Video games suck.
Hypnospace Outlaw is an absolute nightmare. I don’t say that lightly, nor do I mean it derisively – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a game that feels like someone reached into the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain and ripped out a distorted, warped, and unsettling recreation of my early days on the internet. It’s impossible for me not to love that.
The year is 1999 and Merchantsoft’s HypnOS, an operating system designed to be used in conjunction with a headband worn while sleeping, is sweeping the globe. Gone are the days of lost time dedicated to sleep, now it’s possible to be constantly connected, always online, and all for a low monthly fee! There’s even a free trial! Filtered through the lens of what the future looked like to the people of 1999, it’s pretty easy to see Hypnospace as some kind of analogue for where we’re heading in the current day. After all, who wouldn’t be all-in on the opportunity to get eight more hours of stuff done a day?
It doesn’t take long for any kind of romanticism towards HypnOS and the reality of its concept to wane completely. What you’re presented with when you start Hypnospace up will be instantly familiar to anyone of a certain age; an extremely accurate depiction of a mid-90’s PC seen through LSD eyes. Everything moves in garish, grimy fashion; sound is low-fi and crunchy, graphics rudimentary and ugly, design that speaks to a world in which everything is new and everyone’s too busy letting their imaginations run wild to stop for a second to think about what looks good or intuitive.
It’s an oddly overwhelming aesthetic in many respects, despite its familiarity, and one that on occasion, made me physically feel exhausted after having steeped in it for a couple hours. There have been plenty of games in recent years to evoke classic computing interfaces, but while games like Emily is Away and Mainlining aimed at replicating a slightly more coherent era of old-design, Hypnospace is flying fast in the opposite direction. It feels like it intends to be every bit the assault on the senses that it is, and sometimes that can be a little much. Hypnospace starts at 11 and only turns things up from there, so mileage may vary.
Games like Hypnospace and its ilk live and die by effectively evoking nostalgia, while doing more than just simply revelling in it. In this case, I think it’s hard to argue that Hypnospace Outlaw is a simple nostalgia trip. It may not have hit me right in the heart the way that Emily is Away Too did a couple years ago; but it’s also reminiscent of a different time in my life, when the very idea of communicating with people around the world was new and exciting. By casting players in the role of spectator rather than participant, and shifting the focus from trying to do everything in just the right way ala Emily to allowing the experience to simply take you where it wants you to go, Hypnospace manages to craft a world that’s both believable and utterly terrifying in equal breaths. This in itself is pretty much dead-on with my early experiences surfing the web two decades ago; I wasn’t creating content, I wasn’t building a social circle of sub-single-digit megapixel images and poor quality microphone conversations, instead I was merely trying to wrap my head around this crazy, wonderous new space. Web 1.0 was like nothing we’d ever imagined when it exploded in the 90’s, and Hypnospace does an incredibly good job at replicating that feel. You want to know how far down the rabbit hole goes, what secrets lie beneath the corporate squeaky-clean, yet grime-covered crust, and see just what the heck people are really up to.
Taking on the role of an Enforcer – a sort of online cop responsible for keeping Hypnospace clean- players are thrust into a fairly simple initial routine. Explore Hypnospace, find a violation, flag it, get paid in HypnoCoin, the game’s cryptocurrency analogue, which, it’s quick to inform you, has no real value in reality. That said, HypnoCoin can be spent on purchasing new music files, desktop wallpapers, virtual pets and software. These take shape in the form of the benign but annoying, like the virtual hamster or octopus, the potentially sketchy in the form of the Janitor crypto-mining game, and the downright infuriating bloatware like Professor Helper. If anything in Hypnospace will dredge up bad memories of factory resets and your dad’s Internet Explorer window being filled with enough toolbars to make you question your existence, it’s Professor Helper. Based on the infamous and much maligned BonziBuddy, the deceitful dean of cyberspace will often show up to throw unwanted pop-ups and advertisements for even more sketchy software at you, as well as making you pay to (mostly) remove him after he becomes too much of a headache. You better pray that I don’t see you on the street, Professor.
The moment-to-moment act of flagging violations and accounts falls somewhere in terms of complexity between Orwell and Need to Know, both themselves games about trawling the internet and catching people up to no good. That’s not to say Hypnospace is a 1-to-1 comparison with either of course; it’s far lighter in tone than its considerably drier counterparts, and unlike its contemporaries, it’s the actual exploration of Hypnospace that really shines. You are not the star here, the content is.
