Posted January 16th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
Long before I technically completed my tenure of childhood, I began to regret that I would not get to play enough Duck, Duck, Goose before I was too old to do so. Grown-ups never trotted out the old game too often, and most of it is spent waiting for your turn—when it doesn't come, the feeling of lack carries over until the next chance to play. Around eight or nine, I realized that it was possible I had already played my last round, and that next chance would never arrive. It remains one of the principal regrets of my life.
Duck, Duck, Goose isn't unique in this case; the myriad of childhood activities that I could see marked for death upon advancing teenagehood caused me more stress than I like to imagine children face regarding the evanescence of time. Years before the imagined expiration date I had assigned them, activities like watching cartoons, playing with G.I. Joes, and climbing trees became what I can only term Childhood Guilty Pleasures. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four's Winston Smith and his doomed covert meetings with Julia, I could not fully enjoy myself because of the inevitable, advancing wall of childhood oblivion.
To some degree, I empathize with LARPers who fail or refuse to make the choice to leave childhood behind, and I am thankful that my generation has laid somewhat of a bulwark against total Adultivity. I still watch cartoons, I don't hesitate to hop on the swings at a playground, and I play more videogames than my own children. Occasionally, I stumble upon one that plays to the sensibilities of those Childhood Guilty Pleasures. Adam Spragg's Hidden in Plain Sight is just such a game.
The Xbox Live Indie Games scene is quickly becoming a one-stop shop for the digitized conveyance of distilled childhood Play. SpeedrunnerHD's local multiplayer has sated my long-dormant instinct to play Tag, and Hidden in Plain Sight simultaneously covers the mental bases of Hide And Seek and Duck, Duck, Goose. But while SpeedrunnerHD is a frenetic test of muscle memory and twitch execution, Hidden in Plain Sight garners its fun from the socially stressful aspect of play so reminiscent of playground games.
Inspired by Chris Hecker's SpyParty, Hidden in Plain Sight drops players anonymously amongst a crowd of non-player characters (NPCs). Doing their best to emulate the NPCs' random walking patterns, players must also risk detection to accomplish various goals: touch all five totems, grab all the tokens, assassinate the royalty. The Death Race game mode puts players in a straight footrace with dozens of NPCs, where each player has exactly one bullet to use on whoever they think might be a rival. Staying near the front of the pack without giving yourself away flares up the Patience and Urgency parts of the brain in equal measure.
The illusion of transparency can make this subterfuge an incredibly stressful exercise, as much a role-playing game for the players in the living room as it is a hunt for rivals in the television.
"Whoa kemosabe, where you going in such a hurry?" I might wonder aloud half-jokingly, to throw suspicion on the maybe-NPC/probably-opposing-player Skeleton a few steps ahead of my Knight. The other player levels his crosshair on one frontrunner after another, casually searching my face for a reaction. When it comes to rest on my Knight, I wonder whether to allow myself to fall behind or keep up my aggressive pace, while he weighs whether or not to fire. But I panic that my face has given me away. I lose my composure and shoot the Skeleton first, hoping that was my opponent, and break into a sprint! But the Skeleton was an NPC after all. The other player was a Golem playing it cool a few paces back; he guns down my Knight and jogs unopposed past the finish line.
This scenario can play out a hundred different ways, especially when three or four players jump in together. But common among each session is the game's arc of steadily tightening the screw until something snaps.
Different game modes offer different possibilities of this arc. In Ninja Party, a player might blow their cover by changing direction mid-stride (something NPCs never do) or openly attacking another Ninja. How this changes the game's dynamic is up to the other players—do they cast aside their charade as well, in a mad race to complete the objective first? Or do they keep their masks on, working their way to the goal within the shadow of the crowd?
However the dust settles on each game, the costs of failure are low. Each game takes only a few minutes to play at most, which helps Hidden in Plain Sight succeed at making failure fun: one of my personal hallmarks of quality. The climax of each game is laughter, usually originating with the bested player. The sting of losing is softened with the inescapable human reaction to enjoy being noticed.
It helps that it is hard to be objectively better or worse at the game—most of the action is simply moving a character around the screen at random-looking intervals—but the goal of mastering the nuances is addictive. The crown is light, and it changes hands often. Like Duck, Duck, Goose, you play, you win or lose, and you sit down for another round.
What really unifies the feeling of this kind of play is that moment where it isn't clear what is supposed to be done. Grand Theft Auto IV, of all games, pushes deep into this territory. Playing free roam multiplayer mode, there are no objectives. Not even a nudge. This can be daunting at first, but soon enough curiosity takes over and players make a game within the game to play according to their own rules for hours.
The Assassin game mode perplexed me at first for this reason. It puts anonymous players in a crowd amongst the rabble, where they can kill NPCs with invisible slight of hand. Like the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, bodies continue to walk for a slight delay time, and then fall down dead. Snipers watching this scene must discern who the Assassins are by following the patterns of the dead back to those they recently touched. There was something about it I didn't get.
As an Assassin, getting gunned down feels like a loss. Shouldn't I commit one easy kill, and then play it cool until time expires for a "win?" The cold, in-game logic would dictate so. There is no incentive for being any more ambitious, no tangible goal of getting five or 10 or even 20 kills.
But playing in a group, specifically live in local multiplayer (the only supported play style) it becomes clear that one kill will not cut it after your friend nabs seven and gets away scot-free. Everything clicks, and it becomes clear that Hidden in Plain Sight is more an implement for fun between your friends than a goal in and of itself. So you jump in for another round as the Assassin, face tense as you try to maintain the charade.
Just another face in the crowd. Nowhere to go, and nowhere to be. Certainly nobody to kill in plain sight of your friends.
"BOOM! Nine kills, you dumb fucker! Nine innocents murdered on YOUR WATCH. Right under your NOSE. You thought I was the Ninja? You poor stupid asshole. I was the King."
Hidden in Plain Sight is available on Xbox Indie Games. This review is based on a copy of the game purchased through Xbox Live.
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