Before Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones, the internet experience for the average user was drastically different. What the internet would become and how you interacted with it was something still being worked out by developers. There were a variety of competing web portals that battled for consumer attention, each offering promises of the ultimate online experience. Hypnospace Outlaw drops you headfirst into a surreal version of such a portal, offering denizens of 2019 a chance to experience what life online circa 1996 was all about. After spending hours with the game, you’ll be glad you live in the future.
I can show you the world
I was but a young fellow in the early 1990s, but I do remember the surge in popularity for the home computer that kicked in around the time Microsoft pushed Windows 3.1 out into the world. The simplified GUI was more appealing to the masses than working with a command line and it was around this time that I first heard of the internet. Ads in the computer enthusiast magazines of the time often promised online access in the form of limitless virtual worlds where users could find anything they imagined or easily meet other people with similar interests.
Before the proliferation of web browsers in the late 1990s, these web portal services were the way most regular folks got online for the first time. The most popular of these portals was America Online, or AOL. It was near-impossible to miss their television ads or piles of free trial CD-ROMs that littered most stores. AOL, like other portals of the time, offered a unique online experience that made it easier for novices to crawl around the web for content.
Graduating the cyber police academy
Hypnospace Explorer offers its version of such a service by way of HypnOS, a computer operating system that functions much like a 1990s web service. It is the creation of brothers Adrian and Dylan Merchant. Their company MerchantSoft is a stand in for Microsoft in this case. You are hired as a web detective and given access to a PC using a special version of the HypnOS system that allows you to identify and submit content to the cyber police. You are tasked with helping track down copyright infringement, harassment, obscene content, and more.
You will be assigned cases via the system email client and you must identify and help remove specific content from Hypnospace. The cases will have a minimum amount of suspect content that you must submit to the authority before it can be cleared. Once a case is cleared, you will receive another email with a new case. Early on, you begin crawling through what would best be described as Geocities in a fever dream. Browsing page after page looking for clues or content that will help you clear a case. Sometimes it is as simple as flagging obscene content and as involved as shutting down a file sharing ring.
When you successfully submit offending content to the authority, you get paid in the Hypno currency. This currency can be used to buy software and customizations for your HypnOS PC. One of the cooler parts of the game is how much your virtual desktop acts like a real computer. You can get new wallpapers, collect music, make sticky notes, drag icons, delete files, and more. Much like anyone who surfed online in the 1990s, you will get infected with viruses. Removing viruses requires antivirus software that can be purchased with the virtual currency.
Don’t forget to sign my guestbook
Hypnospace Outlaw does a pretty admirable job of recreating the spectrum of cheeseball user-generated websites from the days of old. You’ll find garish fonts, under construction gifs, auto-playing MIDI files, and more amongst the various landing pages within the Hypnospace portal. The sites are also accessible via a search bar, which is a commonly used tool for your detective work. You can use keywords to track down certain users and even access unlisted pages.
The whole experience has a bit of a dystopian feel. There are parts of the game that remind me of Papers, Please and you’ll quickly discover that, as a cyber police enforcer, you aren’t exactly playing for the good guys. The underlying narrative will take some turns as you progress, but I won’t spoil them here. When it is working well, Hypnospace Outlaw will likely be a hit with fans of point and click adventures or puzzle games.
I’d like to cancel my subscription
I am not particularly fond of the games of this type from any era, so I found most of my time to be dull at best, and infuriating at the worst. Progression felt like it was tied to finding a needle in a haystack. I got stuck on a case early on and was ready to give up when I found Youtube video of other people playing the game and progressing through the same cases. When I tried to copy their steps, I found myself unable to interact with webpage elements in the same way I saw in the video.
I chalked this up to being a weird bug and started the game over. On the second run, that particular case was easily solvable as I was able to click the image that simply didn’t work in my first save. I had the same situation creep up again, leaving me unsure if I was failing to find the right clues presented by the game or if something had gone wrong due to a bug. I eventually gave up on seeing Hypnospace Outlaw to its conclusion, but honestly, I doubt my feelings about the game would change had I made it to the end.
Rolling through the crappy websites with constantly annoying auto-playing music for the twelfth time hoping I could click on the correct element led me to resent any of the time I spent playing. While the concept behind Hypnospace Outlaw is solid and the recreation of the 1990s web experience will elicit feelings of nostalgia (I did let out an audible chuckle upon hearing the low-bitrate, harshly clipping voice recordings that accompanied the tutorial section), I feel that it is an experience that many will get enough of after twenty to thirty minutes of futzing around HypnOS and the webpages. 5/10 hamster gifs
This review is based on the Steam release. The game key was provided by the publisher. Hypnospace Outlaw was made available for PC on March 12, for $19.99.
- Solid recreation of mid-90s websites
- Mostly functional OS helps immersion
- Some of the jokes hit
- Tedious progression
- Obnoxious audio
- Bugs that necessitated restarting the game