Those of us old enough to remember a world in which GeoCities still mattered will be immediately tuned into the basic structure of Hypnospace, personal pages made largely with shoddy, limp templates and decorated with gaudy baubles and construction sign graphics populate various “zones”, each of which follows a certain theme. Among others, there’s The Café for the average user, Teentopia for the angsty adolescents, and Goodtime Valley for the computer-illiterate baby boomers that populate the service. These zones do an admirable job by their mere existence at replicating the neighborhoods of GeoCities, but there’s nothing quite like clicking on an old man’s page of broken, illegible HTML filled with laments about not understanding what’s going on to really flood the heart with nostalgic warmth.
It would be very easy for a game like this to badly misstep in the attempt to create an authentic yet deranged vision of the past, but Hypnospace walks that line with aplomb. You quickly come to know and identify with its users, because, in all likelihood you were one of them at some point. Whether you were a Zane_Rocks_14 attempting to flex your edgelord muscle, a struggling wannabe artist desperate for an identity, or a teen looking to latch onto the latest trend, it’s hard not to feel like Hypnospace is hitting you with a very personal glimpse into the past.
This understanding of the formative years of internet culture is deep and, for the most part, genuinely funny. I was only nine years old in 1999, but I’d be lying if I didn’t see similarities between Outlaw’s “coolpunk” movement and the emocore scene of the mid-00’s that I identified with as a teen. Coolpunk’s snowman-and-cola themed crap-electro is wonderfully bad to boot, with Fre3zer’s “Icy Girl” encapsulating the kind of dreadful teen-banger that could easily have been produced by Dahvie Vanity or that guy from Teen Hearts if they’d been around to poison minds with terrible music a decade earlier. It’s both the worst song I’ve ever heard in a video game and, in the same breath, the best. There’s also nods to early internet shock-jocks like Maddox and Something Awful in the form of the appropriately named “Dumpster”, not to mention the absolutely bizarre and spot-on nods to new-age mysticism that saw cults like Heaven’s Gate build sizeable awareness in the 90’s.
There’s a ton of food jokes in here too, Granny Cream’s Hot Butter Ice Cream, a nauseating combo of hot butter and ice cream melted into a “soup or a dip” feels like the kind of idea our pals at Sodamilk would’ve come up with before rejecting as ultimately too gross, while The Chowder Man and his unhinged meal-based Kid Rock-lite music provides ample laughs and a tragic arc that might just be the single best part of the game when taken as a whole.
That’s not to say that absolutely every attempt at satire hits the mark, however. Notably, SquisherZ is a major whiff and a standout failure. When you’re setting your game in 1999 it’s only right to go after Pokemon, but everything about SquisherZ, down to the barely disguised “buy ‘em all” theme song, feels like parody in the laziest sense of the word. There’s tons of things you can dunk on Pikachu and friends for, but essentially rehashing a bit from a 20 year old episode of South Park feels like going after the low hanging fruit. Thankfully even when you tire of an ongoing bit or a joke doesn’t land, Hypnospace typically throws them at you hard and fast enough that it makes up for things.
Naturally, these pages also form the bulk of what drives you through the game’s story. It’d be very easy for Hypnospace to come off disjointed and muddy, with pages not tying together anything from a narrative standpoint, but everything from seemingly innocuous teens, to belligerent midwesterners furious about being targeted for copyright infringement and “beef brain” obsessed conspiracy theorists ties into the greater narrative excellently, as do the variety of outside applications you can install along the way.
From the music, to the brilliantly abysmal page design, Hypnospace manages to make you really feel like you’re living out this absurd 1999; and while moving through its labyrinth of garbage at my own leisurely pace, I often found myself feeling like I could very easily, very happily get lost in this world. When you’re in full-on discovery mode, Hypnospace replicates the magic of the first time that you got online pretty damn well, and with workshop support, if the game manages to find a big enough audience, it could become a wonderful little escape from the real nightmare the actual internet has become.
Despite how much fun it is to poke around and uncover new secrets, exploring Hypnospace isn’t perfect by any means. In one or two cases the game can be unclear about whether a specific block of text or image is a violation; you may think it is but it won’t be, or vice-versa, but these instances are sparse and forgettable, hardly game-breaking by any stretch. I did, admittedly, find myself completely stumped at one point towards the end of the game, after Hypnospace springs a brand new (and genuinely really neat) new mechanic on you following a pretty wild turn in the plot. While I felt for a while like I was hitting my head chasing dead-ends, I didn’t come away from the experience feeling more negative towards the experience as a whole, although I could see a scenario where someone would.
Hypnospace is a tremendously fun journey to the past, with enough to say about the dangers of putting our lives and futures into the hands of annoying tech bros to be more than simply pining for the ways things used to be. It’s not perfect, and at times it can feel like a lot to take in all at once, but, god, it’s hard not to love. 1999 was no 2006, but maybe that’s for the best.