Hacknet was a game I first encountered at PAX Aus 2015. But, alas, it was from a distance. Each year it popped up at the convention, I would pass it, never getting the chance to play it because there was always a huge crowd waiting for their turn. I did, however, manage to get myself a cute little badge. And so, two years ago, frustrated that I couldn’t try it I decided to just up and buy it. Then it just sat in my library, as all these games do, otherwise this wouldn’t be a thing I do every week.
I’ve been a little sick and it’s been very cold so I figured a game that didn’t require too much on my part, like, leaving the warmth of the fireside, was a good call. So I finally installed Hacknet and decided to sit down and spend some time with this Australian title from Team Fractal Alligator.
The game begins when you’re contacted by a hacker going by the name of ‘Bit’. It’s a failsafe message intended to be sent after Bit’s death, asking the player to investigate the circumstances surrounding said death. Of course, the mysterious hacker wouldn’t send you in unprepared and so gives you the basic tools and knowledge to enter the world of hacking, and then points you in the direction of a hacking group named Entropy. Your goal is to join them, hack a bunch of people/organizations, get a bunch of information and find out exactly what’s going on.
Wow, that’s a lot of ‘hack’. I should have looked up synonyms for it or something.
Hacknet presents itself as a sort of open world hacking simulator. Your ‘world’ is your computer, and instead of visiting towns, settlements, castles, whatever, you visit… Well. Other people’s computers and servers. In the most illegal manner possible. Thus, the whole ‘hacking’ thing. The game gives the player two methods of control to achieve their tasks, one based entirely on visuals, or by letting the player type in commands (for that authentic experience). No actual knowledge of hacking or computer commands is required, but I must admit, a basic familiarity with commands does help commit the commands of the game to memory a little faster.
It’s not real hacking by any means. The premise is that you have a special program that’s supposed to make hacking easier. So it’s simply remembering a few basic commands you’ll be using frequently, and the game makes sure you fully understand them before moving on to add a few new commands here and there. Gameplay is about hacking into a computer, and from there snooping around the files your target has.
This is where some of the ‘open world’ stuff comes about. Some missions have various ways of being completed which can lead to different results. Whether you straight copy the file and get out, or you rummage around a little, is up to you. By rummaging around and reading text documents and the like, you can find out more about the state of the world, the characters, and just fun little bits and pieces. You also have the option to occasionally delete a few things and leave bricked pieces of junk in your wake. Sometimes, this will have consequences.
The other major part of this, of course, is to cover your tracks. What kind of hacker would you be if you didn’t, after all. So, after breaking in and doing what you need to do, you have to make sure to erase all evidence you were there lest you trigger a counter attack sequence. While I’ve only encountered one, it was a frantic test of everything you’ve learned thus far as you try to stop the hacker and protect your own files. Getting in can trigger this too, as once you’re past firewalls and proxy’s and the like, occasionally you’ll encounter a trace that requires you get in and get out as fast as possible, lest you be found out.
I’ve really enjoyed my time with Hacknet. It’s simple enough anyone can pick it up, and it made me feel a lot smarter than I was while I typed out commands. The pacing is excellent, as never once did I feel overwhelmed and each new development upped the stakes from smallscale hacks on nerds through to hacks that may have an impact on the entire world.
The game also has DLC, but I haven’t yet had the chance to play around with it.
Hacknet is absolutely one of the most unique puzzle games I’ve played in recent memory. It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and surprisingly complex where it matters. While it can get repetitive inputting commands, it remains tense in the time limits placed on the player, and intriguing by allowing the player to snoop through all kinds of highly classified files and chatlogs.
It made me feel a lot smarter than I actually am, and I appreciate that in a videogame.