Why is Hidden Agenda called Hidden Agenda? Supermassive Games’ follow-up to its horror sleeper Until Dawn is a dark and rain-soaked police procedural about a serial killer called the Trapper who appears to strike again just as the man who confessed to the Trapper’s murders awaits execution on death row. Two women, a straight-arrow prosecuting attorney and a homicide detective, investigate the crimes. The detective is a little volatile and not above suspicion, but we players know from the start that she’s genuinely trying to get to the bottom of the case. The killer’s motives are plain. There are no hidden agendas here – so aside from sounding vaguely thriller-ish, what’s in that name?
It turns out that, despite being a purely narrative game, Hidden Agenda is named after a game mechanic – and it’s very telling that the title doesn’t fit the plot. Hidden Agenda has been chosen as the flagship launch title for PlayLink, a wave of accessible, smartphone-controlled party games for PlayStation 4. Players use their phones to hunt for clues within a scene, clear simple quick-time events, and vote on decisions that affect conversations and branching paths in the storyline. This formalises the way groups of friends have chosen to play games like this for years: talking over consequences, arguing about morality or motivation. A competitive mode spices this up by secretly assigning one player the hidden agenda of the title – a choice they must try to get past the group. They win points if their brief is fulfilled; afterwards, everyone votes on who had the hidden agenda and wins points if they guessed correctly. The scene is set for a duplicitously fun time of bluff and double-bluff in front of the TV.
It’s arguable how much PlayLink adds to a scenario that you could replicate as a drinking game with some scraps of paper in a hat, but let me state for the record that the tech works pretty well. You download a game-specific app to your phone which then connects without hassle to the PS4, as long as the devices are on the same wifi network. Six players are supported. You use a touchscreen interface to control a pointer on the TV, which is a little laggy but does the job. The app is rough, but the inclusion of a logbook where you can browse updated character bios and check the outcome of ‘ripple events’ that affect the plot is thoughtful. Sony deserves kudos for coming up with a casual gaming initiative which requires no new accessories to be bought or interfaces to be learned; everyone has a phone and knows how to use it. Consider the barrier to entry well and truly lowered.
Unfortunately, in this instance this tech has been hitched to a storyline that is, in itself, predictable, sloppily executed and miserably dull. Worse, it belongs to a genre of fiction that is wholly unsuited to being toyed with in this way.
One reason that Until Dawn succeeded, against the odds, in rehabilitating the habitually overreaching ‘interactive movie’ format was its clever choice of genre: teen slasher films. Not only did this guard it against accusations of pretension, but the genre proved very accommodating to the modular approach needed for interactive storytelling. The rules of the horror game are simple, but the plots are malleable. Who’s going to die next? So long as you’re not sure, it doesn’t really matter. What’s more, ever since Wes Craven’s Scream, slasher flicks and their audiences had entered a self-referential realm where messing with the tropes became part of the fun. Reaching into one of these worlds to remix its components seemed a natural, almost inevitable extension of where the genre was going.
Detective thrillers, though they obey similarly strict rules, are a very different proposition. Here, the intricate workings of the plot are set in stone, and its methodical unravelling along preset lines is the heartbeat of the piece. It is fun to play the detective, combing crime scenes for clues, solving riddles and cajoling suspects, and many games have got great mileage out of this, from the sprawling crimeworld of L.A. Noire to Phoenix Wright’s crisp little vignettes. But the story must tell itself in its own time, or you’re sunk.
No good can come of inviting you to mess with the mechanisms of a whodunnit, since all you can ever do is knock it off course. Hidden Agenda is the proof. The choices you’re confronted with consistently rob the story of what little tension it has. Choose ‘well’, and too much is revealed too soon. Choose ‘poorly’, and your chances of springing the lock on the mystery vanish – even if you have already figured it out. I’ve played it through a few times with quite different results, but every one of these endings felt abrupt and unsatisfactory. Indeed, the whole concept of multiple endings to a detective story is nonsensical and misguided. There can only ever be one: a solution is revealed that makes sense of the pattern of events, and everything falls into place – click. Without that moment, there’s no point.
It doesn’t help that Hidden Agenda’s story is derivative, uninteresting and told with a dour, unleavened seriousness. Until Dawn may have set Supermassive up as purveyors of straight, unadorned genre fiction, but it had a certain wit and an affectionate feel for the subject matter that’s absent here. Hidden Agenda joins the massed ranks of contemporary TV detectives in the grim, dank gutter in a way that feels rote and unempathetic. A history of child abuse in a sordid orphanage is used as a cheap and lazy motivating device. The writing never hits on an original situation or strikes a grace note. Becky Marney, the detective, is given a rickety characterisation that seems to be aiming for conflicted depth but never earns it – perhaps because she needs to be pushed this way and that by the whims of players, perhaps because her backstory is unevenly exposed depending on how the game is played. Although it’s a short game – a couple of hours long, it can be played through in a single evening, which given the PlayLink concept seems like a wise choice – the production feels rushed and slapdash. There are jarring cuts between scenes, and though the faces are beautifully rendered, they are drawn without character and animated without expression.
In theory, the addition of other players via PlayLink enlivens a run through Hidden Agenda; decisions can only be taken by a majority, so deadlocks have to be resolved, either through persuasion or by one playing using a ‘takeover’ card to force their way. In practice, the lacklustre plotting and characterisation fail to throw up situations and dilemmas that will get pulses raised or a discussion going. Your connection to the two lead characters in their moments of choice and crisis feels very weak (something that Heavy Rain’s creator David Cage, for all his faults as a storyteller, never had a problem establishing). The hidden agenda in competitive mode is a strong, simple concept, but it doesn’t chime with the subject matter at all, because these characters have no double lives or layered motivations; they just want the truth. Surely a spy story or a political thriller would have been a better fit for a game mechanic that’s all about persuasion and distrust.
It’s an inauspicious beginning for PlayLink and a very disappointing turn from a developer that, with Until Dawn, overcame a difficult development to deliver a surprising and deft take on interactive storytelling. It’s possible that this very unhappy marriage of form and fiction was a shotgun wedding – the cut corners certainly suggest it might have been – in which case, the blame doesn’t only lie with Supermassive. Either way, though, it adds up to nothing more than a sad end for a bad idea.