Seldom in life does someone cackle in front of you like a James Bond villain, explaining how they will deliver your demise. When game designer Chris Hecker did this to me in San Francisco recently, I knew I had him.
See, Chris Hecker thought he was clever. And the truth is that Chris Hecker is clever. A former developer of Spore and a well-respected game designer, he is now developing one of the most interesting multiplayer games I have ever played.
The game is called Spy Party, a game that pits one player as a spy at a fancy party and another as the sniper across the street. It features just one death, triggered when the sniper player believes they have finally figured out which character in the party is the other player and squeezes the trigger.
The game might not be out for two more years, because Hecker has a notebook full of ideas, determination to polish this game until it sparkles and a desire to let no company mess with his ideas. "I want to make a game that is different," he told me when we hung out in his hotel room in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and played his game. "I can't do this for someone who needs to have a 'return on investment.'"
Chris Hecker sure does talk a good talk about the noble art of game development, which helps when his opponent — me — is figuring out how to wriggle out of the knots suspending me over a proverbial shark tank. Hecker had told me I had no chance playing against him, because the game is not yet tuned to accommodate players of different skill levels. He also said all sorts of beautiful things that an ambitious and talented person would say about making their next video game on their own terms.
Hecker and I sat across from each other, in front of two laptops wired to Xbox 360 controllers. He explained both playable roles for me, apologizing repeatedly that, really, this game is best played right now by two people of equal skill level, meaning not me vs. him. The sniper role would be simple, at least. The party, in the game's prototype form, is held in a single, minimally furnished room that has windows on three sides. Everyone in the party talks, walks around, looks at some statues in the corner, wanders over to the book case, laughs and so on. The spy is among them, but the sniper just watches. The sniper player can move their camera view to any windowed side of the room and zoom in for inspection. They can highlight characters they are suspicious of and darken those who they are sure are genuine. A laser sight from their gun exposes the sniper's viewing angle to the spy and they only get one shot. The sniper player may lock onto the shadiest character and fire a can't-miss bullet. They better hope they murdered the right person.
I asked Hecker to play well and then to play badly. When he played well, I was paranoid. Was that swipe of the hand from one character to the other something the computer did? Or was that Chris planting a bug on the ambassador, which is one of the spy's four goals in the prototype Hecker was showing? I fired. I shot the wrong guy.
Hecker told me that Spy Party emerged from his desire to make "an asymmetrical multiplayer game about subtle human behavior." Naturally, because it's a video game, I pointed out, this subtle game's got to have killing. Hecker laughed, though he wasn't yet doing his Bond villain cackle. Subtlety is his unusual game design goal. He wants a game that you pore over, that you study and observe. If you are the sniper he wants you to have to spot the tiniest clues. As the spy, he wants you to be able to make the slickest super-spy gestures. In this prototype, for example, one of the four goals for the spy is to move a book from a bookshelf at one end of the room to the other. Doing this correctly involves standing in front of the bookcase, taking a book from the shelf to read and then either putting it back for real or doing a slick move — triggered by a different button press — that slips the book under one's jacket while still reaching a hand to the bookcase, as if the book was being put back on the shelf. Even when Hecker showed me the animation I was two blinks away from missing it.
Spy Party has already proven to provoke devious actions. Hecker said that some of his spy-side game testers have taken to tapping on buttons that the 360 controller doesn't use, in order to make the sniper player think that a spy action is being committed. If they hear come clicking then they'll assume, perhaps, that one of the statue idols is being replaced? That's another of the spy's four goals, by the way. It may have been Hecker's description of such deviousness that made me realize how I was going to beat him at his own game. As he continued talking about all the bright ideas he had for Spy Party, I concocted my master plan.
Part of what is so exciting about Spy Party is the stuff that happens around the game. Hecker has seen the game trigger strong emotional responses. I even felt it... guilt of all things. I've killed thousands — millions? — of enemy characters and even some friendly characters in video games with none of the pangs of consequence. I shot one innocent partygoer in Spy Party after tracking them for a few minutes, after being sure they were Chris Hecker's avatar and up to no good, and then, as they lay dead on the floor I realized I was wrong. I felt bad. Apparently Hecker's friend, Chaim Gingold, a fellow ex-Spore designer (he made the game's terrific creature editor) has been wracked by the same guilt when play-testing the game. Another Hecker friend, Spore visionary Will Wright, was less bothered. "Will doesn't care," Hecker said. The legendary game designer sees the characters for the digital constructs they are and moves on to the next session, ready to try to figure out who the spy is and shoot again.
I knew my time as the spy would be tough. As I tried this side of the game Hecker even checked whether I wanted him to be playing well or with sympathy. It was a clear sign that he'd already figured me out.
I would move my spy character through the party, watching Hecker's laser pointer find me and knowing the bullet was coming. There were times when I moved my character with a stutter, making the kind of awkward stop-and-turn move that a computer character would never make. Hecker sniped me, then explained that he is going to program the computer to sometimes make those kinds of bad moves too. Add that to his ideas list: He also wants these parties to be set in multi-room mansions with multiple players as spies who may or may not know about each other, and with snipers waiting outside. He wants there to be events at the party, like the singer drawing people to the piano so she can belt out a tune, giving the spy an opportunity to slip away. He wants to let the paparazzi character take photos, making a flash that temporarily blinds the sniper. He wants personalities in his characters, so that the lecherous partygoer hits on the ingenue. Spy players could choose any of these characters and role-play them as best they can while trying to accomplish their spy goals.
After each time that Hecker sniped me we were able to restart the room. I kept playing as the spy, but I had the option to select the four spy goals and my spy character. I don't remember which character I chose when I decided it was time to hatch my plan. It may have been the man in the plaid blazer. Maybe it was the general. Whoever it was, I do recall that I walked my guy over to the statues. I was going to do the first goal: idol swap.
As my character stood there, Hecker's laser-pointer found me. That's when Chris Hecker threw his head back and laughed. He'd found me out again. Really, he said, this wasn't a fair match.
No, it wasn't fair. Hecker hadn't shot me yet.
It would have been better if I'd played with someone at my skill level, he had continuously suggested. No, this was better.
I made my character walk toward his next goal. Hecker's laser followed. At any moment he could pull the trigger.
Or, actually, he couldn't. He only had a few seconds left, because unbeknownst to Hecker I had changed the rules of the game. I had ignored the mandate to select all four of the game's spy goals during our matchmaking preparation. I had set up the match so that my spy had only one task: swap the idols. A timer was counting down on my screen, as it would on the screen of any player who has completed all of their assigned spy goals.
The countdown timer finished. The game pronounced me the winner. Hecker, realizing what I'd done, made a different kind of cackle. He'd made a liar out of me and I'd tricked him.
Well-played, he told me. Yes, Hecker, and to you, well-made. Spy Party is one of the most psychologically interesting games I've played. Remember its name and follow its progress (on the official Spy Party site, if you'd like). Two years from completion, it could be worth the wait. It's a promising game in the making, with just one kill.
(Screenshots from Spy Party are from the game's current prototype and do not reflect the aesthetic and quality Hecker hopes to achieve with the finished product.)