Playing NFL Blitz on the neighborhood N64, I was one of those awful kids who picked “Da Bomb” almost every play. I was capable of complex running maneuvers and comfortable with the intricacies of fakes, screens, and rushes (ok I don’t actually know football) but it was that long-shot Hail Mary and its exaggerated payoff – and extravagant risk – that really rattled my adolescent adrenal glands.
Needless to say I failed to convert a bunch of fourth downs.
Long coddled and damp in the blubber of “adulthood,” those fight-or-flight organs shriek with electricity again as I take my place in the early-access beta for SpyParty, Chris Hecker’s irresponsibly brilliant social experiment turned cat-and-mouse battle of wits — a game a little bit like a slow-motion fourth-and-long, except people die.
Actually the game is very unlike a football match — except in its distinct phases of offense and defense — and it is very unlike me to lean on a sports analogy, so here’s The Point: SpyParty’s tense espionage conveys that same all-or-nothing anxiety while rewarding the punt fake over the long pass. In other words, the game tells you have one shot (truly, as the Sniper) and while that makes you want to scramble and sprint, to be that kid who plays “Da Bomb” and gets it over with, you will be mercilessly punished for anything more brazen than a brisk promenade. That drives the kid in me crazy, and I love it.
If you’re unfamiliar, SpyParty is a two-player game of deceit and surveillance set at one upper-crust gala or another. One player controls the spy, whose mission may include contacting a double agent, tapping the ambassador, planting microfilm in a book, swapping one statue for another, etc. The trick is making it look natural — the computer-controlled guests will read books, admire statues and chat up the ambassador, so barring a few subtle animation “tells,” the spy can make their missions look like natural mingling.
The second player controls the sniper, a disembodied and more-mobile presence orbiting the party from a distance. They’re looking for those subtle animation tells, and for any blatant displays of humanity, but from their distant vantage point every movement looks suspicious, particularly at the start of the round.
One of the SpyParty’s unexpected side-effects: a newfound admiration for policing-types who don’t just fire on every suspicious person they see. When you just know that something shady is about to go down, the pressure to act — to shoot — is totally overwhelming. A little scary, actually.
That pressure is the driving tension of every match, and it’s a feeling you’ll be wrestling with on both sides of the scope. Most obviously it’s the spy and his mission imperatives that feels the heat. More unsettling than the three-minute mission timeframe is the sniper’s ominous laser-sight playing lazily across the jawbones of your unsuspecting peers. It gets tense. Players must learn to muzzle their anticipation before they give themselves away with some overexcited display of purpose. “Just act natural” is a hard and fast rule, one you’ll learn to respect before your second playthrough.
The sniper, on the other hand, is anxious to down the target before their spy-stuff tasks are completed — Mission-Complete will end the round early, maybe earlier than a timer-watching sniper could anticipate. But impatience breeds suspicion, and wrong-headed suspicion — “Why is he still admiring that statue? That was too long for a normal person to look at a statue. It’s a dumb statue; put it down. PUT IT DOWN” — suspicion can get irrational. Suspicion can absorb your attention, and itch your trigger finger, and the timer is beeping louder and louder and suddenly some innocent social climber is bleeding all over the ambassador’s alligator loafers.
One of my favorite features of the current build happens after the sniper’s shot is fired. The guests shriek, martini glasses shatter, and everyone crouches and covers their heads. Having acclimated to quiet conversation and affable chuckles, the sudden screams and clatter will rattle you — like, every time. Personally, I feel more guilty, more responsible for firing this one shot than the hundreds of thousands of rounds I’ve unloaded in more action-heavy FPS’s. It’s a riveting moment for the spy, too — it might be lag or a hiccup in the code, but there’s a few seconds of eerie quiet between the silenced rifle shot and the explosion of panicked shouting that echoes a death — yours or a bystander’s. For those few seconds the partygoers will wonder what the noise was; you’ll wonder if you’re alive or dead.
SpyParty is fascinating because it encourages restraint, and to say that this is unusual for a videogame would be insulting your intelligence. Not only does the game ask you to substitute your wits for your reflexes, it forces you into situations that trigger fight-or-flight response, a state of mind in which level-headed thinking does not come naturally. Like all good games, SpyParty tells you what you need to do and then makes it massively hard to do it — what makes SpyParty interesting is that rather than leaning on mechanical tests of dexterity as a foundation of challenge, the game taps into the deep-set contradictions of the player’s psyche, turning the player against their own unwieldy animal instincts. Those instincts being: throw da damn Bomb already.
But no, my inner pubescent, no — tonight, we play it cool. *tightens tie, swirls cocktail*
I could write and write about this game, and I probably will! Lucky for me, the SpyParty development timeline extends towards a distant and hazy horizon, so I’ll have ample time to report on mutations as they bubble up. Oh yeah, did I mention how incredibly exhaustive the SpyParty development blog is? The depth of information is downright uplifting, not to mention respectful and clever, as far as marketing goes. You’ll want to check out the most recent post on SpyParty’s new art style — it’s looking good.
Actually I really adore the lo-res stand-ins, but I suppose they’ll have to go eventually. I am a little worried about this particular, as-yet-unnamed socialite: she looks like she hails from familiar territory.