Review – Hypnospace Outlaw

I’m old enough to remember the internet before the dotcom bubble burst. I’d boot up my Intel 486 powered, Windows 3.1, beige monstrosity and, with a burst of horrid screeching noises, log onto the ‘net. The youth of the internet was an awkward phase filled with spinning gifs and noisy backgrounds. “Surfing the web” meant navigating from site to site using only hyperlinks, an activity closely mirroring the “Wiki Walk” of today.

It’s a period I still feel nostalgic for, sometimes getting giddy when coming across lost relics of websites that have somehow survived to this day. It’s not that I think we were better off in the primordial days of the web, it’s just that there was a goofy innocence to it. No one really knew what the hell they were doing, and netiquette was still in its formative days. We were like neanderthals, playing with fire for the first time.

Obviously, I’m not the only person out there who’s nostalgic for the time before Facebook, as Hypnospace Outlaw is best described as a game about the dot-com bubble era of internet. It weaves its own course and exaggerates certain aspects, but there’s no mistake that this is a love letter to that period; warts and all.

Ah, yeah. Just like the good old days.

*MODEM NOISES*

There’s more to Hypnospace Outlaw than just a sterile depiction of the late-90’s internet. It’s an entire simulated operating system, a sub-genre I’m growing in appreciation for. You’re provided with the tools to not only surf the web, but an entire desktop that you can personalize or install software on. There’s even a pretty rad boot screen that follows the opening logos.

Rather than have you plug a modem in, you’re cast as a moderator of sorts for Hypnospace, an internet parallel by a fictional company called MerchantSoft, that has you dawn a headband as you sleep at night and enables you to browse a microcosm of the dot-com bubble internet. You enforce the rules of hypnospace: No copyrighted images, no harrassment, no illicit activity, no proliferation of malicious programs, and no unauthorized mercantilism. In this way, it depicts corporate overreach on the internet while simultaneously providing incentive to browse the web.

Although it’s based on a fantastical premise, its depiction of the ‘net’s youthful days is spot on. Websites are packed to the gills with broken design, gaudy animated images, and obnoxious auto-playing music. The users talk at length about themselves and their hobbies, and few of them actually divulge useful information. Beneath the fun, harmless webzones is a network of hackers and a file sharing service for those who want to pass copyrighted material under the radar.

It’s a rich and realistic environment, presenting something more akin to a microscopic Geocities than a full internet. Sites are grouped by their function, with new areas opening up as you advance through cases. Website content ranging from teen zones, to fantasy realms, to conspiracy holes is all accounted for.

SURFIN’ THE ‘NET

Enforcing the rules of the internet is a difficult job, which is probably why the companies that own all the big social media sites are so incompetent at it. When you start out, you’re left to browse the web in search of various infractions. A case will pop up that instructs you to find copyright infractions or follow-up on reports of abuse from specific users. I started out swinging the banhammer at a teacher who posted pictures her 1st grade class drew of an old cartoon character, then I went after a teenager who just wanted to share with the world how little respect he has for a certain colleague.

The cases are static, and at the beginning, they’re pretty easy to solve. Later on, however, the game seems less interested in pointing you in the correct direction, instead asking you to dig up the clues and figur it out for yourself. Later still, it doesn’t really point you in any direction, almost like it expects you to search the internet page by page. Heck, near the midpoint of the game, I wound up wandering in circles following clues that didn’t actually relate to the case.

It becomes tiresome towards the end. I have no problemsolving problems on my own, but I found myself getting hopelessly stuck because I overlooked a small detail time and time again. I wound up looking for help because the game wouldn’t provide it. My pride still stings.

A lot of the web pages are charming and feel authentic.

SON OF TIM

Hyperspace Drifter may sound like a game that’s concept first, but there is actually a story underlying the web browsing. After every few cases, the game will jump ahead in time to a future month, gradually approaching the turn of the Millenium. As things progress, site content changes to reflect the changes in their creator’s lives. People become indignant of the treatment that MerchantSoft, the creators of the HypnOS system, put them through. Others have fallings out with their friends. It all feels so organic and natural.

An old high school friend of mine once described to me the disconnect people have on the internet with each other. She described speaking to someone on the internet as “Talking to a brain behind a screen,” a way of illustrating the nakedness and lack of inhibitions people have when there’s no human component in front of them to empathize with. Not only was this incredibly insightful to hear from a young teenager in 2001, it’s something that resounded with me as I watch relationships fall apart beneath my digital self-importance.

I reflected on this as I experienced the very human issues underlying the crappy web design present in Hypnospace Drifter. By the end of the game, it almost feels like you’ve seen the soul of these fictional characters as they awkwardly pour themselves into their webzones. From teens being dicks to each other, to budding hackers, to creative storytellers weaving visual tales. It’s easy to become attached to some of these people, especially when some of their problems, like the web that hosts them, seem so real.

HARD SHUTDOWN

I admire Hypnospace Outlaw for many reasons. It not only shows a pretty accurate representation of the internet before Web 2.0, but also reveals the naked humanity beneath. It’s surreal in the deftness and depth that it depicts its subject matter; simultaneously poking fun while reminding us that we’re all guilty of this sort of public self-indulgence. Heck, it makes me wonder if someone will ever dig up this site from some future archive and laugh at its primitive quaintness or my self-conscious attempts at criticism and analysis.

On the other hand, I’m not as fond of Hypnospace Outlaw as a game. The concept is sound, and its method for getting you to navigate the web is effective, but it’s not always great at leading the player to their goal. It seems to expect that you’ll have the desire to browse every single site on its micro-internet. Perhaps some people will enjoy manually scanning through each site — and to an extent, even I do — but it’s not realistic to expect that everyone’s going to want to plumb the depths of this mock internet to find some little morsel hidden in an obscure spot. Some greater effort to actually leave a more visible breadcrumb trail would have been appreciated.

Even with that aside, I’m quite enamoured with Hypnospace Outlaw. I admire the depth at which it emulates the late-’90s internet and the love that it approaches the subject matter. It feels like an archive, a snapshot into a world. The characters within seem as genuine as real people, and it’s almost sad to leave them behind. It feels like physically reaching into a memory. If you ever felt nostalgia for the internet we left behind, or if you’re just curious to see what was lost, then I recommend you slap on a headband and dive into Hypnospace.

7/10

This review was conducted on a PC using a digital Steam copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.

About Adzuken 154 Articles
Adzuken has been gaming for as far back as they can remember. Their eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer.

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