These Games Subvert Boring Hollywood Hacking Clichés

<em>Beglitched</em>, <em>Quadrilateral Cowboy</em>, and <em>Hacknet</em> show how hacking in games can be colorful, clever, and pleasantly clunky.

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Aug 26 2016, 8:43pm

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There's a scene in the fifth episode of Mr. Robot's first season that feels oddly practical for a show about hacking. The primary character, an anti-social, anxiety-ridden hacker named Elliot, volunteers to be the man inside on a small infiltration job, armed with a mere raspberry pi. His hacking buddies wonder if he's up to it, but Elliot insists on going in. Before we know it, Elliot lies his way to the restricted floor he needs to be on, weathers a distracting conversation with the show's antagonist, and plants the raspberry pi where it needs to be.

As I crawl through a duct in the video game Quadrilateral Cowboy, my hacking tools in my grasp, I realize that I'm actually living Elliot's reality through a different medium. I'm just like Elliot: A clumsy hacker, battling the misconceptions of what the mainstream expects a hacker to be.

In many games, movies, and TV shows, hacking is depicted in superficial terms: a screen of code, the press of a button, flashing warning lights. That's what makes the inclusion of a raspberry pi in Mr. Robot such a remarkable instance. The show has gone on to accrue praise over the past year or so for its shockingly lifelike portrayal of hacking—both as an act of computer-enabled anarchy, and as a representation of its own counterculture. Nowadays, even video games are following suit, with different approaches to the often misconstrued world of hacking.

'Watch Dogs 2' offers a very "Hollywood" vision of hacking. Image courtesy of Ubisoft

"There are a lot of different ways that hacking is often expressed in games. Watch Dogs is a great example of the 'press x to hack' mechanic," said Alec Thomson, half of the game developing duo Hexecutable. "There's also this sort of idea of hacking as effectively being like electronic lockpicking, which is present in games like Deus Ex and other games like that, [where] it's sort of a more minor subject."

With these examples in mind, Thomson and artist Jenny Jiao Hsia, set out to make Beglitched, to be released by the end of this summer. It's an atypical hacking game that encompasses all things cute and fun (rather than dark and gloomy) about computers—less cyberpunk and more cybertwee. "It comes down to not really seeing this [colorful] aesthetic in games, but in other forms of media, [like] on Tumblr and on the internet," Hsia explained when referring to her vision. "Wanting to build that space [while] imagining, It'd be so cool if there was a game that was totally pink and adorable."

According to Thomson, Beglitched was much different before Hsia came along to the project. It was initially a debugging-focused detective game about hacking that had little to do with computers. "It felt completely like programming, which was pretty bad [and] not fun," he said of the prototype. "When Jenny showed me her Tumblr and the different kinds of aesthetics there are, I was like, 'Wait a minute, there's this whole world of computers that's not dark, green, and grimy."

Hacknet. Image courtesy of Team Fractal Alligator

Hacking in games has come a long way from 1985's Hacker, a game that polarized players because of its lack of instruction. Hacking in games has, in ways, regressed from Hacker's initial insight into the complexity of computers and what "hacking" is (even as the term itself ends itself to many definitions). In recent years, hacking in games has often been relegated to either lackadaisical mini-games (Sly Cooper's top-down shooter sections with bespectacled turtle hacker Bentley) or oversimplified button-tapping (Mass Effect's boring Frogger-like leaps to unlock doors). Hacking in games, mostly, has never been about the hacking at all, instead abstracted and parsed down to the smallest degree.

Beglitched isn't a by-the-books hacking game, nor does it gloss over its inspirations; at its core, it's a Match-3 puzzle game, but it adds a new twist to the familiar genre. "It seems that hacking is synonymous with subversion," said Thomson. "That's why traditional cyberpunk is almost always a dystopia—what are you going to subvert? You're going to subvert the bad government and the bad systems that are in place. Even without a bleak, gray, dystopian environment, you can be subversive in an alternative [way] and [think] outside of the box. It's still totally valid, interesting, and cool."

There are other recent examples of game designers working against said constraints and creating games that are more in line with the promise of what hacking theoretically is. TIS-100 is an open-ended programming game—closer to what Beglitched was before Hsia's involvement—in which the player is tasked with literally writing out assembly code to solve puzzles. In last year's Hacknet, the player must oversee the elusive Hacknet-OS after its powerful creator allegedly dies, navigating an unwieldy, realistic faux-terminal. TIS-100 and Hacknet represent the other end of the spectrum when it comes to hacking in games—the kind that's not nearly as accessible as games like Beglitched or Quadrilateral Cowboy.

Quadrilateral Cowboy. Image courtesy of Blendo Games

Quadrilateral Cowboy is the highly-anticipated follow-up to the cinematic, narrative-driven games Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone; after four years of development, it was released in July to positive reviews. The game's most notable element is its tangible, clunky approach to the world of heists and hacking; players drag around a briefcase-enclosed laptop and use rudimentary computer code to interface with the environment in real-time.

In conversation, Quadrilateral Cowboy developer Brendon Chung mused about growing up using DOS and wrestling with the stubborn system to get Wing Commander working on an old computer. "There was something crunchy about that experience," he explained. "I wanted to try to introduce that experience to people who have never been through that gross technical hell."

That "technical hell" is what encapsulates the satisfyingly analog experience of Quadrilateral Cowboy. "The current trend of hacking games, interfaces, UI, and web design is made to be extremely accessible," said Chung. "I wanted to explore is the older, clunkier technology."

Chung cited Rockstar's 1950s-themed detective game LA Noire as an example of the more arbitrary methods of investigation that he wanted to explore; while investigating an arson, the player has to travel to the Hall of Records to do some intrepid cross-referencing. "There's this juicy, delightful analog use of all these tools because they didn't have computers," Chung said of the experience. "You couldn't just put in one keystring to do everything."

In the last year, game designers have been honing the core of what hacking means to them personally, tweaking it to their very specific vision. Whether it's the analog, old-fashioned deck-feel of Quadrilateral Cowboy or the subversion of blasé cyberpunk stylistic clichés in Beglitched, games aren't just representing one vision of hacking anymore. Instead, they're representing the culture more accurately than ever—a world where hackers don't all feel like they're of the Aiden Pearce variety, and both pink Glitch_Witches and hoodied Elliots can coexist. A world where completing hacks can be clunky and a little imperfect but all in all still feel just right.