Friday, December 30, 2005

I Spy

Like a lot of young boys, I went through a phase where I was terribly interested in spies, and spying, and codes, and ciphers, and all sorts of cloak-and-dagger endeavors. While on this kick I picked up a book called something like "Mossad" (it might have been this book, but it was a while ago so I can't be sure). This was during a period when I was reading very little non-fiction, but this book just engrossed me. It was written by a reporter who had interviewed a supposed ex-Mossad agent, and detailed both how the organization worked and described some particular missions.

The Mossad is Israel's intelligence service, similar to the US's CIA. As a tiny country surrounded by hostile nations, Israel has good reason to feel paranoid, and that paranoia pervaded the book. Mossad is used as a tool in situations where the Israeli government needs something done that it cannot, for diplomatic reasons, do it themselves.

One major episode in the book is Israel's reaction to the Munich massacre, when the Israeli Olympic team was killed by the Palestinian group Black September in 1972. Mossad was tasked with tracking and killing the individuals who had planned the attacks, partly as retaliation but more to discourage future attacks on Israelis.

There was a lot in the book that gripped me. It was filled with guns and violence and intrigue, all which were like candy to me at that age. However, it also made the secretive world of espionage accessible to me in a way that it hadn't been before. Sure, these spies got to do cool stuff, but they were part of an organization, were supported by Israeli tax dollars, and had their own code and procedures to follow. One of the most memorable parts of that book were instructions to the agents on the importance of retaining receipts for everything. An operations man tells them, "You can use the money for practically anything; we won't pay for a diamond ring for your wife, but we will pay for your hotels. Just make sure you keep the receipts." An agent speculates how you could detect a Mossad agent: create a disturbance in a cafe, and just watch to see who there responds by immediately grabbing the receipt.

All this was happening simultaneously with the flowering of my QBASIC programming kick, where any vaguely interesting thought that flitted through my head would start a corresponding game. This time it was a game called, appropriately enough, "Spy". This is one of the games I partially recovered this week, and it's much as I remember it.

Spy casts you as a team leader in an intelligence service. You can choose your affiliation: CIA, MI-5 (should have been MI-6 but I didn't know better at the time), KGB, Mossad, or S.M.I.L.E.Y. (San Marino Intelligence Liason / Espionage Yard). Each nation had different advantages and challenges.
  • The CIA had the best technology, but had the most inconsistent funding (publicly fail in a mission and Congress responds by slashing your budget).
  • The KGB has unlimited government support (you can take as much cash as you want and don't need to worry about leaving messes), but is the most corrupt organization, so you run the highest risk of leaks and betrayals.
  • The MI-5 is the most well-rounded service, neither the best nor worst at anything.
  • Mossad has the second-best technology but is hampered by a limited (though consistent) budget.
  • S.M.I.L.E.Y. has the special advantage of being so secretive that nobody in the world knows about them; therefore, its agents can never be targetted by anyone else. However, their budget is even smaller than Mossad's.
Like the majority of my games, this one never got finished. The basic idea was that you would hire agents, train them, go out on missions, and over time get promotions and ascend in your organization's hierarchy. The political world was dynamic, so as time goes on (and depending on what actions you took), different nations would realign and change relations. This was all going on after the USSR had started collapsing, which made me really want to represent the fluid state of international affairs. You could choose your starting year, which would determine whether the KGB was the KGB or something else. Depending on your actions, the Soviet Union might never disintigrate, or it might annihilate Britain.

Even though I never completed the game, it really stuck with me, partly because it was one of only a few non-fantasy-themed ventures. A few years ago I got pretty far into designing a Web-based game loosely based upon it. It was designed with a three-tiered architecture (database, server, web client), very loosely inspired by NationStates but with much more of a game component. This game removed you further from the action; now you were the agency director instead of a team leader, and while you would pull teams together and send them off on missions, you would have no control over them until they returned back to your headquarters. Success or failure would depend on your ability to anticipate the needs of a mission and equip them appropriately (a fast driver for the getaway, surveillance cameras to scope out the target, etc.). Rather than tie everyone to real-world agencies, each player would create their own agency, tied to a fictional or real state. One little twist is that you could start a rival agency within an existing nation, such as both the CIA and FBI, and compete with one another for funds and jobs. Since the game was multiplayer, you would find yourself running up against other players whose goals diverge from yours, and even try to infiltrate and thwart another agency with your own agents.

As I said, I got pretty far, but when I started to actually play it it just wasn't very fun. At least, it didn't seem like it would be fun at the size I was expecting to start with (just around 5 players); it seemed destined to combine all that I hate about "Diplomacy" with all that I hate about "Nation States." It got put on indefinite hiatus where it remains today. If I ever pick up the concept again, I think it would be fun to put a more cooperative spin on it, perhaps allowing each player to create their own free-lance agent and have then naturally coalesce into teams. Personally I find specialization more interesting than balance, and think people would have more fun trying to create the world's best sharpshooter or the world's only quintuple agent instead of managing balance sheets and reporting to Congress.

It was an odd little bit of synchronicity that I managed to see "Munich" this week. Watching it in the theater, I was surprised by how much I remembered about that story, considering that my only contact with the Munich attacks was that one book I read well over a decade ago. The bit about receipts was even in the movie, and some of the assassinations (many of them bomb-based) seemed familiar.

Thinking it over afterwards, I'm struck by the difference of my reaction to the movie versus my reaction to the book, and how it shows how much I have changed since then. The big thing, which is probably just part of growing older, is my increasing comfort with moral gray. Although I'm not sure if the book was written this way, I know I read and accepted it as portraying the perfectly virtuous Mossad who could do no wrong; they were, quite simply, the "good guys." With Munich, we definitely sympathize with the Mossad agents, but (as has been said far more elegantly by people far more knowledgeable than I), it refuses to come down absolutely on the idea of retaliatory violence. It never apologizes for the brutality of the original sin at Munich, as the final lovemaking scene attests: the people who did this were monsters, unredeemed by their political motivations. Yet, as the death toll climbs and retaliation begets retaliation, the agents and the viewer cannot help but wonder what purpose this serves, and where it will all end. Brinksmanship can work (see the Cuban Missile Crisis), but it is a dangerous game to play (see the entire Middle East today).

And of course I'm a pacifist now, so that kinda makes it hard for me to root for people blowing each other up with bombs, even if they're preventing more bombs from being built.

This is where my concluding paragraph should be, I suppose. It would probably be appropriate to not give a proper conclusion. "Munich" is like the real world, where there aren't clear-cut answers, not every story has a happy ending, or even any ending at all. In much the same way, there's a certain metaphysical beauty to seeing once again how 75% of my games never reach completion. I am left with a gallery full of interesting ideas, rather than a display case of fully constructed gems.

No comments:

Post a Comment