Sienna Storm: A new breed of espionage RPG

Gaming’s veteran spymasters are creeping back in – with a card game?
Sienna Storm
Sienna Storm: A new breed of espionage RPG © Digital Knights
By Rich Wordsworth

For all its prevalence in TV and movies, would-be Bonds and Bournes have pitifully few choices for espionage experience when it comes to videogames. Bond himself has undertaken several decidedly non-stealthy missions on consoles since Goldeneye. Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher may be the night-goggled mascot for semi-open stealthing, but still skulks along relatively linear paths, with choices often boiling down to whacking villains in the head with one end of his gun or shooting them with the other. If you wanted an open-ended, modern day spy experience on last-gen, your options were Obsidian's troubled Alpha Protocol, and not a lot else.

But what's this, rappelling silently down the wall with a knife between its teeth? It's Sienna Storm, and its newly founded Singapore development studio, Digital Knights. Sienna Storm is a game that's pitched as the kind of open-ended spy thriller experience that made Alpha Protocol such a cult hit. Computers will be hacked, double agents will be outed, and global conspiracies exposed  – and all against the backdrop of a familiar, modern day world of indiscriminate surveillance and sinister government agendas. Sienna Storm's promise isn't one of simply creeping about shanking enemies in the throat or engaging in pitched gunfights (although that's part of it)  – rather, it's a choose-your-own story of alliances, deceptions and knowing whom to trust with what and when.

"Sienna Storm focuses on the wired world of today," the game's writer, Sheldon Pacotti tells Red Bull. "We now have a different notion of how power works in a hyper-connected world. Living in a time when diplomacy involves tweets from heads of state, we can imagine different forms of deception. You don’t have to look far in today’s headlines to find countries and armed groups not just engaging in war but also showmanship. The YouTube video and press release are now as important as the situation on the ground. Disguise, performance, argument… all compete to control the narrative  – to win followers and confuse or constrain the enemy."

© Digital Knights

You play as Mark, a covert ops agent working (formerly) for a not-quite-legit special operations unit codenamed Sienna-1. Naturally, he's got a bit of a troubled past – after being passed over for his dream job at Britain's MI6 and then the City of London Police, he finally scores a position working in the murkier world of defense contracting, where, according to Pacotti, "objectives were erratic, operations were rushed, intrusion was favored over observation and the legality of the work was often questionable". After one too many sorties meddling in the affairs of governments and shady corporations, Sienna-1 is disbanded, and Mark and his team given new identities.

But Mark's not done with the world of espionage. Now working as a private detective, he spends his spare time monitoring the shadier operations of government and big business around the world – a kind of Beautiful Mind-type gig, but with less math and more terrorism. He becomes, as Pacotti puts it, "a bit of a conspiracy nut".
Though not without reason, it turns out. Sienna Storm picks up Mark's story just as one of his former teammates winds up murdered, and so begins a quest to find answers, avoid shadowy pursuers and – of course – unravel a global conspiracy that binds the story together.

"Conspiracy is integral to the storyline, a conspiracy considerably more layered than the ones in Deus Ex," says Pacotti, who was also the lead writer on Warren Spector’s legendary first person action game Deus Ex. "The core of the story is based on near-term geopolitics. You’ll find characters with personal motivations, whether corrupted by or jealous of power, who collude and compete in near present day reality. Mark himself is struggling to reclaim the narrative of his life from (literal) character assassins, whose deadliest weapons are 'facts' – leaked or manufactured. I can’t say much more without revealing a spoiler, but by the end of the game this notion becomes a literal truth, as electronic information takes on a life of its own, but not in the way you might expect."

Sienna Storm
Sienna Storm © Digital Knights

Unlike its spiritual predecessors, Sienna Storm has a novel way of guiding players through the twists and turns of its plot: rather than rendering characters and environments in full 3D, Sienna Storm is more like a comic book, card game and Frederick Forsyth novel rolled into one.

The card game aspect is Sienna Storm's most radical departure from the sneaking-stabbing-shooting style of your traditional adventure. For each encounter that can't be solved with a simple on-screen choice (drive right/drive left, throw enemy off roof/don't), the game will pit you and your opponent against each other in a trading card style face-off. Across the bottom of the screen, you'll find your life total, while that of your opponent is at the top. To win the encounter, you'll play cards from your deck to either deal damage directly, or otherwise adjust the odds in your favour somehow  – by laying down some suppressing fire, or tossing a smoke bomb, for instance.

But the card game mechanic doesn't just determine who comes out of what encounter the least perforated. You'll also use this system to complete more complex mission objectives. So, if in the course of your mission you're called on to hack the computer in an embassy whose drainpipe you've just shinnied up, you and your deck might be pitted not against a sleepy embassy security guard, but the building's electronic security systems. Playing your hand smartly has greater implications than shooting your way out of a stand-off.

