Video games can be a powerful medium beyond simply the notion of “play”. They can use the mechanisms of play as a means of enabling interaction. Books and movies can’t simulate the feeling of touch and immersion quite the same way a video game can, and so there is potential to use gaming to create something more than just a test of skill or something to conquer. Cosmic Top Secret on Xbox could have been a great book, it could even have been a fascinating documentary on Netflix, but instead it chose to be a video game. It is better off for it.
The term “cosmic top secret” itself refers to a real-world term, indicating the highest level of classified information held by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), requiring the highest possible level of access. The video game Cosmic Top Secret is about real-life protagonist Trine Laier, who simply goes by “T” in the game, as she investigates her parents and their colourful past as former Danish intelligence agents during the prolonged, tense period known as the Cold War.
As T deep dives into the past, the player has an opportunity to engage in what was a rather mysterious and confidential period in modern history, and it’s only recently that much of the information related to it has been declassified; some of the non-disclosure agreements have only just run their course. In her journey, T interacts with her parents, as well as their former colleagues and friends, to better understand the work they were doing during the Cold War and the kind of experiences they had to navigate as they made their living as spies.
Cosmic Top Secret is largely educational. It doesn’t necessarily air mind-blowing secrets or dirty laundry, but what it does do is provide an overview of history and major events through the eyes and experiences of T and her parents. As the narrative unravels, we learn about how confidential information was handled and protected during the Cold War, and the technologies that were used, in particular the various statistical and computing techniques which were developed to code and decode information.
More than the history and the fine art of spy work and espionage in an era gone by, Cosmic Top Secret is about humanising those who were serving intelligence organisations in what was a turbulent time. Beyond just stating facts, figures, and other fun trivia, T gets quite honest and vulnerable about what it was like to grow up with parents who dedicated most of their lives to their work. With her parents now being retired veterans, it’s a chance for them to provide a retrospect with great introspection, and how so much of the work they did was to prepare for something that may or may not have happened.
As part of the process of bringing this all together, much of Cosmic Top Secret is made up of photographs, video clips, and recorded interviews with T’s parents, as well as some of their old friends and associates. This could very easily have been presented as a documentary, or even published as a book with unique and incredible photographs, but instead everything comes together as an interactive “autobiographical adventure”. It could have been a very engaging book, but instead it feels like an interactive autobiography where the pages quite literally come to life.
That’s perhaps the most striking thing about Cosmic Top Secret, as the presentation comprises of paper cutouts all pasted together to bring a world to life. It’s a little bit like stepping inside the music video of Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand (or for our North American readers, the music video of Megalomaniac by Incubus). The quasi-2.5D papercut models fuse nicely together to create a 3D world for players to explore. It’s a striking, creative, and memorable visual style. The various documents, photos, and video/audio clips are all seamlessly integrated into the presentation, so that you’re never reading a wall of text. Instead the game presents fascinating information and facts using clever methods. In fact, the visual style is so engaging from a learning standpoint that the game itself inspired a real-life museum exhibit in Denmark.
The best way to describe the gameplay and game design of Cosmic Top Secret would be as a collectathon 3D platformer, but not strictly. As you take control of T, you navigate 3D environments to collect various documents and objects, and there’s a bit of light platforming involved, simple environmental puzzles, and even a few fun gameplay segments where you can fly as a paper plane and even toss (very safe!) smoke grenades. There isn’t much by the way of level design, but the maps you explore in each of the levels are quite open-ended, with plenty of optional secrets and things to collect.
Now, for T to move around she needs to crumble into a ball of paper and basically roll around the map, with the ability to jump and engage in other activities. While the core movement is functional enough, the controls can feel quite finicky especially during some platforming segments. Still, this rarely becomes a problem given how Cosmic Top Secret is rarely ever as gameplay-intensive as a typical platformer.
Cosmic Top Secret is all about gathering documents to unravel information and learn about some secrets from the Cold War period. More than the platforming, Cosmic Top Secret is a puzzle game, and as T tries to figure out the statistical genius of her father, the game itself is all about deriving numbers from documents in order to crack a code via a Rubik’s cube approach. The process of going through intel to figure out the sequence is challenging in a fun way, as the game is generally quite generous in the hints and cues it provides. The level of difficulty is reasonably challenging, and never obtuse, creating a satisfying experience which encourages players to pay attention to the narrative and all the little bits of information.
Cosmic Top Secret is a unique and novel way to use video games to create an experience that no book or documentary format could even come close to achieve. It’s one thing to create a video game adaptation of something, but Cosmic Top Secret takes it to a whole new level by creating a living and interactive autobiography. There’s a great deal to learn and discover in this adventure, and above all it presents a very raw and honest look into the very human lives of those who worked tirelessly and confidentially during a very unique period in history.
The edutaining Cosmic Top Secret will be available on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One come May 21st