It's rare for me to have many opportunities to play games with people in real-life; it's mostly online these days. But some games only work in person, and when I randomly had several friends over a few weekends back, we decided to forgo a movie in favor of Hidden Agenda, one of several games Sony's launched this year under their PlayLink banner, a relatively quiet initiative by the company to develop PS4 games primarily played on a phone.
It didn't go as well as I'd hoped, unfortunately, though the reasons why surprised me.
When I left E3 this year, my most anticipated game was one I hadn't heard of until the show: Hidden Agenda. Sony tasked the developers of Until Dawn, arguably the best horror game ever made, with making a social thriller wherein you compete and collaborate with people in the same room, using phones instead of controllers. In Hidden Agenda, players navigate a modern choose-your-own-adventure focused on a monstrous, Jigsaw-like serial killer. Beyond talking through decisions on where the story should go, every so often, one player is given a "hidden agenda." If they're able to convince the group to move in that direction, they win the round. If they're able to win the round without getting caught, it's even more points.
When I played Hidden Agenda at E3, it was with Austin and two developers who'd worked on the project. It was a blast, and lead me to question why Sony hadn't been more vocal about it at E3. It seemed like I was the only person who'd even heard of Hidden Agenda!
In retrospect, I didn't notice one quirk of the group I'd played with: every single one was well versed in games. The people I recently played with didn't have the same credentials. Hidden Agenda supports up to six players, and for my session, we had four. Besides me, there was one friend who regularly plays games; my wife, who doesn't play many games outside of Telltale adventures; and a friend who hasn't touched a controller since Halo in high school.
There are two ways to play Hidden Agenda: competitive and co-operative. The former functions as described above, with players actively lying to one another, while the latter removes those trappings and transforms the game into a murder mystery. I decided to throw us into the competitive mode because we'd all known each other for years, so the familiarity (and beer) could lead to some really fun shenanigans and shit-talking.
In competitive mode, there's another mechanic key to a rhetorical heist: takeover cards. When the group is presented with a choice, you can play a takeover card and wrestle control from everyone. If used at the right moment, you can prevent anyone from subverting your secret objective. This is especially useful if people have started to suspect you're "it." At E3, I ended up in a situation where I used a series of takeover cards—they can be stacked—to guarantee I'd win. The only reason I had multiple cards, however, was because I'd earned more of them by winning a mini-game that occasionally comes up.
This mini-game involves players using their phone (or tablet) screen to search on-screen for clues, or to trigger a certain action (aka a QTE). They last a few seconds, but I discovered most people in the room—my room, at least—sucked at them. This suckitude was important because they weren't earning cards, which meant the one person good at them began hoarding cards. That person was me, and I found myself with five or six game-breaking cards because my friends either weren't paying attention, didn't understand what was being asked of them (the UI is frustratingly unclear), or found the lag between touching the screen and seeing a reaction jarring.
Eventually, I stopped using the cards because people were groaning over my ability to dominate things in my direction, and sat out the mini-games. My guess is that's not how Hidden Agenda is supposed to work, and the experience sapped our enthusiasm for the competitive mode because it lost all sense of being competitive. It was too bad, too; the story itself was goofy and ridiculous in the ways I was hoping from the developers of Until Dawn. My guess is my wife and I will sit down to see the second half of the story in Hidden Agenda, but ironically, without the mechanic driving the game's title.
I'm sure it's not easy developing a game whose audience is a moving target; Hidden Agenda is clearly meant to provide people who own a hardcore gaming console something to play with people who are less likely to have a PlayStation 4 in the house. For those people, ignore the competitive mode. You'll have a better time.
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