Published On: Tue, Dec 17th, 2019

Hypnospace Outlaw: a retro-futuristic exploration of the internet

If you’ve frequented certain older web forums, someone may have once told you to “lurk more.” The command admonishes newcomers to immerse themselves in a strange new digital environment until they understand its quirks and topography — to become part of a culture specifically by not participating in it.

Hypnospace Outlaw is a game for lurkers.

In Hypnospace Outlaw, you are a new user of the super-futuristic ‘90s Hypnospace network, a virtual world that is accessed through a headband while dreaming, yet is effectively composed of GeoCities pages. You’re not an ordinary user; you’re a moderator hunting down pirated music, malicious software, and abusive users. With a little hard work, you can earn enough HypnoCoin to buy a new desktop theme or your very own virtual pet squid. And you’ll be really helping the founders of Merchantsoft: Adrian Merchant, a strait-laced entrepreneur looking to take Hypnospace mainstream, and his brother Dylan, an irreverent hacker type who seems a little uncomfortable with his own success.

Hypnospace Outlaw is a sort of detective game. Your first moderation case comes in via email. (“You’ve got Hypnomail,” a strange robot-skull version of Clippy will intone.) A cartoonist’s estate is complaining about copyright violations in one of your designated zones, and your job is to browse Hypnospace until you find the offending imagery, then use a virtual gavel to hit the content and report it. The images disappear, and your next case comes in.

The jobs get more complex from there. Sometimes you’re just clicking around your zones like a cop on the beat, looking for mean kids or banned payment processors. But often, you’re hunting down a specific piece of malware or disturbing imagery. You’ll read Hypnospace pages looking for an oblique reference that might provide a lead, plug the lead into a tag search tool, and tumble down a rabbit hole finding more information — until something leads you to the offending page.

Then, as with many real online jobs, you’ll probably get frustrated and go mess around on Hypnospace. You might start by spying on forum drama, like a strained artistic collaboration between a would-be hacker and a creepypasta author or an ironic subculture called “coolpunk” that’s getting co-opted by the slick brands it satirizes. When you get tired of that, you can start simply searching keywords for anything that grabs your attention. And that’s when Hypnospace opens up.

What’s this file-sharing service people keep mentioning, and how do you get a password? Why do people play “trennis” instead of tennis? Is a shadowy collective hiding something on a seemingly blank page? Wait, how have you been reading these forums all afternoon already?

When the game works just right, there’s a perfect flow from exploration to puzzle-solving. A link will suddenly jog your memory about a task you got an hour ago. The next task reminds you of some odd page that you saw a half-hour before that. Completing it advances the timeline so you can keep following the stories of all the people involved.

You’ll see Hypnospace users during their funniest grandstanding, their pettiest sniping, and their most painfully vulnerable moments. There are the familiar pages obsessively deconstructing pop culture, from the quirky (a vintage comic about an anthropomorphic bull and sentient cape) to the cringeworthy (a remarkably catchy power ballad about shaving, performed by a has-been rocker named Chowder Man). There’s a terrible webcomic made by an edgelord teenager, an annoying adware program called “Professor Helper,” and a minor forum squabble that escalates into a surreal culture war over a cartoon fish. Communities are often hostile and chaotic, but they’re driven by compellingly raw enthusiasm — for new friends, creative expression, access to information and status, or pure unfettered chaos.

Hypnospace Outlaw screenshot

Hypnospace Outlaw’s central plot initially seems as retro as its graphics. Hypnospace is about to enter the year 2000, and founders Dylan and Adrian are locked in a struggle over its future. Adrian is financially canny but culturally out of touch, and he envisions a world of ad-supported content and soulless corporate sponsorship. Scruffy-haired Dylan remembers Hypnospace as it used to be: cool, creative, and a little lawless. And he’s working on a secret project that could blow its users’ minds.

“Authenticity” versus “selling out” was a stock conflict in the ‘90s, and it’s part of the internet’s foundational mythos: things were good when the hackers ran them, and they went bad when the suits showed up. As Y2K nears in Hypnospace Outlaw, though, Dylan’s facade starts wearing thin. We learn that his obsessive tech wizardry can look a lot like sociopathy. His “cool boss” unprofessionalism gives him a pass for sabotaging employees. And he seems more interested in maintaining anti-establishment cred than actually improving Hypnospace.

Hypnospace Outlaw isn’t an on-the-nose statement on The Internet Today; it’s a pitch-perfect period piece that’s actually set in a vibrant alternate universe. But it feels informed by modern critiques of that techie mythos — because our hackers, it turned out, didn’t always save us from the suits. Sometimes they became the suits, CEOs with technical chops but little interest in their social impact. Sometimes they carved out clubhouses for people like themselves, justifying oblivious cruelty as the prerogative of genius. And sometimes they just watched helplessly as everything fell apart.

While Hypnospace Outlaw doesn’t overly romanticize the past, it demonstrates the ways that communities can grow in spite of their creators’ mistakes. Hypnospace’s users subvert and expand its intended features. After a tragedy dramatically changes the network, they sand down its rough edges in their memories, recalling the parts that made them happiest.

Most of Hypnospace Outlaw locks you out of this world. Your “Enforcer” headband won’t support the ubiquitous chat system that other members love, for example. (One puzzle requires spending an extortionate sum on something most users could get with a simple IM.) You’re an invisible entity who interacts with people only by banging a tiny virtual gavel, and they know and often hate you for it.

Then, at a certain point in the story, this all changes. You’re invited to become a part of Hypnospace’s community, albeit a very different version of it. Instead of looking for the worst parts of its world, you’re invited to find the parts that people miss the most. Instead of taking information away from users, you’re able to give it back. The pages you’ve spent hours fumbling through are laid out at your fingertips, and Hypnospace’s final mysteries can be resolved.

At long last, you’ve lurked enough.

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