Do you remember the internet as it was? Back when we spent our time on Geocities and MySpace, our eyes attacked by VRML 3D Renders and low quality GIFs?
Hypnospace Outlaw is out today (rather perfectly, on the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web) and it offers you a chance to experience an alternate internet of yesteryear, which captures the aesthetic of 1999 perfectly (with all the benefits of not having to fight your family for dial up use), and hides within its many web pages a fantastic story.
[NOTE: This Review is Spoiler Free. We discuss only the tutorial and first introductory case]
Title: Hypnospace Outlaw
Developers: Tendershoot, Michael Lasch, ThatWhichIs Media
Publisher: No More Robots
Platform: PC, Mac, and Linux.
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by Publisher
Interface: Keyboard & Mouse
Available on Steam, Itch.io and GOG
Hypnospace Outlaw is an alternate reality internet simulator in which you become an Enforcer, a virtual mall cop who crawls surreal webpages to find and report naughty users. You’ll contend with strange viruses, arcane software, and digital conspiracies along the way.
Your role as an enforcer in this alternate version of the late 90’s Internet begins simply enough. You login to your computer and are shown an appropriately grainy instructional video about the joys of the Internet community, and introduced to HypnOS, the system that will let you patrol HypnoSpace while you sleep for HypnoCoins, gig economy style.
You’re then lead to the tutorial which walks you through the basics of navigating the HypnOS, using the different tools available to you, and introduces you to C.H.I.M.E., the acronym that will remind you of what you’re looking for while on patrol.
After completing the tutorial, you receive a upbeat corporate email welcoming you to the team and your first assignment. All of your dispatch assignments come into your mail box, give you a violation to focus on, potentially some assets to use like photos or other files, and give you assigned zones to police. All of your cases are logged in your case files and you can work on multiple cases at the same time. You’ll often find violations other than the specific one your looking for while walking the many digital back alleys you’ll be exploring, and for every violation that you tag, you’ll get a reward, so it’s worth exploring off the beaten path. As the game develops, case get more and more complex, becoming something akin to detective puzzles which, while devilishly difficult at times, have an AMAZING pay off when you complete them. I legitimately felt proud of my work more than once.
Hypnospace Outlaw is just shy of overwhelming in the sheer number of fake web pages and sites it serves up to you. Profiles, fan clubs, conspiracy theory pages, ads for game consoles and widgets; they’re all here with the nostalgic mix of animations, bright colors and jarring music you’d expect from 1999. I was blown away by the sheer amount of work that must have gone into this game, simply in creating so much secondary content: sites that serve no other real purpose than to flesh out this alternate internet. It’s doubly amazing by just how authentic it all feels. It’s very easy to get immersed in this process of hunting through the web from CHIME violations, and just about as easy to get lost.
The interface of Hypnospace Outlaw isn’t always easy to use. You cannot resize windows, and have to use a button to flip through all your open sites or applications, one at a time (and this only goes one direction, so if you click past what you were looking for, you’ve got to go through the whole list again.). I’ll be the first to admit that this is undoubtedly accurate to the feeling of times that the developers are trying to recreate. However, that doesn’t stop it from being a pain at times, and I had a few moments of frustration trying to navigate between web pages, manage my incoming assignments, and jotting down notes that I’d need for later (I ended up keeping a pad of PHYSICAL sticky notes next to me while playing, as opposed to using the DIGITAL ones provided; one less thing to manage).
As much as this did frustrate me at times, it absolutely felt like I was back in 1999, in my dad’s study, booting up the internet to do some surfing. Hypnospace Outlaw is a triumph of atmosphere, perfectly capturing the 90’s Internet Aesthetic through a mixture of colors, configurations and cacophonous sounds. Having grown up and been online for this era of the internet, it was incredibly nostalgic to be browsing ‘GeoCities’ sites and to get that feeling of sensory overload. Similarly to my experience with Emily is Away, a huge part of my enjoyment of Hypnospace Outlaw came from the “time-travel” inherent in simply playing the game. Being able to kick back with a can of soda, a slice of pizza, and just spend time in this faux version of the late 90’s internet is worth the price of admission.
But Hypnospace Outlaw has a lot more to love that just it’s nostalgic aesthetic. What begins simply soon develops into a much larger and more intriguing story than I expected. Hypnospace Outlaw has already been compared to Papers, Please in many previews and early sneak peeks and it’s an apt comparison to make. What begins as a simple job to be done develops into one part moral exercise and one part unraveling plot, all told through mechanics that grow more and more complex and more and more difficult to keep up with.
You end up being hamstrung by the clunkiness of your operating system and the sheer vastness of the internet your meant to be policing, and as the pressure grows to close cases and earn more internet-bucks, uncomfortable choices have to be made. It’s a fantastic way to tell a story, and the narrative unfolds in bits and pieces laced equally with surprising humanity and Orwellian conspiracy. I wouldn’t dream to spoil this for anyone reading this review: the experience is utterly fantastic and should absolutely be gone into as blind as possible.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a superbly immersive experience full of internet intrigue. The mechanics of the game can be frustratingly unwieldy at times, but in many ways this only adds to your immersion of operating as an enforcer in an alternate version of the internet in1999. This clunkiness is more than made up for by the sheer volume of fake-internet there is to explore, created as one part satire, one part love letter to a lost era of new digital frontiers. There’s fare more than a few secrets to be found in Hypnospace Outlaw, and once you start finding them, you’ll be hard pressed to stop digging.