Hypnospace Outlaw is an early internet simulator, a recreation of the world wide web from the 1990s – a thing not everybody used all the time. But it’s also a detective game with a story rippling through it, and there’s a mystery here to solve. And you solve it by surfing – rifling through the internet as it once was, looking for clues.
It’s remarkable how different things were. Incremental change is hard to spot day-by-day but when seen all at once, in some kind of dieting Before picture, it’s brazen. Oh, those halcyon days! The music blaring from every page! The fields of animations twirling in a never ending dance! The chaos, the garishness, like a teenager’s bedroom over and over again.
It was a bold new frontier and an innocent one, a high street with no chain stores, no ubiquity. There was no discernible Google, no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Twitch. Back then, dial-up modems were the norm. Netflix was a DVD-by-post company, broadband still a fledgling thing. The internet was slow. Dialling download speeds of more than 3.5kbps was respectable – I nearly had a heart attack when my friend topped 60kbps with broadband.
Hypnospace Outlaw whisks you back there, in a time machine crafted with fastidious care. Every pixel of the old experience has been faithfully recreated down to the operating system you access it from: HypnOS. Download a Winamp-like player and reskin it, filling it with music from underground warez sites. Install a tamagotchi-like pet, which shits all over your desktop. Buy an extortionately priced McAfee-like antivirus program; download an internet speed booster; get caught up in a knock-off Pokemon craze. It’s all here.
There are teen zones and religious zones, conspiracy zones and fantasy zones, all as ugly and noisy as you remember, filled with people’s lives and stories. There’s a lady who loves dragons and sells potions inspired by them – one pumped from the teats of a nursing green dragon. There are interactive scary stories about weird egg babies, inspired by a testimonial for an exorcism elsewhere on Hypnospace. There are spiritual healers, aging rock stars, and a whole music scene arguing about what’s currently cool. The internet of Hypnospace is alive, and everywhere bubbling with wit and charm.
You role in the game is an Enforcer, a kind of moderator, working for Hypnospace, the platform and provider for this corner of the internet. You are emailed (in your email client!) cases to solve, entailing looking through Hypnospace to find infractions you can report, by clicking on them and submitting them to HQ.
The cases are straightforward to begin with. Clamp down on anyone displaying an image of a detective fish, for example, for copyright reasons. By searching for keywords you eventually get to your jackpot, although not quite the criminal you expected. Hypnospace often puts you in the awkward position of going after someone who doesn’t really deserve it, making you feel every bit as loved as a parking attendant, particularly when characters respond to your censoring.
It’s no surprise, then, when a deeper story emerges and Hypnospace begins to look shady. Shadier. Hypnospace, you see, is different to the old internet in one crucial way: you access it while you sleep. You put on a headband which taps directly into your brain, and it’s exactly as problematic as it sounds.
It’s a compelling hook, if slightly predictable – and ultimately a bit limp – but chasing the story can be a convoluted and tedious affair. It’s not like other search-term game Her Story, which moves as fast as you. In Hypnospace Outlaw, there are hoops to jump through before the game will move on, and it’s particular about the things you need to find, even if the answer seems screamingly obvious.
It’s a treasure hunt, really, and Hypnospace Outlaw hides its treasure well. It’s not just a case of knowing where to go. There are passwords to find, hidden parts of the internet to reveal, gobbledygook to decipher. Every seemingly straightforward case invariably involves half-a-dozen steps previously unforeseen, which is fine, which makes you feel very clever when you solve it – a bit like a hacker from the early internet. But getting to that point involves a lot of round and round, and it’s here the game’s passion for authenticity becomes a pain in the arse.
The cocktail of pop-ups, auto-playing music, deliberately slow navigation and glitchy effects pile on top of one another to really wind you up (some things can be dialled back in the settings but not all). I genuinely came to dread being sent on another cycle of scouring for clues because it gave me a headache. I wasn’t having fun.
And yet, I’m not sure I would have it another way. It wouldn’t be right. That’s what trawling the internet was like back then – it was boring and annoying. And without the round and round, I wouldn’t have seen or appreciated half of what Hypnospace Outlaw has to offer. I wouldn’t have paid as much attention to the characters or come to think of them as real, eagerly rushing to their pages every time the game leapt forwards in time (I shall say no more).
I wouldn’t still be humming the frankly tremendous collection of songs created for Hypnospace Outlaw. I wouldn’t be singing “Squisherz… are really cool” about those knock-off Pokemon; I wouldn’t have studied the lyrics of Chowder Man’s surprisingly poetic song about shaving; and I wouldn’t still be wondering whether Granny Cream’s Hot Butter Ice-Cream is even possible. I wouldn’t have cared about any of that if clues weren’t at stake, and it would have been a shame, because Hypnospace Outlaw is so generously deep and rich.
But therein lies the crux. Your enjoyment of Hypnospace Outlaw will depend upon your fondness for, or memories of, this bygone internet era. If you hear “GeoCities” and feel a pang of excited nostalgia, this is a museum, exhibition and treasure hunt for you. A thorny ride, to be sure – there is a searchable in-game “hint” page I didn’t know about until the end – and not one I entirely enjoyed, but a singular one. And that, I believe, counts for a lot.