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10

The 10 best hacking, coding and computing games

Stick a PIN in it

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This is the hAcKeR collective {{Synonymous Bosch}}. We have taken control of this aRt1cLe. Three years ago it was written by the untalented and scurrilous “journalist” Brendan Caldwell, a man lacking in both knowledge and substance. But we have gained access in order to correct his egregious errors. It’s a hack of a hack! Ha ha ha. We had our best joke cell work on that for three nights. Please laugh. Our detractors may say Mr Caldwell got it mostly right, and that may be the case, yes. But the order is aLL Wr0nG. And he has neglected to update it with a recent hit. We cannot let this stand. Here is an updated list which, actually, looking at it now, is still mostly Mr Caldwell’s words and… I guess they’re okay. Sorry we said those nasty things. We are {{Synonymous Bosch}}. We sometimes forgive. We often forget.

10. Exapunks

[official site]

HoW c0uLd Y0U m1sS tHiS oNe, Mr CaLdWe11!? Exapunks is another of Zachtronics programming games, the same folks who make Opus Magnum, Infinifactory, and a bunch of other stuff. After so many puzzlers about tinkering with computer entrails, the studio finally made one themed around a 1990s vision of hackerdom. Chat rooms, zines, pizza deliveries, cybernetic plagues that turn your flesh into circuit board. It’s all there, an accurate portrayal of the decade.

The puzzling is similar to other games from the studio, most notably Shenzhen I/O. You clack away at your keyboard, using keywords and commands to create a little screed of magical electricity. Here, you’re programming tiny spiderbots who can replicate and spread inside the host machine, like a little virus. You can hack a bank’s ATM machine and make it spit money into the street. You can hack a videogame console and share home-brewed games with other hackers in the real world. You can hack y0uR oWn ArM. It’s a good videogame.

All right, we’re leaving now. But we’ve put all the following games in the correct order. Okay, bye, thanks, sorry, bye.

Notes: The developers interviewed some hackers to research the story of the game, designer Zach Barth told Alex Wiltshire. “It turns out that hackers are assholes,” he said. “We interviewed a bunch and mostly they stole credit cards and figured out ways of ripping off phone companies to get free phone calls.”

9. Gunpoint

[official site]

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.

8. Minecraft

[official site]

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.

7. Hackmud

[Official site]

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.

It’s a difficult world to get into and you won’t get the full benefit of it unless you either spend some time learning basic Javascript or already know the programming language. In MMO terms, it’s akin to EVE Online. The stakes are high, the difficulty curve is obscene, and the universe is full of scam artists. I know, because I’ve been one of them. For these reasons, Hackmud isn’t for everyone. But for those who do venture into this Petri dish of paranoid pondlife, it can be a crazy adventure.

Notes: Hackmud was our favourite MMO of 2016

6. Shenzhen I/O

[Official site]

Another Zachtronics game? Well, if you’re going to set your games inside the confines of a fictional operating system, why stop at one? Here, you’re an expatriate living in industrial China, working for an electronics firm called Longteng. Email alerts ping and tasks are set. You’ve got to make devices for various clients. Sometimes this is as simple as a flickering neon advertisement. Sometimes it’s a little more… clandestine. In all cases, you’re going to have to refer to the manual, which the game recommends you print out and put in a binder (I second this advice).

In many ways, it’s the spiritual successor to TIS-100. You still tinker with numbers, nudging them from one node to another in basic programmer-speak, and you still try to optimise your designs to run more efficiently. But this time there are components to worry about. You move chips and switches and gizmos around on a circuit board. In more ways than one, you’re trying not to get your wires crossed.

Notes: If these puzzlers give you the willies, Opus Magnum (by the same studio) is more accessible and straightforward. It’s about engineering solutions to alchemical problems using elemental marbles.

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