Pop culture has a long history with computer hackers. It seems like only yesterday a young Angelina Jolie stole America’s collective heart in Hackers, a cult classic featuring students performing feats of computer mastery. WarGames, Watch_Dogs, and even TRON romanticise the lofty, well-meaning goals of the hacking community who see their work as an important and necessary means to fight corruption and strengthen security at the behest of the computer illiterate and ignorant. As technology becomes more and more sophisticated, so too do the techniques of the community to keep up with the challenges of modern computers and networks. On top of that, they work to root out those that would damage the already precarious PR positioning hackers struggled to cultivate. In an age where Anonymous reveals sensitive information on protected organizations, rogue groups shut down video game servers or expose the identity of cheating spouses, the very nature of computer security and how little of it most people understand is a growing concern for all sides.

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the romance of the hacking community’s exploits. Between their attacks on Scientology and assistance with the Steubenville High School rape case, it doesn’t take much for Anonymous’ exploits to earn headlines. Those of us who yearn for a taste of the action without wanting to worry about getting swatted, doxxed, or arrested, have an outlet in HackNet. Developed by Team Fractal Alligator, the game is a hacking simulator presented from the point of view of a virtual desktop comprised of a GUI and command line screen. Your Red Pill trip through the Internet rabbit hole begins with a plea from Bit, a prominent hacker who vanished two weeks prior to the start of the game. Bit’s automated system sends you a cry for help and a quick tutorial on the basics of hacking. The search for Bit is the game’s overall goal, though the majority of HackNet is spent fulfilling assignments offered by various Internet security companies.

Assignments such as modifying student records, clearing out game saves, planting evidence, and deleting sensitive information are done through the virtual desktop’s GUI. You’ll acquire the tools needed to break through HTTP ports, firewalls, and proxies to complete each errand. For those with little experience on the concepts of attacking networks, HackNet does a fantastic job of holding the player’s hand for the first hour. The tutorials and explanations aren’t perfect, some of the executable names are typed differently in the command line than the mission notes, and it helps to keep a notepad handy for some of the later missions. However, the developers are were smart to integrate a lot of repetition in the early hours that develops muscle memory and a mental checklist of attack patterns. Before long, I was disabling firewalls and breaking through FTPs like a wannabe David Lightman. It’s easy to feel like a deer in the headlights when later contracts get far more elaborate, but the contract notes supplied with each mission always offer a comfortable nudge in the right direction.

Contracts are handed out via an email system that provides mission parameters and links to target networks. Many of these missions involve getting into a system, retrieving or writing down specific data (like passwords or IP addresses), and sending that information to your employers. There’s a strong emphasis on deleting network logs before closing out a mission, so you’ll need to clear your tracks to avoid unwanted attention. I’ve left some logs untouched after a few missions but nothing really happened. The game didn’t end nor did I find myself at the mercy of rival hackers or savvy FBI agents, so I question the value with such diligence. Hacking a system is as easy as typing out executables (the TAB key is your friend because it autofills program and file names) to break down a system’s defenses before diving deep into its file structure. Your in-game computer’s system memory limits the number of programs and shells you can run at a time. Initially, there’s no need to hurry through your attack until tracers force you to work under the gun. The time limit, noted by a red countdown clock and high pitched beeping, adds a feeling of tension as you navigate directories to manipulate mission critical files and get out before the tracer reboots your system via the dreaded Blue Screen of Death (an amazing design for a game over screen). HackNet is generous with its save states and they always take you to the point before you launched the failed attack on the system.

While you’re encouraged to perform contracts with a “get in, get out” mentality, there’s value in taking the time to scrounge. The text logs in HackNet are the game’s primary source of comic relief, as IRC logs expose chats among computer users on various topics, such as griefing, sexting, a ruinous update for a popular MMO, and an adult toy store transaction gone wrong. The content presented in such logs is surprisingly current and true to life. While some writers struggle to produce convincing dialog, the logs found here could easily be copied and pasted from real world forums. In fact, what gave me the biggest laughs were chat logs from a website called Bash.org which is a thinly veiled reference to 4chan. It’s not as filthy as the real thing (almost) but it’s a pretty damn good likeness. Oh, and there’s also a fully playable Clicker game. Get in and get out when you can, though be sure to stop and smell the digital roses.

Not all of HackNet is all fun and games. There’s a point in the game where it challenges you to put all the skills and tools learned in a challenging plot point involving a villainous hacker that breaks into your system and removes its GUI. Armed with a command screen, you must restore the system without the quality of life assistance that comes with a visual interface. Admittedly, this portion of the game absolutely terrified me because I felt blinded. Although I had to seek help getting through this part of the game, I learned not to rely on the GUI and hand code the bulk of my work. I was really impressed with how well the developers constructed this “make or break” teachable moment. Completing the mid-game twist opens up additional contracts that culminate in discovering Bit’s fate and participating in Operation Junebug, an assignment that is equal parts terrifying and horrifying.

HackNet features an interface so realistic it might bring unwanted attention if played in public. The GUI gives the game a real sense of legitimacy. At one point, my wife came into the office and quipped that I was trying to hack the Ashley Madison website. Even the game’s boot up sequences and BSOD are designed after real computer errors and with no other branding, logos, or visual cues, it’s easy to forget you’re playing a video game. And that’s a teensy bit scary. I only wish I had the power to clean up and organize the game’s “netMap” that displays all the hackable networks. The more you play, the more cluttered it gets.

I was really surprised with how deep I got into HackNet. The process of running programs to break through SSH and HTTP ports is genuinely interesting and exciting than it appears. There’s even some replay value as an option to side with one of two factions offers a branching path to the end of the game. After playing the game, I can see why people in the real world take a liking to the challenge that hacking provides. Simple and complex, HackNet is a thrilling and eye opening look into the world that keeps making headlines in the news. Kudos to Team Fractal Alligator for making something so complex feel accessible to everyone.  

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.