I’ve seen several publications in early reviews call “Hypnospace Outlaw” a great “detective game,” a topic which I’ve always personally been interested in as a sort of pet genre. Very few games even attempt the daunting task of conveying a “detective fantasy” of sorts through mechanics and of that small group, there are even fewer who do it well. Laying out clues, planning out lots of possible solutions, allowing for easy process-of-elimination, keeping the player from getting stuck while also not leading them along — it’s a balancing act I respect.
Having now finished “Hypnospace Outlaw,” I can now confidently say it isn’t actually a great detective game. It’s confusing, it’s poorly paced and there’s at least one instance where I’m nearly certain the game fails to give you vital information until after the fact.
I say all this up front because I also want to give “Hypnospace Outlaw” a lot of slack. It’s so on the cutting edge of what it’s attempting that I’d genuinely still recommend this game, despite puzzle design that had me reluctantly looking up walkthroughs.
In terms of premise, think Cyberpunk by way of the old Usenet forums. It’s 1999 and some startup hackers have invented Hypnospace, a device that lets you browse the Internet even while sleeping. For a few extra virtual bucks you’ve signed up to be an “Enforcer” (read: Moderator) on the Hypnospace net — a job that largely involves going around flagging content as your corporate overlords see fit.
I’m willing to cut the game’s terrible pacing some slack here because, in terms of puzzle design, trolling the Fictional Internet for information is a fairly unique idea for “gathering clues.” It’s a distinctly modern and relatable way of gathering information, and it’s such a major part of our lives that it’s kind of amazing no one has tried to make a full game along these lines before.
Where the game really stumbles is in figuring out how it wants to test you on the information you’ve gathered. Early on, when the websites you can visit are limited, the puzzles can all basically boil down to what search term or button you need to hit/enter next. However, as the game progresses and the virtual environments become more complex and detailed, the developers have to derive increasingly contrived reasons for the people of this virtual world to set up whole secret societies and quiz shows just to test your knowledge of publicly available information.
Further iterations on this mechanical idea will probably iron out the rough edges. Who knows? With future updates and the upcoming addition of (hopefully) helpful user-generated content, “Hypnospace Outlaw” may polish itself out in a few months time.
I think the more interesting thing to ask about this piece is a question on just how successful it is in its depiction of 90s Internet culture. My initial impression is just to say “wildly successful” and throw in the towel, but that misrepresents how fraught depictions of 90s culture usually are and how not even this one gets away without a few missteps.
I certainly don’t envy the task of trying to create a microcosm of the concentrated 90s Internet in a way that feels real but isn’t also massively toxic. I’ll say that, at least in my opinion, “Hypnospace Outlaw’s” worst mistakes don’t disqualify its value as a piece.
Not to go too far into details but the historical precedence for depicting the 90s isn't great. Quite a few games and movies set in the 90s just regurgitate the toxicity of that culture without making any sort of attempt to engage with it. “Hypnospace Outlaw” comes close to this territory when it uses joke pages to represent a couple of conspiracy theorist groups, thus making light of the conspiracy theory movements that did real harm on the Internet in the 90s, and which continue to do so today.
It’s sad because, outside those moments, it’s a game that doesn’t shy away from trying to engage with harassment or toxicity seriously. Not to give too much away, but I’d go so far as to call toxicity and the motivations that underlie as a central subject of the game’s plot. It understands itself as a game about people — beautiful, unique, creative people, but also defensive and sometimes angry people.
Here’s what’s special about “Hypnospace Outlaw”: Just about every character, even the goofiest one-page joke character, is completely respected as a human being within the fiction, and that general reverence for humanity allows for powerful, heart-wrenching moments of real consequence. I haven’t felt this affected by a game in almost five years.
I’m not old enough to have been on the Internet in the 90s, but I teared up at the end of “Hypnospace Outlaw.” If that’s not a glowing endorsement I don’t know what is.
Grade: A -
Marty Forbeck is a video games columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.