Hidden Agenda - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
I actually bought this game — ‘interactive movie’, I should say — a couple of months after its release back in late 2017. With one thing or another going on, and the release of some of the biggest titles of this generation spread across 2018 (including God Of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Metal Gear Surv...erm, I mean Marvel’s Spider-Man), Hidden Agenda sat unloved on my PS4. Fast-forward to the present day, and having recently revisited the schlocky slasher fun of Until Dawn (from the same developer, Supermassive Games), I feel I’m primed to give Hidden Agenda a spin.
Being part of the PlayLink line of games, I had to download a dedicated app before I could start playing. At this point I should mention that whilst there is a multiplayer/party mode built into Hidden Agenda, whereby several viewers can vote on the decisions made in the course of the story, the current lockdown situation means I won’t be inviting anyone round to take part, and will be bravely tackling the title alone, like the hermits of yore.
Five Minutes In
We join our character, Detective Becky Marney, closing in on a dilapidated shack where she and her partner have tracked down a notorious murderer known as the ‘Trapper’. So named for their Saw-style explosive boobytraps, this serial killer has left a trail of death in their wake, but their spree is about to come to an end. The first choice to be made is whether to enter the house through the front door, or sneak around the back for a quieter incursion and take the Trapper by surprise. It’s a nice low ball of a choice to start you off, but speaks volumes to anyone who has tutted at films when a character inexplicably makes the worst decisions possible. Sneaking around the building, my partner and I nab the Trapper and free his latest victim, with the opening titles appearing as he’s taken into custody. There’s a clear direction at work at presenting this as a cinematic experience rather than a series of connected cutscenes, and although the set-up isn’t breaking any new ground, I’m already thinking ahead to the tougher choices my plucky detective could be facing in the future.
Twenty Minutes In
Hidden Agenda looks good, with plenty of close-up shots on furrowed brows and twitching sneers. A couple of years on from the prologue, the Trapper is now facing a death sentence — but new copycat killings could provide enough evidence to exonerate him. Playing as both Marney and likeable DA Felicity Graves, it’s time to review the evidence from the closed case and track down this new Trapper. The choices available are still very straightforward though, mostly relating to how you treat the people around you. Playing Marney as brusque and hard-nosed doesn’t ingratiate yourself to people, and you’ll find your conversations being shut down before they’ve started. You catch more flies with honey, and through the many social conversations in this section, the stark rude/polite choices are easy to make.
One Hour In
Marney has a list of people to interview who featured prominently in the Trapper’s past. These scenes are a combination of searching for clues at locations relating to the past killings, or quick time events accompanying foot-chases. Using the app to drag your cursor into the boxes for the QTEs was a bit tricksy, but I put that down to my chipped phone screen causing the stutters rather than the software, which otherwise performs smoothly. Beyond using your phone to make onscreen decisions or search for clues, you can handily pull up files from interviews you’ve conducted, or notes on the characters you’ve met.
Two Hours In
I finished Hidden Agenda in around two hours, having been professional and courteous to my colleagues, finding a handful of clues, and easily catching the killer. Much like Until Dawn before it, the end credits roll with exit interviews from all the key characters in the story, reminding you of any loose threads which you may have not picked up on previously. With several different endings supposedly resulting from different choices, I was surprised at how straightforward an ostensibly ‘good’ ending was to obtain. When a choice is to be made, it’s always transparent as to which path your answer will lead you down, as you only have your own investigation vaguely riding on the outcome. Until Dawn played well with this mechanic by forcing constant choices and facing characters off against each other, with no casual indication of the ripples your decisions would create. In Hidden Agenda, a standard choice might be between “Discuss the case with your partner”, or “Cuss out your partner for trying to help you”.
It’s odd, then — why are the trophy statistics so low for this game? Around 20% of players figured out who the Trapper was, and less than 10% actually caught them. PlayStation trophy scores do have some variables it can’t account for (started but abandoned games, for instance), but even so. This is a game designed to be played in one sitting, after all.
Clearly, my average social skills and average investigative skills have combined to create a super-detective, the likes of which Supermassive Games could never have accounted for.
* * *
The lockdown makes work for idle hands. A week later, I’m back to play Hidden Agenda again, just in case I’m missing something tremendous down a more exciting route.
Five Minutes In
I rush straight into the booby-trapped house, expecting an early death ending to teach me a swift lesson on chance, deduction, caution, and narrative tropes. Nah. Everything is fine, and the story continues as before.
Twenty Minutes In
I cuss out my partner for trying to help me. There’s even a trophy for this (achieved by 39.6% of players, you cruel people). Apart from hurting his feelings, we’re still on track. I’ve not lost access to any paths of investigation or resources.
Forty Minutes In
I’ve failed every single QTE so far. One clue item was picked up by accident, but the rest I had Marney stare blankly through until the timer ran out, as though it was an unskippable YouTube advert.
Ninety Minutes In
Finished. I shaved a good half an hour off the running time on this, my Chaotic Evil playthrough. Although I missed getting full interviews from suspects due to my lack of clues, each and every location and opportunity was still provided to me — it felt like Detective Marney could have blown her own brains out and the game would still politely marionette her body through each scene to get to the third act ending.
Even though I did not catch the killer this time around, nor even come close to it, something happens at the very end which explains why the ‘good ending’ trophies are somewhat rare. Failed to apprehend the Trapper? Feeling the sweet sting of regret, flushed and resolved to identify this maniac on your next playthrough? Fear not, Hidden Agenda will take that load from your shoulders. A post-credits stinger reveals the killer to you, removing any lingering intrigue you might have had. A gut-wrenching final discovery works well for a film presented as a complete package, but Supermassive Games are trying to eat their cake and have it too. Either aim to provide a full experience, or have the incorrect turns a player has made force them to re-play and revisit until they arrive at a satisfying ending (which is arguably the point of a straightforward choose-your-own-adventure title like Hidden Agenda).
I liked the app a lot, as despite my problems with the QTE tracking, the clues and character bios were really neat to navigate around and remind you of any details which might help you. Graphically, Hidden Agenda looks good, and the close-ups capture nuanced facial expressions from the talented cast and artists behind the performances. Presentation is fine across the board, but that’s not where my issues with it lie. The confusion as to whether it wants to be played or watched is overwhelming, with Marney making as many leaps of suspicion as necessary to ensure that she advances to the final chapters. The self-righting nature of the plot steers you in the right direction no matter how hard you try to capsize yourself.
What are you, Hidden Agenda? Are you a game? If so, you’re not a good game if my decisions don’t have any weight or consequence behind them until the final scenes. Are you a film? I found you to be slightly boring in that case, with a lazy plot tied up with overly familiar scenes. ‘Game’ or ‘film’ then? How’s that for a difficult decision?
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