[Please see Dylan’s opening letter (#1): http://www.augmented-vision.net/2020/09/07/game-club-spycraft-the-great-game/
My response to Dylan’s letter here (#2): http://joannatovaprice.com/wp/index.php/2020/10/30/spycraft-the-great-game-pc-game-open-letter-series-2/
Dylan’s response to my second letter here (#3): http://www.augmented-vision.net/2020/10/01/game-club-spycraft-the-great-game-letter-3/]
I actually think about what a fun spy game would be like a fair amount, in part because I think you could play a really exceptional one using social media. One of the things that I think doesn’t get talked about a lot in terms of the lack of sexiness that is spying for the state, is that state secrets aren’t very interesting, except to conspiracy theorists. The few conspiracy theorists I know very much enjoy talking about color revolutions, but frankly nobody else cares too much – if anything, state secrets are embarrassing. But secrets in general sure aren’t boring.
So what would a good spy game look like? I think the first requirement is that the player’s character shouldn’t be working for a state agency. Whether it be big tech, or personal intrigue, or a more cerebral concept, like a game where you follow one piece of information and watch as it gets shaped and molded into different narratives, the days of revealing how state affairs that seem interesting and sexy are actually institutional and boring are probably behind us. I think we’ve all kind of figured that out.
If it were me, I would probably attempt to design the game that I think Will Wright is always attempting to design: the one that transcends fiction and integrates with the real. Because spying is about information – and because we are producing information at such an incredible rate that we now have books about information anxiety – it should be possible to create a game about spying using real world, real-time information. Rather than trying to get information that is locked up or classified, the player would be trying to find public information that is obfuscated, connect clues and uncover narratives.
I’m not sure whether I brought this up in the first letter, but another thing that sticks out about this game is the kind of serious that it is. It has a sort of tangential relationship to Kentucky Route Zero in that I think it’s trying to do something subtle to reveal a complex condition. In the present time, that can be very comforting or it can feel like work, because either it is nice to be reminded that thoughtful people produce work that defies rhetoric, or it feels like the work many of us must do now to breach the very real rhetoric around us. Like my mom says about The Sims – why would I spend hours pretending to live when I have to actually live? Still, bringing that seriousness to the game (which is already very present in the opening which as you mentioned, and I mention, I love) is ambitious, and I have a lot of respect for it.
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend the game to players who don’t already have a particular love of playing old games. Unlike Grim Fandango, for example, I think Spycraft: The Great Game is not the kind of cult classic that will charm you immediately or will hold your attention. The audience for the game is really people who enjoy the aesthetic of older games and the population of people, which seems to me is likely to be small, whose interested in thinking about complex stuff spans all types of media. Most people I know who game don’t do so in order to think philosophically, although I do know many people who enjoy thinking philosophically who game – they just tend to separate the activities.
As for me, Games Club allows me to experience games I would otherwise never pick up or never finish, and this is one example. I would like to be the kind of person who would finish this game because of its novelty and thoughtfulness without the extrinsic motivation, but I can tell you that the mini games feature is difficult for me to stick with when I’m only playing for my own entertainment.
The ambitions of earlier game developers, particularly where narrative is concerned, often amaze me. When I think of some of the Infocom games, The Longest Journey, this game, and more – and when I think of the narratives of games coming out more recently that are modeled on the old games, like Broken Age – I can see sustained effort that often goes unrecognized. I am not talking about the “Are games art” debate or even “can games be serious,” and not “can games show you the experiences of people unlike you,” but I think, rather, “do games have roots in the examination of the human condition?” I think the answer is yes. As happens with books and films too, it sometimes feels like work just because of that fact, and that was the case with this game for me.
Looking forward to the next game, Spiritfarer, which is somehow about mortality and death and still a much lighter game – ha!