The Spy Who Fragged Me

The Spy Who Fragged Me
Griefing in Black and White

Peter Parrish | 16 Feb 2010 13:11
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With frustration levels constantly hovering in the stratosphere, the urge to poke, slap or otherwise physically abuse your opponent during play was almost overwhelming. The close proximity to your foe was a key factor in nurturing those feelings of resentment and malice. Their unpleasant, wheezy guffaw as another one of their lame traps went off in your face; their smug, self-satisfied expression as they stole away your triumph; their disgusting body contorted in a mockery of dance as they made off with another briefcase. You could be forgiven for failing to keep your anger in check. Certain scenarios began to drift through your mind. Would a jury really convict when presented with such clear evidence of provocation? you'd wonder. Of course, that was madness ... but perhaps it was worth reading up on ways to inflict pain without leaving any bruises just in case.

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Compounding this antagonism was Spy vs. Spy's terrific split-screen layout. Unlike the real Iron Curtain, everything that happened on either side of the on-screen barrier was fully visible to both players. In theory, you could see everything that the opposing player did - every trap location, every movement. This gave the distinct impression that anything that happened to your character could have easily been avoided - hell, it was your own fault for not paying attention.

But therein lay the genius of the design: Just as soccer officials struggle to accurately call an offside violation, so too did players flounder when trying to watch two points of the screen at once. It was impossible ... though this clear impossibility didn't prevent that feeling of humiliation when yet another bucket of electrified water was deposited on the head of your unfortunate Spy. The rebellious blob of brain matter repeatedly whispering that it saw your opponent set the trap really didn't help. In fact, it only made matters worse: Even your own brain was against you.

Diplomatic Incident

When Spy vs. Spy was ranked 20th in Your Sinclair's "Top 100 Spectrum Games of All Time," Stuart Campbell's blurb declared, "This must surely be the game which has ruined more beautiful friendships than any other." While other titles have since emerged to challenge that distinction, Spy vs. Spy went years without any realistic contenders. It had the power to effortlessly turn friend against friend, brother against brother and, should you be so reckless, even spouse against spouse.

It's impossible to say whether Antonio Prohias ever played any of the videogame conversions of his comic strip. But if he did, I hope he felt they did his creation justice. It's rare for videogames based closely on other media to channel their source of inspiration rather than the final product, but on almost every level, Spy vs. Spy stays true to its thematic roots. Be it U.S.S.R. versus U.S., KGB versus CIA, player versus player or Spy versus Spy, the subterfuge, misguided sense of pride and perpetual cycles of violence are, at their heart, one and the same.

Peter Parrish is priming some exploding underwater cigar holders with radioactive hemlock.

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