Saturday, March 31, 2007

I Spy...

I was vastly tickled to see this - How To Measure Anything With A Camera And Software (via this). Not just because it's a great idea, not just that its such a cunning application of the most basic maths and geometry, but because it reminded me of the "Kennedy Assasination Tool" - a virtual reality/real-life geometry simulator in a fabulous old game called Spycraft (Activision 1996), which probably isn't as well known as the still largely forgotten Majestic (EA 2001) - a game so odd it deserves its own post.

Anyhow, Spycraft was an adventure game - you played a CIA rookie who gets pulled into a sprawling, urgent web of espionage, counter-espionage, corruption, assassination and lots of puzzle-solving. All this tool place in a gameworld composed of actual video footage, requiring six of the then-new-fangled CD-ROMs. Moving from scene to scene required a lot of disc-switchery, turning you into a ham-fisted action DJ. That said, the long load times didn't feel too onerous as they were as much a result of your own limited discular dexterity as the game tech, and acceptable load times were measured by the hour in those days). I just checked the min spec: Spycraft required a whopping 8MB of RAM. Lunacy.

Spycraft was almost spookily (no pun intended) ahead of its time. When I played it back in 1996, it seemed odd, sui generis, and unconnected to much else. Now its themes and memes seem more than prescient. It was all about the rights and wrongs of national security counter-terrorism, the limits of state power, the use and abuse of self-surveillance, the digital fabrication of evidence, the balance of SigInt and HumInt and not least, the legality and effectiveness of torture.

(respectful pause for Jane Meyer's brilliant New Yorker piece on 24 Producer Joel Surnow)

The cultural and emotional terrain has changed, of course. We're not just post-Cold War. We're not even just post-X-Files (which was itself post-Watergate, post-Three Mile Island), we're post-9/11, post-24, post-CSI and still nowhere near being post-Global War On Terror. I really hope developers and publishers can make a game even half as good as Spycraft today.

But chief of Spycraft's splendours was that it not only had creative input from but actual in-game/on-camera appearances by the actual former CIA director William Colby and former KGB Major-General Oleg Kalugin. I can't remember Kalugin's bits, but can't shake from my mind the extraordinary scene where you sit in a room while an actor (the marvellous James Karen, I think) and William freakin' Colby dispense advice on how to find Moles. In stilted, spookish, scripted manner, he describes the various classic Mole profiles, the only one of which I can recall being The Upgrader. "He's not going to mention Aldrich Ames, is he?" I wondered. "Ames was an upgrader..." Colby re-assures you, "...and we got him". Yeah, nine years too late, after he'd Xeroxed the KGB your entire NOC list. What a triumph for the CIA that was.

Oleg Kalunin remained an outspoken critic of the KGB's leadership and by extension - one assumes - Vladimir Putin. In 2002 Kalugin was put on trial in Moscow and found guilty of spying - in absentia, as he had become a naturalised US citizen and currently runs a counter-espionage consultancy in Washington .

Colby died in mysterious circumstances in 1996. Kalugin is presumably very careful about his teacups.

Who's the most important person to have appeared as themself in a computer game? And can you imagine any appearance more chilling than a spymaster who talks about spycatching and is then apparently murdered?