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The 10 best hacking, coding and computing games

Stick a PIN in it

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.

5. Quadrilateral Cowboy

[Official site]

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.

Notes: Blendo made the game’s code open source shortly after release, and the game won the 2017 Grand Prize at the IGF.

4. Duskers

[official site]

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.

3. Uplink

[official site]

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: As you can probably tell from the trailer, it's a little dated. So you'll want to play with the Uplink makeover mod installed.

2. Hacknet

[official site]

Hacknet was slightly overlooked. 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.

1. else Heart.Break()

[official site]

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.

For more of RPS's bestest best games, take your pick from:

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