“If you’re reading this, I’m already dead.” What a great start to any game, but how unexpected it was to see at the beginning of a game about hacking. I couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag, how could I code my way out of this? I immediately found myself caring about Bit’s untimely demise and needed to solve the puzzle, but while doing so came to really appreciate the simple beauty and storytelling of Hacknet.
Hacknet was developed by Adelaide-based Matt Trobbiani, the one-man team behind Team Fractal Alligator. Trobbiani was given the 2014 ADGA Innovation Award for Hacknet, which should have been the first clue to how immersive such a simple looking game could be. Another clue should have been the publisher: Melbourne’s Surprise Attack Games have also published Fort Meow and Quarries of Scred.
When you boot up the game, a simple computer interface appears: black background, white text contained in boxes, and that’s about it. You’re asked to enter a username, a password, and the password a second time for confirmation. A boot screen appears, followed by Bit’s first mysterious automated message. There is a tutorial to aid in learning the art of hacking; it is complete with messages about how illegal it is, despite none of the codes belonging to proper hacking techniques (to my limited knowledge, anyway, it’s only based on UNIX commands). Following the tutorial you are given several hacking tests to prove your worth, and it is here that Hacknet truly spreads its wings.
The experience is mostly non-linear: choose which hacking task you want to do when you want to do it. If you’re not careful, your computer system (in game, don’t worry!) will be put at risk and you need to hack your way to a fix. Each time I see the blue screen of death, my heart drops into my stomach and I panic for a moment until remembering it was part of the game. Coding seems tricky at first, but once the commands are used over and over they are memorised. There’s also several help screens that list all available prompts, which I utilise more often than I should admit. Regardless, coding soon became almost a reflex and the learning curve was slow enough that even a person with a terrible memory and attention span (yes, that’s me in a nutshell) could understand what was happening and what needed to be done.
Similar to real life, nothing is instant in Hacknet. In fact, time is often of the essence. Some computers have anti-hacking software in place that begins to track outside computers when they try to break in, so sometimes the decision needs to be made whether to delete your footsteps or grab that file that looks important. Also of utmost importance is the available memory on your computer: if you have too much open, or are running too many RAM-heavy processes at once, anything else will fail to open. The combination of time limits and memory limits adds a large amount of difficulty to the game while not making it too hard to crack after a couple of tries.
What’s found on outside computers can be helpful (cracks or notes), disinteresting (corporate e-mails), or downright nutty (conversations between coworkers). You’re always there for a reason though, whether it is to gather or delete information, or just mess with things. While doing tasks for others, you’ll also sometimes be collecting information on Bit. Bit is able to help from beyond the grave, sending you useful IPs or files to help you on your way through the hacking world.
The graphics in Hacknet may seem simplistic, but they are quite honestly all that is needed to help the story forward. Much like Her Story, an iOS game with a unique take on storytelling, the reason to play the game is to slowly sift through a lot of content to crack a mystery. The soundtrack is a true delight to play to, and makes it seem like you are in the middle of a spy film or something equally suspenseful.
Hacknet is a beautiful example of compelling non-linear storytelling. While it is still a game about hacking, it is far more about solving the mystery around Bit’s death using the tools he (she?) has given you. Combining an enthralling story with a truly impressive learning curve and a stellar soundtrack, Hacknet is definitely something special.
– Lindsay M.