It’s not a secret I’m fascinated by the old web. This enthusiasm isn’t powered by nostalgia since I was born after the fact, but I can’t deny I orbit anything related, including videogames. After falling in love with the internet of the early twenty-first century in works like Lost Memories Dot Net or Secret Little Haven, it figures I had to give Hypnospace Outlaw a try, if not to get a fresh outlook.
Now, imagine a rendition of the old web as seen through contemporary eyes, with contemporary sensibilities. For instance, in this videogame, you don’t use social media as we know it, but the philosophy behind it—hyper-vigilance, centralization, inescapable corporate ownership and control of user-generated content—is the basis of this world. Hypnospace might look like the past, but it speaks like the present.
In Hypnospace Outlaw you’re an internet cop whose job is to navigate a fictional GeoCities, looking for infractions that you can then report to make some coin. Infractions go from using copyrighted material to harassment or distribution of malware. But see, there’s a twist: your job makes the internet worse because your tools are made to strike users, not to help them. Who would’ve thought?
Hypnospace is ambivalent about the implications of this role. In the first chapters, you punish users’ online faux pas or juvenile antics. However, at a certain point in the game, when your role as an enforcer is no longer useful to the corporation behind you, Hypnospace resignifies the game mechanics to give you a much more benign task. Before, navigating Hypnospace was a means of policing: you tracked down the suspect and flagged them, no matter the context, the way the community handles conflict, or even the culprit! You crept into this world only to leech off and erode it from the outside. But in this last chapter, you browse Hypnospace in order to archive it and use your enforcement tools to dismantle the evil corporation’s crimes. The mechanics don’t change, but their framework does. As an enforcer, your work destroys the game world. As an archivist, your work preserves it. This hopeful gesture is a nice conclusion, but it’s not enough to hold the nebulous vision of the game.
One would think its visual influences or the anachronistic elements it injects into them would point to a commentary on either the past or the present of the web, but I’m afraid representation doesn’t entail insight. Thus, whether the personal web pages are meant as satire, nostalgia bait, or sincere character studies is irrelevant. They build an environment, but such an environment doesn’t allow itself to be; it’s there in the service of something else that came afterward. Let’s keep the slow loading times and the quixotic navigating system, but put some juiciness into it. Let’s use the personal site format to tell stories, but the actual story is incidental to them. This swerve turns the lore into the story and vice versa, illustrating the work’s lack of direction and purpose. It is as if Hypnospace Outlaw looked only through its heart, not deeming it enough.