It was right about when I scrolled past the virus festeringchunk2 (1) in my Download Manager and again heard the desktop assistant Professor Helper’s appeal to guide me to a free cruise and credit report site that I realized my computer was trashed and the game Hypnospace Outlaw is a work of genius.
Hypnospace Outlaw, which came out on Steam yesterday, is a detective game that plays out on the late ‘90s web. That web is mostly contained within a platform called Hypnospace, rated by the fictional ARCMag as the “best Sleeptime Social Network.” As an Enforcer on that network, the player’s job—a “volunteer” job—is to track down and report users who violate Hypnospace’ code of conduct, or C.H.I.M.E, which stands for Content Infringement, Harassment, Illegal content, Malicious software or Extralegal commerce. That earns them HypnoCoin, which can be spent on frivolous web purchases, like a virtual pet squid that poops on your desktop, or antivirus software for when your system is infected with malware. The player learns this through a deliberately corny and slightly psychedelic in-game tutorial for Hypnos Enforcer Edition, the fake operating system in which Hypnospace Outlaw takes place.
The game’s mini-stories unfold as the player explores and investigates Geocities-style websites, the player learns of mini-plots in the course of their investigations. When the player is asked to look into a case of harassment on the Teentopia zone, the alleged perpetrator, ZANE_ROCKS_14, just seems like your regular teen edgelord with his camo background and gifs of twirling guns—nothing worth immediately flagging. As the player explores more Teentopia pages, including some with “The Official Zane Sucks Club Badge,” their opinion of this Zane and his internet footprint might shift. Another time, the player is asked to take down websites that use the commerce app Capa Cash, used widely across sites that seem a little scammy, and may come across indications that there’s something more sinister at play.
Hypnospace Outlaw is plot-driven, and it’s hard not to get lost in its surprisingly deep waters. There are dozens upon dozens of Hypno pages, all with charming, sometimes unnervingly accurate touches like snowflake mouse trails, long and detailed reviews for fictional musicians’ albums, phishing e-mails, bleeding-heart fan pages, shitty poetry and online spiritual consultations. A diverse and time-appropriate soundtrack forms the background for players’ web explorations, like the dad rock group Chowder Man and the Linkin Park-styled Seepage, whom ZANE_ROCKS_14 describes as “incredable.”
The game’s cultures and subcultures bleed together and break apart, perfectly evoking real-life internet phenomena, and it all plays out as websites change over weeks and months. At the same time, subplots are fleshed out as the player is asked to question the ethics of content moderation and Hypnospace as a whole.
In one moment, an over-earnest first grade teacher, whose page is filled with her students’ crayon illustrations, changes her page after coming in contact with the player. Evoking today’s internet, and every internet that has existed before, its new text reads, “I came to this place to relax and make new friends. Instead, it leaves me MORE stressed out than dealing with a bunch of 6 year olds all day. If things don’t change, I’m getting a REFUND.”