How to Make a Good Hacking Game When the Reality Is Massively Dull

Different ways to find a fun, evocative experience that's authentic to a boring craft.
December 2, 2017, 9:00pm
Quadrilateral Cowboy screenshot courtesy of Blendo Games

When I, a layperson, think of hacking I think of two things: the movie Hackers and that episode of NCIS when two people started typing on a keyboard simultaneously in order to hack faster. Because if media has shown us anything, it’s that nobody actually knows how hacking works.

Despite the laughable fiction of media hacking, which mostly entails random key smashing and screaming “ I’m in!” while looking at lines of nonsensical code, there is something to be said for it. It looks active in film and television, like something is actually getting done at an implausible speed. Seeing lines of green and white text move and disappear across a screen looks like an incalculable amount of things are happening and it feels impossible.

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This is as—if not more—true when playing a game. When you’re typing or playing a hacking simulator, it just feels good.

There’s something about the sound of the keyboard as you hit the keys, something about that unique sound that is distinguishable from across a room. You can hear it just looking at a keyboard. It’s a sound I’ve been obsessed with since I was young and my parents -- instead of buying me an actual computer -- bought me one of those laptops for kids, or the ones that allowed you to play games on the go but little else. Instead of playing those games though, I would pretend I was hacking into a government mainframe by smashing the keys erratically. Later in life, I’d spend hours of research on mechanical keyboards, hoping to find one with the perfect level of clackiness.

Hacknet screenshot courtesy of Surprise Attack

I’d chalk this up to a personal quirk, but that typing satisfaction is so in-demand that there are sites like Geektyper that allow you to mash on your keyboard to break into nerdy networks such as S.H.I.E.L.D. and Black Mesa. They’re not games with logic and solutions, but places where you can literally pretend to be a movie hacker with no consequences.

“That aesthetic is so cool and weird and janky and fun,” said Matt Trobbiani, the developer behind the 2015 sim Hacknet and person who knows that hacking isn’t just rapid typing. Despite having more knowledge than somebody like me, he still drew upon this feeling to create his game.

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“When I was doing the game I wanted to make it a mix between that sort of feeling and what it's really like. Part of that excitement was pretending we were doing the crazy hacking stuff,” he explained.

So did Brendan Chung, the developer of Quadrilateral Cowboy.

"There was something crunchy about that experience," Chung said in a previous Waypoint article. "I wanted to try to introduce that experience to people who have never been through that gross technical hell."

Even some games which purport to offer more realistic experiences make some compromises so that they can make it feel as good as it looks to hack in the movies. Despite people mocking how hacking and programming are portrayed in mainstream media, it’s still a familiar default to draw from.

“You need to find a middle ground. If you go for 100 percent realistic hacking it would be boring,” said Zein Okko, the writer on Code 7, a text-based adventure that traps the player and a group of other characters on a futuristic space station. “If those movies would be 100 percent authentic, they wouldn't be as fun to watch. They don't want to see an agent spying on someone waiting 10 hours.”

A successful hacking game takes other steps to ensure the player feels like they’re getting into some isolated, highly-encrypted server. A common trait is using what Trobbiani calls a “zeroth person perspective.” There is no character in between the player and the game. The player is put inside the game and tasked to do the work. They’re not named, usually, but are referred to as “you.”

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If the player is the character, then the hardware the player owns—the keyboard, the mouse, the computer screen—are important tools for completing the game.

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In Code 7, for example, the player wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, but is immediately contacted by somebody else on the ship, who you were supposedly working with. The person explains some plot points to you, but you have to immediately log into the nearest computer and help them escape a room using your hacking. You learn more about your situation and more skills as the game goes along. Besides the setting, everything for the character is the same for the player. You are learning new skills, don’t know much about your current situation, and know about as much as the character does. So when you open a door remotely for the first time, it feels like you actually opened a door.

“You're very immersed, you're playing the person you're actually playing, you feel like you’re actually in control,” Okko said. “Whenever you play the other genres, the hardware you use is only representative. The mouse is substitute for your gun or your sword and the keyboard is substitute for your bike or your horse.”

And it’s always after playing a game like this that I would boot up my coding notes and attempt to get back into it. I had taught myself rudimentary HTML and CSS for work purposes, but I always tried to retain knowledge about Javascript or dig into the specifics of my computer with little success. Partially this is a priority issue, but it’s also me chasing a problem-solving high. Most hacking games are puzzle-based, requiring players to navigate a sometimes complicated interface to find the one piece of information you can use to guess a password.

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Hacknet has a complicated-looking interface (Trobbiani’s goal with the game was to play around with a method to create as many buttons and text-fields as possible), so when a player completes a task, it feels accomplished. That’s adding to the satisfaction somebody can feel when solving a puzzle.

“I wanted it to feel like a mix between feeling like you’re just playing around doing whatever, but feeling deep down that what you're doing is feeling powerful,” he said. “At the heart of it, that's really what hacking is… trying to figure out how systems work and subverting it in some way.”

The Internet is inundated with hacking games. Just do a search on Steam and you’ll find dozens of cheap titles with similar-sounding names and familiar interfaces. Of course there are things such as narrative, difficulty, character, and general quality that go into a good hacking game, but a game that simulates sensations and emotions that are inherent to hacking, programming and coding. It’s less about creating something that’s realistic, but something that replicates realism.

Uplink screenshot courtesy of Interoversion

So even when I indulge in my clearly impractical fantasies regarding hacking, imagining a camera on me as I type furiously away with 90s hard rock hit blaring in the background and a young Angelina Jolie sitting beside me, I’m still anchored to reality. It’s all make-believe, but the reasons people use websites like Geektyper or play games like Hacknet or Code 7 is to grasp onto some part of that fantasy without feeling outlandish. I want to feel like I’m actually hacking, and that I’m accomplishing something.

And maybe for some player, it’ll cross the line from game to hacking victim. Hacknet knows fully well that there’s this element. Trobbiani has put years of his life into Hacknet, fixing holes, adding content, and ensuring that people who want to actually hack the game can do so without breaking it. This is apparently a common practice, so he’s constantly working so elements remain consistent across the game, even if somebody changes one thing.

“The real problem with designing something that feels right, feels seamless and makes sense is the understanding that I needed to build the whole game to work like that,” Trobbiani said. “I needed to build the whole game that if they changed any file in the back end and check it in the front end… i needed to make sure the whole game worked like that so at any point it had to work.”

“I wanted it to feel right when someone made their own little mission for themselves,” he added, ensuring that the fantasy will continue without him. Because despite everything poking holes in the mainstream hacking delusion, people chase it anyway.