[Note: This is a reply to Dylan’s opening letter]
Lovely to be returning to this after so much time, and so many different life events!
I will start by saying that I didn’t love Hypnospace Outlaw – I know, I know, but for me, the aesthetic and mechanics were extremely grating, even though the story was strong. I had to force myself through it. But as you know, I absolutely got into Her Story, Digital: A Love Story, and I have yet to jump into Telling Lies but I look forward to it. I also come to this with the history of having played Phantasmagoria, the FMV horror game by Roberta Williams, a bunch when I was younger. I can still vividly recall some of the scarier scenes. In my later years, I can say that the great appeal of that game is that I wasn’t allowed to play it. It belonged to a friend’s mother, and we stole it from her home office. But as you know, I absolutely, positutely, *adored* Toonstruck, which was a little like Who Framed Roger Rabbit in terms of how it transitioned from live action to animation. However, the puzzles were admittedly ass, in that you often had to look stuff up, especially towards the end of the game. It has been so long since I’ve booted up Toonstruck that storywise, I can remember only the very beginning and the moment at the halfway point when the big plot twist happens which at the tender age of however young I was the first time I played it, I absolutely did not see coming and was completely floored and excited. Thus I was pleasantly surprised by Spycraft: The Great Game because unlike Phantasmagoria or Toonstruck, it was a good game — good play, good acting, and even a decent script.
The opening immediately captured my attention. I loved the way they had the cynic giving his tell-all while the actual CIA mission statement played across the screen. I immediately felt like I could trust the developers to deliver an intelligent and compelling story. I also thought the “test mission” to choose which agent will move forward as a mechanic for introducing a tutorial was really cute. I did worry for awhile that I had to take notes, because there was a lot of information, and unlike a point and click adventure, there was no scribbling sound followed by a blinking journal icon to let me know that this was information worth storing and I could find it again in the journal. Oh my god, the first person walk made me so happy too! It just immediately reminded me of The West Wing, so that was squee the second for me (the first was the opening). I didn’t come into this with a bias about FMV games per se, because I really only had good experiences playing them as a kid, but I was wary of one particular aspect that usually gives me trouble in video games: stealth. Fair concern, right? Coz spies have to be stealthy. But for people who are tired of getting stuck having to race to disable the thingamajig while the big red numbers tick down, the good news is this game is a lot more about information processes and a lot less about the sexy spy thing. Like you said, more realistic than a James Bond flick. But even with the technology. A film camera with a chip in it that records low res backups is far more believable than any Bond gadget.
And at least part of the reason why it’s more realistic is because it combines actual CIA footage with 35mm film and really makes an effort to disillusion the player, including the ending that you mention. One thing I wonder is whether the plot is as involved as it is in order to portray reality as well. In a movie, I think there would be less people, and less things happening. You mention it’s nonlinear and I agree, but I wonder if it was an attempt to be nonlinear originally or an attempt to to make an unwieldy amount of plot work. Either way, it is engaging and not a downside.
The minigames situation that you refer to was a little annoying for me in the same way that minigames usually are. I am one of those party poopers who hates the arcade game that you can play inside the game you’re playing. Not the interfaces, which I often found charming, but the structure of having to complete this challenge, then “go back” to “the real game” and then repeat. But overall, I also enjoyed this game and the mechanics.
You know, I don’t really understand why it’s so intent on disillusioning the player, but I do feel like that is both what gives it its authenticity and an underlying intention. When I was in graduate school, the CIA came to a job fair and they absolutely struck me the way you describe, ” tool for people who know better than you.” But why would you build a computer game around that idea. In particular, why would you design a computer game that leaves the player particularly unlikely to value the CIA or what it does? Not that I think it’s a bad thing, but it does make me wonder hmmm, who were the developers friends with? Where did the money for this game come from? Because it is, ultimately, a political narrative, even if it’s one I agree with. But I will say I really like that aspect from a literary perspective, it’s really nice to play a spy game as a top spy who is basically forced to be a dead eyed state functionary in all the ways that really mean something and get the fire burning. In short, learning that the everyday person is more likely to have the room for bottom line ethics than a superspy. Kinda neat.
PS: I was looking at reviews of this game on Steam and check out this quote: “I remember this game like it was yesterday. This is how I first applied to the Agency, using this game. I was one of the first recruits to be digitally recruited using the internet.” I can’t think this is remotely true, especially because it ends with him getting hired by the Wizards at Langley, but I found it hilarious nonetheless.