climbing over the fence.
So instead of getting fit as any normal person would do, I ordered a set of lock picks and a test lock to see if I could have picked my way through.
While I found it surprisingly easy to get the lock I bought open, I still have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I just use the rake to shimmy the lock until it gives way. Maybe I’m just some kind of lock picking savant? Doubtful.
That said, I’ve found it really interesting to read about different opening techniques, the different kind of picks, and the tricky test locks companies have produced to foil amateur thieves.
The LockPickingLawyer‘s YouTube channel has also been an endless source of amusement and education on this subject.
Before we get started, I should mention that no one should purchase picks with the intention of going around unlocking things. Breaking and entering is a serious offence, so be warned that lock picks are meant for licensed lock smiths, especially vehicle entry tools which are illegal to own unless you have a license.
Lock picking in real life
Opening a simple lock involves lining up a series of pins within the lock’s plug cylinder to the sheer line.
Once the pins have been lined up, the cylinder can turn and the lock will open. To turn the cylinder, you insert a tension rod into the opening of the lock and apply pressure to the turning mechanism.
There’s no sophistication in how I’m doing this as I’m pretty much just raking the pins until the lock opens.
But through this, I’ve learned a bit about the mechanics of locks and that’s informed me a little on how they’ve been depicted in games.
Lock picking in games
There are quite a few games that have lock picking as a game mechanic, but they’re realistic only in parts. Here’s a short list of some of them with some analysis.
I loved the lock picking mini game in Oblivion mostly because I was so dang good at it. With enough patience, I could pick anything including the Arena’s cashbox in the Imperial City for some sweet startup cash.
What makes the game particularly accurate is the sound aspect. I’ve found that the pins in my test lock do make a very specific sound when raised and lowered, and when I release my tension rod I can almost tell which pin has fallen by the sound.
The cross section of the lock is a little weird because of the gears within the lock. It makes it appear that the locks in Oblivion are actually sideways.
There are also screws around the lock, so why wouldn’t you just unscrew the whole thing in order to get inside?
I still think this is pretty good and as a plus it was fun.
Bobby pins are your tool of choice when lock picking in Fallout 3. The appearance of a tension rod in the form of a screwdriver ups the realism in comparison to Oblivion.
I really liked the tactile feel of having to go around the lock to find the weak spot before it would turn. That precision is really similar to the kind of movements you have to do to open a real lock.
One detail about this game is that you use a bobby pin as a lock pick. Because they lack rigidity, bobby pins can break within the locking mechanism effectively seizing it up for good. The Force Lock option can actually break a locked door for good, which is pretty realistic.
Picking a lock with a bobby pin in a video game is one thing, but trying it in the real world will likely result in having to hire an expensive locksmith.
Fallout 4 also has the same lock mini game.
Splinter Cell series
Even the first game looks pretty freaking realistic.
Full discloser, I’ve never actually played these games before, but from watching let’s plays I think it’s one of the most realistic depictions out there.
There’s a tension rod, a lock pick, moving pins, and a satisfying click when the lock is opened.
One thing I find interesting is that most games have a very traditional lock pick that’s used. None of the games here have players using a rake or a diamond pick, but instead use a large hook.
I mentioned the LockPickingLawyer above and in a lot of his videos he ends up using rakes to open locks. It would be interesting if there was a game where you could get different styles of picks.
There’s no mini game here, but man it would be a lot easier to open locks if you could just open your inventory and just have it happen.
Thief 2014 (And also Thief: The Dark Project)
The Thief series got a bit more realistic in how they depicted lock picking starting with Thief: The Dark Project.
Thief 2014 retains that mini game and do find it interesting that you don’t get an inside view of the locking mechanism as it requires you to really listen to the sounds of the pins.
There’s also a tension rod and a pick being used, so that ups the realism as well.
I don’t know anything about this game other than there appear to be a thousand rambling tutorial videos on how to play a simple mini game.
There are two types of locks in this game one in the style of Fallout 3 and the other in the style of Splinter Cell.
The issue with the lock above is the depiction of how the sheer line works. Pins don’t just magically lock into place when you move them with a pick. There needs to be pressure applied to them.
The pins in my test lock are also made up of two parts with an upper and lower section of the pin, so if the gap isn’t right along the sheer line it won’t open. Locks would be much easier to open if they were made this way.
What the hell kind of lock is that? It’s cool, but not realistic. Also the character uses a nail as their lock pick, but no mention of a tension rod.
Video games like Oblivion, Fallout, Splinter Cell, and Thief are games about more than just lock picking things open, so it’s understandable that the mini games aren’t hyper realistic simulations.
That said, most of them depict the mechanics of a lock in a pretty realistic way, which means someone at their offices bought a lock pick, sat down with a lock, and puzzled through how to make it into a game mechanic.
And I still find the locks in Oblivion one of the most enjoyable parts of the game and really hope lock picking becomes more and more complex going forward.
So if you are looking for a real-world challenge and want to get into this as a hobby, website like Lockpick Canada have some good resources and starter kits available.
But as I mentioned way above, if you’re planning to buy picks with the hopes of actually breaking into places… just stick to playing video games instead.