For this assignment, I played Hypnospace Outlaw, 2019 game designed by Jay Tholen and published by “No More Robots” on the platform Steam. In Hypnospace Outlaw, you play as an “enforcer” tasked with documenting and reporting the infractions of users in a fake version of the late 1990s internet known as hypnospace. While I myself don’t have any firsthand experience with this older, messier version of the internet, from what I can gather Hypnospace Outlaw lovingly and effectively recreates the era. Given this, it seems reasonable to say that Hypnospace Outlaw’s core audience is likely the generation of current adults who were active online in the time period the game takes place.
Aesthetics and Mechanics
There is an interesting tension at the heart of Hypnospace Outlaw when it comes to mystery. In many places, the game strongly evokes the feeling of being a private investigator from a classic noir film, slowly poking around user’s pages and gathering evidence (in fact, the first objective has you looking for instances of copyright infringement of a fictional cartoon fish detective known as Gumshoe Gooper). When you complete an objective, your virtual display updates with a big “CASE CLOSED” stamp, imitating the aesthetic of the private eye with the manila folder of cases.
The mechanics of play also help reinforce this sense of old-school mystery solving. The game’s version of the internet lacks the hyper-accurate search functionality of today’s browsers, forcing players to comb through pages by finding links, often leading then to secret pages not otherwise encounterable. The fact that Hypnospace Outlaw takes place on a fully realized (if rudimentary) operating system which can be fully customized also lends players a sense of ownership over the game and their actions within it. When Hypnospace Outlaw is at its most engrossing, it’s easy to simply get lost in the web of pages and fictional people’s lives. But this same fact is also what makes Hypnospace Outlaw’s relationship with mystery (and narrative) somewhat weak.
Types of Fun
Concretely, Hypnospace Outlaw offers players the fun of fantasy (given the alternate reality-nature of their version of the internet), narrative (given the inklings of a broader mystery — see below), discovery (given the huge web of interconnected pages to uncover), and expression (given player’s ability to customize their experience on the virtual operating system).
Narrative, Mystery, and Improvements
Most mysteries live and die on their hooks: the initial premise that makes the audience engaged in the answer to the mystery. Perhaps someone has been murdered, or a prize jewel stolen from a secure vault. These are strong motivations, and help justify to players why they must perform the sometimes laborious work of piecing together evidence. In the case of Hypnospace Outlaw, however, your motivation presented at the start of the game is, on the face of it, rather dull. You’re simply told to handle the cases that are sent to your inbox, which early on amount to little more than the work of a professional content moderator. For the first hour or two of the game, you’re not uncovering any dark secrets, only the harassment between two teenage users on the site. I’m only part way into the game, but it’s only recently that there have been even inklings of something more nefarious and engaging happening in Hypnospace: a secret message between the two founders of the software that mysteriously wound up in my inbox.
I’m intrigued to see what happens next, but, simply put, Hypnospace Outlaw buried the lead. I expect that some players never reach the point where the mystery actually gets interesting, which is a shame. I think that adding in more breadcrumbs of the sort I just received earlier into the game could go a long way towards making the narrative and its accompanying mystery more engaging for players.