Hypnospace Outlaw, if it can be described at all, is a game about policing an alternate-world dream-based internet browsing system in 1999. Oh yes. Accessed by wearing a brain-scanning headband, users can create their own Geocities-like web spaces, interact via a chat app, and share music and images with one another, all via the HypnOS operating system. Think Compuserve, but you're asleep. And, because it's an internet controlled by a corporation, it contains all manner of content violation that cannot be tolerated. You're tasked with clearing it up. In the most draconian fashion. Which means you're going to be looking through a lot of very terrible internet pages, wielding a banhammer.
It is, immediately, hilarious. It's vital I put that up front, because so much of Hypnospace's core themes are about wading through the deliberately terrible. But it's wonderfully terrible. A keenly observed pastiche of the early internet, in those days when it felt achievable to eventually know everyone else who was logged in. Online communities, reactionary protests, dodgy "download accelerator" software, pop-ups, it's got the lot.
Having lived through the mid-to-late 90s internet isn't necessary to enjoy Hypnospace -- it quickly makes clear what you 'missed' -- but it also contains so very many references and observations of the era that'll delight you if you did. A Christian site that asks readers to pray a prayer before scrolling down, then declaring the reader is now a Christian themselves, is a particular favourite. I'd forgotten those! Especially when other sections of the site are then dedicated to mad conspiratorial rantings about popular children's toys of the day, seeing pentagrams and symbology in everything, all while an over-serious amateur singing voice intones a dreary auto-playing hymn. This is like time travel.
Your motivation for scrolling through these gruesome assaults of colour design and rotating blurry gifs is to complete assignments from HypnOS owners Merchantsoft, to clear up their domains from alleged infringements. And just to make it clear you're not necessarily on the side of Good, your very first task is to delete uses of a decades-old cartoon character, a fish detective called Gumshoe Gooper, from innocent sites for elementary schools, people's fond nostalgia, that sort of thing. Just like the real internet!
What's immediately so splendid here is just how much work has gone into creating an entire ecosystem of online culture, with its own meme-ish language, repeated tropes, overlapping themes, and of course, internal wrangling and outright trolling. So in this game's reality people say "BWL" (Busting With Laughter) when something's funny, and all the kids are totally into SquisherZ, a collect-em-all toy craze that pops up all over the place. The above-mentioned church is sure it's a demonic trick, the Teen section is in the midst of a major sponsorship campaign for the product, and poor young RebeRuth "(my real name is Rebecca though)", a pastor's daughter, is mortified by the idea that her favourite game might be Satanic.
I love these precisely observed characters like Rebecca. Her page is covered in dimly unfunny Christian "spoofs" of popular alternate-world products (it's "Praise Peak" instead of "Grey's Peak Cola"! BWL!), rotating golden word art gifs that read, "Jesus", and heartfelt declarations of the absolutely banal. The same for death metal fans who think they're kicking against the system, or conspiracists who cannot comprehend those who do not see what they see. And then of course there's the whole Trennis controversy.
Hypnospace is divided into themed Zones: social pages in The Cafe, nostalgic sites in Goodtime Valley, the yoof gathered in Teentopia. And just like the inglorious days of Compuserve and AOL's bespoke walled off internet, each is rife with its own internal disputes and frustrations. This is never better captured than when five previous Zones are combined to create Starport Castle Dreamstation, a home for all thing sci-fi, and absolutely everyone is utterly furious for no clearly discernible reasons. (I remember on Compuserve, in 1996, how there were somehow significant divides between the chatrooms "SFMed1" and "SFMed2".)
Hypnospace is, of course, replete with viruses, but the good-old kind that screwed with your OS in tiresome ways, threw up pop-ups, or changed your home screen image to something gross.
But to be most celebrated of all is the music. There is so much, and it is so wonderfully bad. Various popular groups' fans do battle on a bunch of the pages, with Fre3zer and Chowder Man being the big two. The latter is so brilliant, a super-sincere '80s hangover rocker who has found a second wind singing corporate advertising. And his fans meticulously pick over his lyrics, credulously analysing for hidden depths in his plaintiff proclamations about colas or razors.
"Whiskers growing at the speed of light
Put the trimmer in overdrive
Thoughts are runnin' through my mind
Just the bathroom and the night"
Heartfelt fan Gill, on his "Ready To Shave Page", muses on the song verse by verse, at one point noting, "I imagine he's in a bathroom at a truck stop, his hands trembling as he frantically tries to shave these whiskers (again, a metaphor) of life."
Oh it all so cruel and so perfect. And that's just one example. There are so, so many. So many gruesome corporate jingles, deathly serious poetry readings, and even some half-decent tunes. Accompanying dozens and dozens of web pages, articles, news stories, spoofs, emails, tasks, downloads...
And what's even better is I've not told you anything about where this game ends up heading. Whilst you navigate your day job of swinging the corporate banhammer, a story develops that makes it clear that -- surprise surprise -- all is not right with HypnOS. When I look back at the bits described above, they feel like memories of the past, rather than the game I just played. Hypnospace Outlaw is deeply, deeply strange, but incredibly affecting. I've been totally drawn into this glimpse of an imaginary past in an alternate universe, I've felt like I've gotten to know characters like Zane and Corey and Dylan and Gill. And the dozens of others, whose lives you share for a few months.
There are a few issues. There are moments that are ludicrously opaque, one in particular where I'm certain the hints for it are only available after you've solved it. Fortunately there's an in-built hint system hidden in the game, and without it I'd not have managed to get past a couple of places. I think these are issues that could be ironed out very quickly.
The other big thing to mention is the game offers a fantastic amount of freedom, with multiple ways to get through some of the tasks, but this also comes with moments where you can stumble into areas you shouldn't have found yet. I know one of these I found has been patched out already, so I'm confident it'll have its holes plugged in the first few days.
I've had such a time with this. I've been bemused, entranced, confused and delighted. I've laughed a lot, been slightly creeped out, and constantly astonished at the level of detail in every element of this. There is just SO much to do, to explore, so many secrets I know I've missed, and bits I want to return to. This is completely splendid.
Disclosure: Xalavier Nelson Jr. is not only the narrative designer for Hypnospace Outlaw, but also a contributor for RPS.