Indie Wonderland: Safe House

A few hours in

Well. That was definitely an entertaining few hours of tradecraft.

You’re welcome.

I’ve beaten Safe House, which is to say I’ve beaten Safe House once — reading between the lines I suspect there may be more than one ending, but I haven’t replayed to check. It’s an interesting little game, though definitely a mixed bag: I have both criticism and praise in not-entirely-equal measure. I hasted to add here that I did have fun playing Safe House, it’s definitely not a bad game. There might just be some… room for improvement.

Since I’m me and love structure, I’m going to talk about Safe House‘s downs and ups and downs in three categories: Quality, design, and execution. Eagle-eyed readers may already have spotted which of those three is going to be most praise-heavy.

Pictured: Safe House predicting this review.

Starting on the blunt topic of quality, I have to say that Safe House isn’t the best put-together. I gabbed earlier about how annoying it is to have to click the tiny arrow buttons in the dossier, and that stays constant, but it’s not the only click-related issue. It feels really profoundly variable how often I have to click on any given room to activate it. I generally double-click, but sometimes I end up clicking over and over like a madman before Safe House deigns to accept my input. Other times, the second click immediately backs me out again and gains or costs me money: Turns out I was double-clicking in the exact spot a button was set to appear, so I just won or lost a minigame without even knowing it. This is a problem that can be avoided, by clicking in the right place — but the slow WASD camera panning and the omnipresent time limit don’t do that slow and steady approach any favours. Occasionally clicks don’t feel like they register at all, either.

Worse than that, though, is the design of some of the minigames. Most of them are fine, but on more than one occasion I’ve failed the Infirmary and Forgery games in ways I’m sure were not intended: I very carefully select the right option, or type the right names, only to have Safe House yell INCORRECT at me. I’m willing to accept that this might be on me — I nearly listed the Bomb Workshop minigame here as well, before figuring out that, no, I was genuinely just doing it wrong. With Forgery in particular, though, I had the sense I could do everything right and still get docked points for nothing.

I mean, look at this. You’re supposed to type in the agent’s name exactly as-given. Except there is none. So I typed nothing. And I lost.

What’s definitely not my fault are the many, many ways the ‘agents’ system can mess up. On paper, it’s straightforward: You recruit several spies and/or black ops soldiers. Each has an overall level, and three skills at level 1. You assign agents on missions, and if they complete them successfully, they gain EXP. If they gain enough to level up, they get skill points, which can be assigned to any of their skills — later missions reward bonus ‘completion chance’ to agents with particular skills.

In practice, things that happened include: Agents completing missions and getting zero experience points. Agents leveling up and gaining no skill points. Agents leveling up and gaining skill points, except then the next day after they’d be back to their old level. On at least one occasion I had an agent level up, but another agent who hadn’t done any missions somehow also gained a skill point — and when I assigned that one, the original leveling agent lost theirs. I’ve had agents start out with nonexistent skills. I once hired an agent for $20.000, despite only having $7.000 in the bank — so obviously that didn’t cost me any money at all. I could go on.

Lieutenant Willis, seen here at level 2, has no skill points to his name. Lieutenant Willis has been level for the better part of six successful missions.

Putting this all together, Safe House tends to come across as… The word I keep coming back to is shoddy. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the design, but the actual creation could definitely be better. And while it wasn’t bad enough to keep me from having a decent time, it’s absolutely worth pointing out.

This UI element in particular should catch on fire.

Doubling back on that design, though: I really like the ideas that Safe House brings to the table. Systems-wise it feels like a mix of Papers, Please‘s morality minigames and XCOM‘s anthill-style base-building. Play cycles through three phases, as seen on the previous page. In the Construction phase, you add rooms to your Safe House, or upgrade rooms later on for increased effect. Rooms add new functionality to your base: Some unlock new minigames, while others play into agent missions or the larger narrative. In the Assignment phase, you play these agent missions: You get the ability to hire up to four spies and four black ops soldiers, and you assign these to missions as they become available. Missions can be mandatory or optional, and often reward high cash payouts. Finally, in the Management phase you oversee the Safe House through the night, playing minigames as they come up to earn money. The more rooms you build, the more different games can appear, increasingly keeping you on your toes — but also, the higher the payout is for each game you complete. Getting the shipping label right at the beginning is a $480 payout; getting it right in a highly-upgraded base can net you $3600 or more.

Of course, your principal reward is overseeing an ever-cooler spy base.

In theory, this possibility space could be rife with interesting choices. The base building aspect warns you from the outset that ‘you won’t be able to build every room’, which foreshadows interesting tradeoffs. Maybe some minigames are harder, but lead to better outcomes down the road? Some missions require particular buildings, so what if you don’t have that one? In the Assignment phase, missions have success percentages, which are often below 100%. What are the consequences of failure? And every messed-up minigame during Management funnels money into the coffers of your opponents. At certain set milestones, that money translates into disadvantages for you: Maybe your enemies shorten your income stream, or make all your missions harder. There’s a natural ramping curve here, as your income increases significantly with each new room — meaning the price of failure goes up too. The $1200 first milestone that seemed so distant in the first night is hit in a single failure in the fifth.

