Gods and monsters feature in myriads of ancient legends, beliefs and cultural superstitions. Powerful beings that challenge mankind’s place on earth, their appearance asks questions of our origin and purpose, and suggests that our early ancestors were once subjected to stupendous supernatural forces and creatures of unimaginable magnitude. In Lewis Manalo’s The Spy and the Labyrinth their possible presence becomes a puzzling modern-day reality as you attempt to solve a mystery – or a crime – where multiple players interact in a complex web of deception, espionage and corruption linked to a buried relic and a destructive thousand-year-old myth.
Dr. Lucius Thayer, a Professor of Archaeology at Miskatonic University and a specialist in Pre-Colombian cultures, has gone missing from a dig site in the South American Republic of Costaguana. Students working with him found his tent ransacked, however, nothing was missing other than the professor. Costaguanan officials have not been cooperative, denying entry to the country for American law enforcement officials to investigate the disappearance. The CIA has now asked you to find him, using SERA’s (Secure Evidence Research Archive) database of documents, including: Dr. Thayer’s research, personal journals, letters and notes; interview transcripts of students and other contacts; CIA files and open source documents. Is this a case of foul play, corruption – or something far more disturbing?
It is your task to sift through SERA, identifying information from a fresh perspective to expeditiously narrow the available clues and prioritise genuine evidence, while questioning the role of individuals involved in the case and ignoring false leads. A political drama, criminal investigation and classic whodunnit merged with otherworldly elements, The Spy and the Labyrinth employs real and imagined history to spin a riveting detective tale of secrecy, controversy, rebellion and unexpected revelations.
Dr. Thayer’s work has often been controversial, following his interests in Pre-Colombian civilizations, tribal rituals, supernatural beliefs, and architectural culture, landscape and geoglyphs. His current dig site is within the Costaguanan Emage region, where excavations are underway in the Eastern City in search of Xinnabala – ‘The Cave of Fear’ – an evil labyrinth believed to be the final destination of the dead. An unclassified plague known as ‘Red Fever’ and an outbreak of psychic phenomenon in the area have further deepened the enigma and threat of the dig, and now there is talk of even greater mysteries and that man-eating giants previously walked the South American countryside.
The debatable, suspicious and nefarious activities of the many active players in this game are a real highlight. As you follow separate threads of investigation you’ll encounter a range of intriguing characters, including: Dr. Johannes Lenz, a key researcher for the Nazis during the war and Professor Emeritus of Archaeology at Miskatonic University; Isabel Cardinal, the beautiful undergraduate from Universidad de Sulaco (and a local TV personality); the Saint of Darkness, a visionary child prophet; Padre Ferdinand, a 16th Century Jesuit; Roberto Puig, Director of the Sulaco Department of Antiquities; President General Cabrero, dictator of Costaguana; and a mysterious, eyebrow-less, pale man in a black suit, who makes appears in various locations around the world without a known agenda.
I was fully engaged throughout my playthrough of The Spy and the Labyrinth, immediately hooked by both its modern setting and the investigative role you play within the game. Following any line of enquiry within SERA, you can focus on information that provides a likely understanding of Dr. Thayer’s disappearance, tracking the critical manoeuvring of key characters and compiling a timeline of important events. A Special Agent in Charge, who will keep an eye on your progress and provide feedback regarding discoveries, helpfully oversees your interactive search, providing structure and direction when needed to guide further exploration.
Based on evidence unearthed, you may begin to understand who the real modern gods are – or those who wish to be acknowledged as such – and question what defines a true monster in context of the world they inhabit. The Spy and the Labyrinth will expose you to the machinations of secret agents, Soviet and Russian sympathisers, religious foundations and cults, corrupt officials, murderous rebels and many more inscrutable schemers, each desiring to promote their own ideology or agenda. Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth examination of our deceitful modern societies, and of those who benefit from control and supremacy – a frightful sci-fi fantasy where gods and devils appear in all sorts of forms.
Although only short in duration (my game lasted for roughly two hours) The Spy and the Labyrinth offers plenty for any fan of interactive fiction. It’s a convincingly well-written, confidently original tale that should fire the imagination of those who choose to play it. I was very impressed by its style and substance and would easily recommend it as an outstanding experience worthy of your time.
STORYLINE: A modern detective tale with the lot: politics, religion, love, murder, war, psychic phenomenon, supernatural beliefs, lost technology and ancient horrors. The Spy and the Labyrinth is a bona fide mystery with a full cast of duplicitous characters in an engrossing power play. The political tensions of the region, and the otherworldly events surrounding the dig site, add significant atmosphere and menace, resulting in a storyline that always promises unforeseen developments and adeptly delivers numerous revelations.
GAMEPLAY: An easy to understand system of choices based on your current research topic is used to great effect; a streamlined interface that makes progression uncomplicated, in what could have been a complex game. Although you can’t directly return to previous choices after making a selection, many options will reappear throughout your search, so earlier alternatives can be followed up and fully investigated.
PRESENTATION: Created with Choice of Games’ ChoiceScript, The Spy and the Labyrinth features the basic formatting of this simple programming language. Although this plain, text-only style never distracts from the narrative and gameplay, and neatly mimics the unadorned form of a computer database, I was often wishing to see variations of presentation for the various documents, some screen designs and location art reflecting the South American setting, and character portraits of the major characters.
REPLAY VALUE: You’ll never see everything this game has to offer in any single playthrough, so there’s quite a bit of new information to uncover on further attempts. Also, some of the highly elusive characters, relationships and circumstances that you’ve yet to fully investigate will likely stay in your mind for a while, eventually persuading you to play once again to expose the secrets yet unearthed.
Review by Michael Reilly