In 2015, game studio Supermassive released Until Dawn, a title that looked and played out much like a typical, almost cliche, horror movie. But there was one aspect of the game that made it feel different: choice. Horror movies are filled with people making seemingly inexplicable decisions that lead to death, and Until Dawn was your chance to show how smart you are by making the right choices and keeping everyone alive. Though it was a single-player game, Until Dawn became something of a social experience, with people sitting around a television yelling what they think the on-screen characters should do. Now Supermassive is taking this idea to its logical conclusion with Hidden Agenda.
Today sees the debut of Sony’s new PlayLink initiative, which includes a slate of PlayStation 4 games that utilize mobile phones as controllers. You can use your iPhone as a mic while belting out tunes in Singstar, or select answers in competitive trivia games. But Hidden Agenda is the most ambitious project so far. It plays out as a gritty, violent crime drama — think Saw meets Law & Order — but adds a multiplayer element on top. As you explore the story, players can work together to make important decisions, investigate crime scenes, and piece the mystery together.
Hidden Agenda revolves around a serial killer known as “the Trapper,” a criminal who boobytraps his victims in order to inflict even more harm on the first responders trying to save them. Your time playing is split between two characters: detective Becky Marnie and district attorney Felicity Graves. For the most part, the game plays out like a movie, as you watch events unfold on-screen, but at regular intervals you’re forced to interact in some way. You might need to make a choice on how to proceed with an investigation. Should you be cautious or aggressive when searching a crime scene? Relaxed or demanding when questioning a witness? You also have to work together to find clues, and at certain points you’ll need to quickly hit on-screen buttons to avoid violent scenarios.
Just like in Until Dawn, your choices can dramatically change how the story unfolds, and often important characters can die as a result. The difference, of course, is that in Hidden Agenda there isn’t just one person making those decisions. For most choices in the game, you need to reach a majority before you can proceed, and for particularly difficult decisions — like whether or not to shoot an assailant — everyone needs to agree. The result is a lot of arguing — but in a fun way. “Each dilemma has no right or wrong answer, so they’re designed to encourage debate among the group,” explains Will Doyle, director on the game.
Hidden Agenda also adds a number of video game-y elements that encourage more social play. In between scenes, you’ll often have to take a vote, deciding who among your group is more persuasive or trustworthy. The person decided upon will then have to make an important choice by themselves later on. You can also earn cards that let you take control of a situation and make a decision without the help of the rest of the group. “We spent a lot of time striking the right balance between life-or-death dilemmas and more sedate, character-based choices,” says Doyle. “Like all stories, the drama needs to ebb and flow to give audiences time to breathe.”
The story is a fairly gripping, if not an especially unique, thriller, with all of the requisite twists and turns. It’s a bit too self-serious at times — I can’t remember a single joke during my time with the game — and it’s incredibly bleak, with dark, gloomy locations devoid of color. But for Supermassive, just like the horror of Until Dawn, this type of story lent itself well to creating a interactive narrative experience. “Genres where death is expected, and so decisions that the characters make have consequences that can’t be undone, lend themselves perfectly to the stories we like to tell and the games we make,” explains producer Jez Harris.
Predictable story beats aside, if there’s one thing holding the game back it might be the app itself. Hidden Agenda requires a companion app, available for free on both iOS and Android, and while it’s not especially pretty it does contains a wealth of useful information. You can read up on the characters, important choices, and the overall story; these blurbs are updated constantly as the story unfolds. But when it comes to interacting with the game on your TV, it doesn’t always work as it should. Most of the time your phone’s touchscreen acts as a sort of trackpad, letting you move a cursor around on-screen. In my experience it was frequently unresponsive; sometimes someone would make a wrong choice because their cursor went astray, or miss a quick time event because of a delay. When these actions can lead to death, it makes them all the more frustrating.
At times Hidden Agenda feels like something of a first draft. It’s an intriguing thriller, but with a handful of rough edges that hold the experience back. That said, it’s hard not to see the potential for this kind of storytelling. It feels like a natural evolution of games like Until Dawn — and Supermassive has plenty of ideas to move things forward in the future. “Until Dawn established us in this area and since then we’ve been exploring multiple new concepts, designs, and stories that build significantly upon what we have created before,” says Harris. “You can see some of these ideas in Hidden Agenda and we are really excited about the future of narrative gaming and how we can contribute to that future.”