One of the best games I played at E3 wasn't part of a flashy press conference with pyrotechnics and orchestrated music, nor was it given huge banners and dozens of kiosks on the event's show floor. Hidden Agenda, one of several upcoming games from Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games, was squirreled away in a booth run by Sony Europe, where makeshift living rooms gave players a chance to engage in a game of murder and deception.
Like many others, I've spent the last few years really enjoying everything put out by the folks at Jackbox Games. The ability to participate in a simple but engaging experience by loading a website on anyone's phone, laptop, or tablet has brought hours of joy to myself, my family, and friends. But despite the success of Jackbox Games, too few developers have been playing around with this idea, one that really allows for more than party games with suggestive jokes.
At E3, I played roughly 10 minutes of the game with Austin and two developers. Each of us were handed a phone with an app for Hidden Agenda loaded on it. (Though we were using Sony phones, that won't be a requirement when the game ships. Branding!) And though we were playing with four people, the game absolutely supports the ability to play on your own.
This section of the game opened with two police officers headed into a creepy home, the kind of place that gets movie audiences screaming expletives at the characters when they decide to split up. You eventually stumble upon a notorious murderer named The Trapper, and while Austin and I were able to escape with everyone—the kidnapped woman, the killer, the two officers—alive, the developers implied we were an exception to the rule. Like Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda is meant to play out radically differently every time you play, based on decisions you make.
No one has direct control over the action in Hidden Agenda. People often joke about some games being little more than an interactive movie, but in this case, that's absolutely true! At certain points, the game pauses and allows the players to make a decision, which varies from the mundane (stay together or go alone) to the momentous (shoot someone or stand down). Crucially, the decision must be made by the majority. If four people are playing—the game supports up to five—and the vote's split, someone needs to switch sides. Cue the arguing and cajoling.
There are interesting caveats. At the start of a scenario, players get three "takeover" cards. If the room is about to make a decision you disagree with, you can play one and assume control over what happens. When you use a takeover card is important because cards can stack on top of one another. If you assert control, someone else can play their own card and steal it from you. This can go back and forth until everyone is out of cards—or everyone gives up.
There are rare opportunities to gain back new cards during select event sequences, where players might need to, say, dodge out of the way of something. If you're the one who gets there first, you'll gain another takeover card. But these moments are few and far between, meaning you can't get greedy.
At certain points, the game's title, Hidden Agenda, comes into focus. Most of the time, you don't need to worry about other people looking over your phone, but when the game assigns a secret objective to one player, it's time to cower.
These secret objectives force players to perform actions that might be contrary to what the group is otherwise trying to accomplish. In this case, I was assigned the secret objective. This particular scene involved an attorney speaking with the killer we were introduced to earlier, The Trapper. After being locked away for five years, he's claiming innocence 48 hours before he's due to be executed. It was clear the group wanted to give him another chance, letting a judge stay his execution for a brief period to hear him out. "What's the harm?" said everyone.
The harm, of course, was that my secret objective wanted me act otherwise. My goal was to prevent the case from getting another look. In order to pull this off, I had to set things up carefully. One, I helped convince the room one of the PlayStation developers was the person acting shady, throwing people off my scent. (Eventually, the game actually holds a vote over this theory.) Two, I secured another takeover card, giving me the option to steal control twice.
It wasn't exactly clear what I'd have to do to succeed, but I couldn't ask questions, risking a reveal. Instead, I went along with the group's decisions, only raising questions for the sake of argument.
But a crucial moment came, when the game floated a decision core of my objective: call a judge or walk away. Someone played a takeover card, to ensure the call got made. That's when I played my first card, making my intentions clear. Sensing I'd announced my endgame too early, another player used their own card, wrestling control away. At this point, however, it became clear everyone had used up their spare cards—and I had one more left.
I took control, cackled maniacally, and watched the attorney head out the door.
Unlike Until Dawn, which took about 10 hours to finish, Hidden Agenda is meant for a single session. The idea, the developers told us, was to emulate movie night with a group of people. Seeing one version of Hidden Agenda's to the end won't take more than two or three hours, but the game can play out different each time.
There were a lot of good video games at E3, but few wrestled my attention (and emotions) the way Hidden Agenda did. I'm already looking forward to buying some beer and breaking this out on a Friday night.