There was perhaps no trailer more Thomas-tailored than the one for HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW. Long a vocal proponent of vaporwave, I was instantly smitten by the archaic dial-up sounds, clunky, late ‘90s/early aughts animations, and overall impression of stumbling across message boards cryogenically frozen two decades ago. Doing just what it says on the tin, aesthetic reigns supreme over the course of HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW, and you’d do well to assess just how charmed you are by its presentation before taking a deep-dive into what can be a ponderous, obtuse, and extremely stoned cyberspace slow-ride. As such, there are perhaps arguments against HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW’s success as a game, at least for a traditional audience, but as an experience it’s hard to pretend that this isn’t one of modern gaming’s most distinctly memorable.
Something tells me they knew who they were appealing to
You play a moderator tasked with keeping law and order in Hypnospace, a virtual reality that users enter at night after a long, grueling day IRL. Hypnospace is generally a friendly and welcoming place where people of like-minded interests can find each other, but your standard litany of internet woes, from copyright infringement to illegal and profane content, pop up from time-to-time. It’s your job to keep a sharp eye out for anything less-than kosher, reporting cases back to command for cash rewards, occasionally even having to pull on the gloves and recommend a user for termination if too many infractions are incurred. Things start out innocently enough, but before too long, signs point to a user who may be more insidious, planning a “prank” with potentially deadly consequences.
From that brief description alone, you can probably surmise that HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW doesn’t exactly offer edge-of-the-seat thrills. A point-and-click adventure through and through, the most kinetic thing that happens is having access to a search bar that lets you find internet pages with keywords of interest. The returns are severely diminished if you cheat and look up which direction to turn online, but the full, immersive effect only reveals itself in a slow, slow burn that sees you click around and read every page belonging to every Hypnospace user. I’m somewhat torn on whether or not this constitutes points against the game. On one hand, things can tiptoe towards the tedious if you’re not in the right mindset, but on the other, this relaxed of a playstyle is a bit of an accomplishment in and of itself, allowing each and every meticulously crafted detail to achieve its full potential, rewarding the more patient player with its rich world of story.
But, to be clear, what a world of story it is! Lovingly rendered and impeccably attuned to the stylings and preferences of the internet of yesteryear, there are plenty of satisfying rabbit holes to fall down, whether it’s collecting stickers on the Teentopia message board, keeping up with the Chowderman and his mercurial music career, investing in the Coolpunk scene, or reading the short horror stories and comics of various goth users. With everything from the outdated concept of songs autoplaying on landing pages, to the Blingee-quality stickers and clip art, to, my personal favorite, a winking effect where the pages literally load faster if you wildly move the mouse back and forth (‘member?), every part of HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW feels nostalgic, lived-in, and self-aware without being obnoxious about it.
As for the actual progression of the game, the first of three chapters doesn’t place much impetus on you to operate on a deadline, so this is where you’ll quickly assess whether or not you’re tickled by meeting the various residents of Hypnospace, memorable or otherwise. More-or-less allowed to enforce as you see fit, I personally would recommend clicking without prejudice and seeing what bizarre corner of the server you end up so you can get an expansive lay of the land, but those itchy to move forward won’t have too much trouble blazing through it with use of the search bar and a lick of common sense. That said, any user legitimately undertaking the game would do well to make use of the mechanic by which you can bookmark pages with certain categories: this will make your life much easier in terms of what general message boards and zones to explore as the directives get less direct. At large, all of the sleuthing you’ll end up doing will result from carefully reading all of the content on web pages, so don’t be afraid to make use of sticky notes, multiple windows, and the like to keep your head on your shoulders.
Buckle in, things are going to get weird
All that aside, even if the first act isn’t quite for you, the narrative gains a notable amount of steam as the chapter wraps up, an intimidating and gross virus pop-up continually haranguing you until your goose gets cooked. As Hypnospace picks up the pieces and the search for the perpetrator begins, the proceedings get injected with a refreshing bit of moral ambiguity as you begin to see the effects of your enforcement policies critiqued by citizens they’ve affected. While a bully in Teentopia gets little sympathy, the groups organizing to protest you flagging renditions of a beloved children’s character in a virtual classroom for copyright infringement may be rightfully asking who watches the watchmen. What’s more, you begin to trust dispatch and the developers of Hypnospace less and less as they point you in the direction of cases that clearly benefit them at the expense of program users. While this aspect doesn’t gel with the hacker narrative in the most cohesive of ways, it’s still a nice moral conundrum to inject into something that up until that point mostly skated by on the strength of its visuals.
Very strong visuals
If any of my commentary seems cautionary, it’s only to encourage you to make sure you become acquainted with HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW in the right frame of mind. It’s an often quiet and understated experience, but a resolutely special one throughout. Those looking for their next hit of A E S T H E T I C should run, not walk, and anyone in the mood for a vibrant and colorful flip on a point-and-click mystery game should be serviced as well. It’s bound to be a bit polarizing for shooter junkies, and I’m sure there are those who will find its pacing dead on arrival, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be seeing HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW again come year-end list season.