Adventure Gamers Awards
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.