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About the Story
IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY AT SPY SCHOOL, AND YOU'RE READY TO COMMENCE A LIFE OF ESPIONAGE, TRADECRAFT, AND INTRIGUE. THE ONLY PROBLEM IS, EVERY HUMAN EMPLOYEE DIED OF MUMPS JUST THE OTHER DAY. CAN YOU AND THE SOLE REMAINING EMPLOYEE, A DEVILISHLY ATTRACTIVE SECRETARYBOT, RETURN THE SPY CORPORATION TO ITS PRE-MUMP GLORY DAYS? CAN YOU BRING IT TO PREVIOUSLY-UNIMAGINED HEIGHTS? OR WILL YOU BE CRUSHED UNDER THE BURDEN, FALLING OFF THE SPY&PROVOCATEUR 500 AND INTO THE DRUDGERY OF PERMANENT MEDIOCRITY?
Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Use of Innovation - 2015 XYZZY Awards
29th Place - 21st Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2015)
Rock, Paper, Shotgun
At first it looks like we’re going down a firm comedy route here. But then, the drop. Flashbacks begin of a life, more recognisable than this weird Spy nightmare, of someone learning religion in a post-religion world and drinking “neuroreplenishment serum” in the same way today’s humans drink cans of beer. The biographical story alternates with the SUPER ESPIONAGE to create an unsettling hybrid of humour and unhappy memory. A bizarre, videogame-literate Lanark-like.
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Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling
The Twentieth Entry
SPY INTRIGUE is one of the finest and bravest things ever produced in this medium: personal and true, technically masterful in both code and design, literary in the best sense.
Some people, I’ve seen, refer to it as raw. I wouldn’t call it so; I’d say it has a quality I prefer to rawness, an ability to present the most intense and traumatic experiences with such understanding that it offers others a tool to dismantle their own pain.
Yes, I am still talking about a game in which you can shove banana bread down the front of your spy pants. That game. Yes.
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Number of Reviews: 4
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YOU'VE JUST ENROLLED IN SPY SCHOOL, AND ALREADY YOU'VE BEEN PROMOTED TO MASTER SPY BECAUSE ALL THE OTHER SPIES HAVE DIED FROM SPY-MUMPS. NOW IT'S UP TO YOU TO CARRY OUT THE SPY MISSIONS ALONE.
I was hesitant to play this game. I find ALL-CAPS unpleasant to read, and COMEDY ALL-CAPS usually comes off as someone screaming PLEASE LAUGH AT MY JOKES! I'M FUNNY! PLEASE! I'M BEGGING YOU! As such, I expect that many people will dismiss this game out of hand, and I really don't blame them.
But once I got into it, I started to realize that something very different was going on than I had originally anticipated. The game is written in Twine with an impressive interface, where the screen is intended to mimic a helmet you're wearing. One panel shows your placement in the branching timeline, allowing you to accurately predict what paths will lead to victory or death. The spy-world is loud and obnoxious and absurd, drowning out everything else, filling the helmet with a static field in the background.
And then, eventually, the static dissolves, and the ALL-CAPS disappear, and you enter a passage written in lowercase... before you die and have to use your helmet to revert back to the spy-world and choose another branch. Once again, the ALL-CAPS drowns everything out and you plunge ahead on your ridiculous spy mission. But you can't forget what you saw, what the SCREAMING SURFACE GAME was hiding under its mayhem. In that buried story, the protagonist isn't a master spy, but a vulnerable young person grappling with drug abuse and suicidal thoughts.
Saying it like that makes it sound like it could be cheaply emotional, but it's raw and affecting and very well written. You feel as though the game is truly opening itself to expose something intimate and honest.
Furthermore, this is not a simple case where the CRAZY SPY MISSION is mirroring "real" things happening in the background. There is not a direct correlation between what is happening in the ALL-CAPS and lowercase worlds, even though they are connected. Reconciling that connection and coming to terms with how the two halves relate to each other is how you reach the game's apotheosis.
