British Intelligence Officer Exam is an advergame written by the London transmedia studio Hide and Seek for Sony and the new Bond movie. The premise is that you’re working your way through a series of five simulator scenarios to figure out whether you have the chops to be an intelligence officer. In the scenarios, you’re giving directions to an agent in trouble whose supply of gadgets consists entirely of… tech made by Sony.
Generally speaking I am highly skeptical of advergames, but this one bears a lot of resemblance to standard IF: text-based input and output, occasionally enlivened with pictures or diagrams, and a sequence of object-manipulation puzzles to work through.
One significant difference from typical Inform/TADS fare is that this takes place in real time and is disguised as a chat scenario rather than a standard IF parser: supposedly you’re participating in a series of scenarios where you have to direct an intelligence agent in the field. In that respect, it’s a bit like Fail-Safe or LASH: the protagonist isn’t you, but instead there’s a fiction of communication. That fact also gives the parser/text detection a bit of cover, since the agent you’re directing in the field can reasonably demand that you repeat and rephrase things, and it fits into the fiction.
Even with that fiction, things occasionally get a bit exasperating and veer into guess the verb/noun territory, with the added frustration that it’s a realtime game and if you fail to communicate quickly enough, the agent at the other end might get captured or killed. (In practice, this didn’t actually happen to me, because the timings are fairly generous; but it felt like a concern and ratcheted up the anxiety I felt when the agent was inexplicably failing to listen to my instructions about how to defuse a bomb.) Example: LOOK doesn’t work, if you’re reverting to IF instincts; TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE doesn’t work either; WHAT CAN YOU SEE? does. There’s a learnable set of approaches, but it’s not exactly the same as the vocabulary for standard parser IF, and the looseness of the input structure encourages typing freeform phrasings that might or might not be understood.
Another issue, occasionally, is that the operative will not always automatically describe the current scene, but will start talking to you about things in it as though you should know what they are. If you get confused, it’s always worth requesting a description of the room and possibly using the MAP command, which downloads a little diagram of the space the agent is occupying. (It’s a little alarming that MI6 is supposed to have on hand a floor plan marking the location of every desk and wastepaper basket in every office in the world. Google Maps x 10, I suppose. But it’s helpful in the game.)
I mostly liked the puzzles themselves. While they are very much centered around teaching the player about the various functions of Sony devices — USB ports, GPS beacons, bluetooth connectors, etc. — they work in a way that still does feel a bit like you’re rifling through your selection of Q-supplied technology. I liked this; not least because it was a valid reminder that the contents of my purse right now would have looked like impossibly futuristic spy gear to me ten years ago.
They do steer clear of doing any really clever hacking; possibly Sony didn’t want to imply either that their products were themselves very insecure or that they are terrific tools for acts of data crime. And by and large the puzzles are not terribly hard, so there may be moments where you’re wondering how stupid your field operative could possibly be. On the other hand, from a gameplay perspective, the scenes play fast enough that really difficult puzzles would have been overwhelming.
Each of the puzzles has several objectives, meaning that it’s possible to be partially successful, and you can either choose to replay a scenario until you get an outcome you like better or lock in the score you got and move on — a design that is player-friendly both to hardcore puzzle enthusiasts and to people who just want to see all the content quickly.
In spots the story winds up in ethical territory, where there’s a choice to make about which of several targets you’re going to pursue and what you’re willing to sacrifice. Sometimes it’s possible to be clever and get around that. Sometimes it isn’t. I’m not sure I’d say that these were deeply profound, but they were sometimes nerve-wracking or emotionally affecting, and I found myself typing things in the moment because I felt them rather than because they were part of the solution. It’s a far better piece than “advergame” would tend to imply, and it manages to avoid the DRINK YOUR OVALTINE ending.
One warning. After the first scenario, the game will ask you for an email address to continue; it will then use that email address to send you “reports” of your success and failure in each scenario, which also just coincidentally happen to contain pictures of Sony products you might like to buy. This didn’t annoy me enough to make the game not worth playing; your mileage may obviously vary.
(See also Wired coverage.)