The very nature of the internet means that things are constantly vanishing from it, as websites, social networks and communities emerge, evolve and dissipate over the years. This constant change means that “the internet” of previous decades becomes something like a dream, existing only in the vague memories of the people who experienced it. Hypnospace Outlaw constructs an entire fictional internet from the Y2K era, replete with low-resolution videos, dancing gifs, virtual desktop pets and forum drama. It’s like browsing a half-remembered amalgamation of GeoCities, Angelfire and random Myspace pages.
In this alternative-history version of 1999, the internet really is somewhere you visit when you’re asleep, browsing idly while your body rests. You play an enforcer for the growing corporation that runs the web, stamping out copyright infringement, harassment and illegal activity to keep people safe. Assignments drop into your inbox and you flit around the net looking for things to smack with your ban-hammer, following links and typing in searches to find unlisted pages with dodgy material, downloading mysterious software and accumulating a collection of downloaded tracks for your RealPlayer-alike music program.
Hypnospace Outlaw would be boring if the websites themselves weren’t so bizarrely compelling. Online storefronts are festooned with ugly animations and misspellings. Edgy teens’ personal pages are full of self-absorbed quibbles with classmates and soundtracked by unbearably compressed nu-metal. There are communities of music snobs, nerds and Christians, all causing online drama. When I found secret sites with mysterious logins or link-trails, I’d feel the thrill that comes with knowing I shouldn’t be there. This is a dead-on parody of the internet of my late childhood, and sometimes exactly as unpleasant to navigate: slow to load, garish and cumbersome, afflicted with malware that can make your screen sway sickeningly or subject you to endless pop-up ads.
This is a puzzle game, really, casting you as an internet detective searching for clues and following leads. It’s difficult, and impressively clever. Even within the first hour, it’s apparent that there’s something uncomfortable about being an enforcer; there’s some satisfaction in reporting a teen’s cyberbullying, but dobbing in a first-grade teacher for posting her kids’ copyright-infringing drawings of a famous cartoon character feels off. Things that you try to stamp out quickly multiply and proliferate across the web, becoming impossible to track. A pretty elaborate story unfolds as you work through your cases and explore the dark recesses of the web, which raised questions for me about online control and censorship that have become even more essential in 2019.
The subtle humour and surreal aesthetic of this alternate-history tech-detective drama suggests an immense amount of effort. Rather than lazily pastiching the ugliness and awkwardness of turn-of-the-century web pages, it really conjures that time, when the internet was a place to go rather than a liminal omnipresence. As I sat late into the night, clicking through strange websites, discovering secret pages and file-sharing boards, reading about online fallouts between made-up strangers, I was reminded so strongly of my teenage late nights on the weird internet that I felt temporarily unmoored. It is an extraordinary feat of scene-setting, and totally unlike anything I’ve ever played before.
Hypnospace Outlaw is out now; ￡15.49