I don’t know either how giving one agent painkillers instead of anti-coagulants got us to this point.

But then you did notice I said ‘in theory’ there, huh?

Safe House paints an interesting possibility space, but its execution leaves something to be desired. For instance, the base-building touts choices, but in practice almost all buildings are mandatory — part of game progression in one way or another. In fact, the game very clearly marks the point where ‘these last four buildings are optional, and you can build two of them’. That’s it. Do you want higher success rates on spy or black ops missions, a slightly higher rate on both types, or more money per minigame? Folks, here’s my secret hint: It don’t matter, none of it matters. Agent and black ops missions are similarly toothless. Some of them are mandatory, meaning you have to try over and over until you succeed, with no penalty for failure. Other missions are optional, meaning… there’s no penalty for failure, they’ll still be here next night.

And while the minigames themselves are cool… Actually, let me double back on this real quick. The minigames themselves are cool. Some of them work a little better than others: The code-exchange, passport-forging, and cipher-cracking feel incredibly spy-cool, and the bomb-building and infirmary medicine-selecting at least have a neat aspect of having to process lots of information under pressure. I referenced Papers, Please initially, but the general length of most games and the pace they take almost calls to mind a (slowed-down) Wario Ware as well. Which is not to say they’re necessarily quick, but while you’re immersed in the Safe House fiction, it has that same feeling of — gotta do everything as it comes, as quickly as possible, or everything will be bad forever.

Quick, get this person the right medicine! DON’T MESS UP!

And it’s not hard to see where the intended pressure is coming from. You need money for most everything in this game. Progression is gated through a series of… I want to say ‘missions’, but that’s a specific bit of terminology in Safe House, so let’s call them ‘milestones’. Narrative progression is gated through these milestones, which generally take the shape of ‘build or upgrade these rooms’, or ‘complete these missions’, or even ‘collect this much cash’. Since you always need more money, there’s a running incentive to do well at the minigames. But every game represents a chance at failure too, and every failure ticks up your enemies’ progress. I don’t know what happens if this goes up too far, but I assume ‘losing’ is involved.

Except that all that pressure is actually a lie. The minigames themselves are cool, but you’ll discover quickly enough that they don’t actually have teeth.

Here’s what I mean: You want to earn money, which means you want to complete games quickly, which might incur failure. Your overall time limit is the nighttime clock, which ends your session at 10:00 AM. But any individual game during play doesn’t have a time limit: You can take as long at building bombs or exchanging codes or breaking ciphers as you like. Literally so: If you hit the nighttime limit while playing, the clock will conveniently pause to let you finish before rolling the day over.

More saliently, there doesn’t seem to be much consequence for taking your time in the long run. It doesn’t matter if it takes you one day to reach an objective, or two, or ten. Safe House tracks days of the week, but as far as I can tell that’s entirely cosmetic. There’s no deadline, no looming threat or anything. You can just keep going. In fact, at some points you probably will: Some agent/black ops missions are mandatory to proceed, but difficult enough that your agents might fail. I had to redo one particularly hard mission (67% success rate) four nights in a row. There was absolutely no consequence to this, beyond giving me four nights to earn money before moving on. You’d figure that my assassination target would get wary after a while, but no. Safe House is a game very interested in telling one particular, linear story, meaning it’s very not interested in letting player success or failure deviate from that.

Suddenly, environmental storytelling strikes!

But realizing this means realizing there’s no real sting to any of the games. All that’s gained by rushing through them is having to play less ‘days’ before you progress, which is functionally nothing — you still play the same amount of games, just spaced out further. Inversely, play safely, and for most games you’re pretty much never at risk of losing. It turns Safe House into a surprisingly toothless affair: You can play for speed if you want to, and I’d recommend that you do, because it’s clearly the intended experience. But if you’re ever worried about losing for real, you could just — open up a game that you’re good at when it pops up, let it sit until the day timer is at 10, and then carefully finish it. It’s not the most glamorous way to get your spy work done, but it’ll work.

There’s room in the Safe House possibility space for the game that Safe House wants to be: A high-octane experience of juggling base building trade-offs, clandestine missions, and the many responsibilities of managing a safe house, all while under constant threat of failure and discovery. It’s just not the game that Safe House is. It gets close to being that, at its best times, but generally…

Let’s just say you’ll be carefully scanning a *lot* of bomb ingredient lists.

Final thoughts

I realize just now that I haven’t really talked about Safe House‘s story. Partially because spy stories are generally spoiler-sensitive, but also partially because there isn’t all that much to talk about — I wouldn’t be surprised if you called most of the plot twist several beats before they’re formally introduced.

But did you predict THIS? BAM

All in all, I would summarize Safe House as a good idea, limited execution. I really like and appreciate its design ideas, and I’d love to see a game explore this space further — Safe House definitely lays out an easy-to-follow groundwork. As an implementation of that groundwork, though, it’s a fun diversion at best: A game to play through once, learn design lessons from, and then probably move on from.

Whether or not supporting a new design studio’s cool ideas is worth ten of your Steam dollars is, as always, up to you.

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Jarenth would like to deliver the following message: “I saw the most magnificent squirrel in the park yesterday.” If you’re in the know, leave the proper reply on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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