Video games are still often seen as the hobby of a reclusive loner, a pastime for the guy who wasn’t invited. But by their nature, video games can offer a shared experience as well. Be that a narrative, team based or individual competition – even just watching someone play can create a connection.
Video game developers are starting to understand the extent to which they can toy with the shared or connected experience that games can provide. Dark Souls, an open-world RPG (role playing game), has a feature that allows users to plant messages that can either help, or deliberately mislead other players. Journey gives you control of a robed, levitating traveller, through which you can find other players heading on the same voyage. You can only assist each other without communicating via speech or text, creating an incredibly powerful connection.
Working together towards a shared goal is not the only way to experience this connectedness. Sometimes the opposite can have just the same effect.
Spy Party is an “asymmetric multiplayer espionage game”. A game of deception and perception, one person plays as a spy moving around a party, trying to complete certain Mission: Impossible-esque tasks (and they sometimes do feel impossible) like bugging another party goer. Meanwhile the other person, a sniper, waits with a single bullet for the unconvincing spy. In some ways Spy Party is like a reverse Turing Test. If you can convince the opponent you’re not a human for long enough to complete the set missions, you survive.
It’s the little things that give the game the depth required for high-end competitive play. Walking up to a bookshelf and falling just short, forcing you to make a jittery adjustment forwards, can be enough for the sniper to catch on. It leads to tense situations.
As the spy, I’m standing in a group conversation when I say the code phrase, “Banana Bread”, signalling some message to the double agent and completing my final mission. The sniper’s laser sight falls directly between my eyes. I know if I walk away now it will be an obvious tell. I start to sweat. He, however, doesn’t know that I have now completed all of my missions. A ten second-countdown pops up on my screen. When it reaches zero I win. I break away from the conversation, no longer caring if it gives away who I am at this point, and try to hide behind other party-goers for the remaining few seconds.
It was one of the few matches as spy that I’ve won. The game is hard. There are a tonne of advanced techniques like framing other AI players or waiting until the last 30 seconds before attempting any missions. It will be some time before I develop the skills to be able to do them.
Chris Hecker, an ex-Maxis developer (it’s claimed his work on Spore “advanced the state of the art in procedural animation by several years”), has been working on the game personally since 2009. A fixed release date with Spy Party doesn’t look likely – it’s as if it’s perpetually two years away from completion (perhaps operating on ‘Valve Time’). For now it’s in closed beta (testing mode), with invitations being a good few months wait yet.
This type of development – a slow exclusive beta – has created a tight and rich community. It’s remarkable the intimacy you feel with others playing this game. I hopped into the main waiting room prior to beginning and had a chat with a few of the regulars. Before long one of them volunteered to ‘mentor’ my play. New players are treated with such gentle guided kindness. The question of whether this attitude will continue after the game is released is one everyone appears to be very aware of. There’s a large thread in the forums discussing the understandable nervousness of opening up their little game to the wider community.
Spy Party is a game designed for highly competitive play. And with highly competitive play comes extremely close non-physical contact. You’re getting into the mind of another person, and what can be more intimate than that?
Video games can be intrinsically social. The shared experience, or the connection with other people they provide, is not an escape from reality but an exploration of it.