Review: Hypnospace Outlaw

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If you’re old enough to remember exploring the wild, untamed internets of the 90s, you’re sure to have a unique fondness for the experience. Before the manicured tiles and mobile-friendly layouts of the modern web, netsurfing was a morass of raw HTML, flashing text, low-res fire GIFs, and embedded audio. It was special because it was a future no one had predicted and it felt fresh and honest in a world growing increasingly commercialized, even as it was being commercialized itself. This key period of online history is the inspiration for Hypnospace Outlaw, a one-of-a-kind adventure that simulates the highs and lows of exploring the internet back when anything was possible.

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In an alternate 1999, MerchantSoft has launched Hypnospace, a home computing system you interface with in your sleep via a specialized headband. While snoozing away you can visit the webpages of other Hypnospace users using the HypnOS search and navigation tools which bear striking resemblance to classics like Netscape. Of course, any online community is prone to abuses, and that’s where you come in. As a volunteer Hypnospace Enforcer, you have been empowered to flag all sorts of violations, from copyright infringement to malware, in return for some of Hypnospace’s virtual currency. As the HSPD assigns you cases to investigate, you’ll gain access to more of the online community and come to learn of its many quirks and issues.

I went into Hypnospace Outlaw without really knowing where its story would lead, and the surprises it had in store for me should absolutely not be spoiled. What I will say is that while your cases make up a majority of the gameplay, eventually the scope of your investigations will expand in unexpected ways. There’s a lot going on in Hypnospace beyond fan pages for indie bands and teens slapping together proto-Livejournals, and a lot of it maps to the development of the early internet we know and cannot escape. You’ll find a lot of smart observations about the development of online communities here, and the forces that rose to prey on them in different ways.

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That might sound a bit grim, but I can assure you that most of your time in Hypnospace will be spent trying to stifle belly laughs. The folks that put together this alternate web understand past and present internet culture far better than most, and built these pages in a perfect space between homage and parody. You’ll find garish, rambling conspiracy sites, kids posting idiot webcomics about their school, small-time rockers looking for new life online, religious sects butting heads, and early online advertising for hilarious products like hot butter ice cream. All of these pages and properties are fully fleshed-out, whether they play a part in your investigations or not. You can learn the full scope and history of Squishers, the Chowder Man, and the coolpunk movement, and I can assure you the hours spent pouring over them will be well worth it.

Much like the virtual world you have to explore, the gameplay features some simple core mechanics and a vast array of additional functions to fiddle with. For your cases, you’ll generally just need to track down the specified offences and tag them with your special enforcement tool. Most challenges tend to have several ways to overcome them, and will generally grow in complexity with passwords and hidden sites as you progress. But the open nature of the game means you can stumble upon these features early, or use the same techniques to find additional content that builds on the story or just gives you new toys to play with. There are themes and backgrounds for your HypnOS interface, virtual pets to care for, little downloadable games, and an entire sound synthesizer you can use to make your own MIDI-esque tracks. You’ll find hundreds of files to download and clutter your desktop with, most notably the incredible songs that are embedded all over Hypnospace.

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It’s a very unconventional adventure, but one that should be immediately familiar and engrossing to anyone who’s ever been online. Hypnospace Outlaw is a fascinating window into the internet of yesteryear, whether it be a look back for us older folks or a fresh look for the new online crowd. The aesthetic is powerfully spot-on, from the messy HTML layouts to the crude CG videos that look straight out of those old Mind’s Eye videos. And the story is definitely something special, shining a light on some of the forgotten excesses of the early web. Really the only barrier to entry is your willingness to surf all kinds of strange, janky webpages, and if you’re here reading this then you’ve already cleared that bar.

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