Hypnospace Outlaw review
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.
And yet there’s an underlying humanity that elevates this adventure from parody to loving tribute. Yes, seeing the increasingly tyrannical overreach of one zone’s moderator over his denizens for the tiniest of infractions is funny, but we also get to see evidence of this character’s home life, his interests, and his interactions with his wife. Fourteen-year-old Zane’s site is a greatest hits of teen angst and naivete, but as you explore you start to see behind the veil: his struggles at school, his desperation to find a niche. Even the characters that grow into the antagonist role in the plot (and there IS a plot) are treated as flawed, relatable humans, driven by hubris but not totally lacking a soul. The result is an effective blend of the surreal and the honest, so while I expected to chuckle my way through the game, I did not expect to get misty-eyed by the end.
While an actual story does eventually emerge, it never completely takes over the experience, as much of your time is spent aimlessly exploring. “Aimless” is often a pejorative term for games, but here I mean it as a great compliment. There is so much stuff to find in Hypnospace, and it’s all so well crafted, that the game would have been a joy even without puzzles or direction.
But there are puzzles too, and they’re often clever and devious. Underneath its wacky surface, Hypnospace Outlaw is a wonderfully smart detective game, one that requires you to scour the web for clues, creatively use the various software at your disposal, and learn to master the quirks of the HypnOS platform. These puzzles are rarely explicit, but emerge organically from your Enforcer assignments and other exploration. In one case you might have to use what you’ve learned about the underbelly of Hypnospace to find a hidden link to a list of passwords in order to access private information. In another you have to get an online merchant (who is suspected of circumventing Merchantsoft’s HypnoCoin economy) to expose her real payment page by contacting her to set up a consultation.
Because there is so little direction and so much content, it’s perfectly possible to completely overlook important sites, software, or clues, but the game smartly includes a built-in hint system (accessible like any other Hypnospace page) that provides UHS-style guidance that builds from slight nudges to explicit solutions. Hints cost HypnoCoin, which discourages you from relying too much on them, but they are readily available and HypnoCoin comes easily past a certain point in the game. An uncharitable player might see this as a band-aid for unfocused puzzles, but I only found myself needing to use the hint system a couple of times, and the developer has been clear that seeking out hints is part of the experience and does not compromise the game’s creative vision.
And what a creative vision it is: this is clearly a labor of love, and the team’s earnest appreciation of such a highly specific, goofy period of Internet history shines through in every element. The graphics are rough around the edges, but they have been painstakingly crafted to be exactly as rough around the edges as one would expect from turn-of-the-millennium graphic design. The in-game operating system has tons of features that have no impact other than to heighten the immersion of being back in 1999 (you can change desktop wallpapers, SFX themes, add stickers to your screen, download Clippy-esque helper software, and so on). And there is so, so much content that has no point other than to help flesh out this bizarre-but-cozy world – a straight shot through the game might only take 5-6 hours, but more likely it’ll take 8-10 or perhaps longer. The finish line can wait, as there’s a wealth of material for the patient and thorough.
The soundtrack consists entirely of music embedded on Hypnospace pages and downloadable tunes (either for HypnoCoin or obtained by other illegal means once you gain access to Hypnospace’s underground file sharing network). There is an incredible amount of music in this game and it is astonishingly varied – if you hear a band or musician mentioned in-game, you will absolutely be able to find a song of theirs somewhere, and often you’ll be able to find an entire album’s worth. This ranges from chintzy, vaporwave-esque bedroom electronica to nu-metal to soaring rock ballads and spacey prog rock. The highlight is almost certainly the output of washed-up ‘80s rock star Chowder Man, (provided by real-life Michigan local comedian/musician Hot Dad), whose transformation from hair rocker to jingle writer to rap-rock wannabe is charted throughout the game. Various (very stupid) songs of his were stuck in my head for days, if not weeks, after playing.
The greatest compliment I can pay Hypnospace Outlaw is that it feels unearthed rather than created. So intricate and rich is its take on the Netscape/Geocities era of the Internet that one can be forgiven for forgetting that HypnOS never existed, that Zane never posted his adorably edgelord-y comics on his personal site, that Coolpunk and Flip Flop aren’t real genres, and that the Beefbrain scare never actually swept across cyberspace circa 1999. But on top of being a wonderfully strange and believable recreation of a bygone time, it’s also an excellent investigative game, forcing you to pick through gobs of information for clues, manipulating systems to gain access to new areas, and getting into the heads of a massive cast of characters. It begins as a fun parody, turns into a compelling mystery, and ends as a heartfelt tribute to a more earnest, arguably more human era of the Internet and the weirdo pioneers who made it their home.