In the 1990s, shortly after the Cold War, a former KGB major general and an ex-CIA director collaborated on one of the most ambitious video games of the era.
Spying is a cult hit video game, directed by Ken Berris and published by Activision under then-new CEO Bobby Kotick. It hit store shelves in 1996, just a few years after the end of the Cold War, and tells a story of espionage that takes the player around the world (and trading records) from the United States, to Russia, Tunisia and all over the world. .
“Without being too hyperbolic, it was the best FMV game of its time,” says FMV aficionado (and star of the hit podcast) Justin McElroy. Spying combines luscious full-motion cutscenes with puzzle-based gameplay that’s smart and complicated and still holds up today.
So why was it forgotten? And how did a video game – decades before the medium was taken seriously as commercial art – bring together former CIA Director William Colby and former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin?
Over the past two years, Polygon Senior Video Editor Clayton Ashley and I have been making our documentary, The Great Game: The Creation of Espionage. We interviewed Berris, the director who “gave orders” to former spies. We spoke to Carl Colby, a director who spent part of his career trying to make sense of his famous father’s actions. And we picked the brains of industry experts like McElroy and Christina Warren on the cultural moment this game was launched in – an era too soon to receive it.
But today, Spycraft resonates. In our two years with this project, the world has changed, forcing this increasingly complicated story into the present.
First: In July 2021, Activision, Spying‘s, was sued by the California Department of Civil Rights. Six months later, Microsoft announced its intention to acquire the company, raising questions about the end of Kotick’s long tenure as CEO.
And second: in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Vladimir Putin had been a colleague and subordinate of Oleg Kalugin before the latter left Russia. The two men notoriously hate each other. Although Kalugin has largely retreated from the public eye, he has already spoken out against Putin – and, as a result, has been prosecuted as a traitor.
Spying is not the story of Russia against “the West”. It’s an amoral game, but also oddly optimistic. “It captures a particular moment, between the end of the Cold War and 9/11,” said Washington DC Spy Museum curator Dr. Andrew Hammond. “These two superpowers that clashed, how are they going to get along? What will be the dynamic? And there was optimism, there was hope that they could be partners, that they could work together more.
It was a very different world from the one we find ourselves in now. The Great Game: The Creation of Espionage is a 50-minute documentary film that tells the story of Spyingits role in the history of the game and in the lives of the two titans of espionage that made it unforgettable – for the few who played it.
As Dr. Hammondtold us, “A lot of times, reality is actually a lot wackier and more interesting than fiction.”
The Great Game: The Creation of Espionage will premiere in 2023. Follow our YouTube page for more updates. Spying itself is available on Steam and is still worth playing.