Hypnospace Outlaw is about the internet of the '90s. But speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, lead designer and artist Jay Tholen said in many ways it is also a game about disappointment.
"Back in the day there were all these ads for the internet or CD-ROM experiences with people flying through cyberspace, reaching through their computer screens and stuff," Tholen explained. "When I was a kid, I was enraptured by those things. When we finally got a computer, I was really intently searching for where I could find that really cool 3D thing you fly through and communicate with people like Lawnmower Man or something. So it was a little disappointing when I got the real thing and it didn't quite live up to the thing we were sold."
Tholen is attempting to right those wrongs now with Hypnospace Outlaw, a game that casts players as a virtual police officer in the internet-inspired Hypnospace, an assortment of websites and downloads with its own set of laws that require upholding. And to do that, players will essentially be interacting with the world through an in-game operating system, the HypnOS.
It's a conceit that has popped up in a number of games recently. Whether in PC or mobile, there have been a number of developers who have at least partly confined their games to a fictional PC or phone, and used players' own devices as a proxy to control them. It's a clever idea, but one Tholen hasn't always found implemented in a satisfying fashion.
"It's pretty robust as fake operating systems go... [You can] do most things you can do on a Windows-type operating system"
"The problem I had with most of those games is that the OS was there as a facade to serve the core gameplay loop, which is probably good in terms of game design," Tholen said. "But I always really wanted to get in there and fiddle and mess with things in the operating system, reposition your icons and stuff like that. And most of the time, you can't do that."
Naturally, Hypnospace Outlaw lets you do that.
"It's pretty robust as fake operating systems go," Tholen said. "You can drag icons around, or drag them into the hard drive file list and drag them out again, do most things you can do on a Windows-type operating system."
However, the decision to create an ersatz interface does raise some issues. For example, Hypnospace Outlaw is billed as a '90s internet simulator. But how much of that does one really want to simulate? Beyond tiny images, terrible resolutions, slow download speeds, and other technical limitations which have lessened over time, user interface best practices have evolved dramatically in the past two decades. So how does one recognizably simulate the internet of the '90s while still making a game with a passable user experience by today's standards?
"That's something we've had to iterate on a lot," Tholen admitted. "There have been oversights."
For example, when players click back in a browser, the game doesn't save their position on the page, so it reloads with the cursor at the top of the scroll bar again. While authentic to many of the browsers of the era, it's annoying to players and something the developers still intend to fix.
"We're leaning toward making it as accessible and user-friendly as possible in terms of how you directly control it, with keyboard shortcuts or whatever... The way we're making it jankier is through the software itself, and the sort of unexpected ways we can break it for that effect. But in terms of how you control the game and interact with it, we're trying to make it as smooth as possible."
Another adaptation in the name of accessibility was an option to have single mouse clicks open programs and files, something that came about after the developers saw people at fan events playing the game for the first time.
"People were just not double-clicking," Tholen said. "It took them a while to figure out that these aren't just buttons; they operate like real desktop icons, or whatever."
He also reasoned that some of these people might not have been familiar with a standard Windows interface, given how many younger audiences grow up gaming on tablets and consoles exclusively.
"It's the worst kind of game for feature creep. If anything could have existed pre-1999, then we've probably thought about it"
"A lot of people weren't used to double tapping their mouse anymore, I guess... We really should put a wizard in there for practicing double-clicks because people just can't do it any more."
The interface wasn't the only decision with significant design implications down the road. The premise of a '90s internet simulator offered its own challenges, because while the internet was certainly less developed back then, it was still unfathomably broad and impressively deep in terms of content.
"It's the worst kind of game for feature creep," Tholen said. "If anything could have existed pre-1999, then we've probably thought about it."
It's one thing to have an equivalent of Linkin Park exist in an alternate '90s universe, but then that leads naturally to the fake Napster people will use to download its songs or the fake WinAmp they'll use to listen to the files. Building out the breadth of era-appropriate content was actually such a significant task it took priority over the rest of the game in some ways.
"At the beginning, I don't know if you could even call this a game," Tholen said. "It felt like more of a toy for a little while. We'd always intended to slide it into legitimate game territory, but at the start we were mostly adding things because it was fun, or it interested us or whatever. And then later we stuck a game in there somehow."
That transition from a collection of references to a narrative with a point was not a particularly easy one, but Tholen at least had a point-of-view he knew he wanted to get across even before the game took shape. He wanted to explore the disconnect between the marketing and reality of the early internet, the early dot com culture, its impact on society, and how the various changes and updates to our fundamental technology (like operating systems) shape our experiences.
"It was always jumping around back there in my brain, like 'I really have to start pivoting this to some type of experience with progression in it.' Toy-like things in this indie-game market are just not going to do as well without some sort of pointed thing you take people through."
So who is this game with a fake OS from 20 years ago really for? It's a question Tholen didn't really think much about when he started working on Hypnospace Outlaw, which he admitted finding "a tiny bit worrying" considering the game is scheduled to launch soon and will need an interested audience.
It's possible that audience is larger than one might assume. Hypnospace Outlaw isn't out yet, but it's already building considerable buzz. It earned three nominations for this year's Independent Games Festival (including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize), and honorable mentions in two additional categories.
"Hopefully tinkering with a hand-crafted operating system and a bunch of weird downloads and a big fake internet is attractive enough to people that they'd want to take a chance and fiddle around with it themselves."