The early days of the internet are hard to remember. Sure, there are touchstones like AOL Instant Messenger and Napster but it’s difficult to visualize what the pre-Google internet was like. And for younger generations, it’s a total mystery. (Spoiler: it was a mess.)
The limited search engines were terrible, the websites shoddy, virus-laden and full of trash and 28.8 kbps meant no video, few pictures and MIDI-driven music. Yet, within this amalgam of UX nightmares there was a beautiful freedom as people everywhere discovered that the internet is where freak flags fly highest. The internet of the late ‘90s was unregulated, demonetized and absolutely bizarre. And it is largely lost to history.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a wildly inventive puzzler/point-and-click indie darling available now on Xbox Game Pass. In Hypnospace Outlaw players take on the role of a beefed-up internet moderator of sorts who works for a dystopian agency tasked with policing “hypnospace,” a ‘90s-inspired interwebs accessed while you sleep, for a bevy of familiar violations. You review websites for copyright violations, currency snafus and, eventually, some deep, dark secrets.
The charm of Hypnospace Outlaw is how faithfully it captures the spirit of the janky ‘90s internet. Everything is there from the tinny music and poorly-written websites to the seemingly endless directories of links which were the primary means of discovering content before Google googled the world.
The mechanic is similar to Papers, Please in that what you’re looking at is your workstation and the game is you typing and clicking on websites to investigate the cases you’re assigned. For example, one of the earliest is a complaint from a cartoonist’s estate about copyright infringements that eventually has you cracking down on an elementary school art class web page. It’s a lot more fun, and a lot more interesting, than it sounds. It taps into a voyeuristic power trip unique to the digital space. You get to be a self-righteous internet stalker without any real-world toxicity. It’s great.
Don’t be fooled by its devotion to aesthetics, Hypnospace Outlaw is a devilishly difficult puzzle game, aided in part by the off-putting oddities you’re browsing. You’ll be assigned some cases that cause you to click around incessantly and others that trigger you to remember something you spotted hours ago. Because in between the dedicated detective work you can just do a whole lot of browsing.
Seriously, you will marvel at the depth and breadth of the simulated 90s internet captured in this game. True to life, the in-game search bar is just as useful for finding clues as it is for wasting hours of your time.
It’s easy to forget the past and the digital past especially since its footprints are fleeting. You’ll never be able to boot up Netscape and show off your fancy HTML text styling skills on GeoCities forums anymore, but instead you can dive into Hypnospace Outlaw and experience a simpler, weirder time when the internet seemed a harmless sideshow full of authentically weird people and if you wanted to know anything all you had to do was Ask Jeeves.