Code to Joy
The term ‘hacker’ means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To some, they are people who are able to use computers with any kind of competency. To others, they are pallid little trolls who lurk on anonymous message boards and fill twitter with sweary egg avatars. To Shutterstock, they are faintly-aggressive three-headed creatures who peak out from behind laptop screens.
Thankfully, Hacknet is able to bring a little more nuance into what makes a hacker a hacker—which is to say they have some amount of nuance. Progressing through Hacknet’s expanding web of nodes and computer ports, it became apparent that this was to be a narrative which treated hackers as, shockingly, people. Some of them malevolent in their aims, others not.
It’s a real surprise that a hacking game featuring nothing other than a computer screen has managed to portray a believable, intriguing and human version of cyber-shenanigans, when a wealth of literature, cinema and news reporting have abjectly failed to do so. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; what exactly is Hacknet?Widely seen as the spiritual successor to 2001’s Uplink, Hacknet is the criminally overlooked 2015 release from Adelaide indie developer Team Fractal Alligator. Set entirely in the rudimentary confines of an outdated operating system—think ‘slightly jazzed-up Amstrad’—Hacknet throws you right into its world, leaving you relatively little instruction for how to get along. In fact, the game explains from the outset that it ‘won’t hold your hand’—a welcome message, but one which can be a little daunting when it forms the opening gambit. When going into something as formidable as aggressive programming, I don’t want to hear that I’m on my own; it’s like being on the verge of a bungee dive and having someone whisper something in your ear about the surprising fallibility of elastic, before pushing you off.
To support the lack of hand-holding, Hacknet needs to be sure-footed in its teaching of the fundamentals. Thankfully, it is.
All progression through the game is handled via email as various contacts message you, virtual cap in virtual hand, asking for a favour. The first of such contacts is the anonymous ‘Bit’, who informs you that they are trapped and only you can make things right. How can we go about making things right? By hacking all and sundry, of course!
Bit’s little errands set you up for the challenges that Hacknet will provide, teaching the basic toolset that will be built upon in the coming hours. Things like copying a file to your local PC with ‘scp’, deleting all evidence of your trespasses in the log with ‘rm *’ and successfully actioning a ‘porthack’ are discussed before the communications end and you’re thrown in at the deep end.Climbing the hacking ladder (Still more stable than the housing ladder, am I right? Real estate jokes.) involves getting in with those in the know. The phrase ‘safety in numbers’ is just as true online as it is off, and in order to receive new jobs and continue your way to the centre of the mystery, you’ll need to join with groups of like-minded people. These groups act as small ‘hub worlds’—or, to be more precise, hub servers—where you can pick and choose from a range of jobs to catapult you up the rankings and into the sights of even bigger groups.
So, that’s the game. But we’re barely scratching the surface of what makes Hacknet such an enjoyable delight. Little can better exemplify how meticulously crafted this game is than the fact that I’m about to talk about world-building. Hacknet, without maps or even conventional levels, manages to craft a believable and seemingly living landscape almost exclusively through its writing and slight aesthetic quirks. Hacking into the personal computer of a known troublemaker is, for instance, a very different beast to a corporation’s main server. Where the former contains puerile chat logs and adolescent bravado, the latter has a functioning front-end, staff logs and corporate memos. Other game worlds are built in code; here, the world is the code.
Narrative aside, it’s a damn satisfying game, too. All the pre-game talk suggests a formidable, uncompromising simulation of hacking that will leave you toiling for hours for a small glimmer of success. But, in fact, the greatest joy of Hacknet lies in how deftly it has managed to toe the line between challenge and satisfaction.This does mean that certain aspects of the code are simplified to unrealistic levels. For instance, I sincerely hope that no port can actually be hacked by typing ‘porthack’—or if they can, that they’re at least evil ports in evil servers. Regardless, the choice to sacrifice realism for more accessible puzzling is a very appropriate one.
The challenge doesn’t lie in actioning any one specific hack but rather in absorbing the language presented by the game. After a couple of hours, the more fundamental port overrides can be completed with the immediacy of something approaching muscle memory, whereas things like firewalls and proxies add a little of complexity which ensure that hacking never becomes predictable, alongside adding considerable tension when programming against a time limit.
That tension is also ratcheted up by a superb soundtrack. Awash with disjointed synth stylings, it sounds like the kind of music RoboCop would boogie to. There’s also a neat little music visualizer in the bottom left, a welcome addition for those of us who fondly remember sitting for hours on end watching squiggles and bars pulsating vaguely in accordance with the beats of a tune.
All in all, this was a game that, after expecting little more than an entertaining diversion, turned out to be so much more. A minimalistic aesthetic, awesomely satisfying gameplay and an unexpectedly gripping and mysterious narrative work together to create something truly brilliant in Hacknet.