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.
5. Shenzhen I/O
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 the aforementioned 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, Zachtronics’ most recent game, Opus Magnum, is more accessible and straightforward. It's about engineering solutions to alchemical problems using elemental marbles.
The creator of Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone has a clear love for heists and capers, as became clear when he decided to make something that lasted longer than a few minutes. Here, you’re a team of thieves. While you do get to control a full trio of characters, you’ll mostly be playing as the Hacker. Each level is a small environmental puzzle that needs to be solved by typing commands into your “deck” - a computer-in-a-briefcase with a 56k modem that you bring along to each fancy apartment building, bank vault or space station (yes, you go to space). Commands are simple, for example, typing “door4.open(3)” will open the “door number 4” for 3 seconds. Using these methods you have to get into forbidden spaces, avoiding cameras, lasers and alarms, grab whatever you need, and get out.
It’s not a perfect game – it blasts through all its best ideas too quickly and ends sooner than you’d hope – but it has leaderboards to encourage a bit of replaying, attempts to beat your friends' best times. More importantly, its vision of a retro-cyberpunk “Nuevos Aires” is detailed and stylish – all warning signs and jump cuts – while also containing some wordless yet oddly tender storytelling. Hacking games sometimes neglect the details of the real world, becoming ensconced in a single screen. Quadrilateral Cowboy reminds you that the computer is just a means to effect change in reality.
It's also got a brilliant cat.
This is the game that often comes to mind when someone says "hacking sim". When Introversion came up with Uplink they pretty much redefined what a good cyberpunk PC game should look and feel like. Playing under your own alias on a computer-within-a-computer, you join an agency of hackers-for-hire. You soon begin breaking into networks to alter records, steal data and delete unwanted files. Along the way you discover more programs and upgrade your rig to break into stronger, scarier systems. You also have to bounce your connection all around the world through multiple IP addresses. This tapped into the theatrical conception of hacking at the time - the scene from Goldeneye were Natalya traces Boris' connection, the digital heist of Swordfish, a movie where hackers are in such demand, they are given blowjobs as a "test".
No such oral in Uplink though. The game was harsh about failure and would often see your proxy machine and bank account impounded by The Law, leaving you to start all over again. You could 'save' your game by tweaking the game files themselves, which could be interpreted as a cool meta puzzle.
Apart from that, Uplink easily became a cult classic and paved the way for all those following in its wake. Certainly, the next game on this list may never have existed without it.
Notes: Uplink was Introversion's first game. In 2006 there was a legal spat with a US distributor selling a version of the game called Uplink: Hacker Elite. After the distributor filed for bankruptcy they stopped paying royalties to Introversion, yet continued to sell the game. It has since been resolved.
Hacknet was slightly overlooked in critical circles. Like Uplink, it puts you in the role of a computer user trawling through IP addresses, mingling with underground hacker communities. An unknown benefactor known as 'Bit' has granted you this strange new OS, basically a hacker's toolkit. But don't worry about him because he's dead. The real joy of the game comes not from figuring out his death or the origins of the OS (although that's a decent hook), but from using the command-line to run programs, explore the directories of your targets and generally cause a big ruckus. Bonus immersion if you listen to the WipeOut soundtrack while you do it.
There's an element of mouse control (you can select files by clicking them for instance, rather than typing the whole thing out) but the further you delve into this new realm the more speed you need to become untraceable. You begin to use the terminal in earnest, the Linux-style commands becoming second nature. There is a great moment in the early stages involving a rival blackhat hacker and some moral decisions to make you squirm. Not to mention an entirely separate storyline for the more criminally minded. Like I say, the idea itself owes a lot to Uplink. But it's the execution that makes Hacknet great. A few misspelled words and a bug or two can't stop it from being stylish, funny, and gracefully short.
Notes: If your computer has a CD drive, typing 'openCDTray' into the terminal in Hacknet will make your CD tray actually open up. The game was designed to include this freaky command in a multiplayer version, but this mode has sadly not yet come to pass.
When you start playing this colourful Scandi adventure, you might be forgiven for thinking it's a slow, ponderous point 'n' click with absolutely no direction. But persevere and you'll find one of the smartest games you'll ever play. Heart.Break() puts you in the bright green shoes of Sebastian (or Seb, if you want) who has moved to the big city of Dorisburg after landing the job of a soda salesman. You saunter around this strange city selling can after can to cranky citizens, most of whom don't even want one.
What has any of this got to do with hacking? Well, as you start out in this brave new world of refreshment, you'll meet some new friends (and a girl you like, of course). It becomes clear they are really a group of hacktivists fighting against the monstrous Computer Ministry. Soon you get your own 'modifier' - a device that lets you hack any usable object in the game.
At this point, Heart.Break() flips. You go around exploring the code of everything you can get your hands on. You find people who can teach you how to read and write in this code - a fully-fledged programming language called SPRAK (the Swedish word for "language"). You start to play and mess with everyday objects in ways that help you to cheat the game. For example, Sebastian normally gets tired every day and you have to go to bed to recharge your energy, otherwise you collapse. But what if you hack a glass of water so it reduces your "sleepiness" by a factor of "100"? Small things like this are just the start. Want to hack a door so that it takes you halfway across the city? Figure it out. Want to transfer your body over the internet to the city's central finance computer? You can do that. Want to rewrite the software of said finance computer so that everyone's bank account is reduced to $0 and money itself is abolished, a la Tyler Durden? Do it. I did. And I do not regret a single line of code.
But the most wonderful thing about Heart.Break() is its humanity and youthful exuberance. This isn't just the murky, green glow of a screen, it's a functioning city with drinkers, smokers, factory workers, hotel bell boys, bums, activists and bureaucrats. You get to see how your alterations affect the world around you, which ticks on regardless of your actions. And the world itself is a bright, gorgeous place, the art of Niklas Åkerblad and the rest of the team granting it a vibrancy you wouldn't normally associate with computer programming. Soulful, vivid and clever, else Heart.Break() doesn't settle for making you feel like a hacker. It makes you feel like a magician.
Notes: In March, 2015, the motley band of Swedish programmers and artists behind the game held a secret game jam in Gothenburg (incidentally an inspiration for the city of Dorisburg). The jam's purpose was to create smaller, basic games using SPRAK itself. You can find a bunch of the resultant minigames on the arcade machines of Dorisburg.
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