2015 is the year the comp broke me. There were 50-odd games to cover in a six week period, and I’d committed to cover on my blog every one I considered recommendation-worthy: a time investment of several hours apiece, though some took longer. I also tried to find ways to send some positive responses back even about the things I couldn’t completely recommend. But I handled that maladroitly and hurt some feelings; and it’s not exactly a challenging feat of empathy to guess that my approach was going to land wrong, so I felt pretty bad about that.
Fitting the equivalent of a new full-time job into my life alongside my other commitments was hard, and it was also an emotionally demanding position to be in. I got email and DMs from authors who wanted me to hurry up and get to their work; to give further information about the contents of my reviews; to reconsider what I’d already written. In one case someone wrote to chew me out for setting the wrong standards for how comp games should be handled by the community at large because I wasn’t giving each game enough attention.
This was the point where (belatedly, you may think) I decided this was an unhealthy situation and I was done reviewing the Comp. I would finish 2015 and then bow out.
But around the same time all this was going on, someone — not the author — pinged me and said could you please post a review of SPY INTRIGUE, it’s gotten so little coverage, hurry it up please. So I assembled and posted what I had to say about it, but that wasn’t very much, relative to what the piece actually is.
What I primarily experienced, trying it out in 2015, were all the ways the game resists the player: the hard to read all-caps text, the staticky backgrounds, the text-shakes and screen-flashes. (I believe the accessibility features at the start of the game do let you turn those off if they’re likely to be bad for you.) Then there’s the way the UI gets a facelift every time you’ve gotten the hang of it, so you have to sort of relearn it; the very long instruction text that only makes things more confusing if you aren’t already acquainted with the game; the absence of markers to help you understand how the story relates to our world.
At the very beginning, it seems like maybe the author just has tremendously bad design sense about what’s going to be comfortable for the average IF reader. Later it becomes clear that the aesthetics are very intentional, but that “maybe it’s incompetence?” look is a really challenging thing to try in the beginning of a comp game, unless that game happens to be attached to the name of someone already well-known. There is, after all, quite a lot of genuinely mishandled work submitted to competitions.
Then, too, it doesn’t align itself to many recognizable tropes of IF. If I think about what might be closest to it, I think of maybe ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III for the layering of fantasy and real life; maybe Zest for the inspection of how worldview makes life livable, and the function of supposedly-recreational substances. But even so neither of those is very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. There just isn’t anything very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. This is part of what’s amazing about it, but it’s another challenge to entry.
And in the context in which I originally played, even SPY INTRIGUE’s length was a thing that made it resistant. In a literal sense, I read fast enough — that is, I can get the basic sense of words quickly enough — that I could get to an ending in two hours. But that was nowhere near enough time to understand it, apprehend its themes and structure, and play it sympathetically.
In the intervening years, a couple of things have happened. One, despite a general lack of community discussion about this game, a handful of people whose tastes I trust have told me it was great. Two, I’ve gotten to know furkle personally.
I decided I wanted to replay it; and, at the same time, that I needed to do that at a time when I could approach it completely differently than I did the first time — without the sense of obligation, without the idea that my role vis a vis this work was to be its Designated Reader.
This weekend I replayed. I took a lot more time over it — probably something like eight hours elapsed between start and finish. I wasn’t reading continuously that whole time; on the contrary, I put it aside several times. That’s not because I was bored with it, but there was a sufficient richness that I found I needed a bit of a break at times, to process, before deciding how to re-engage.
I found it hugely easier to get into this time. That’s partly the different reading approach; partly that I’d played it once before, so the UI features were known to me; and partly that knowing more about the author gave me more context for interpreting the game’s ambiguities. This is one of those pieces where knowing the rough plot outline in advance is a significant help in grasping the overall meaning of the work. So I’m going to go into more specifics here than I usually do in a review.
And I really hope more people will play it. Here is a game that placed 29th in its competition, for reasons that I understand completely — but the fact that it was under-played and under-discussed represents a major missed opportunity, especially for people in the community who are interested in the more narrative and writerly possibilities of IF.
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.