Hacknet is a game that successfully achieves its goal – making you feel like one badass hacker. I am a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, and have recently begun attempts to run the Shadowrun RPG, so thematically, Hacknet did not have to do much to win me over. Hacknet is right up there with Catnips as one of the strangest games I have ever played – but it is strange in a really great way. Hacknet is a hacking simulation game, which, as the website so fittingly states, is so realistic “you shouldn’t play it in an airport.” The protagonist is a faceless you, with only a name and no identity to tie you down. Entering the game, you meet a mysterious hacker named Bit, who guides you through the basics of hacking before loosing you on the world’s networks. Bit is an enigmatic presence –when you first meet, you are not really sure whether Bit is a person, AI, or just a program spitting information at you as you learn the ropes of hacking. Your journey through the world of Hacknet is spurred along by the mystery of Bit; although for me Hacknet’s gameplay was more than enough to keep me at it.
The user interface of Hacknet is quite unconventional – certainly like no other modern games on the market – although it may feel nostalgic for players of text-based adventure games, or the 2001 hacking simulator Uplink. At the beginning of the game, your screen is split into three columns – the left is a represents your available RAM (random access memory), the right is the terminal (where the action happens), and the middle is a GUI (graphic user interface), which outputs a visual representation of the commands you enter into the terminal – emulating the effect of real coding. The GUI is fully interactive, and can often be used to navigate the game in the place of terminal commands. The terminal very much resembles and functions like a real PC terminal – as anyone who has dabbled in coding or using linux will be able to tell you. Of course, as a simulation, the code in Hacknet does not function like real code – it is much more user friendly and readable – however, the game does a great job of simulating what it feels like to use a terminal. The RAM column is a clever representation of the actual function of RAM – visually ‘filling up’ as you use it, signifying how much of your virtual (in-game) computer memory you are assigning in order to perform various tasks.
Gameplay occurs through this interface. Although you can use the GUI to click on buttons representing the functions you learn to execute via commands, the game encourages the use of manually entered commands. Hacknet’s tutorial lasts for about half an hour, during which you will learn a list of basic commands that enable you to navigate computer systems, copy and delete files, execute programs, and – most importantly – hack things. During the tutorial, Hacknet provides plenty of prompts and information to help you remember which commands to use when, but you still *really* need to be paying attention to everything you are learning if you want to survive beyond the tutorial without googling for assistance.
The gameplay of Hacknet felt extremely rewarding. Once you have mastered a set of commands, you have the ability to break into systems and mess with people’s data. Although Hacknet does not *actually* teach you to hack, it does a very good job of emulating what it must feel like. When you ‘probe’ a new system to examine what kind of security it possesses, it is then up to you and your hacking skills to figure out the best way to take down the computer’s security and gain administrative access – after that, you can basically do whatever you like on that system – just be sure to cover your tracks. Otherwise, your clandestine activities may come back to bite you on the arse.
You are free as a bird in Hacknet. Although there is a clear path of progression, much like in open-world RPGs, you are free to explore peripheral systems and investigate to your heart’s content. This can be problematic if you have not been paying careful attention to the game’s instructions, as you may find yourself with so many potential options that you aren’t sure what to do to progress the ‘main’ story – again, much like an RPG. However, I deeply respect this kind of game design as it assumes an intelligent player and rewards curiosity. It feels important to point out that while I find Hacknet a lot of fun, I am, at least moderately, computer literate, and have dabbled with code and used terminals – as I believe most PC gamers have. I can imagine the interface of this game being quite confronting for some players, especially less computer literate ones. Even terminology such as ‘proxy’ or ‘port’ which is flung around very casually in Hacknet, may be confusing to some players. None of this stuff is complicated in game, and with a little patience, anyone can learn the ropes and enjoy this game – plus the GUI that is included as part of the main interface means players are not totally reliant on a terminal, but I can imagine some players finding the interface off-putting. Think about the representations that hacking receives in popular media such as television – hackers are usually portrayed as cyberterrorists or criminals. To be fair, I’m likely talking about the same kinds of people who think that you can accidentally explode a computer if you move the wrong file onto the desktop, and I would encourage everyone to try playing this game; however, the appeal may be limited thanks to the negative and confusing way that hacking is portrayed in mainstream media.
The tutorial of Hacknet felt more like work than play. There was just so much to learn and remember! Although the ‘help’ function somewhat already serves this purpose, there were a few instances during gameplay when I thought that Hacknet would benefit from the inclusion of a permanently pinned list of useful commands – although I have to admit, having them not available forced me to learn and remember them – likely a design intention. From my second sitting onwards, the game became much more fun – honestly more than I had expected from a game that simulates hacking.
During the early stages of the game, there are no counter-security measures to defend against your hacking – except for the occasional firewall. As you get deeper into the game however, you will encounter proper security. Gameplay wise, this usually equates to a ‘trace counter’ that begins to countdown as soon as the system becomes aware of your unauthorised presence. Once that trace counter gets to zero, you are in trouble. It sounds so simple, and yet its effect on my gaming experience was surprisingly intense. It is amazing how much stress you can experience when faced with a flashing red screen – even when you know that those warnings are part of a game. In addition, Hacknet’s music definitely contributes to the immersion. While I appreciated the smooth, electronic beats from the get-go, I did not realise how well they were drawing me into the game until my housemate interrupted my hacking session with a knock at the door, startling me out the flow I had not even realised I was caught in.
Another impressive feat of Hacknet is its ability to create narrative and characters using only text. This is not really a revelation – authors have been doing this for hundreds of years – but it does equate to a hearty compliment towards the game’s writing. Not only are all the characters well communicated, the amount and depth of the fluff in Hacknet is very impressive. One of my favourite examples is an early quest where you must get into the back-end of a game called PointClicker and remove a player’s save file so he can begin playing the game from scratch. While the backend of PointClicker functions like any other system, the frontend actually works like a mobile game, one with a very base premise, but I was still impressed by this inclusion, and it made the quest highly entertaining.
Hacknet is quite unlike any game I have ever played, but its challenging and rewarding gameplay, awesome cyberpunk feel, and the depth and freedom that such an unconventional game provides won me over. Hacknet is a great break from the sameness of first- and third-person games, delivering an impressively polished and immersive gaming experience. Its only shortcoming is accessibility – which is largely dictated by the confines of the ‘hacking simulation’ genre. My advice? Don’t be scared! If you are looking for a challenging, rewarding, fun, different title, look no further than Hacknet.