Adventure Gamers Awards
In the mid-nineties I created my first website as part of a webring known as “KidZone,” which featured kid-friendly and kid-created content. It was called “Nathaniel Berens Home Page” and it contained riveting content such as my age (nine or ten years old, I can’t remember), my interests (reading, writing, video games), and my favorite movie (Back to the Future). The backdrop was a tiled 64x64 pixel marble image and the text was nearly impossible to read on top of it. And yes, I had an animated “under construction” gif.
All of which is to say that I might be the most demographically perfect person to play a game like Hypnospace Outlaw, a unique title that seeks to recreate, in minute and loving detail, a very particular era of the early World Wide Web – indeed, a time when people actually called it the World Wide Web. While this is an involving and clever adventure game, it functions even better as a time capsule of an alternate reality, one that is wildly funny and absolutely convincing in its replication of the look, feel, and sound of a bygone era.
Hypnospace Outlaw is set in 1999 during the months leading up to Y2K, taking place entirely within the framework of a fictional operating system, HypnOS, which connects to Hypnospace, a version of the early Internet that people browse in a hypnotized state while they sleep. The game literally begins with the HypnOS bootup sequence, and the interface is a surprisingly functional fake Windows 95-like OS, featuring a web browser, email client, music player, and a number of other small programs. Heck, you can even change the screensaver settings.
You take on the role of a Hypnospace Enforcer, a volunteer moderator who gets assignments from the Support team at MerchantSoft (creators of HypnOS) to flag various policy violations. MerchantSoft will task you with tracking down specific instances of harassment or finding the source of a glut of copyrighted materials, or investigating a new virus that’s been making its way across Hypnospace. When you find the illicit text, images, or links, you can click a hammer icon to submit it for review. Successfully flagged violations result in a HypnoCoin payment that you can put towards everything from antivirus software to new desktop wallpapers. Too many unsuccessful flags and you might be punished by way of HypnoCoin fines, though in my experience I was never actually fined despite being quite liberal with my ban hammer.
But playing Hypnospace Outlaw is much more than simply checking off a list of tasks. The unauthorized offenses are scattered across an incredibly robust network of Hypnospace sites that you navigate through the game’s browser, with hundreds of individual web sites grouped into communities based around the general vibe of the users. There’s TeenTopia, a youth-focused zone, the conservative and rootsy Goodtime Valley, the hip musical underground Coolpunk Paradise, and plenty more.
Each zone contains a dozen or more pages from individual users or companies. The designs of the various sites are spot-on, with lots of the maximalist vomit “more fonts are better” school of design that was so common across AOL and GeoCities sites. Users with more experience and companies with marketing budgets have pages with more of a unified aesthetic, chock full of the heavily-dithered gradients and earth tones that were so prominent at the time. The dedication to recreating the look and feel of the early Internet pays continual dividends.
As the children of the ‘90s reach unambiguous adulthood and start yearning for the good old days, there’s been no shortage of nostalgia for this particular time period, resulting in fun but often superficial throwbacks to the era. Goofy animated gifs and tacky fonts are one thing, but what sets Hypnospace Outlaw apart is the density and honesty of its portrayal.
First of all, this game is funny as hell. From the opening training videos (compressed into 256-color oblivion) and their tech-utopian, Internet-as-zen-enlightenment posturing to the all-out flame war between zealous fans of the various music scenes inhabiting Hypnospace, the script is a triumph of comedy writing, effectively mixing keen observation with a healthy dose of the absurd. There are clear jokes, like the page that features an epic rock ballad about a man shaving his five o’clock shadow, or the virtual pets you can buy for your desktop that fill the screen with pixelated turds, but much of the humor is derived from precisely-crafted mundane details: the nu-metal blaring from an early teenager’s typo-filled homepage, or the deeply bland jokes on a Goodtime Valley Baby Boomer’s “goofs” page.Continued on the next page...