I’ve been fascinated by SpyParty since I first stumbled upon it at the GameCity festival. I wrote recently that SpyParty is the only shooting game I’m 100% happy for my kids to play.
It’s a two-player spy game where one player is the spy and the other is the sniper. The spy has to execute various spy missions at a cocktail party without the sniper spotting him. Like all good games it sounds very simple, but soon develops into something nuanced and detailed and ultimately about human behavior rather than about shooting things.
FGTV caught up with Chris Hecker, the one-man-band behind SpyParty, to find out how his game turned out so different from other shooting games.
Hecker starts off with some grand claims for SpyParty. It will be the “most diverse videogame ever made,” he tells me. Listening to him list off the different characters it certainly sounds much more diverse than any other video-game I’ve played. Perhaps most importantly, each and every character is a viable route to winning the game regardless of age, gender, mobility or ethnicity.
Hecker describes the game-play as “asymmetric multi-player.” This means that “Spy and Sniper play in the same game world but with completely different rules. The spy is all about deception, but the sniper is about perception.”
Seeing the game in action and watching the clock tick down there is an immediate sense of tension. The spy has to complete their various missions (swapping a statue, hiding the microfilm, bugging the ambassador) before the timer runs out and the sniper needs to choose to shoot one of the party guests based on what they have observed. It’s knife edge stuff.
Hecker highlights that SpyParty is still very much skill-centric. “But on people skills, behavior and perception and deception, skills that aren’t shooting or slashing up Orcs.” After the first couple of plays you soon develop different strategies, for both spy and sniper roles, that play off how people behave in these scenarios. The sniper, for instance, can ensure his red targeting beam is blocked by a window frame to avoid giving away to the spy who he is looking at. The spy, in turn, can also use other guests to mask their moves.
SpyParty is still a shooting game, but as soon as things become violent the game finishes. As Hecker puts it. “It’s a filmic use of violence, as soon as the violence happens the game is over. It’s the threat of violence that makes it intense.”
What results is a game that is more of a psychological cat and mouse experience than one about quick reaction times. SpyParty then turns up the tension by forcing the sniper to act before they are ready and make the spy attempt their missions with half an eye on the ticking clock.
Hecker expands a little on the thinking behind all this. “One of the goals of the game is for the sniper to make consequential decisions based on partial information. So much of modern life is about not actually knowing 100%, global warming and so on. We have a pretty good idea and have to make consequential decisions about the economy and society.”
It’s here that we start to get to the heart of what makes SpyParty tick. It’s a game that is about more than shooting, that much is clear. But also it is about more than just identifying who is the spy — it’s about the human condition. Continuing this line of thinking with Hecker starts bringing up all sorts of fascinating insight into the future of video-games.
“Games have the potential to be the preeminent arts and entertainment form of the 21st century. Kind of like film was in the 20th century. Some of us believe that games could be that if we don’t screw it up like comic books got screwed up. There was just too much superheroes, right? There are great comic books but they are kind of in a cultural ghetto now.”
I’d never really thought about comics all that much, but I think Hecker is onto something here. Comics are synonymous with superheroes so I don’t expect them to address other issues or genres. Are video-games coming dangerously close to becoming synonymous with violence? The best chance of avoiding ghettoizing games is surely through games like SpyParty, Flower, Journey, Fez, Braid and so on?
Hecker extends the metaphor to books. “If you go into a bookshop there are a wide array of books about everything. But go into a game shop and mostly there are games about killing things, Orcs, etc. It’s just clear that we have to make games about different stuff. As soon as you try and do that, it’s not like you need a different ethics system, then you start to run into these problems you want to solve.”
Where my questions aimed to uncover some deep dark meaningful back-story to Hecker’s formative years, what I actually turned up was the realization that interesting games are the result of addressing broader areas of life. It’s a concept that mirrors my TEDx game talk. Here too the essential ingredient to developing a good game (similar to writing a good review) is the desire to connect video-games to the whole of life. This is in stark contrast to the accepted wisdom that great games rely solely on being a great game designer, and have a heavyweight development team and publisher behind you.
“There is game-play lying all over the floor. There is game-play everywhere, I don’t understand why people don’t do it. At E3 I was looking around and man there are a lot of games that are exactly the same.”
Hecker’s answers also uncovered a bias in me — I’m a bit down on violent games. For him, the issue wasn’t violence per se, but how it is used. “I don’t have a problem with violence in games. But the Fight Club game of the film was just a film about fighting. It just misses the point completely.”
This all added up to a lot of food for thought, and much anticipation on playing SpyParty at home. There’s still some time before that will happen — no confirmed release date as yet. In terms of platforms, Hecker hopes to bring it to “XBLA, PSN, Steam and iPad. I’m also talking to Nintendo about Wii U, it’s a perfect Wii U game. They actually contacted me because the hidden information of the sniper can play on the controller while the spy uses the TV in the same room.”
I left my conversation with Chris Hecker all the more excited and enthused about SpyParty, and hopeful for games in general. This is something of a rare experience at E3 and one I was happy to capture on film — well, on camera at least.