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.
Other reviewers have explained at a high level how the game works. The surface narrative is about being a spy, but a spy in a ludicrous adventure scenario, in which you sneak into an enemy compound alone armed only with, say, a packet of spy oatmeal because all the other spies have died of spy mumps.
You can navigate this space with the help of a visor that allows you a kind of precognition: the visor UI is showing you how many future nodes lead away from your present bit of story, and how many branches those will have.
So you can move, if you like, towards greater or lesser density of action; you can intentionally execute a breadth-first search, say, on the narrative space.
(Usually. There are points in the story when this changes, when the visor is unavailable or ineffective, and a few points when a choice link is initially invisible until you’ve tried enough other links from the same page. Then the new link begins to fade into the list of choices, as though it were rising to the surface. Like the die in a Magic 8-ball.)
In some sections, each node represents a room and the layout describes a physical map; in others, a node corresponds to a moment in time. The game is thus fluid, at times feeling more parser-esque, more attached to a world model, and at other times embracing its status as hypertext.
In addition to showing you the shape of the surrounding narrative space, the visor even indicates which nodes are going to be deadly. You can see, before you click a link, whether it is going to kill you. But this doesn’t mark links you should avoid.
Just the contrary: to die in the spy fantasy is to revisit the real world, and the real world is where the meaning of the story becomes clear. In this setting, we see three major phases of the protagonist’s life — childhood, teenagerdom, and a traumatic incident in early adulthood — through the lens of the fourth phase, where the protagonist is temporarily (or perhaps not so temporarily) in a mental hospital.
At the best end of the story, the layers of the story collapse to one, and the protagonist has the opportunity to choose a way forward, for the first and only time typing an input rather than selecting one. SPY INTRIGUE is not the first interactive fiction to end by freeing the protagonist into real choice, but it is likely the most effective at this.
Framing and Levels of Reality
Eventually, it becomes clear that the spy fantasy is an escape, commentary, or re-interpretation of that reality, but it isn’t a simple analogue — it’s not that the people you meet in the spy fantasy are “really” your mom and dad, for instance — because, in contrast with some infamous unreliable narrator pieces, this is not playing towards a gotcha twist ending. Rather, the fantasy is the harmony line or even the counterpoint to the main line of the story.
The real world is still not our world — it is a future or an alternate existence in which most mammals have gone extinct, in which the US has faded into an ex-imperial force, in which household cleaning robots are common. Things that are at least somewhat true now, but here with the dial turned up. When the protagonist is young, snipers pick off random people in your neighborhood: a reference, I think, to the Beltway snipers of 2002, though the story defies being grounded to that date.
The protagonist in the real world sequences is revealed to be very bright and verbally adroit but to have difficulty with attention and reading social cues, suffering from a condition called Gately’s Encephalopathy. In the early sections of the game, we see your experiences as a child or perhaps a very young teenager, being diagnosed with Gately’s, struggling to decide how to feel about their testing. To compensate for the lack of instinctive ability to connect with people, the protagonist is developing an acute skill at faking sociability and reasoning from first principles towards what people intend.
In the spy fantasy, you navigate with your machinery, and find your environment and the NPCs deeply difficult to understand, though you consider them closely and in detail. You are sexually aroused by banana bread. You are strongly aware of physical sensations, yet at times bewildered by them, as though your body were yet another mechanism nearly impossible to comprehend or control.
Key points in the real world narrative are punctuated with scanned documents: psychiatric assessments, police reports, city maps, information about prescription medicines.
These images are the notionally-objective touchstones in this otherwise intensely subjective and interior work, the only moments when we move outside the protagonist’s perspective and are offered something that we can know to be “real.” They give us the chance to read how other people might see the protagonist: doctors, authority figures. But at the same time, these documents are missing the point, failing to understand who the protagonist is. And they are also objects that have come into the protagonist’s possession, therefore mirrors in which you are trying to see yourself, in order to better reason about who and what you are, and how you fit into the world.
Meanwhile, as the documents are a more objective layer under the real world narrations, there are also even more subjective layers above the spy fantasy. Within the fantasy, you can tell or hear stories, or go to sleep and dream, creating yet additional layers of distance and surrealism.
