In the 1990s, shortly after the Cold War, a former major general in the KGB and an ex-director of the CIA collaborated on one of the most ambitious video games of the time.
Spycraft is a cult hit full-motion video game directed by Ken Berris and published by Activision under the guidance of then-freshman CEO Bobby Kotick. Hitting store shelves in 1996, just years after the end of the Cold War, it tells a spy story that has the player jumping (and swapping discs) from the United States, to Russia, Tunisia and across the globe. .
“Without being too hyperbolic, it was the best FMV game of its time,” says FMV aficionado (and successful podcast star) Justin McElroy. Spycraft combines thick, full-motion cinematics with puzzle-based gameplay that’s clever and complex and still holds up today.
So why has it been forgotten? And how did a video game — decades before the medium would be taken seriously as commercial art — bring together ex-CIA director William Colby and former KGB major general Oleg Kalugin?
For the past two years, Polygon Senior Video Editor Clayton Ashley and I have been making our documentary, The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft. We interviewed Berris – the director who “gave orders” to ex-spies. We spoke to Carl Colby, a film director who spent part of his career trying to understand his famous father’s actions. And we picked the brains of industry experts like McElroy and Christina Warren about the cultural moment in which this game launched—an era too early to receive it.
But today, Spycraft resonates. During our two years with this project, the world has changed, forcing this increasingly complicated history into the present.
First: In July 2021, Activision, Spycraftits publisher, was sued by California’s Civil Rights Department. Six months later, Microsoft announced its intention to buy the company, raising questions about Kotick’s longtime tenure as CEO coming to an end.
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 dislike each other as is well known. Although Kalugin has largely retreated from the public eye, he has spoken out against Putin before — and as a result, was indicted as a traitor.
Spycraft is not the story of Russia versus “the West”. It’s an amoral but also strangely optimistic game. “It captures a special moment, between the end of the Cold War and 9/11,” said the curator of Washington DC’s Spy Museum, Dr. Andrew Hammond. “These two superpowers that have met each other, how should they relate to each other? What will be the dynamics? And there was optimism, there was hope that they could be partners, they could work more together.”
It was a completely different world to the one we find ourselves in now. The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft is a 50-minute long documentary that will tell the story of Spycraftits role in gaming history, and in the lives of the two titans of espionage that seemed unforgettable – to the precious few who played it.
As Dr. Hammond told us, “Quite often, reality is actually much more crazy and interesting than fiction.”
The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft will premiere in 2023. Follow our YouTube page for more updates. Spycraft itself is available on Steam, and still worth a play.