One of my favorite sub-genres is the accidental spy movie, films like The Man Who Knew Too Little, Gotcha!, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the more recent The Spy Who Dumped Me. To my great delight, Emily Short’s City of Secrets is an accidental spy IF.
While on your way south to attend a friends wedding your train breaks down so the railway puts you up in an elegant hotel. Soon you find yourself possibly poisoned, nearly kidnapped, roped into a scheme to infiltrate a rebel faction for the mayor, and set loose in The City where you can trust everyone.
Initially, this accidental spy scenario is exciting. Your method of discovering information is almost exclusively through speaking to NPCs, with a dialogue system that is deep, wide, smooth, and easy to use. Suggested talking point/questions are available for you to follow or you can always steer the conversation to a topic of your choosing. When first trying to track down leads, I wanted to be coy in my interactions with the locals, slowly pushing the conversations I was having toward the subject my quarry. This approach really made me feel like the spy I was supposed to be. But it did not take long before I realized straight up asking everyone about the person I was looking for was quicker with no noticeable negative consequences for my bluntness.
Once sleuthing took this form City of Secrets no longer felt like an espionage game but instead became a series of invisible dialogue trees that needed to be navigated. At least most of the branches on these trees hint at story and lore in the world of City of Secrets and there is plenty of story and lore to discover. The worldbuilding here is superb.
The most disappointing thing about City of Secrets is its name. With Emily Short you often get fun or interesting title; Alabaster for a game about Snow White, Counterfeit Monkey for a game with a letter removing device, and Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny for a game about… who cares, that’s a great title. With City of Secrets we have a game about a city with secrets. It’s just so bland.
The second most disappointing thing about City of Secrets is its end sequence. The entire thing plays out like and interactive cut scene with limited choices, and a rather long cut scene at that. In an attempt at creating a climax that feels cinematic, the game lost what makes Interactive Fiction enjoyable; interaction with meaningful choice.
Still, there are many reasons I will encourage you to play City of Secrets. It is a well implemented, immersive world, its spaces designed to yield nuggets of story to those willing to explore. There is an incredible dialogue system with plenty of NPCs to speak with. And it has a deep lore that is interesting to uncover.