As anyone who watches their feeds knows, we live in a constantly evolving cyberpunk dystopia. They’re connecting toilets to the internet, for heavens sake. If this Gibsonist world is just too REAL for you, we have put together the ten best videogames about hacking, programming and computing so you can escape into meta-dystopia. Which I’m sure is a much better place.
This article was originally published November 9th, 2015 and has been updated with great new games.
Oh god, get ready for your brain to hurt. TIS-100 is by Zachtronics, the puzzle game developers responsible for Infinifactory and SpaceChem. It’s marketed as “the assembly language programming game you never asked for” and while I normally spit on all marketing slogans, I cannot help but nod approvingly at this one.
Here you’ve found a mysterious computer from the 70s in your late uncle’s possessions. He was once toying with it, trying to figure it out. Now, it’s up to you. In its most basic sense, you have to get numbers to pass through the machine from point A to point B, while achieving the “goals” of each level (for example, make the positive number pop out first, then the negative). To do this, you are given a list of commands stated in an opaque user manual. The game encourages you to print this manual in paper form. It’s covered in your uncle’s annotations and highlighter marks, offering clues about the machine’s nature.
It’s also a mind-crushing game of logic and mathematics. Mathematics that ought to be obvious and basic yet still somehow gives you trouble. But even if you struggle through, you can still appreciate the cleverness of it all, the mechanical clicks and whirs, the blinking numbers ticking through the machine. Completing an early level often has you standing back, feeling like you’ve just cracked the Enigma code. Then you go on YouTube, and see the madness that awaits.
Notes: Zach of Zachtronics is adept at hacking electronics and code together. Here he is making a programmable typewriter, and here playing with the indecipherable guts of a crappy old Star Wars game he loved as a child.
Pneumatic trousers have never been so inviting. In Gunpoint, your shady spy protagonist has to break into guarded buildings and steal data for his private clients. To do this, you’re given the Crosslink, a device that lets you manipulate the wiring of each level. You are essentially a clandestine electrician with trousers that allow you to bound over buildings. You can rewire light switches to give guards electric shocks, toy with the elevator so it travels up and down, and (eventually) you can rewire firearms themselves. Because dystopia.
It isn’t all messing with wires though. Gunpoint retains a love of wacky violence. You can slam open a door in a guards face, jump on them from the ceiling ninja style, or pounce on them from afar and take them plunging from the rooftops, only to smack them in the chops dozens of times after impact. I think this is called ‘social engineering’.
Notes: Developer Tom Francis used to be a games journalist, which is objectively the most noble of careers, before he began using GameMaker to create Gunpoint. Having learned the hard way, Tom then began a YouTube tutorial series to help people learn how to use the same program.
Hackmud is a terrible, wonderful place. You exist as an AI bot inside a connected future-world. It’s been a long time since the humans died out (or disappeared to space, it’s a bit ambiguous). As such, you must collect and earn GC, a virtual currency, because this is what scrappy constructs like yourself live for. Unfortunately, there are others. This is an online hacking game, where another player might break into your accounts, steal all your hard-earned digi-coins, strip you of your tools (little decryption programs and the like) and release your location for all to find. If this happens, you are for the scrap heap, little bot. Time to start again.
Notes: Hackmud was our favourite MMO of 2016
I’m sorry. I tried to think of a good reason not to include Minecraft on the list. It’s a survival game. It’s about punching trees. It has infected millions of innocent children. But the more I tried the harder it became to disregard all the tinkering, toying and creativity that has gone into Mojang’s indie luvvie-turned-superstar. First, people started making 16-bit computers inside the game, then they made huge circuit board structures with RAM, capable of division, then they made music box landscapes that could play whole songs, then they made older Notch games inside the game, then they made WHOLE DESKTOPS with functioning keyboards. Then they made hard drives to save all their hard work to, and then, because you need a place to put all these machines, they made the entirety of Denmark. Even RPS got in on the action, with RPS contributor and living Intelligence Quotient Duncan Geere giving readers a running lesson in code using the game as a teaching tool.
I can understand if some people believe Minecraft is less a hacking or programming game and more of a game for hackers and programmers. But it’s clear from the above examples that the latter is good enough for the purposes of this list.
Notes: Of course, Minecraft isn’t a game for all hackers. In June 2011, the hacker group LulzSec brought down the game’s servers as part of a spate of attacks on videogame companies. Other victims included Eve Online, Bethesda, Sony, Nintendo and The Escapist.
You know the opening scene in Aliens, where the little probe comes into Ripley’s escape pod and scans down the room with a wobbly blue light? That’s how Duskers feels. You control a squad of drones as you look for salvage among the stars. You need scrap and fuel to keep your ship going. To get this you must board and explore the derelicts littering the galaxy (for reasons not quite clear). Any other designer handed this premise would immediately think: ‘Okay, so point and click control and maybe some hotkeys’. But not Misfits Attic. For this job, you will rely almost entirely on a command-line terminal.
It’s a move that fits perfectly with the game’s atmosphere and art style. The user interface is all about that clunky 1970s Nostromo-vision of the future, right down to the pause menu. Presented with a schematic of a ship, you type commands to move a drone to a power outlet and generate electricity. Then type more commands to open doors. Slowly you make your way through the wreckage, hoping that behind the next door there is no alien menace. This would be terrible news. Your robotic helpers are so fragile they may as well be made of phone screens.
A lot of hacking games are about panicking and typing fast under pressure. But Duskers is about being meticulous. Use motion scanners and sensors to detect harmful bioforms. Flush aliens out of the ship by remotely opening airlocks, or luring them towards turrets. It’s made more tense by the roguelike structure and the FTL-like fuel consumption.
Notes: You can create your own commands using the “alias” command. For example, typing “alias getoutofthere navigate 1 2 3 4 r1” will create the unhelpfully long command “getoutofthere” which you can then type to scramble all your drones back to the airlock.