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Back In The USSR: KGB / Conspiracy

(Those are actually the only two options I ever see when talking to real girls.)

A wonderful thing about the PC is that we’ve got a back catalogue of games that dwarfs every other platform. That’s a technical term, meaning the PC has more games featuring dwarves than other platforms have games.

A consequence of this is that, unless you’re some kind of frantic cyber-librarian (read: Kieron), there are always old curios to dig up. This week, after a recommendation from RPS reader Ed Evans, I’ve been playing sinister 1992 adventure game KGB. It’s wonderful. And it’s really got me thinking.

So, KGB pits you as a new KGB agent in the final days of the Soviet Union. The game is simply one of survival- don’t screw up and get reassigned to a miserable desk job, don’t get killed, don’t get beaten up, don’t get sent to a gulag, don’t get beaten up and sent to a gulag, don’t get beaten up and killed.

Spicing things up is the toxic bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. You’ve got to obey orders, except when you shouldn’t. You get the job done, except when that’s a terrible idea. You quickly fall into the habit of lying to everybody, all the time, except on the occasions where lying will get you killed or beaten up or sent to a gulag.

KGB’s tone is set by your first five minutes with it. You’re given strict instructions to wait in your shared office until your superior, Major Vovlov, asks to see you. How do you kill time? Well, there’s another KGB officer at his desk. So you talk to him, cherry-picking your way through a range of dialogue options.

Maybe you cheerily ask him if he’s “typing up another successful report”. He replies saying that it’s “No concern of yours, comrade”. Ooh! He’s prickly, isn’t he? So you try again, forging into a conversation about politics, whereupon he starts dropping pro-Soviet opinions that sound more like slogans. You decide against arguing with him, and parrot some enthusiasms back.

All this gets you worrying. Have you just made the worst first impression on this guy? Is he going to report you for foot-draggerism? So you try and patch things up with other dialogue options; you start wittering about girls and the weather, you ask him for a cigarette, and you comment on the well-equipped office, but only sink lower in his esteem.

Just as you’re running out of things to say, the intercom buzzes. Major Vovlov would like to see you. Have you fucked up? If you have, you wouldn’t know. It’s one of KGB’s more recognisably antiquated features that game-ending fuck-ups will often let you relax and breathe easily for a few minutes (or even hours) before revealing themselves and breaking your kneecaps.

Mistakes not being immediately apparent might sound like a bit of a pain in the arse. Well, it is. Playing KGB and finding out it’s game over because you screwed up half an hour ago? That’s awful. But it’s also an intrinsic part of what makes KGB a great game.

See, most modern RPGs and immersive sims are very careful to lay out the rules of the world. They tell you where you’re safe, how fights work, how to win those fights, and they even try and telegraph which of the decisions you face are important and which are incidental. KGB? This game keeps you in the dark, like a rat in a bag, and then it beats that bag across the kitchen counter of adversity and duplicity. A good example is that you can fight just about anybody in the game through an ATTACK menu command. Will you win? Fuck knows. You just have to weigh up the guy’s size and whether his friends will help him out. If you think you're in with a chance, select ATTACK and see what happens next. That’s the kind of game we’ve got here.

The result of all this is that KGB breathes life into the most mundane conversations and seemingly still scenes, because you don’t know who anybody really is, what they’re doing, what you’ll find or what you should be doing. You can ask everybody in this game for either a cigarette, a drink or some money, which is brilliant, but I only did it a couple of times. I was too scared it would toggle some kind of OMG WHAT A BUM state in the character I was talking to, and I’d have trouble getting anything else out of them.

I feel like KGB (and other comparatively adult adventure games from the same era) let you peer down the shady path that games could have travelled if they hadn’t separated so starkly into RPGs where you control murderous heroes with brains like calculators, and achingly gentle, linear adventure games.

KGB is just some developers doing their best to make something mercilessly tense, and real, and interesting, and despite the finished product demanding a mass of trial and error, it just about works. Cryo made a game where the conversations are as tense and dangerous as the fights. That's amazing.

I’m fond of mentioning this, but Warren Spector once commented in an interview that he’d love to make a whole AAA game set in a really small, massively detailed environment, like an apartment block. Just as I wonder about once a week where on Earth the games are with that kind of minimalist attitude towards setting, KGB makes me wonder where the games are with this game's subdued sense of drama. I mean, we might have David Cage doing his best to bring theatrics and emotions to videogames, but his works are still overblown tales of murder and darkness (and ethereal panthers and robot grannies).

And, to get more realistic for a second, where are the action games that only give you a perfectly ordinary pistol, but that make that pistol the best fucking pistol that videogames have ever seen?

I think we might have gotten a little lost in our chase for length and girth. More annoyingly, I think we’re still many, many years away from realising that.

If you feel up to having the necessary punchup with DosBox, KGB is well worth visiting yourself. Noble Kieron sends word that Floor 13 is similarly worth a look. I suspect I'll be doing just that this weekend.

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