Something curious about this entire set-up is that as you continue to play, you start to look for the branches that lead to death on your helmet's timeline and, rather than avoiding them, you steer the story toward them, hoping to break back into another lowercase passage. The game is coaxing you into sharing the protagonist's own suicidal impulses. I've never encountered a mechanic like this in a branching narrative before, where you want to hit as many dead ends as possible.
A few comments I've read have stated that this is currently the longest Twine game ever written. It certainly is long. Once I'd settled into its rhythm, I was glad to have it keep going, and the second and third acts are very satisfying. However, because the first act is so long and contains its own internal three-act structure, I thought the game was preparing to end when it wasn't even halfway done.
This strikes me as its largest defect, and further editing could have probably adjusted the text to fix the pace. But I think it's also a defect that can be counteracted if players know about it beforehand, because then they can simply go into the game expecting a lengthy reading experience.
I played SPY INTRIGUE four days before writing this review, but I couldn't just write the review after I'd finished. I had to process the game. It stuck with me. I'm still turning it over. It gets better and better as I continue to absorb it.
Also, it doesn't need to beg you to laugh at its jokes. It's genuinely funny.
This game feels like the culmination of the genre of twines that started with howling dogs. It might be overstating to call it the apex of twine, but that's how I personally feel.
SPY INTRIGUE is a story with many layers to it, and somehow it works on each of these layers as well as all together. At the beginning it seems to be a wacky, vaguely sexually charged spy adventure. Then you die and see a story about mental illness, gender, relationships, living in A Society, and all that, all excellently written. But deeper into the spy missions, the themes wrap back around into full earnestness in a way that's difficult for me to describe. I usually bounce off video game comedy, but the humor in this game is genuinely funny. (Spoiler - click to show)For example, the best updog joke in video games. Hearing the word "mumps" still makes me want to laugh in a socially inappropriate manner; I wish I could talk about "SPY MUMPS" irl without being ostracized.
I love the interface too, especially the story map, which shows the current node and all the nodes leading out of the current node, annotated with colors for whether they lead to death, an aside, or story progress.
(Spoiler - click to show)One of the segments, the death scene where the protagonist tries on their parent's clothing, really got to me in a deeply personal way; I still go back just to read this one passage.
Spy Intrigue is set in a future, somewhat dystopian world. You, the player character, have enrolled in spy school and arrive to discover that you are in fact the only spy left after an unfortunate tragedy involving spy mumps. Which means that you get to start going on adventures, assigned to you by the devilishly attractive Secretarybot, despite having no training, no qualifications, and no guidance whatsoever on what you're meant to be doing.
If this premise sounds like the fun setup to some wacky hijinks, it totally is. And the narrative is funny enough to sustain the absurdity without batting an eye. But even that is not what makes SPY INTRIGUE so awesome.
The custom interface includes an interesting mechanic by providing you with a map that will show you where you are in relation to other nearby nodes -- and how close you are to dying. This turns out to be a good thing, because this game is designed as a sort of deadly gauntlet. You can expect to die a lot.
But you want to die. You want to die as often as you can.
Because when you die, the screen changes, and you're taken into flashback sequences from your life and childhood. And these begin to paint a deeper picture of who you are, and the kind of trauma that you have experienced, and the way that's affected you. You realize rather quickly that you have -- or have had -- a drug habit, and suicidal impulses.
And that's where you start to realize the genius of the game's design. Because reading these nuggets of backstory is so rewarding, and you are so compelled to learn more about this character's background, that you begin to seek out death. You begin to purposely do things that will lead to a dead end, and in doing so, you as the player end up sharing in some small way the protagonist's suicidal ideation.
Of course, you don't have to play it this way. You can navigate around the deaths and play it through as a straight, wacky romp of adventure and still have a good time with it. But I think trying to play Spy Intrigue to "win" is missing the point and, certainly, missing some of the best content.
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