It begins with a voice, a crude imitation of a spy theme through mouth trumpeting and singing. There is no accompaniment, not even multiple tracks. It is a voice alone. Fittingly, the rest of Secrets Agent feels like a conscious attempt to cut out as much of the mediation between player and developer as possible. The “graphics” are exceptionally simple: sketches of a blob person, walls, and collectable coins and cheeses, with a thick, crayon stroke. Every object in Secrets Agent is clearly crafted in a recognizable way. Obviously artists create traditional pixel sprites and polygon models, but that process can be obscured. Not everyone has modeled a person in Blender or created a creature in Game Maker, but most of us have drawn a picture of our house with a blunt crayon.
The game itself is far less recognizable. You are that secrets agent, sent to recover a precious gem from thieves. But the mansion bears no mark of life. It is just a series of traps and troubles, obviously meant to be traversed. The game’s puzzles are often obtuse and strange. They follow no internal, consistent logic. You must press “g” on your keyboard to first enter the mansion. You are greeted by a keypad with a 5 number password, with no prior hint to what that password might be. However, the game is not grueling, because of a voice.
Developer Marina Kittaka’s voice acts a spy handler, game developer, and let’s player all at once. She explains that you enter the mansion with g because “g means the ‘go in key.’” She gives you the keypad’s password. She guides you through the rest of the mansion, step by step, splintered with her own stray observations and musings. Her voice is quiet, almost a whisper. She does not address an abstract audience, but another person. She says several stammered hellos at the beginning and proclaims “you did it” at the end. Most games communicate through the player character, but Marina talks directly to you. It will be the same recording every time, but it was still spoken aloud, intended to be heard.
Despite all of Secrets Agent’s efforts to wrap you in, it still feels distant. It does everything a game can to be accommodating, even explaining itself to you with an intimate voiceover, but it cannot escape the inherent distance between it and ourselves. It points at an essential truth about media: There is no pure thing. Even the unchanging words of a book on a shelf change in our own mind’s eye. We can never experience other people “as intended.” It is a truth we are constantly aware of but try to hide.
Marina directly comments on the giving of something so personal and yet artificial. When discussing her voice she says, “You are giving this thing away that you can’t control, but it’s so deep into how people will feel about you and think about you.” She wishes aloud that she had “A cooler voice and a cuter profile.” She knows that her voice, her drawings, her expression might distance you rather than bring you close, that she might project an image that is separate from her soul. But she continues to speak aloud, placing her insecurity in your hands.
Thus, Secrets Agent is not a discomforting examination of distance, but rather a celebration of it. It accommodates not out of a hopeless anxiety that there can never be connection, but out of a joyful hope in every step closer. Every time the game is booted up, something is shared. Even if it is between past selves with old names, between voices that will never hear each other, closeness is closeness.