Cosmic Top Secret Review – Declassified. There’s a particular milestone of growing up that goes relatively unexamined as far as shared experiences go, and that is the moment you realize your parents had deep inner lives of their own before you were born. That’s true for Cosmic Top Secret’s writer/director/protagonist Trine Laier, whose parents are hiding one of the coolest secrets imaginable, and yet that palpable sense of a once-impenetrable boundary having been crossed between them is still huge. Cosmic Top Secret trying to translate those feelings into a video game makes it remarkable. Ironically, what stops it from being brilliant is that it’s not very good at being an engaging video game.
The game’s title refers to an actual security designation within the Danish equivalent of the Department of Defense, which, unbeknownst to Trine until her late 30s, was the security level both her parents held while working there on a classified spy project during the most tense years of the Cold War. Determined to get the full details, Trine ropes both her parents into doing interviews for a documentary on their lives. The project runs into major snags since neither of her parents know if their work is declassified, even after Trine actually gives the Department of Defense a call and has a high-ranking official essentially debrief them on what’s safe.
Cosmic Top Secret is a series of five relatively self-contained open worlds, all relating to a specific point in Trine’s time trying to squeeze what she can from her parents. It all takes place in a papercraft, pop-up-book representation of her journey; imagine the living papier-mache world of Media Molecule’s Tearaway, except crafted by 50 years of shredded classified documents, and you have an idea of what Cosmic Top Secret feels like.
From marching alongside her mother at a military base to going orienteering–a sort of free-form competitive hike–with her father in a local forest, everything takes on a sort of twisted, mesmerizing magic. That abstract interpretation includes the paper doll avatars of Trine, her parents, and all their former colleagues, rendered as googly-eyed exaggerations that shift, change, break, and rip along with whatever their current mental and physical status is. While in real life Trine’s father injured his shoulder while orienteering, his paper doll self in-game gets its arm torn off, and you have to find it. Trine being reminded of a specific family tragedy might cause her doll version to fall apart entirely, meaning you have to put her back together again to finish the conversation. It’s a sort of emotional sleight-of-hand that could only have been executed in games, trying to inhabit a documentarian’s feelings and internal dialogue. It’s a magic trick not every game–even the ones specifically aiming to evoke emotions from the player–pull off as successfully as Cosmic Top Secret does.