Social Deduction through Text Chat in Untrusted

9min read

I’ve been lucky during these uncertain times to have been able to keep in touch with my close friends and forge new relationships through the internet. I’ve been in lockdown for most of this past year and because I live alone, I’ve been doing a lot more text chatting than before in a mildly successful attempt to stay sane.

I have a love-hate relationship with text chatting. It makes it really easy to keep in touch with the people you care about. But, it’s easy to misinterpret messages, tone is sometimes lost and it’s hard to be subtle or sarcastic through text chat.

Despite its flaws, communicating through text chat is inherently interesting. What if I told you that there was a game that forced players to use text chat to communicate, cooperate, and sometimes sabotage, other players? That might be interesting…

Untrusted is that game and it’s very interesting. It’s a social deduction game meaning that during play players attempt to uncover each other’s hidden role and team allegiance. Players use logic and deductive reasoning to try to deduce one another’s roles.

In Untrusted, you either play as one of many hackers (NETSEC) attempting to hack a target, as an undercover agent trying to disrupt the hack, or as one of many neutral parties with their own goals.

When play starts, all players are thrown into an IRC chat room with each other. Each player is given a random colour-based pseudonym (like Dr. Orange) to hide their real identity. Each day and each night, players can perform one of the actions tied to their assigned role which can either help NETSEC, hinder them or do something in between.

Players take actions secretly but most actions leave some kind of trace that can be seen and evaluated by others. Using imperfect information, NETSEC players need to make the right deductions, communicate these to their teammates, achieve a consensus to find the agents, and vote to eliminate them. Agents have to confuse NETSEC, blend in among them and get them all arrested (or killed) or converted to their cause before the target is hacked.

That’s the gist of it. All the moving parts make playing the game badly easy but playing it well hard. I won’t go into detail about every single role in the game, what they do and how they all interact with each other. But I’ll give you enough context to convince you that the game is interesting.

The Operation Leader (OL) is the glue that ties NETSEC together. They are the only player capable of broadcasting messages anonymously to all players. Because of this, the OL’s job is to make sure that all NETSEC players are working towards their common goal of hacking the target. This is easier said than done because each member of NETSEC wants to identify the other members to coordinate how they use their different abilities together. But they also want to avoid revealing themselves to the agents who will arrest them once their identities are known.

The Agent Leader (AL) is the OL’s agent counterpart. The AL is flexible and unpredictable. Their diverse set of abilities allows them to easily blend in with NETSEC. The AL and the Field Agent (FA) coordinate with each other in a secure text channel that only they have access to.

As the game progresses, the AL converts members of NETSEC to the agent side, the FA arrests non-agents, the neutral roles sow confusion and go on killing sprees, depending on the role, while the NETSEC hackers try to push through several layers of computers until they finally reach and hack their main target.

While this is happening, the neutral roles are all doing their own kind of thing. Most of them act as wildcards who can side with NETSEC, the agents or neither depending on the circumstances. For example, the Sociopath wants to find the OL, kill them, and get himself arrested by the agents. The Resentful Criminal wants to make sure that both leaders are killed or arrested. The Journalist wants to meet with NETSEC at night and write articles about the hack during the day. There are twenty-two different roles each with their own abilities and goals.

If the target is hacked or all the agents are dead, NETSEC wins. If all of NETSEC is either arrested or dead, the agents win.

That’s Untrusted. Now that I’ve given you a taste of how the game works, let’s dive a littler deeper and find out what makes Untrusted tick.

I love social deduction games… In theory. Being able to use your brain to make deductions about who’s on your side and who isn’t should be fun. In practice though, I don’t like playing most social deduction games. They tend to involve a lot of shouting. I don’t like this. I usually end up not having a good time and ruining the experience for others. So, I’ve tried to avoid playing social deduction games for the past few years.

That was until I heard of Untrusted. It solves the main problem I have with these games and provides me with the social deduction experience I’ve always wanted. Whether you’re chatting in the general chat channel, concocting a plan in the agents-only channel, sending anonymous broadcasts as the OL, or exchanging private emails with specific players, all communication in Untrusted happens through text chat.

Unlike most other social deduction games I’m familiar with, Untrusted was built from the ground up to be played online. This makes it feasible for the design to support many more players than other social deduction games (up to sixteen).

