The Spy in the Computer

A study of how computer games, as a modern narrative form, draw on and develop the tradition of espionage fiction

by Souvik Mukherjee


The spy entered the computer a long time ago. During the Second World War, both the Axis and the Allies used the computer extensively in code-breaking and allied operations. And following from these rather rudimentary forays, espionage through the computer has reached alarming proportions even as other technologies have continued to advance. The focus of the present paper will, however, be on something different. It will not be on real espionage so much as on espionage in computer games. The computer game has continually been enriched by better narrative possibilities, graphic interfaces and better interactivity. For the narrative framework of computer games, spy stories form the ideal ground. And characteristically, as the spy narratives become incorporated in 'playable' computer game narratives, the entire genre of espionage fiction is changed: its ambit broadened and its potentials rediscovered. This, then, would be an attempt at looking at the James Bonds and the George Smileys who live within the computer.


Unlike the spy story that we read in books, the computer game gives us the option of creating multiple narratives. This involves more interactivity and a greater role for the reader, and definitely, a large number of narratives within one base narrative. Having said that, I would first like to look at the nature of the computer game and some of its basic characteristics. This I shall do in brief before I come to my main argument.

In his book The Art of Computer Game Design Chris Crawford, himself a game-designer, outlines the following as the major requisites of any successful computer game: representation, interaction, conflict, and safety. The latter two factors are largely similar for both computer games and traditional stories. Conflict exists in both types of narrative: it essentially consists of overcoming obstacles and moving forward to achieve a particular goal. Safety, of course, would mean the distance of the player or the reader from the fictional reality.

The apparent similarity in even these factors, however, can be properly judged only after we have analysed representation and interactivity. To use Crawford's definition,

A game creates a subjective and simplified representation of emotional reality. A game is not an objective accurate representation of reality; objective accuracy is necessary only to the extent required to support the player's fantasy. The player's fantasy is the key agent in making the game psychologically real.

Even here, the game-narrative does the same thing as the narrative of a spy-thriller. But here I must mention that Crawford's definition is slightly dated and does not take into account certain new developments in artificial intelligence (AI) or in computer graphics and interactivity. The computer game, now, is better able to respond to situations and has more emotional and non-technical content than it did before. Sound, and state-of-the-art graphics (called in gaming parlance 'eye candy'), can far exceed the effects created by the player's imagination.

Games, like stories, attempt to represent reality. But the essential difference between the two is that most stories present events in an immutable sequence whereas a game presents a branching tree of sequences and allows the player to create his own story by making choices at each branch point. The playability of a computer game increases with the number of possible choices that can be made, multiple alternative situations and the speed at which one has to make the choices. Most popular computer games are therefore in the category of the so-called 'shooters' (first-person shooter and third-person shooters) and real-time strategy games (there is also the genre of simulation games but in this case the situation is totally different and the narrative is more like play than like a game). For the sake of convenience, I shall restrict my present discussion to the 'shooter' games. Besides the choices and the speed, the game must also have a heuristic nature. The goal also has to be sufficiently ambitious to be in sync with the pace of the game and to make it interesting. Unfamiliar scenarios are therefore called for, and characters that are out of the ordinary and yet vulnerable are best suited for the roles (this is somewhat like the Aristotelian hero who though not a god, is higher than a common man). So the role-playing games either use superheroes (comic book superheroes or characters like them) or they use a more popular (and more realistic) type, the intrepid secret agent. Computer games have largely appropriated the genre of espionage fiction for their own purposes. In part, they draw inspiration from the potential game-structure present in these texts. Besides this, given their interactivity and their virtual reality (VR), they immensely widen the narrative and other possibilities of the spy-thriller.

Todorov, in his essay 'The Typology of Detective Fiction', has outlined the nature of the classic thriller, saying,

We are no longer told about a crime anterior to the moment of the narrative; the narrative coincides with the action. No thriller is present in the form of memoirs: there is no point reached where the narrator comprehends all past events, we do not even know if he will reach the story alive. Prospection takes the place of retrospection.

There is no story to be guessed; no mystery, in the sense that it was present in the whodunit. But the reader's interest is not thereby diminished; we realise that two different forms of interest exist. The first can be called curiosity; it proceeds from effect to cause: starting from a certain effect (a corpse and certain clues) we must find its cause (the culprit and his motive). The second form is suspense, and here the movement is from cause to effect: we are first shown the causes, the initial donnes (the gangster preparing a heist), and our interest is sustained by the expectation of what will happen, that is, certain effects (corpses, crimes, fights). This type of interest was inconceivable in the whodunit, for its chief characters (the detective and his friend the narrator) were, by definition, immunised: nothing could happen to them. The situation is reversed in every thriller: everything is possible, and the detective risks his health, if not his life.

Todorov's conception, I would say, could apply to any played instance of a first-person shooter (FPS) game. Umberto Eco has actually commented on the playability of the thriller. Taking the Bond novel as his example, Eco shows how Fleming uses a series of checks and counterchecks between Bond and the Villain. In the Bond novels, however, as Eco points out, safety is much greater than in other spy-thrillers. Bond, it seems, is slightly better related to Superman than the rest of them. Not so in the computer game. In 'James Bond Nightfire', Bond's life is entirely dependent on the dexterity of the player's fingers. The player might be safe in reality (according to Crawford's idea of safety) but there is no telling what will happen to him in virtual reality. First-person shooter games such as 'NOLF', 'Nightfire', 'Max Payne' or 'Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell' add a lot of other features to the paperback spy-thriller.

In the game 'Return to Castle Wolfenstein', the player assumes the role of B. J. Blazkowicz, a secret agent who has infiltrated the Nazi fortress of Wolfenstein. Before the game starts, we are given a briefing as to the mission through cinematics and written texts. Before every level, there is a briefing and some interaction with the headquarters. And as we progress down the murky cellars of the castle, we keep meeting new obstacles.

