Hypnospace is really really cool!
* Perfectly recreates the internet experience pre-Y2K
Puzzles are clever and challenging
Deep lore and Easter eggs to uncover
Killer, highly eclectic, and catchy soundtrack
Low resolution visuals and UI
The Bottom Line*
The world was such a different place in 1999. DVDs were just catching on, CD players were the portable audio device of choice, and the only option for entertainment was cable television. Most importantly, the Internet was truly in its wild west days. For players of a certain age, Hypnospace Outlaw is the ultimate nostalgia trip: a glimpse into a past Internet that never existed, but feels like it could have. Even if you’re not old enough to bask in Hypnospace’s nostalgia, there’s a genuinely good puzzle game here as well.
In Hypnospace Outlaw, a new online network known as Hypnospace was invented around 1998 by a company called Merchantsoft. Rather than using a traditional monitor setup, this network is beamed directly into the user’s brain using the HypnOS interface while sleeping, allowing the user’s mind to connect with others even as their body lies unconscious. The player takes on the role of an “Enforcer” under the employment of Merchantsoft, acting as a moderator by flagging copyrighted, offensive, or other content that the company deems “harmful”. You’ll experience the story developing over several days in late 1999, as Merchantsoft takes more extreme measures to protect both their corporate interests and the impressionable minds of young Hypnospace users.
Hypnospace Outlaw is essentially a detective game at its core. You’ll get assigned cases from Merchantsoft informing you of what sorts of offending content to watch out for, then you’ll attempt to track it down using whatever information is given to you, whether that be website names, images, or text files attached to the cases. Once you’ve found the content you’re looking for, you can mark it and earn HypnoCoin, which can be used to purchase various applications and access codes needed for progress. Of course, you’re free to mark any other content you see along the way, provided that it fits Merchantsoft’s criteria, this will earn you some extra coin. The game’s only concession to video game rules is that solving cases advances the timer towards the end of each day, meaning that there is no real pressure to actually solve the cases until you are ready.
Needless to say, things get a lot deeper very quickly. The early cases are relatively simple, requiring only a few steps to find the offending content, but later assignments are far more sneaky, requiring you to formulate passwords, read users’ personal data, and access the most underground, esoteric pages of Hypnospace. You’ll often need to combine relatively obscure pieces of information together, or find ways around page blocks and HypnOS glitches. You might need to deal with viruses and glitches while tracking down a hacker, or uncover a page in an obscure link that is presumed missing. There are several meta-game puzzles that go well-beyond the assigned cases, including a few passwords I have yet to personally crack, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised (and addicted) when you see just how far the Hypnospace rabbit hole actually goes, even as the number of “pages” is fairly small compared to the real internet.
It’s hard to not find yourself getting distracted on the way to solving your cases. Just existing within the world of Hypnospace is a blast, as you’ll read up on the various netizens, as well as the brands and TV shows, movies, and video games, that exist within this alternative history 1999, while discovering their relationships to each other. The fact that many of these pages update over the course of the game, many of which happen as a direct result of your actions, is an amazing incentive to look back and see how things have changed. More importantly, it gives the game a sense that the story is happening around you, just outside of reach of your desktop screen. It is fantastically, and stunningly immersive, even despite the fact that you cannot actually chat with any of these characters.
Hypnospace Outlaw’s presentation hits the pre-Y2K bullseye. Everything about the game feels like a perfect encapsulation of what using the internet was like when I was a kid: the crudely animated GIFs, the strange and garish formatting choices, the feeling that anyone can and will make their own page, no matter how weird it is, and the agony of having to wait ages when loading up a site on a slow modem. Some Hypnospace users claim that pages can load faster by wiggling the mouse, but this may be a placebo effect. It’s painful to remember all of this in this day and age, when internet speed is no longer a concern for most and data can be easily organized and viewed on social network sites like Facebook. There was real novelty and mystique to the Internet back then that has simply vanished in today’s hyper-connected society, and Hypnospace Outlaw manages to bring more of that back than you might expect.
The game goes beyond what’s on Hypnospace, by recreating a desktop experience circa 1999. You’ll deal with software that brings constant pop-up ads, you can download virtual pets to play with on your desktop, and you’re free to choose several different cursor and background themes. You can also listen to songs you download from Hypnospace, play simple minigames (some of which are vital to progression during the endgame), and watch extremely compressed looking and sounding videos - the kind you would need to download in a pre-streaming world. My only real complaint is that the game can feel a bit too retro at times. Not only does the game have an insanely low resolution that does not take up the full screen, it isn’t possible to resize windows or have multiple tabs open at once. I would imagine that the reason for this is that the creators didn’t want to have to deal with scaling their fake internet onto multiple screen resolutions, something that any modern web developer will admit is an absolute nightmare. There’s a button you can use to quickly switch between apps, but this is a bit cumbersome and I wish the game had taken some more modern conveniences into account. Your other option is to use the game’s experimental scaler to blow up the image, but this looks just plain awful no matter how you slice it - the game even admits as such.
Hypnospace Outlaw’s killer component, the thing that really elevates it to an insanely high level, is without a doubt its soundtrack. Nearly every page has some background music playing while you browse, and the styles are as eclectic as one might expect from an online network used by people from literally all walks of life. The game has its own set of fictional genres, subgenres, and microgenres that the soundtrack draws from such as cosmic rock, coolpunk, flip-flop, and earthaze, which not only parody real-world musical genres (including nu-metal, hip-hop, and new age) but often are genuinely good, and extremely catchy songs in their own right, striking just the right balance between mocking satire and believability. Just try to get Chowder Man’s rap/rock jingles out of your head, or resist singing along to Barnaby’s Chair’s hit song “Satellite Orchestra”. There’s literally hours of original music of all kinds to discover here, and as far as I can tell, it was all created just for this game, outsourced to several artists in the indie gaming and music scenes. You are able to download songs and listen to them in HypnOS’ Tunebox app, although you’ll need to figure out how to circumvent Merchantsoft’s copyright protections if you intend to get your hands on most of these.
Hypnospace Outlaw is the computer game equivalent of a time machine: so perfectly attuned to the aesthetics and stylings, and sounds of its particular era that it feels as real as any Internet you used to browse in the dial-up days. It truly is amazing how much there is to uncover and explore in this game, even beyond solving the game’s brilliant and clever puzzles. In looking back, Hypnospace Outlaw is also able to offer commentary on the current state of technology: for as much as things have changed since then, it’s amazing how little has changed at all when it comes to corporate censorship, moderation, and the habits of online users. If nothing else, Hypnospace Outlaw provides a glimpse into the roots of everything we crave about technology today. I’ve never played a game like this, and barring a potential sequel, probably never will again, but I’ll remember this as a special experience.
by krisko6 (813) on September 29th, 2021