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Precognition and explosive oatmeal, November 16, 2015
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.