You might think that playing a social deduction game with this many players would be complete chaos. It is and it isn’t. Because all communication is happening through text chat, many people can be talking to each other at the same time, possibly through different channels, without stepping on each other’s toes.

Untrusted leverages its use of text chat in many interesting ways. Swear words that are typed are converted into words that are close enough to the original word for you to understand what the person meant but far enough from them to lessen their bite. For example, “fuck” turns into “fork” and “shit” turns into “shirt”. This defangs players; keeping the discussions more civil than they would be otherwise. It’s hard to get mad when somebody tells you to go “fork yourself”.

Especially when you’re an agent… Being mad makes it harder for NETSEC to make the right deductions. There are always two agents initially: the Agent Leader and the Field Agent. Although they are few in number, the agents have a few tricks up their sleeve to even the odds. The Agent Leader is able to use an ability to convert one or two NETSEC players to their side over the course of a game.

The biggest advantage the agents have over NETSEC is the secure text channel they can use to secretly communicate with each other. No other social deduction game I’ve played allows the “bad” guys to formulate plans and coordinate their actions with each other in this way. As an agent, you’re lying about working together with NETSEC to perform the big hack in one channel, and you’re cooperating with the other agents to stop the hack in the other. This asymmetry makes you feel like a sneaky spy plotting against everyone else which makes playing as the “bad” guys in Untrusted fun.

One of the hardest things to do as an agent is to successfully hide your allegiance to the agents. One hard part of this is fabricating your log file. For NETSEC players, their log file is some text describing each action they’ve taken as well as the results of those actions. This log file is used to confirm other player’s identities by cross referencing details and it’s often shared publicly when the game is nearing its end to prove your innocence. This is a last resort, because confirming your identity as a specific member of NETSEC allows the agents to target you next.

Unlike NETSEC, agents can’t have their log file be a truthful representation of the actions they’ve taken because if they told the truth they would be outed as agents and killed. So, agents have to fabricate their log file convincingly enough to stop players from suspecting them if another player steals their log file or if the agent is forced by the OL to share it publicly.

Untrusted actively encourages players to communicate with each other because staying silent is suspicious. If you’re silent in the main chat channel that might be because you’re spending most of your time typing in the agent-only channel, fabricating your log file, and keeping track of everything else you need keep track of as an agent (roles of other players, info gathered by other agents, and more).

I’ve talked a lot about why Untrusted is interesting. But the game isn’t perfect.

Untrusted has a large barrier of entry. Although it’s currently free to play (without any microtransactions), it’s not easy to learn. The game has a tutorial, but by the end of it you’ve only seen the tip of the Untrusted iceberg. You have to learn the more subtle interactions through play. This becomes a problem because certain roles are much more vital than others. When an inexperienced player is given a role like the Operation Leader, the Agent Leader or the Field Agent this can lead to a less fulfilling experience for the other players.

On a related note, some roles have much less agency and power than others and are mostly just along for the ride. Roles like the Journalist and the Script Kiddie don’t have enough power to increase their chances of achieving their goals in a meaningful way. So, playing them can feel a little deflating compared to playing one of the more impactful roles.

Overall though, Untrusted provides a compelling enough experience for me to overlook these minor issues. What makes Untrusted special is how all of its systems interact with one another in interesting ways. It’s more than the sum of its parts and I hope I’ve conveyed how its interconnected systems play off of one another to create the best social deduction game I’ve ever played.

I’ve spoken a lot about the mechanics of the game and how it all works. But I haven’t spoken a lot about how playing Untrusted feels. Appropriately, it’s harder for me to explain this through text but I’ll try my best.

Untrusted gets my heart pumping like nothing else has in recent memory. Untrusted is not a relaxing game, it’s tense and stressful. Playing it doesn’t make me feel good… but it makes me feel something.

I haven’t had many opportunities to experience new things, meet new people, or feel much of anything recently. Every day I spend going through the motions of my daily routine, trying to spend my time wisely but it’s hard to seize the day when every day is cursed to be the same as the last. I’ve been frothing at the mouth for any experience that’ll make me feel something… Anything.

Untrusted is the cathartic experience that I’ve been searching for and I’m happy to have shared my love for it with you today. I hope that I’ve been able to convince you to try it out yourself, you’ll just have to trust me.

Otherwise, you can…

“Go fork yourself you little shirt!”

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