Hacknet

Hacknet is a game I picked up on Steam for cheap. Its premise is that it’s a “hacking simulator”: A prominent hacker has been murdered, and his deadman switch contacts you and gives you a copy of his hacking software. You’re told to investigate the truth behind his murder and the project he was working on. Sounds like a cool cyberpunk romp!

…But unfortunately, only a small part of the game is about that. Most of the campaign requires slowly building up rapport with various hacker groups, which takes the bog-standard form of accepting utterly trite and banal contracts like hacking someone’s video game account to give them more points or modifying a resume. Even for the potentially more interesting ones, you never get any greater context for who’s sending them or why, because you’re just a mercenary and anonymity is sacred.

I get that this is more “realistic” or whatever, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s boring and terrible storytelling. I play video games to experience something different than rote contract jobs. I need to know the story behind it. I need to care.

The closest the game gets to this is in the DLC expansion, where you’re recruited into a team of elite hackers who have actual personalities and communicate with you frequently. Even then, though, you spend most of the campaign kept in the dark and forced to do mundane jobs to “prove your worth”, and only at the very end to you learn what you’re actually doing and get the ability to make a real choice. But that reveal is so sudden that I have no time to process any of it or engage with what it means ethically and for the characters. Sure, in theory it’s more dramatic to keep the audience completely in the dark and then explain everything at the last minute, but that doesn’t allow for real emotional connection. I would have much preferred to know the score from the start so I could tell how all the mundane jobs fit into the greater story.

(Fortunately, women do exist! I was a little worried the atmosphere would be very dudebro-y, but several of the people mentioned throughout logs and such, and one of the hackers in the DLC, are referred to with female pronouns. The game did a pretty good job of acknowledging diversity in the computer science field, even with everyone just being a name on a screen.)

The gameplay is also really disappointing. Its claim to fame is again that it’s “realistic” — you operate everything through a command line, using real BASH commands and logic. Unfortunately, the “hacking” part of it is really dull — you don’t need to do any actual programming yourself, you’re just given programs to do the hacking for you. The only difficulty is that some computers have a security tracer on them, giving you a time limit that requires you to order your programs strategically (as you can only run a few at a time and some take longer than others), but it’s still really shallow. There’s also the added “realism” of everything you do on the computers generating a log file that you have to delete to cover your tracks, which is a cool idea but in practice it’s just adding a tedious repetitive step to remember every time you connect to a computer.

About the most interesting thing that can happen is that another hacker can hack your own PC and delete all your system files, which leaves you with nothing but a command line, forcing you to navigate “blind” to download new files. This never happened to me, though, because if you read the tutorial instructions it’s trivial to set up a counter-trap that foils the attack, and it literally only happens twice in the entire game.

The aesthetics are probably the best part of this. The music and graphical effects are both very pretty, and can generate a genuine sense of tension if you succumb to a trace. It does genuinely produce the same kind of tension and adrenaline rush you can get from other games, and while it’s impressive it manages to do that with such a simple interface, it wears off pretty quick after the first time you get traced and realize it’s actually quite trivial to deal with it, just tedious.

So, ultimately — some interesting ideas, but it feels very half-baked. About the only computer knowledge you really need is how to navigate the command line, and even then, the game provides a GUI for navigation anyway. I expected something that featured some actual programming puzzles or logic.

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