Most of us don’t have to revisit gloriously-hideous artifacts like the official Space Jam site (vintage ‘96) to know that the internet has come a long way since its formative years as a haven for cranks, weirdos, and idealists – after all, we were there for it. But for the legions of teenagers who know the Web as a glossy, corporatized space full of targeted ads and elegant landing pages expertly-crafted to part you with your money, there’s a number of ambitious indie games that hearken back to those wilder eras.
Released earlier this month, Jay Tholen’s “Hypnospace Outlaw” recalls the millennial malaise of late 1999, when the flashing banner ads stretched from here to the horizon, and you had to trust your index finger to close all those troublesome pop-ups manually. But unlike a lot of other internet simulator games, “Hypnospace” manages to recreate not only the retro-art trappings of its desired vintage, but also the bizarre stream of diaristic, vapid, and otherwise pointless content that users put up back when nobody had any idea what the internet was actually for.
Despite its uncanny accuracy, “Outlaw” presents itself as more of a parody than a documentary effort, with users surfing its proprietary Web as they sleep by putting on headbands that plug into their chunky PCs. (“I don’t even have any idea how it’s supposed to work,” Tholen says. “I just thought it was a funny idea.”) You play as a newcomer to Hypnospace, a volunteer “Enforcer” trusted with removing posts that violate the manufacturer’s terms of service, defined by the less-than-helpful acronym “CHIME.” While scrubbing the various “zones” of adware, hate speech, and copyrighted images forms the core of the game’s story and progression – with some light point-and-click puzzles sprinkled in for good measure – these tasks are mostly just a pretext to plumb the depths of this wonderfully fake Internet.
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Given the obvious effort that went into its AOL-core aesthetic, you might expect “Outlaw” to be little more than a nostalgia-trip, playfully poking fun at the corpse of yesterday’s culture. But while there’s plenty of homages to the detritus of that era – including several terrifyingly-accurate nu metal songs performed by a first-rate Chester Bennington impersonator – the game wants to be more than just a series of easy punchlines. Before “Outlaw,” Tholen was arguably best-known for the deeply strange adventure game “Dropsy,” which stars an innocent clown that just wants to hug people, yet is rebuffed by most due to his anguished appearance.
While it’s a very different sort of puzzler, you can feel that influence throughout “Hypnospace,” as it strikes that same balance of goofy charm and black comedy. At first, it’s easy to dismiss the users you’re moderating as cardboard cutouts of the era: the goth girl who loves to write ghost stories, the bully who makes a sockpuppet account to pretend to be his girlfriend, and so on. As the game progresses and you begin to see the effects that your policing has on these communities and their denizens, you start to get a deeper appreciation for who these users are, and how this virtual world helps them escape from their very real problems.
“I think there’s a tendency for people to group other people on the internet into stereotypes,” Tholen says. “I wanted to play into that. For example, you look at the bully, Zane. He’s lashing out and making fun of a guy named Corey, but if you look around, there’s a whole group of people making fun of his page, too, and he doesn’t even realize it. He thinks they’re his friends That’s based on [comedy website] Something Awful, and how they used to make fun of people they deemed inferior. I went through that phase myself when I was 14. I was low on the totem pole at my high school, and when I discovered the Something Awful forums, it was like I had this identity for the first time that was entirely based on taking down other people. It was awful, and I eventually grew out of it, but I wanted to depict that through Zane.”
Tholen says that he and his fellow writer Xalavier Nelson, Jr. scoured archives and the remains of dusty webpages to strike at an authentic tone. While they tried to avoid directly copy-and-pasting from these actual documents, some of the game’s more memorable gags were inspired by these primary sources. For example, Tholen says they based a bafflingly positive review of an album the fictional nu-metal band “Seepage” on an actual one written by a confused Baby Boomer about Korn’s first album. “It’s funny, because rap-rock and nu-metal as basically such a joke now,” Tholen says. “But here’s this review written by a guy who’s way too old to get it, saying, ‘hey, this is really novel! Rock and rap together!’ It’s such a cute thing that we couldn’t help but include it.” Additionally, most of the content on Corey’s page was taken from Tholen’s actual LiveJournal, including an array of terrible pizza-based jokes.
At its broadest, the arc of the game can be interpreted as an indictment of dot-com era tech culture, with its knives aimed specifically at the bro-cult of the developer-slash-entrepreneur, which continues to this day. (The closest thing to a true antagonist in the game is a software developer who won’t take time away from his dream game to fix basic bugs – even when “violation points” are accruing on the victim of harassment rather than the harasser.) Such criticism is baked into the game’s very premise, which reflects the real-life unpaid volunteers that early tech giants such as LiveJournal relied upon to keep their communities relatively clean and safe.
While it’s easy to look back and laugh at the apparent naivety of the early “Netters” who believed that the internet could be harnessed to bring the world closer together, rather than tearing us into cloistered ideology-coffins through a constant deluge of misinformation, “Outlaw” suggests that modern-day problems like “fake news” have plagued us since the earliest days of the ‘net – we were just blinded by the possibilities of the information superhighway. “People forget this now, but there was really a sense at that time that the internet could solve so many problems,” Tholen says. “When I work on a game for four years, I want it to mean something, for someone to walk away feeling like they’ve gained something. We’ve figured this out now, that the people who own the platforms can use them to control us, profit off us. I think that’s always been the case, and I think that’s part of what I wanted to communicate.”