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Wot I Think: 868-HACK

Sinister cyberpunk roguelike

868-HACK is sort-of-cyberpunk sort-of-roguelite, in which you play the avatar of a hacker trying to break into a system riddled with glitches, daemons and viruses. It falls somewhere between Pac-Man and Uplink. Well-received on iOS in 2013, it's due out on PC very soon.

I'm several years too late to the party here (it is too late to visit Dwarf Fortress?) but increasingly I'm drawn towards games that decline to tell me much about how they work. So much more pleasure comes from discovery - oh, so that's what that thing's for - than simply following an objective and getting an action or cutscene pay-off. There's this cold war right now between proponents of formalist games and leftfield games (for lack of a better term), but I think this is a conflict of equal import: games that must be learned versus games that will reward you regardless.

868-Hack, an old iOS roguelite from Michael 'Smestorp' Brough which has finally been ported to PC, is very much in the learn-it-yourself camp. It's not actually obtuse or aloof about it, but if it clearly marked what was the right thing to do at any given point it would lose all its darkly compulsive charm.

If I went into it and there will little notes on all the symbols scattered across its black and green grid, telling me exactly what each one was for and how to obtain more of them, I think I would have sighed and felt there was too damn much to do. Instead, I went in thinking "what the hell does this do?" and gradually stockpiled knowledge from usually disastrous experience. Now I know that certain 'programs' only work on certain enemies, that certain enemies move in a certain way (and how to exploit that), and that certain resources are needed for each program. Now I know that every time I acquire resources, I am doing that at the expense of acquiring something else - something possibly life-saving, or high score-earning.

Now when I look at that grid, I can combine all the once-mysterious shapes which are on it into a plan. A plan to get as many points and powers as possible, then get to the exit. A plan which may well fail in practice, but at least now I understand why it failed. Hell, to start with I didn't even understand what the scoring system was for and how it worked, and now it's what drives me on. Because I came to understand all of this for myself, rather than had it fed to me, 868-HACK feels like it's personal to me, a constant challenge against myself.

I'm a long, even impossibly distant way from being an expert at it. While 868-HACK has much to offer a mindset that craves absolutely mastery, the precision of strategy and understanding that would allow one to clear a room effortlessly, my altogether flabbier mind is taken with the ad-hoc ingenuity it allows for. I'm in trouble: I'm surrounded by enemies on all sides, and one false move means perma-death. What can I do?

Sometimes I can do something. Better yet, sometimes I realise I can do something I hadn't realised until now. The thrill of escape. The thrill of unexpected understanding.

Yet 'thrill' is an altogether strange term to associate with 868-HACK. As compulsive and ingenious as it may be, it's deeply sinister, in a refreshingly understated way. The simple pixel-creatures (viruses and bugs, to be precise) you battle emit single barks and growls, animal noises rendered eerie and monstrous out of context. The colours are all wrong. Everything seems to glitch, even when it's not glitching. The smiling face of your almost certainly doomed character when it's at full health seems like acid irony. The music is the groan of a dying demon.

Words, naturally, can't do justice to how oppressive all this makes the game feel, but the effect of this tone is a powerful urge to escape. By which I don't mean exit the game, but to 'beat' it - to save your character, if you can, to get them away from this dread place, these dire straits.

There's a parallel dimension wherein 868-HACK stars a smiling cartoon elf firing arrows at cheeky goblins in silly hats, it's called something like MAGIC DUNGEON ESCAPE QUEST, and it was a huge hit. The 868-hack we actually got, once you've cracked its faintly hostile shell, is as fearsomely absorbing as the most wildly successful roguelites or even match-3 games. I'm glad I'm not in that alternate dimension though. I like 868-HACK just as strange and creepy as it is.

The formula at 868-HACK's dark heart is an expert one: I struggle not to start a new game the second I lose one, even though I am bad at it, even though it'll probably go even worse this time around, because it makes me feel that I'm always on the verge of greatness. All credit to 868-HACK that it doesn't pursue the coldly commercial in favour of its distinctively twisted approach. All credit too for keeping it restricted to a personal challenge rather than festooning it with leaderboards and friends list.

On the other hand, the build I have is a very rudimentary PC conversion. The controls - WASD and space, essentially - work and feel just fine, but there are zero key, graphics or sound options and it runs in a window that required fiddly manual resizing in order to fit my screen. None of this was a long-term problem, but fair warning and all that.

That aside, 868-HACK is a malevolent triumph which only gets better - and more compulsive - the more you play it.

868-HACK will be released for PC on January 27th, all being well.

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