Fev Games Faves: SpyParty

In SpyParty, as in many other games, players can shoot other players. It’s what happens before and after the shot that makes SpyParty unique.

Fev Games Faves is an experimental series where a Fev Games staff member writes about any game that tickles their fancy. Is your fancy tickled, too? Let us know in the comments.

SpyParty at a Glance
Players 1 vs. 1
Platforms Windows, Mac OS under Wineskin
(developer intends to release on consoles and Steam as well)
Release date When it’s done
(early-access public beta currently open)
Price $15

One Hit, One Kill

Time to die, President Taft. (Don’t worry, faithful security guard; your facelift is coming soon.)

Many games that in involve firing weapons have you almost casually filling the air with copious amounts of lead or laser beams or corrosive plasma or what have you. SpyParty is the polar opposite of that: squeezing the trigger is the most intense, nerve-wracking decision you make in the game. In a sense, it’s more realistic that way: in real life, choosing to send a projectile through another person’s skull is a decision you most definitely can’t take back. While the consequences aren’t nearly as dire in the imaginary scenario that is SpyParty, it has a similar finality: a single bullet, one way or another, ends the game.

One player is a spy at a fancy party populated with NPCs. The spy’s objective is to complete a certain number of missions within a time limit. The missions are classic spy tropes: planting a bug on an ambassador, transferring a microfilm from one place to another, contacting a double agent, etc. Meanwhile, the other player is a sniper situated outside the party, and their goal is to identify that spy and shoot them. If the sniper shoots the spy, or the spy runs out of time, the sniper wins. If the spy completes their missions or the sniper shoots the wrong person, the spy wins. On the surface, it seems pretty simple. But the more you play, the more you find that SpyParty has layers upon layers of strategy.

Mmm… Banana Bread…

High-rise, currently one of the most popular SpyParty maps. The animations still need a little tweaking so that drinks aren’t ripped from the waiter’s chest cavity.

The “Contact Double Agent” mission provides a good example. There is a double agent at the party; his or her identity is known to the spy but not to the sniper. The spy must casually join a conversation in which the double agent is participating, then utter the code phrase “banana bread.” That’s it; mission complete… except the sniper heard that. They have the ability to highlight individuals who are suspicious and “lowlight” those who are not, so when you say “banana bread,” many snipers will immediately look around for people who aren’t in conversation and lowlight them, reducing their suspect pool. If you were one of three highlights, and the other two were off quietly admiring statues or thumbing through books instead of chatting, you just painted a big red bull’s-eye on your forehead.

However, the spy can turn this sniper behavior to their advantage by attempting what is known in the SpyParty community as the “banana split”: speaking the code word, then immediately leaving the conversation, hoping to earn a lowlight from a sniper who failed to notice where they were a moment ago (although risking a highlight from a sniper who did notice). Even more devious is the practice of using the sniper’s momentary distraction to quickly perform another mission, like bugging the ambassador or stealing the guest list from the waiter’s tray.

Under Pressure

Morgan Freeman has narrated his last film.

A game of SpyParty produces an almost unreal amount of tension, especially as an inexperienced player. From the very first game as a spy, there is a very intense feeling that the sniper’s omnipresent eye is watching everything you do. (The fact that you can see the sniper’s laser darting about only intensifies this feeling.) It can be hard to stay calm when you feel certain that the sniper is going to see the statue swap you’re about to pull and rain instant death upon you. To be able to progress beyond entry-level spy play, you have to learn to keep your cool, even if the sniper seems to be attempting to burn a hole through your head with their laser. You have to remember that you usually aren’t nearly as obvious as you think.

Palms are no less sweaty for the sniper, whose most precious resource is attention. Depending on the game setup, there can be anywhere from seven to twenty people at the party, and up to eight different missions to watch for, not all of which have to be completed, and only some of which have definitive hard “tells.” A good sniper has to learn to carefully budget his or her attention, and to resist the temptation to “tunnel” (focus too hard) on one person who seems a little suspicious. Early on, trying to keep on top of the barrage of sensory input is like trying to drink from a fire hose. It is intense and nerve-wracking, but once you successfully take down your first spy, you’ll want to do it again.

Let Me Tell You How To Kill Me

An overhead view of one of the maps that hasn’t been updated to the new art style yet. This map provides interesting opportunities for spies to perform missions when the sniper is looking elsewhere.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of SpyParty is the player community. It is, bar none, the friendliest game community I’ve ever experienced. I have a full-time job and a family, so I don’t have a whole lot of time to play games. I know that I will likely never be a “hardcore” gamer in the traditional sense. So I don’t exactly have a lot motivation to game online, where I’ll likely be schooled by some 12-year-old who does nothing but play the game all day, then have to endure their badly-spelled taunting. The SpyParty community is very different: after an enemy sniper puts a bullet between your eyes, they’ll often tell you exactly what it was that gave you away to help you improve. Many SpyParty veterans are happy to mentor a newbie, and the wiki and the private player forums are chock full of useful tips.

The game’s lone developer is Chris Hecker, perhaps best known for providing the smarts in Spore that figure out how your creature is supposed to walk, regardless of how many legs you give it. He is very active in the SpyParty community and is quite responsive to player feedback and bug reports. He streams the game every Tuesday at 10 am (US Pacific time) on the SpyParty Twitch channel. He or veteran players answer viewer questions during the stream, and sometimes he even gives a little peek at what he’s currently working on. He also likes to release videos that detail his release notes, show off fun little touches from the game, or even showcase amusing bugs:

You can join the SpyParty open beta for $15, which gives you the full game when its released (including, according to the author, a Steam key when it comes out on Steam). The beta client is a Windows executable, but many people run it just fine on Mac OS using Wineskin. And if you see a player named rjwut in the lobby, that’s me: hit me up for a game!