Video games are pieces of software. They are executables that you run on your computer, just like Google Chrome or Spotify or LibreOffice. For such an obvious fact of the medium, not many games do much with this idea. I previously cited Uplink as a game that did acknowledge this idea by treating the game as a program the player runs to connect to a fantasy hacking world. I briefly mentioned in that piece that Hacknet, a game inspired by Uplink, didn’t try to evoke this aesthetic, but after recently playing their excellent Labyrinths DLC, I was happily proven wrong. When I launched the game after installing the DLC, I found it interesting that, instead of opening the game’s executable directly, it opened a Windows command prompt, which then ran the game’s executable. This seemed like a trivial chain of events that I initially wrote off as bad design, but later, I discovered why it was implemented: to force the player to think of the game itself as a piece of software in order to further the hacker fantasy the game was trying to create. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time I have seen a game directly force this acknowledgment, and how it builds up to this event and executes on it is nothing short of masterful.
Hacknet, like Uplink, styles itself after real-world hacking just enough to give a tech-savvy player a loose sense of verisimilitude. At the game’s lowest level, the player is typing text instructions into a UNIX command line. If the player is familiar with these commands, such as cd, ls, rm, scp, they will enter the game with a wealth of knowledge for navigating its systems already at their disposal. Tricks I learned from using the terminal on my Mac, such as hitting tab to autocomplete a word I was typing, transferred over to the game with a surprisingly consistency. Uplink used a similar trick, but offered additional UI elements that had to be operated outside the command line. Hacknet offers similar, time-saving UI elements, but each one is a shortcut for text commands the player could type out if they wanted. This results in the UI feeling less like, well, a game, and more like an actual UNIX terminal that the player is using. Now, this won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t already know some of the jargon the game is throwing at the player, and a lot of my respect for this game comes from frustration with how poorly films and games usually represent hacking. However, I think it still holds value, even to non-technical players, because it teaches them, at least slightly, real-world computer skills, and doesn’t break the player’s immersion the more they learn about the subject. Additionally, the genuine effort put into making the game feel accurate adds a great deal to its ability to blur the lines between the game and reality, allowing the player to slip into believing its fiction more easily. The base game uses these elements to great effect as the player joins various hacker groups, completes contracts, and improves their hacking arsenal. The player builds up a skillset over the course of the game, and that skillset is put to the test during a beautifully-executed moment where a rival hacker breaks into the player’s system and nearly destroys it, removing all of their acquired graphical aids. The player is forced to revert to only typing text commands to recover their system and take revenge on this rival hacker. This sequence relies entirely on the player’s skill at command line, creating a high-tension moment that similar to the common action game trope of taking away all of the player’s weapons before a climactic encounter (ex. Half-Life 2, Dragon Age: Origins). This is easily the game’s most effective moment, and, like the safe rooms in Resident Evil, serve as a culmination point for all of the game’s systemic and thematic elements. If the rest of Hacknet wasn’t set up to support it, this moment wouldn’t work, but the game’s systems naturally lead to this exact cocktail of emotions.
So, when I picked up Hacknet’s latest DLC, I wasn’t expecting them to be able to top this sequence. It was everything Hacknet was trying to be, how could that be improved upon? The answer the dev team settled on was to take an existing thematic element, namely, the blurry line between reality and the game, and forcefully acknowledge the game’s role as software on the player’s computer. Mid-way through the DLC, the player is hacked by another anonymous hacker, who, again, wipes out the player’s system, forcing a reboot. However, this hacker is more experienced than the one from the main game, and installs a virus that prevents the player’s system from rebooting. So, a friend from the player’s hacking group sends them text instructions on how to remove the virus, which seem fairly straight forward…until the game crashes. Hacknet.exe quits, leaving the player with an actual Windows command prompt, cmd.exe, opened to the folder where the Hacknet game is installed. Everything I have described up until this point was happening fictionally, within Hacknet.exe, but for the next few minutes, the player isn’t engaged with Hacknet.exe at all. These events happen entirely on the player’s operating system, using the same applications they would use outside of the game. Using cmd.exe, and the commands they learned in the game, the player opens the text file sent to them by a fictional character in Hacknet. This opened in Sublime Text, my default text editor, appearing as a text file sent from a real-world friend might. It tells the player to search for a .dll file hidden inside the Hacknet directory and run a few commands on it. Until they do this, Hacknet.exe will not start; it will only re-open that command prompt. The player has to engage with the game as a piece of software with .txt, .dll and .exe files, and until they can do that, they cannot continue the game. This raises a myriad of metatextual questions about if the player is technically still “playing” Hacknet, as they are carrying out instructions that the game is giving to them, but the game itself is not running. But these feelings are taken even further by how the game contextualizes this hack.
My understanding of real-world hacking is severely limited, but from what I have read, the majority of them don’t do their hacking directly from their local machine. Instead, they run a virtual machine of an OS dedicated specifically to hacking, so that all their illicit activities are separated from their physical computer. The developers of Hacknet seemed aware of this, and explain Hacknet.exe as a hacking dedicated VM, so that the player can imagine themselves running it like a real hacker would. Thus, when the rival hacker attacks their system, the player poking around in their actual OS doesn’t feel like a dissonant removal from the game’s fiction, it feels like someone broke their hacking VM and they need to fix it. With all of the attention the game is drawing to this recontextualization, it should break the player’s immersion by forcing them to examine the game-software distinction that is so often unexamined. But because of the efforts to contextualize each action in the mechanics of real-world hacking, the game’s illusion is maintained. I’m hesitant to bring up the “games can do this but other media can’t!” argument, since it usually doesn’t provide any interesting conclusions, but in this case, the game forces the player to understand it as a piece of software before they continue. Other media cannot make sure its audience understands a thematic point before proceeding, but games can require it. Hacknet does this by expanding the boundaries of its fictional world, and in doing so, bumps into a concept that is decades older than the medium of video games itself.
The concept, called the magic circle, was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens. He described the circle as the dividing line between the world of the game and the world of reality. Inside it, concepts like points, teams, winning and losing are all given a value that, outside of the game, is entirely worthless. Points don’t actually mean anything in the real world, but inside the magic circle, they become the keys to victory. Good game designers are consistently using each element of their game to reinforce the magic circle, to avoid breaking the player’s belief in it, the same way writers and filmmakers try to avoid breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief in other media. In Hacknet, I have no earthly idea where the magic circle ends and the real world begins, but I somehow still fully believe in it. Acknowledging that games are pieces of software should completely shatter the magic circle, and I can think of dozens of games where this happened due to graphical glitches, game crashes, or mis-firing quest triggers. Hacknet, by positioning itself so close to reality, preserves its magic circle, while simultaneously calling attention to it. I don’t know if the possibility space of acknowledging games as software is vast, yet unexplored, or small, and Hacknet is using one of its limited applications. Regardless, it is something unique that the medium is capable of, and I’ve found exploring it to be fascinating as both a player and critic.