Game Pile: Operation Tango

Operation Tango is an asymmetric two-player cooperative game about a pair of cool spies through minigames. You’re going after an evil wealthy hacker-terrorist, I won’t bother expositing the plot, don’t worry about spoilers. I really did, in that first sentence summarise the entire game. If you want to play about thirty games with a friend, recreating a narrative of again, two cool spies, then that’s what this game is.

There are plenty of articles about Operation Tango out there, no doubt, who want to show you all the ways this game is clever. A number of them also want to encourage you to think of it as good. I’m going to be a bit simpler. I enjoyed Operation Tango.

Up front, here is an obligatory admission: Operation Tango is a game I played with my friend Shelf. I had a blast. I liked it a lot, I heard funny dialogue, there was outrageously well-timed comedic beats, and even the times the game state failed left me determined to push on. I wanted to engage with this game and do a good job and I wanted to hit the targets and deliver on the mission objectives, and that’s because Shelf is great.

This game let me spend time with my friend, and I loved that, and the experience was great. Ten stars. What about you? Well, uh, let’s see what kind of advice I can give for someone who doesn’t have Shelf available.

I had the overwhelming good fortune to play it with my friend Shelf, which is great, because Shelf is great. What’s also a factor is that Shelf is, like me, a game designer. What’s perhaps even more pertinent is that Shelf is not like me as a game designer, because I’m pretty insular and don’t bother looking at a huge variety of games, while Shelf is really interested in those things and has a much more wide diet of them. We wound up playing the game in a fashion that I think might be a bit faster than you’d normally expect because we fell – I felt – into a rhythm with the game very quickly – where we could identify the kind of game we had been confronted with, the puzzle before us, and pretty much solve it immediately.

This isn’t to say that we never made mistakes, but playing the game with Shelf, I never felt like I was being given bad information, but rather that I wasn’t communicating clearly or quickly enough. This game gives you some really weird, helpless moments, especially in the abstract hacking games, and we very rarely had difficulty explaining the interface or solutions with one another, even if we didn’t wind up making it clear as we played.

While I credit that to Shelf, which is fine, because Shelf is awesome, I want to underscore that part of how this game was able to throw us through dozens of different puzzles is that Operation Tango has a pretty triumphant interface. There are whole games built around just one of the mini games in Operation Tango, and those games are dedicated shells for their interfaces, which are about delivering time-sensitive information that you’re then required to decipher and re-encode and then usually communicate.

This game runs you through a maze that you don’t notice is a maze because you’re thinking of it as a communication game. That’s great! I hate mazes as a game design maxim, for a variety of reasons, and yet, I didn’t care that this game was giving me one – with resets! – because I was focusing on giving Shelf the right timing and understanding what I was being told.

That’s the big takeaway of Operation Tango, I think. For some, it’s just the question of ‘hey, can this be made at all,’ and then you see it exists and that’s fine. The lesson I’d learn from it after that is how to design good, slick user interfaces. How are you highlighting information to players, how do you make information exchanges so they don’t clash but do still pressure one another? And what does it look like when you make your game about a sequence of small designs rather than one big perfect holistic one?

Finally, I guess I’d say the thing that sticks with me about Operation Tango is nothing that this game has. I’m going to remember the funny sound Shelf made when I hecked up a puzzle and chucked a tiny robot into a laser. This is a game that lets you spend time with your friend, lets you share experiences with them, and which has basically replayability for one full playthrough each.

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