It’s cold, even for Russia. The crowd of civilians in Red Square stand shoulder to shoulder, their breath condensing in the air as they wait for the presidential candidate to take the podium. He’s ahead in the polls, but he takes the stage with a definite unease, slightly hunched as if affected by something more than the winter chill.

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As he opens his mouth to speak, his head snaps back, and blood spatters against the wall behind him. The clean red dot of an entry wound marks his forehead. His body crumples helplessly to the ground as his murderer escapes.

If I were Sam Fisher or Solid Snake, I’d be infiltrating a terrorist base right now to find any leads on the assassin. I’d be sticky-bombing and cardboard-boxing my way to the truth. But I am neither of these men. I’m Thorn, a rookie CIA agent with limited weapons training and zero experience. And with the assassin getting further and further away by the minute in what increasingly seems to be the start of a major conspiracy to topple the Russian government, I fight back the best way I can: by sitting at my desk in Langley, thousands of miles away from the assassination itself, sifting through surveillance footage.

This is how I will find the killer. This is how I will save more lives than Sam Fisher and Solid Snake put together. This is Spycraft: The Great Game. Developed in coordination with former CIA Director William Colby and former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin, Spycraft is, quite simply, the most realistic and immersive spy game ever made.

It doesn’t sound all that exciting on paper. A game where you spend most of your time analyzing evidence and digging through files? Where you only fire your gun a half-dozen times? Where you do actual spying? There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that a game as steadfastly realistic as Spycraft should ever be exciting, fun or even remotely interesting … which makes it that much more surprising that Spycraft is all of those things.

Activision’s 1996 foray into the world of spygames is almost single-minded in its dedication to immersing players in the complexities of real-life espionage. Spycraft isn’t about big setpiece moments, though it does have one or two of those. Instead, it’s about the sensation of scouring through phone conversations for a single name, about using intellect, rather than firepower, to catch your prey, about spending 20 minutes going over a security photo with a digital magnifier until suddenly, wonderfully, you find the sniper’s face reflected in a shop window.

Spycraft‘s gameplay consists primarily of minigame-esque simulations of actual (and, at the time, cutting-edge) CIA surveillance technology wrapped around story-driven logic puzzles. For example, after the Russian politician’s assassination, you learn that the murder weapon was stolen from a secured CIA building by an employee named Dr. Cohlen. By browsing Cohlen’s dossier, you discover that Cohlen suffers from a crippling case of claustrophobia. Then, by cross-referencing Cohen’s activity log in the security system with the surveillance footage from the day the weapon was stolen, you find an inconsistency: Before stealing the weapon, Cohlen entered and exited a crowded elevator without even flinching. After magnifying the surveillance video, you find that the man who stole the weapon was an impostor – a poorly disguised spy by the name of Allen Wayne, whose prosthetic nose and makeup couldn’t fool your photo analysis programs. With the thief’s identity confirmed, you’ve got a new lead to follow.

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The game is composed almost entirely of these types of puzzles, but the experience never feels boring or disjointed. Perhaps that’s because they’re believable and make sense within the context of the mission. That’s not to say the Cohlen puzzle is totally free of logical inconsistencies (how could Allen’s disguise fool every single trained employee in the building but not a 1996 photo analyzation program?), but your short-term goals and immediate affordances are obvious, credible and clear. Unlike the plot-driven puzzles of most LucasArts adventure games, you always know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish and which tools you must use in order to do so. Spycraft has zero interest in forcing you to juggle your inventory around simply to make things more difficult.

Which, come to think of it, is another reason Spycraft‘s puzzles are so effective: They don’t fall into established videogame tropes. I’m tempted to call the Cohlen scene a minigame, but that does a disservice to the amount of mental work the sequence requires. It’s not even a puzzle in the traditional sense; you don’t rearrange colored blocks or employ game mechanics to produce a desired outcome. It’s simply about analyzing the information in front of you and mentally connecting the dots.

To focus solely on the varied quality of Spycraft‘s puzzles, however, is to miss the bigger picture. Yes, their accessbility and unclassifiable nature make for enjoyable gameplay, but more importantly, their realistically low-key implementation makes you feel like a spy. Thanks to Colby and Kalugin’s involvement, it’s incredibly easy to imagine the things Thorn does throughout Spycraft‘s campaign are what real life spies have to deal with on a daily basis. Whether you assume a spy’s life to be full of either shaken martinis or man-sized cardboard boxes, Spycraft brushes aside those preconceptions within its first half-hour.

All that realism comes back to bite you in the ass once the game tackles something which will, unlike most of Spycraft‘s gameplay, be familiar to modern gamers: moral choice. Just as the game’s default desk-bound scenarios strive to provide you with a realistic, often unspectacular spy experience, the game’s few pivotal player choices do not shy away from the moral ambiguity that the life of an actual spy presumably entails.

Take the ending, for instance: The Russian presidential candidate, you learn, was assassinated by a competing politican’s campaign manager. By killing the candidate, his rival would be a shoo-in for the presidency; by subsequently assassinating the President of the United States, Russia would be allowed to keep all of its nukes that would have otherwise been signed away by the fictional END Treaty. After a brief showdown, you take care of all the guilty parties. The CIA mole is dead, and the campaign manager is in custody. Congratulations seem to be in order – except it’s not that simple or pleasant. Nothing in Spycraft is.

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Following the arrest of his campaign manager, the rival candidate now supports the END Treaty. His competitors, on the other hand, do not. Yuri, a member of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service who helped you throughout the game, will stop at nothing to see both the candidate and his campaign manager behind bars. But the CIA sees things differently. Regardless of the new candidate’s culpability in the dozens of deaths that you’ve uncovered, he is the only person in Russia with the power to sign the END Treaty and, by so doing, significantly reduce Russia’s nuclear stockpile. The CIA wants him alive and in charge.

And that means Yuri has to die.

At the end of Spycraft, you have one final choice to make: Do you shoot a law-abiding citizen who wants to see justice served? Or do you let him make the arrest, thereby getting yourself fired from the CIA and allowing Russia to increase its nuclear stockpile? Quite suddenly, in an experience otherwise full of desk-jockeying and logic puzzles, Spycraft drops an ethical quandary more compelling than anything in BioShock or inFamous. There is no clearly defined “good” or “bad” ending: In one, you are labeled a traitor and must watch in horror as the new Russian president declares martial law and cuts off all communication with the U.S.; in another, you are given a promotion and vacation time for murdering an innocent man.

Up to its very final moments, Spycraft provides a remarkably plausible simulation of what the life of a spy is truly like. Problems are solved not by grizzled heroes wielding rocket launchers, but by nerdy, morally questionable men hunched in front of computers. Though Spycraft may eschew the operatic thrills or visceral pleasures of the Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell series, it offers something far more unique: an honest, unflinching dedication to immersing players in the best and worst parts of being a spy.

I hesitate to call Spycraft the greatest spy game ever made – it’s riddled with bugs and weighed down by mediocre FMV acting. Yet perhaps it has a higher distinction: In a genre otherwise filled with bipedal robots and world-ending computer viruses, Spycraft may, in fact, be the only spy game ever made.

Anthony Burch produces the web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin, writes about videogame-to-film adaptations at AMC and is the Features Editor for Destructoid.com.

Question of the Day, Feb. 16, 2010

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