Some things, we feel, are better left forgotten. Old mistakes, poor choices, the people we were so long ago. Unfortunately, the universe has found a way to continue dredging up those old memories: memories and “on this days” on various social media platforms remind us of every stumbling block we took to get to who we are now. What’s strange is, even if it doesn’t pertain to us, the residual embarrassment of Who We Were is crippling. That’s the primary experience of Hypnospace Outlaw, developed by Tendershoot: an unabashed look at how things were, how insufferable we all used to be, and a sensation of just wanting to forget it and move on. But that’s just the beginning.
To its credit, Hypnospace Outlaw is a beautiful game. It leans completely into its aesthetic on three different, but complimentary, wavelengths: the visuals, the sound design and music, and the interface.
Visually, the game slaps you from the onset. It looks like a program or a system we might’ve used in the before-times. Bright and fuzzy desktop, simplified messaging system, and…we’ll just call them “era-appropriate” webpages. From the absolute mangled visual design, the contrasting colors and themes, the deluge of art assets, it is utterly painful to look at, but feels so historically accurate.
But at the same time, this was how people expressed themselves: out of passion, or experimentation. It was a frontier of what was new, and it allowed people to openly and unabashedly express who they were. You learn a lot about people by what they put on their pages, then and now.
And, bless your ears, they’re going to be inundated with music on, what felt like, almost every visitable webpage. Compressed and MIDI-style soundtracks will assault your ears at every turn. Lyrical compositions, whether from artists or corporations, will welcome you to different pages. Your helpful talking head will let you know there’s new mail. God help you if Professor Helper is installed. And if you have a virtual pet, you’ll probably hear farting sounds more than you’d like. And this is barely scratching the surface.
But at the same time, each piece of music was crafted to immerse players that much further into the world. Take a breath, sit, listen to the music, and you could learn a lot about everything that’s going on.
And the interface is sublime for really throwing players back into the yestertimes. Mouse trails, double-clicking (it feels louder), clunky keystrokes, wiggling the mouse to make things load faster, it’s all a series of small things that snowball into a complete and cohesive (albeit, chaotic) experience. And to anyone who regularly used computers in the 90s, it feels all too familiar. It truly unlocks something in the back of our heads. Small, simple memories that make up a greater whole, but don’t stand on their own.
All of this aesthetic work goes in for the overarching story: players are an Enforcer for the Hypnospace webpages, and must track down and address various infractions they find within: use of copyrighted imagery, unlicensed software, online harassment, and so on. That’s the surface story. In the efforts to dig around and uncover such violations, players get a snapshot into any number of stories going on just behind the scenes. Hacker groups, secret societies, jilted creators taking a stand, teenage love, everything is there, it just takes a little extra detective work to uncover and appreciate. There’s a lot to discover, and it’s far better to discover it on one’s own. And make no mistake: as with the overall aesthetic, there are some cringey story elements. Yet in its familiarity, it is comforting cringe. There is a bit of who we old users were in that digital frontier.
So, why subject yourself to an experience that, while so deeply and lovingly rooted in what made the late 90s what it was on the computer, is still rooted in the late 90s computer culture? Well, for the young’uns, it might be a fun little jaunt into how things once were. A digital frontier mystery to investigate and solve.
For the ones who more clearly remember those systems and programs, I believe it’s more of a reminder. We are who we are because of who we were. The choices we made, good or bad, led us to where we are now. Hopefully, it is a better person who looks back at Past You, acknowledges who that was, and can chuckle knowingly. “Someday, you’ll understand.” Hypnospace Outlaw asks us to look at who we were squarely in the eye and accept it for who it was, and acknowledge we’ve grown from it.
All images captured in-game.