Hacknet is one of those wee indie games that is something of a success story in the way its design process came about. It was actually started as one of those “make a game in 48 hours” projects, all the way back in 2012. I’m not sure if it was done for a competition or just for the lulz, but that is definitely the humble origins of the game, those original versions still available on ModDB. Created by a single man, Matt Trobbiani (as part of his one-man group Team Fractal Alligator), Hacknet then received enough attention and acclaim from gamers that it went into full time development in order to release a completely updated and expanded version last year.
The game is ostensibly the spiritual successor to a hacking game called Uplink by Introversion Software from way back in 2001. Like Uplink, Hacknet is what essentially amounts to a form of computer hacking simulator, or at least a reasonable estimation of one (the one thing you will realise in this article is that I have literally no idea how accurate the game is in terms of real life hacking).
It is also surprisingly unique in the way it presents itself, in that the screen and UI is reminiscent of some basic operating system, e-mail accounts and command console. In this way it actually allows you the player to be the protagonist of the game, and this is not a in a figurative sense where you play as some silent protagonist, but instead rather it is you being sent e-mails and you doing all the hacking. The distinction there may be small but it is actually remarkable just how absorbing it makes the game.
The game begins when you receive an e-mail from a hacker known as Bit. Supposedly the e-mail has been automatically sent to you because his station had a period of 2 weeks of inactivity, meaning that he is now most likely dead. Thus, with the beginnings of some clues and one “hacking” script, you are sent off to delve into the conspiracy behind Bit’s death, starting by working your way into hacking organisations in order to build up a small repertoire of skills and other hacking scripts.
The style of the game is exceptionally simplistic. All “gameplay” is done by typing commands into the command console, very much like real hacking (I assume), with the occasional point and click action using your mouse to navigate computer nodes and then the folders and files stored on those nodes. And that is basically it! Beyond that there really is not much more to be said about playing the game, which may well make it seem a lot more boring than it is.
It really is very difficult to make the game sound exciting, but I can promise you that it is. The feeling of logging on to a remote terminal and then starting to crack its various ports using your scripts, as the timer for a trace starts speeding away to zero, it actually left me feeling more pumped-up on adrenaline and tension than any number of high-octane shooters.
The simple style of the game along with a driving soundtrack and the fact that everything seems to come down to the speed of your typing (which can lead to oh-so-many errors when playing) just makes it feel like you are really legitimately hacking your way into the deep web, searching for justice for this mysterious hacker who has left you his dying wish.
It is also worth mentioning that should you be too slow in breaking into another computer and gaining admin privileges over it, then many of them can “trace” you, and the first time this happens I promise you will be left thinking that your computer did genuinely break because of the way it is presented.
The game world is actually also remarkably complex in some ways. As well as having a fairly good story with some form of twist ending the game mentions that you can actually hack in to the computer of any character actually mentioned in the game. And many of these nodes will have little extra bits and pieces of lore, or simply contain the occasional meme or easter-egg. Some of the latter actually making me have a quiet sensible chuckle.
More than this as well, while the original game was apparently a simple and linear route from start to finish, this updated and more complete version actually has several different paths one can take in order to reach the end. It is also remarkably clever in the design of its “puzzles” and in the way you are taught to do them, by basically being told to figure it out for yourself. Whilst many of the challenges of the game could definitely be considered to be too easy, a good few are actually really rather tricky, requiring no small amount of thinking, checking and re-checking of information in order to figure out exactly what you are supposed to do.
It’s a game which hides a remarkably complex and deep little universe behind a veil of simplicity. Admittedly I am aware that due to being almost entirely text-based, this game is aimed at a somewhat niche audience, however, let me reassure you that it is absolutely worth your time and money to get it.