Telling Sienna Storm's story through comic panels and weaving its card game mechanic throughout brings some neat advantages to development. No point pussyfooting: it's cheap  – Digital Knights was only looking for a comparatively meager $179,000, or a rough fifth of what other Kickstarter games like Wasteland 2 have been chasing – but we’ll get to that. It also means that Mark's globe-hopping adventure can properly globe-hop – if the team wants to whisk the player off to China for five minutes of backstory, the art team can knock up a Hong Kong cityscape in a few panels, rather than dumping the responsibility of modelling hundreds of new assets onto a team of beleaguered designers. The result, so sayeth the Digital Knights team, is a massive expansion in where the game can take the player, and the ways the story plays out when they get there.

Sienna Storm
Sienna Storm © Digital Knights

"The huge problem of the contemporary games industry, as many have already expressed, is over-bloated budgets," says executive producer Sergei Filippov. "There is a reason why they're necessary, of course: you need top-notch graphics, tons of content both story and gameplay-wise, huge in-house teams, variable multiplayer modes and so on. But the more money is invested, the more reluctant a publisher is to try something new, because it needs to reach a broader audience to stay profitable. 'New' means 'risky' and 'risky' is a bad word when we're speaking about 100 million dollar budgets. The comic style lets us bring players anywhere in the game world, even for just a few scenes, without the [need to] spend thousands of dollars to build in detailed 3D."

True to its roots (aside from Pacotti's writing on Deus Ex, designer Tony Evans also worked on Alpha Protocol), the decisions you make and the outcomes of these card games will open up or close off different parts of Sienna Storm's world. Characters you meet will form opinions of Mark based on your choices and the way you act around them. What you do and say could then affect whether or not a character comes to your aid on later assignments, or marks you as someone in need of an inconspicuous shivving in the back.

"Britain’s MI6 begins the game as an antagonist, convinced that Mark is a terrorist or spy," says Pacotti, by way of example. "Their agents relish the fact that Mark has applied to MI6 and been rejected several times. How the player navigates these encounters with 'real' intelligence agents, and how he comports himself during his own vigilante endeavors, can earn him either respect or disdain from MI6, changing the tone of his relationship with agents, including – at some moments – whether they are helping or hunting him."

Sienna Storm
Sienna Storm © Digital Knights

But however clever the mechanic, a card game is still a card game, and with some notable exceptions (Hearthstone and the Magic: The Gathering PC and tablet titles), gamers are more used to settling scores with iron sights than playing cards. How well Sienna Storm can translate its core mechanic into an appealing prospect for fans of twitch shooters or third-person stealth-em-ups could be the real test of the team's design chops.

"A simple action mechanic doesn’t necessarily imply an abstract or arcane experience," says Pacotti, in response to that challenge. "Games like Dear Esther, Journey, The Stanley Parable, and others have shown how a very simple game mechanic can be a gateway to a very rich, personal experience. Our vision for the card mechanic is not that of the intrepid collector with a shoebox full of powers, but rather an operator with a few pieces of gear, some skills, and some knowledge, thrown into a situation where he has to think on his feet. Achieving that feeling will require finesse, but that’s what we’re shooting for."

Sienna Storm is still very much a promise for the moment – there's a trailer, but no gameplay footage and only a couple of screens to flesh out the design of its visuals and gameplay. But its a promise that fills a niche: a game about espionage that's actually about espionage, rather than a protagonist sneaking along a linear path, stopping only to headshot guards or hack a security door to progress. And if the Kickstarter fails, the game won't. One way or another, Sienna Storm's story will be told, the team are adamant.

"We decided to try our luck on Kickstarter first, to see if the audience were interested in the project," says Filipov.

Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out. Despite their expert credentials and plenty of press at launch, the team raised just $17,049 from 488 backers, less than ten percent of their goal, and ultimately decided to cancel the campaign rather than labour on. That’s not to say the game is cancelled, or even that they regret turning to Kickstarter: the team will now seek alternate funding, and plan to have more of the game complete the next time they throw it out to the public.

“It just means that the public expects a game to have not just gameplay concepts, but actual screenshots, gameplay video footage, et cetera,” Filipov said in an interview after the cancellation. “It seems at least 50 or 60 percent of the game needs to be completed before one launches a campaign on Kickstarter.”

It’s been a learning lesson for the team, but they’re not too disheartened, and will consider other options before turning to publishers, the old-fashioned way.

"We haven’t approached any publishers yet, because our priority is to keep the rights within Digital Knights and build a strong Sienna Storm brand,” Filipov tells Red Bull. “But we’re open to any business discussions a publisher or a strategic partner would like to have, because there might be proposals that let us stay independent and grow."

“Trust us when we say that we will be back and Sienna Storm will be a success!” In other words, the developers at Digital Knights haven’t played the last card in their hands just yet. Not by a long shot.

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