In one of your dreams, for instance, you find yourself in an old-fashioned diner full of plates of sentient cooked pork. Other dreams are jokes, or entire little short stories of their own, like the one where you become the doppelganger of a celebrity, physically linked to everything her body undergoes.
It is in the deeper fantasies that you can think earliest and most clearly about being trans. The narrative voice addresses this obliquely, in your longing for a bra, and via other markers: as a thing that is already known but cannot be spoken aloud. Later, as the protagonist gets older, the real life portion is also able to be more direct about this topic, as the realization becomes conscious.
At the same time, the story is always in a certain way evasive about which gender you were assigned at birth: in all the real-world documents, your gender is blacked out; sex scenes talk about the genitalia of your partners but leaves your own as a matter for your, the player’s, personal choice..
Voice and Protagonist Identity
To call this a stream-of-consciousness narrative would suggest perhaps that it contains few incidents, which is not the case. The narration is deeply interior, so involved with the cognitive state of the protagonist that everything else sometimes fades out. Here, for instance, is a room description:
THE HALLWAY IS BARE AND FACELESS TO THE EXTREME, ABSENT ANY SORT OF DESIGN OR PURPOSE
LIKE AN ANCIENT GEOLOGICAL FORMATION, OR A CONVEYANCE BUILT BY CREATURES WHO TRAVEL BY A SENSE OTHER THAN VISION
LIKE INSECTS, WRITING PATCHWORK TRAILS OUT OF PHEREMONES
YOU CAN NEARLY SMELL IT NOW
It is describing the surroundings a little bit, but mostly it describes the protagonist’s thoughts about the surroundings, which here as in many other places consist of brilliant, alienated speculation about what this place could possibly be for.
When you lose your cat:
every night you wander the city like an inconsolable revenant, calling after her, shaking a tin of food, making the same “come here” noises you never realized could contain grief at all. but there is a socket in everything for grief, and no matter how small it always manages to effect a shift in space and time, from pleasantry into some shadowy, twilit thing
What a paragraph this is. Zooming from the melodramatic to the concrete to the philosophical, from ghostly-ness to flesh and back. “There is a socket in everything” echoes Leonard Cohen, less hopefully.
But this is also the same narrative voice that sometimes mimics the most affectless text adventure description (“THERE IS A GUARD AT THE DOOR / THERE IS A ROCK ON THE GROUND”), and other times makes dirty jokes. Sometimes it feigns being inarticulate, for a very precise and intentional effect.
There is an infamous interview with V. S. Naipaul in which he says, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me… And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”
Reading that interview, I thought: oh, god, I know what you mean. I observe that, in some literary criticism, the confidence and authority assumed by the implied author is confused with other merits: perception, truth, literary genius. Part of the noxious lie that being sure is the same as being right.
And as Naipaul is evidently aware, that magisterial complacency about one’s own perspective does come more easily to people who are, or consider themselves, “complete masters” in any social context. I just disagree with him about whether “complete master” is a term of approbation, or whether its meaning might be embedded a very short cosine distance away from “total bastard.”
Still, at the same time, there is a courage necessary in writing down any general observation about how the world works. There is often value in such observations, and consequently, value in the sort of writing written by the sort of people who feel emboldened to do it.
Here is how SPY INTRIGUE accomplishes such a thing:
a few minutes later he places the chit in your hand and you shake his other hand with your other hand and the last thing you see as you walk out and he closes the door is the cat looking at you, not angry, not upset, just mostly concerned, disappointed, torn up in the way only one who watches a close friend ignore their counsel in irreparable ways can ever look
…where the anxious, breathless parataxis, not to mention the shame of the protagonist’s actions, place the implied author very far from any position of either comfort or authority.
And then the paragraph punches you through the heart with a knitting needle, because it says, “do you remember this look I am talking about?” and you probably do, because either you have seen that look or you have worn it yourself, and whenever that happened in your life, it was probably an incredibly bad day.
This is life wisdom submitted as a pull request. It’s up to you whether you accept it, whether you agree, whether you’ve had like experiences; the author doesn’t feel inclined or indeed entitled to force you.