I just finished Hypnospace Outlaw after installing it yesterday and wound up playing nonstop until I finished it. I installed this thinking I was just going to nostalgically enjoy a pastiche of 90s design styles, but the game delivers a lot more than that.
First, it kept me engaged with a clever and satisfying search-keyword-detectiving and rules-enforcement game – like a combination of Her Story and Papers Please.
But what this game is really about is a love letter to unfiltered creativity, taking the form of empathetic character-based fiction. I only dimly remembered this until this game reminded me, but what was so magical about the earliest days of the internet was not the technology itself, but the entirely joyful and self-revealing way people expressed themselves in it. It was a new space where – we thought – there were no consequences, and one could be free to express one’s passions and desires without fear of embarrassment or social censure. Just as in one’s dreams we find our passions, anxieties and hopes expressed unfiltered, the early web was also like a private dreamworld that was seen only by other faraway dreamers.
So we all heedlessly created shrines to our favorite music genres, cartoons, motorcycles. We put up experimental little works of art, whether 3d celtic wizard renderings, half-sensical horror IF, or tabletop RPG scenarios. We openly revealed things about ourselves that we may still be hiding from people in daytime life, like health conditions or sexuality. We also put up extravagant peans to friends, lovers and family. In all this there wasn’t a concept of polished and complete works – we uploaded whatever we had piecemeal and put what wasn’t behind “under construction” links – these were living works, open even about the process behind them. Hypnospace Outlaw expresses the living nature of these online works by consisting of three snapshots of its web each a month from each other, so that you can see the hand of a fictional person editing pages.
From these beginnings of self-expression, very quickly there started to be reactions, feedbacks, consequences, and the next levels of Hypnospace Outlaw are about exploring that. First, partly as a result of the atmosphere of intimacy, relationships and communities started forming online.
There was then the early “hacker culture”. These men (it was always men or boys), weren’t comfortable being openly earnest – they instead saw the consequence-free dreamspace as a playground for a more meta game self-expression via manipulation of other people’s spaces, including “viruses” intended to shock and create an aura of power and mystery. They saved their more open kinds of expression for closed spaces that needed special insider connections to access, or whose access points could be found only by the tech-savvy.
In a way, even the construction of these spaces was a joyful form of self-expression, given the relatively harmless form that “hacking” often took in those days. Entering these “hacker” areas are a large part of what the detectiving gameplay is founded on, and it’s satisfying in part because you’re playing the hacker work of art that the ingame character must’ve imagined someone enjoying.
Another reaction that quickly arose was the desire to police the – it was felt by some – excessively unfiltered creative output. One way this came out was mockery, in the form of Something Awful type linksites. These were paradoxical in that they reveled and enjoyed the low quality for its own sake, but at the same time they implied that there existed a standard of quality for web content, which the stuff they linked fell below. It must’ve seemed at the time to them that the Internet had an inexhaustible supply of “bad” content to mock, and yet, with hindsight, “awfulness” in the specific, fully-self-designed-website form it took in the 90s is today almost extinct.
Corporations also eyed this explosion of energy and started to think about how to control and monetize it. One form of monetization that came quickly was advertising-supported malware, that then as now, often played to webizens’ emotions – cursor and theme packs (that appealed because they were another way to self-express), “helper assistant” software (playing to older folks’ anxiety about the new technology).
An extended joke in the game is “Professor Helper” who only knows how to help by showing you ads:
There were other corporate reactions, which in real life came not quickly, but arose more during the 2000s (the game takes license to add them to its alternate-universe setting as of 1999). This was the literal kind of policing (which is the role the player is put in), only possible with the power of a closed corporate platform along the lines of Youtube or Facebook. In the game, this corporate control has both a positive side of reining in testosterone-fueled hacker culture (insult sites, viruses, disruptive “gorefest hacks”), and a negative side of serving the corporation’s bottom line (deleting children’s drawings of a cartoon character in the name of copyright enforcement, blocking competing payment platforms even though some users literally pay their rent with them). Even in its positive form, compared to a community moderator applying subjective judgement, corporate harassment removal is a crude, rules-based hammer – it takes down tongue-in-cheek “insults” while leaving up much more hostile content that is posted in a veiled enough way to make it past the rules.
In turn this type of control splits apart the early symbiosis between creators and users of a technology, and sets up company-vs-community conflicts. In the game this is represented up as a community campaign to “stand with” the cartoon character being deleted, and also the SF/F community’s setting up their own “freelands” which have an entirely different moderation and even navigational model. (A bitter irony there is that the moderator of the “freelands” is himself draconian and controlling in different but equally petty and arbitrary ways. Hypnospace Outlaw seems to have the tragic view that a truly creatively free space never lasts.)
The final thing Hypnospace Outlaw is a workplace drama about one particular tech startup that is about to make it big. The central character in this drama is “Dylan Merchant”, a pastiche of many tech founders, but who especially seems to be a mix of Sean Parker and Mark Zuckerberg. At first sight he comes across well, as an energetic technology creator who also engages openly with the community (also with you, the lowly community enforcer) and has time for his own creative work (music). But Dylan is more experienced on the web than the others, and so the player gradually discovers that he is uniquely capable of compartmentalizing his identity and presenting different facades to different audiences. Having created Hypnospace, he feels it’s exclusively his possession – his creative output – and as the story develops, he displays an arrogant recklessness towards not only his community but also his investors and employees.
Anyway I spent half an hour collecting these screenshots and it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the characters, laughs, sad moments and nostalgic callbacks in the game (for that matter, I didn’t visit every single site in the game, either!). This game is a little universe unto itself and really feels like it was generated organically by a community. And the flipside of the weird joy of the era is a tinge of sad wistfulness throughout the whole experience, and especially at the end – it evokes a lost world that we’ll never see again except in our imagination and in broken, discontinuous archives.