Spy Party And Survive The Hunt

A tale of two similar games, the first an actual real game you can go buy on Steam, and the second a player-made mode in GTA V with no actual mechanical support at all, just a set of rules that everyone agrees to abide by for the sake of the game. Which means someone could just break the rules at any time, in the same way that someone could just keep running ’round the bases after they’ve already been tagged out in a baseball game, but then you haven’t won the game, you’ve just ended it by refusing to follow its rules and thus voiding its result. Presumably the other team wins by forfeit.

Anyway, game #1 is Spy Party. One player is the spy, and must accomplish a series of small missions while attempting to blend in with an AI crowd. The places where the AI tends to stand are highlighted on the floor, so the spy player can walk directly from one to another without arousing suspicion. The problem is, the missions themselves involve gestures that the AI never make. Planting a bug on the ambassador requires a certain gesture made when next to the ambassador, swapping a real statue for a fake will cause the statue to spontaneously change shape in your hands, dropping a secret code word for the double agent requires you to be in the same conversation hub as the double agent and gives an audio cue.

All of this matters because the other player is the sniper. They have only one bullet with which to shoot the spy. If they’re keen-eyed and the spy is sloppy, they might see a dead giveaway, like spotting the spy planting a bug on the ambassador. Otherwise, they might be able to narrow down the suspects. You don’t know exactly who the double agent is, but when you hear the audio cue, you know for sure that the spy was in conversation with someone, so that rules out anyone who wasn’t in conversation at all. If you didn’t see the statues get swapped but you notice one of them has changed shape, you might become more suspicious of anyone who was nearby the statue.

The spy wins if they complete all their missions. The sniper wins if they shoot the spy, or if time runs out.

This game is a lot of fun, although it has two major drawbacks, neither of which I have any idea how the developer could solve. The first is that playing with someone who’s massively better at the game than you are is no fun unless they accept a significant handicap, the inexperienced spy having to complete fewer missions and having more flexibility in picking which one, while the experienced spy has to complete a much larger list of missions, so large that they can’t avoid more than one or two of them. The inexperienced spy gets more time than the experienced spy. That kind of thing. The game has these handicaps, but most of the veterans don’t want to play with them and will ditch the game if the spy (who gets to set up the rules of the round, with spy and sniper trading off each round) sets up a game with a major handicap for themselves. And the game keeps track of spy/sniper wins, so it’s not like there’s any real chance of a veteran trying to scam an easy win by feigning inexperience. I was able to find one veteran who was a good sport about the handicap, we wound up pretty evenly matched, and I had an absolutely delightful couple of hours playing. I have not since been able to find someone that sporting.

I have no idea what the developer can do about this. He’s already successfully cultivated a much more polite and laid back community than most PvP games, so it hardly seems plausible to demand he additionally instill a willingness to play with handicap against newer players into his veterans. You could probably find some way to gameify it, but that risks weighing down the game with gameification bells and whistles that obscure the fundamentally fun core experience.

The other major problem with Spy Party is that the game constantly builds up tension but never has a moment of catharsis. As the spy, you are constantly paranoid that the sniper has you on their shortlist of suspects, that you’re going to be shot at any second. As the sniper, you are constantly paranoid that the spy is going to finish their final mission any second now, that you should take a shot at one of the suspects on your shortlist before the round ends in spy victory. This tension is great, but it lacks a release. It would really benefit from some kind of shootout or something after the sniper takes their shot, but that would be far outside the boundaries of the game as it stands. It would easily be into the realm of a sequel, rather than a patch or even expansion pack.

The GTA V game mode is called Survive the Hunt by the YouTube channel that I think invented it, and which players it regularly. Curiously, no one’s bothered to make a playlist out of the twenty-ish videos they’ve got so far. In any case, Survive the Hunt takes place in GTA Online, where one player (the narrator) is the prey, and some 10-15 others play the hunters. The prey’s goal is to survive 48 minutes (one full day/night cycle in-game) while also destroying as many pink “prees” as possible. “Pree” is short for some kind of specific car model, but I don’t know what the full name actually is. The main thing is that pink cars basically never spawn as AI cars, which means the hunters can leave a dozen-ish of them lying around town and the prey can be confident that if they find a pink pree, it belongs to one of the hunters. Players are alerted whenever one of their personal vehicles is blown up by another player, so whenever the prey blows up a pink pree, one hunter knows where in the city they are. If they’re at all on the ball, they will communicate this information to the rest of their team immediately.

There’s a couple of other stray rules to do with what guns and vehicles the hunters are allowed to use in order to balance out their numbers, and I’m not convinced that more rules wouldn’t be necessary to preserve the playstyle seen on the YouTube channel. There’s a couple of prey strategies radically different from what FailRace consistently employs, and which might be drastically superior. The FailRace strategy is to try and blend in with AI traffic for as long as possible while cruising around the city looking for prees. When he finds one, he plants a sticky bomb, detonates it from about a block away (he can detonate it from the other side of the city by game mechanics, but the informal rules of Survive the Hunt give the sticky bombs a range of about 100 yards), and tries to blend back into traffic. Inevitably, he does something that tips off a hunter to his location, and the hunter will radio in his team. Once the prey notices a lot of hunters building up around him, he’ll sooner or later bolt, and the chase is on, with the hunters trying to box him in so they can get out of their cars and shoot him to pieces (shooting from cars is forbidden, because it ends the chase too quickly and makes it almost impossible to win as prey except by going undetected for the entire round, which is not only very difficult, but also super boring).

This has the same “blend in with the AI” gameplay that Spy Party has, but it has that moment of catharsis at the end. Once spotted by the hunters, the prey isn’t just instantly shot and the game ended. The game shifts from nervous tension to breakneck action as we transition from blending in to running away.

Of course, being an informal game mode built out of the spare parts left lying around the GTA Online sandbox, Survive the Hunt has several massive downsides. For one, there’s no lobby or anything. You have to assemble a crew of players all by yourself. For another, you’re badly limited by the missions the prey can be assigned. The Survive the Hunt YouTube series has had a couple of clever ideas, like having one of the hunters drive a pink pree around, and if the prey can blow up that pree, they win immediately, but of course the hunter driving the pree will tell his teammates when he’s under attack.

They’re good ideas, but you could do much better if this were an officially supported game mode. You could have locations wherein the prey can get heavier weapons in order to do things like shoot down a hunter helicopter, but visiting those locations is dangerous because the hunters know where they are, too. You could have things like the Spy Party statue, which change the appearance of the area, giving the prey away immediately if a hunter is watching and letting them know the prey was in the area at some point if they weren’t (my first thought is graffiti, but that might just be because I’m still in the GTA mindset). You could have an AI VIP in a motorcade or in some specific location like a courthouse or something, which the prey must assassinate. You could have packages that the prey is supposed to deliver from one end of the city to the other.

There’s not really a point here. Just, I watched a lot of Survive the Hunt lately and thought “huh, that’s kind of like Spy Party.”

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