"This needs to be a subtle art style to go with a subtle game," Chris Hecker told me during our latest conversation about one of the contenders for World's Most Interesting Video Game.
All Hecker and I were ostensibly doing was talking about the first look he was giving me at the characters in Spy Party, his forever-in-the-making multiplayer game that pits one player as a one-shoot-instant-kill sniper and the other as a spy who has to accomplish a few bugging/briefcase-swapping-type missions before being caught and killed. The spy tries to blend in with computer-controlled partygoers; the sniper player tries to figure out which partygoer is the spy and must shoot them before the timer runs out.
All he was doing was showing me some character renders by Hecker's former Spore colleague John Cimino. But, as things go with Spy Party we were actually talking about something as big as all video games.
We were talking about the kind of people you see in games, the kind of people you get to play as. Spy Party's playable cast might look normal in the real world. But next to most gaming heroes, they're downright exotic. Old, young, white, black.
Cimino's illustrations of five of the game's 25 playable characters showed, Hecker believes, the "envelope of the art", the extent to which the cast of his game will be diverse. He's proud he has an older woman and a younger one who doesn't have big breasts. Even his most studly male character has some gray in his hair.
If these characters and the other 20 or so that Cimino will draw for the game seem a bit old for playable characters in a multiplayer game, Hecker doesn't care. He's not trying to have a young, bald marine in it. And he obviously can't have kids in this party where anyone can be sniped.
"The minimum age will be above whatever age that is appropriate to shoot someone in the head, in a game where it actually matters when you're shooting someone in the head, not just running around shooting 4,000 dudes in the head. Pulling the trigger is a big deal in my game, so it needs to be age-appropriate. And the gameplay itself in my game is more mature. It's more psychological. It's more about behavior. If the cast reflects that, then so be it."
He started telling me about how he wants a character in a wheelchair and how the diversity of the cast will even impact the gameplay. Beta testers currently experiment with playing their spy as a skinny woman, for example, so they can't be seen as clearly if they're trying to plant a bug on a fat ambassador. The wheelchair person might not be able to move around as well, but they would be lower and harder to keep an eye on, Hecker figured.
Diversity as a gameplay asset! Really, what other game developer gets to talk about this?
Hecker told me how he brought Cimino on board about a year ago, in secret, with the artist forgoing a lucrative job at Zynga to take this gig. "The pitch for an artist to work on Spy Party is actually pretty good," Hecker said "Think about it. There are very few games—if you're a character guy—where you can work on normal people. Not space marines and not orcs, right? People. Stylish people in normal clothes doing interesting, emotionally-intimate things like flirting with each other or having a drink and talking. Or looking at something. Where else are you going to work like that if you want to do characters? It's kind of the best character game out there in some sense, from a potential standpoint."
Hmm. Was Hecker wrong? I tried to think of games that had normal people doing fairly normal things. Grand Theft Auto? Sort of, but they usually go for big action moments and not much cocktail-sipping. The Sims? "The Sims has to be all games to all people about people which at the same time makes it no games about people," Hecker said, anticipating my counter-example. "It's got to be so generic," he added, saying that wasn't an insult. It needs to be generic to let players imbue personality into the characters.
The character drawings Hecker is now showing are Cimino's high-end renders. They will be simplified for the game, which is currently in a small beta of about 1700 gamers and which Hecker hopes to expand to more than 17,000 paying beta customers some time this September. (Sign up for the beta here. It costs $15 and, like Minecraft before it, grants players access to early versions of the game well before the finished one comes out.)
Spy Party will be done... someday. These characters will begin to be added to the beta some time next year, replacing the current prototype characters, whose names and likenesses will probably be retired. "I can't wait for the backlash, because, you know, it's the internet. There will be a backlash. They'll want the old art. Oh, come on people!"
What follows are more of Cimino's renders as well as one image of the game's current programmer art. Hecker describes the new style as "naturalistic and illustrative", drawing from such classic pre-photography illustrators as J.C. Leyendecker, Harry Beckhoff, Robert McGinnis and Herbert Paus.
The old art. Gah!
Finally, Hecker and Cimino at work in Oakland.