SpyParty: A game of social psychology

SpyParty: A game of social psychology
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

November 12th 2010 at 2:00PM

Develop suited up to drop in on Chris Hecker's innovative mind game

Chris Hecker feels games aren’t encouraging players to take on a mentoring role. That’s one way his current project aims to change the behaviour of its players.

We detailed his GameCity talk on SpyParty earlier. This asymmetric multiplayer game is something that could only have been born from the indie scene. One player takes the role of a spy mingling amongst the guests at a party, while the other plays a sniper trying to pick out and silence the spy.

It’s a complex idea, but Hecker believes in following Blizzard’s model of “depth first, accessibility later” - and this was underlined by the fact a four-page guide was given to waiting players to help familiarise them with its setup.

Once you’re over this initial barrier, however, you’ll find SpyParty is unlike the challenges you face in most games. As the spy you are attempting to mimic the behaviour of the AI characters - purposeful, inconspicuous actions - to fool your silent predator.

Playing as the spy it can take a moment to get your bearings, so it’s helpfully that the computer controls your character initially. When you choose to take control the game itself starts. You can select a number of objectives, such as planting a bug, stealing an object or collecting a dead drop.

These must be completed before the timer runs out, however, you can add additional time by looking at your watch. That can be a dead giveaway, and did in fact get us shot by the competing player during our time with SpyParty. These momentary tells give the sniper a fighting chance and push the tension higher still.

Before getting rumbled, we did achieve some of the missions assigned. You can do everything the AI characters can, such as picking up statuettes, reading books from a bookshelf and talking to other characters. A cool-headed approach saw us blending in effectively as we watched the sniper’s laser flick across the harmless AI characters. It’s thrilling to deceive the other player as you carefully imitate the computer’s ritualistic behaviour.

While playing as the spy presents a rare lesson in behavioural psychology, as the sniper you’re offered a new perspective on one of gaming’s most common positions, the aggressor.

TO TAKE A LIFE AND SAVE A LIFE WITH A SINGLE BULLET

There’s a lot to keep track of as the sniper, something which inherently adds to your own confusion and pressure to pick off your charge. The sniper has one bullet which ends the game once fired at a character.

Although you can navigate along the full width of the building, the window frames themselves minimise your vision. Zooming in on the party with the sniper’s scope reduces your view further still, but crucially allows you to pick up on some of the spy-only actions, as well as tag objects.

During our play, we heard the spy trying to make contact with the double agent when the codeword ‘banana bread’ sounded. Characters make hand gestures when they speak, so we focused in on a group of guests. Two characters flailed their arms, a fat top hat wearer and a gent in a tuxedo, and the codeword sounded again. We shot the top hat wearer.

In hindsight, we should have just pulled the trigger on the Bond lookalike, but that moment of indecision was caused as we attempted to use instinct rather than reason to guess the fifty-fifty chance of who the real spy was.

The interesting thing about the psychology of SpyParty is that there is great temptation to second guess which character a friend will choose. A whole other tell, or in some cases decoy, is added simply because of people’s personal relationships and perception of others.

Asymmetric multiplayer can sometimes be frustratingly one-sided. SpyParty is a wholly new interactive experience that requires patience and mental agility from its players. And it’s relying on its players to explain and teach newcomers about its subtle gameplay. There’s strong social potential, so long as its message spreads as disruptively as its concept.