Chris Hecker gets paid to watch me kill my husband over and over again.
Well, he gets paid for his magnificent creation, SpyParty, with which I, through a combination of sheer luck and such skill it defies human limitations, kill my husband*. Over and over again.
SpyParty is an espionage game with two players where you play as Spy or Sniper. More than a competitive multiplayer title, it's a game about behavior. A game, as Hecker says, about "making consequential decisions based on partial information". Unlike Clue, SpyParty is not fully deductive, and unless the Spy player gaffes you will never be completely sure. Actually, even when the Spy gaffes there’s a persistent feeling of uncertainty - the result of partial information and one shot with guaranteed accuracy.
As the Spy you undertake a set of missions to be completed at a cocktail party within a given amount of time. You must complete these missions in a way that makes it difficult - ideally, impossible - for the Sniper to detect you among a party of NPCs. Your view is of the party, that is your playing field. Meanwhile, the Sniper player is positioned on a building outside the party and must observe goings-on through the scope of their rifle trying to detect tells, noticeably human behavior, amidst the AI.
A Sniper's-eye view of the party, a suspect (this is the old character art)
It has been a few years since I first fell in love with the alpha build of SpyParty and it has moved into paid beta. My luck may have diminished - but then SpyParty is a learning game. Strictly speaking you don't level up, you don't unlock perks, but the evolution of the game is based on the constant accumulation of player skill. For the Spy, this is a game about playing smoothly and strategically; for the Sniper, it’s a game of information management. Victory not only carries with it the "a-ha!" of defeating a foe, it is a deeply personal victory of mastering the role of Spy or Sniper over a single enemy - because Spy and Sniper aren't even seeing the same things, in some ways aren’t even playing the same game. You win and you want to know if the Sniper suspected you, you lose and you want to know which mission did you in. And you immediately want to try again. In this way it’s helpful for players to be of roughly the same skill level, or be keen to learn. Each round increases your proficiency so dramatically at first that a brand new player playing someone with even only a half-dozen rounds under their belt is going up against tough odds. It may sound daunting, but the SpyParty community is made up of some seriously friendly and helpful gamers - they want you to be a good player, so when you get picked off it really is just a case of tough love.
Time to party like an NPC (old art)
Set in a mansion there are currently more than a half-dozen maps available, and a couple more planned. Each map has challenges and advantages for Spy and Sniper: a busy party in an open space provides the Spy with cover but a good view for the Sniper, while a limited view challenges the Sniper, and fewer partygoers in a smaller space makes for less information flooding the scope. According to Hecker, the maps themselves are relatively easy to make, making the game pretty easy to expand, and they will be among the first moddable things - how many rooms are implausible in a mansion, anyway?
Somebody's being sneaky in there...
Within this, the Spy can have a varied number of missions, like contact the double agent, swap the statues, collect the microfilm, and bug the Ambassador - and with more missions comes uncertainty for the Sniper. Without the Sniper knowing what exactly you're out to do, there is an advantage. When playing as Spy with the newly added Seduction mission among my objectives, I chose to play as a male character with all-male NPCs. The simple fact that in this round my husband - er, arch-nemesis - didn't know that there could be gay seduction targets netted me a win.
Across 20 playable characters, each with their own story, their own behavior - and their own tells - the Seduce Target mission, where players are not locked in to gender roles or pre-scripted identities, is just one example of the diversity Hecker is building into his game. Diversity is important to Hecker, so even though each character has its own preferences, those preferences are deliberately chosen to reflect as wide a range of options as possible - and as feasible for this mysterious cocktail party. Gender, age, body mass and appearance are all represented with variety, but class isn’t a changeable factor. Unless you assume the Spy is essentially blue collar and scored the invite through espionage. Which is… possible. Hecker may have altruistic reasons for including this much diversity, but from the perspective of the Spy it’s all strategy. It behooves you to do the unexpected.
But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? - Vizzini, The Princess Bride
The ten new character models, showing off their prettiness
The thing to remember about the behavior of the NPCs is that the player can mimic them all, which means the Sniper will have to detect high-level behavioral tells - if Mr. G “the General” is getting sauced on a martini instead of a beer (yes, beer is his drink of choice), that’s a tell. And what about that old lady with her little purse dog? With an articulated head doggie is going to be reacting to goings-on around it and yap-yap-yapping away. Are you really a dog person anymore when little Tinkerbell could be pooping on stolen microfilm? Remember, as the Sniper you always shoot to kill - so will you shoot Grandma?
The new Mr. G raises a glass to the old Mr. G
A game simultaneously in development and in paid beta, SpyParty will release when Hecker is satisfied the game is done, and he’s “guessing two years from now, given the rate at which we're getting the new art characters done.” The fact remains that from the very beginning I and many others have been willing to give Hecker our money for a title even when it was in its most alpha of forms. While Hecker continues to credit the success of Minecraft as playing a large role in the players’ comfort with paying for what in 2011 he called “essentially paying for a demo”, I think he’s at best only partly right - SpyParty has always been something special. Hecker has removed a barrier that you didn't know existed, something between your reality and the game, and it’s all SpyParty.
*Adam was not seriously injured in the testing of this game and we remain happily married
Day 9 | Chris Hecker