Game designers such as Brenda Laurel have very neatly differentiated the computer game from drama, sometimes even using Aristotelian conventions. A similar comparison could be drawn between paperback spy-thrillers and computer games. In the latter, the player is actually made to 'see' things and 'hear' things. He is, as it were, forced into a suspension of disbelief. Therefore, he has a richer experience of the story. Aristotle says that the imitation should be 'like' the reality, according to the norms of necessity and probability. If that is so, the computer game creates a superior form of mimesis. We tend to 'feel' as if it is all real. Jay David Bolter, in comparing the painted picture with the hypertext, says that the picture acted as a plane that separated the viewer from the subject. With the coming of virtual reality, the plane of the picture was done away with. Therefore, an FPS appears more real than a comic book spy thriller. In the game 'Max Payne' we are introduced to the plot through a comic book sequence. Max is an FBI agent whose wife has been brutally murdered by drug lords. He comes home to find his house ransacked and his wife dead. Max vows revenge and suddenly we are, as it were, sucked into the comic book and find ourselves, gun in hand and adrenaline flowing, in the very shoes of Max Payne.

In such a case what is most important is that the game reacts to our presence. Just as we can reread a story, we can save a game and replay it later. But unlike a story, a game might respond differently each time. All games do so to some degree: those with the best AI actually work wonders with the story-line. Computer games, of course, can cause great tension and most of the time can actually provoke us to react physically to the story. This is of course more than I would grant to even the most gripping thriller that we read. The cinema can do it to some extent, but the computer game does it better, especially since it also employs cinematic effects (state-of-the-art graphics and Dolby sound). For example, while playing 'Return to Castle Wolfenstein' and having killed a few SS guards, I was shocked out of my confidence by the computer. As I opened a door expecting another unwary soldier, I found that a horde of zombie-like creatures were after me. The sheer shock had me shooting like mad. And of course, I had forgotten altogether that I was using an ordinary computer keyboard and not a Schmeisser MP40 submachine gun! As they say in the film 'Matrix', a program can easily transport you into another world.

Besides the interactivity, the VR and the multiple narratives, the computer game has quite a few other novelties. These are the cheats, walkthroughs and patches. And in some games, such as 'Wolfenstein', secret compartments play an important role. These are difficult to discover and some can even make primary changes to the plot: they can bring forth more enemies or even show a shorter escape route. Walkthroughs are even better. They enable the player to move about the game without any conflict. The player can then get to know all the potential possibilities of the plot before he starts rewriting the story by playing a proper game. The cheat code is another important item in this context, giving the player some added advantages that considerably increase his chances of survival. The espionage narrative in the computer game thus allows the reader-cum-player to cheat on the story itself, which is not possible in a book. And unlike a book, in a computer game you can even change your persona in the middle of the game: some games actually allow you to opt for different roles.

Thus far I have tried to show why computer games prefer espionage fiction for their plots and how in the process they actually change and expand the possibilities of the traditional spy story. This probably explains the large numbers spy thrillers that are entering the game world. In a magazine that reviews recent computer games, almost 9 out of 15 games were spy-thrillers (I apply the term loosely). James Bond stories and Tom Clancy's novels are hot favourites for games. This is perhaps testimony to the fact that people have actually started looking differently at the stories and even the characters themselves.

Given the popularity of espionage games, I believe that they have established a new subgenre within that of spy fiction. The story has seemingly become real. The spy himself has been metamorphosed from a distant hero or role-model to a combination of the computer and ourselves. Even so, proper and intelligent espionage games are relatively very young. There is a lot of scope for inserting puzzles into the game (besides those of the maze which contributes to the heuristic experience) and even a bit of computer programming would not go amiss.

In the beginning, somewhere, I wanted to look for the Bonds and the George Smileys within the computer. James Bond, we found, is well ensconced within but I think that there is still a bit to be done before we can fit in a Le Carr novel. One attempt at doing this would be to consider the game 'Spycraft'. This game has been developed by an ex-CIA Director and an ex-KGB Major-General. It involves a lot of puzzle-solving and actual espionage techniques besides the conventional gun battles. It uses a computer to connect to the rest of the world and uses other tools such as the Kennedy Assassination tool, the Identikit and several decoding devices for various purposes. But games like Spycraft are not too common.

Undoubtedly we will soon be seeing the advent of better AI and even better gaming environments. As technology develops, maybe we shall achieve more interactivity and intelligence with upgraded gaming consoles. And maybe then, my discussion on the spy-thriller can be extended to include other forms of narrative as well.

Barthes, Roland, 'The Structural Analysis of Narratives'
Crawford, Chris, 'The Art of Computer game Design'
Eco, Umberto, 'The Narrative Structure in Fleming' (1966)
Juuls, Jesper, 'Games Telling Stories'
Kucklich, Johann, 'Literary Theory and Computer games'
Laurel, Brenda, 'Degrees of Freedom'
McGann, Jerome, 'The Rationale of the Hypertext'
Montfort, Nick, 'Gesturing With the Mouse'
Todorov, Tsvetan, 'The Typology of Detective Fiction' (1978)
The Web Dictionary of Cybernetics
Web sites
Digiplay Interactive
Games research
SKOAR (Jasubhai digital media)
Video Games
Return to Castle Wolfenstein
James Bond: Nightfire
Spycraft: The Great Game

© Souvik Mukherjee, September 2002
Souvik Mukherjee, formerly of Jadavpur University, Calcutta, obtained his Ph.D. from Nottingham Trent University in 2009
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Aristotle's Poetics Prufrock and The Outsider The Spy in the Computer