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I Never Realized How Much I Missed the 90s: Hypnospace Outlaw

Content of the article: "I Never Realized How Much I Missed the 90s: Hypnospace Outlaw"

Hello all! A few days ago I started playing Hypnospace Outlaw, which turned out to be quite fortuitously timed on my part as they recently put out a free update that added quite a bit of new (albeit entirely optional) content to explore. For those who don't know, Hypnospace takes place in the last months of an alternate 1999, where people go online not in their day-to-day life but through the use of headbands that project content to them while they sleep. You play an "Enforcer", one of the volunteer moderators of the internet with both special privileges (you have access to quite a bit of private user data) and unique limitations: you cannot send any messages, only receive them. For the vast majority of the game, you work on assignments from the company that created the Hypnospace platform, removing copyright-infringing content or hate-filled drawings that exist only to harass other users. At first, it's as simple as going to a given part of the net, finding the very obvious offenders, and taking them down. As the game goes on, you have to figure out how to work the search engines, crack user passwords, and navigate the deliberately maze-like communities of an increasingly disaffected user base to find the problem content.

As you can guess, the game is basically an adventure or puzzle game with an unusual interface. But my god, what an interface. While you're supposed to be a diligent worker (and can be; I accidentally did a minimalist run of the entire third act, visiting only five pages before its conclusion), Hypnospace offers as many distractions as the real internet can. Of the several dozen user sites you can tour, a good portion offer absolutely nothing that is required to advance the game. People sell wallpapers, stickers, and themes for you to customize your in-game desktop with, and music abounds for the taking, both legally and otherwise. You can find games to download, reviews to read, and quizzes and surveys to complete. And everyone, plot-important or not, is as bizarre as internet users should be. Several elderly users have abominable webpages that betray their complete inexperience at computer use. The moderator of the teen section is an adult man whose efforts to seem cool and relatable are almost as pathetic as his fun facts are wrong. An entire genre of music rises, falls, and splinters into new movements. Conspiracy theorists promise to post all the secrets the government doesn't want you knowing, but of course they never do manage to post anything. One new page of content reviews a Twin Peaks-esque show as it airs, an authentic and accurate piece of fandom that could just as easily be found on our internet if only it was talking about a real program.

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While the game does have a somewhat linear progression (in particular, its act breaks add new webpages that genuinely did not exist until you reach them), it's also hella open. Like I said, I accidentally did a speedrun of act three: I'd already found all the answers I needed on someone's file share the previous act. And my act two experience was pretty backwards as well! Hypnospace is divided into "zones", and they are slowly unlocked to you over the first half of the game – but you're only locked out of searching for them. You can access almost every web page right away if you follow the trail of links and associations the users made for themselves – and in act two, I ended up doing just that and skipping a major puzzle entirely.

Or technically, I could have skipped the puzzle. I did it legit anyway, because doing so meant exploring more web pages I hadn't seen and getting to know more about the user base. Nearly every user is developed through the evolution of their online communities. There's teenage drama, accusations of communism, patriotic fervor, and even artistic collaborations! Though you cannot reach out to anyone, you can make an impact through your use of the ban hammer. Do you ban the psychic who engages in non-approved commercial transactions even when her web page is begging you to understand that this is how she makes enough money to stay off the streets — and how will her client and very close friend take it if you do? Will you report the harassment a teen girl documents from her peers even knowing that due to the flawed way the system works, all of the points violations will be applied to her account? And just how many rebellious users are you willing to strike down when they rally around a single piece of illegal content?

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If you were on the net in the late 90s or early 00s and you miss the days when the world wide web was a place you went instead of a ubiquitous presence, this is a game that will give you a great taste of the times. I found it to be a lot of fun and would love to talk to people about who and what their favorite users and pages were — and what they think of MerchantSoft and the choices the company's heads made over the course of the game.


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