Seemingly the entire PC simulation game genre has a tendency to give the player immediate head-first immersion. That immersion is in both senses of the word: complete theming of all audio/visual elements of the game, and complete detachment from guiding the player, forcing them to make mistakes and learn from them. Uplink, a 2001 game from Introversion Software, is no different, but takes that immersion a step further. Games like Roller Coaster Tycoon or Sim City might have interfaces which give the idea of building an amusement park or city, but they don’t have the direct interaction like Uplink has. Uplink is a game about hacking, from the eyes of the hacker himself. At the outset of the game, the player is asked for a login, and is given an account at the eponymous company. You get a computer, a brief tutorial on the UI, and set loose in the world of hacking.
But this game about hacking, isn’t really a game about hacking. It’s a game about the fake hacking you see in films like Hackers or WarGames. Side note, the game in WarGames is the basis of another Introversion game, DEFCON. Anyways, the detachment from realistic hacking makes Uplink so much better, an ironic embrace of the bullshit you see in modern procedurals.
The main loop in Uplink starts with the player accepting a mission from a client, receiving an email from the client, and following the instructions inside. The player replies to the email on completion, and the funds are transferred if done correctly. The game starts out simple enough, tasking the player with copying or deleting a file on a server. Each connection the player makes can be traced, so a smart hacker covers their tracks. Accessing and compromising a server should never be done directly, the player has to bounce between multiple connections before reaching the target machine. Each bounce takes more time for the target to trace you, giving you more time to hack. One of the first programs you buy is the trace tracker, a little bar in the corner that tells you how close they are to catching you. Getting caught is not a very good idea, and doing so can result in some serious damages, like having your computer seized by the government, and getting a permanent game over. But that trace isn’t only while you’re connected, a passive trace can keep going while you’ve left a trail. There’s a constant threat of having left a trail, which creates this paranoia where you’re not sure if the feds are tracking you right now and they’re at your doorstep.
But all of that doesn’t matter at the start of the game, where hacks are simple and benign, like giving someone a criminal record, stealing their bank information, or pronouncing them as deceased. More serious hacks, like destroying a system or framing someone for bank fraud, appear later in the game and have more global consequences. There’s a news board in the game which gives all the juicy details of the world’s current events, which may include your own endeavors. This is where Uplink becomes more than just a silly simulation game, and shows how all aspects were thought out and implemented. News stories, stock markets, logs, and a variety of information all coincide to flesh out this network of corporations and anarchists, all fighting each other in a variety of ways. Follow enough news stories and you’ll get a mysterious email to kick off a storyline, which predictably gets pretty intense in either of the two different routes.
That same intensity isn’t uncommon in the base game as well. Each hack is a dance with getting caught, and all done with frantic mouse clicks, while remembering and processing the mission objective. As you upgrade your gateway, more options lay open to you, also with more problems to deal with. More complex hacks mean more steps to complete, and more balance needed between which programs are running on your computer. Some of the hacks get annoying, forcing you to repeat multiple hacks on the same system, since you can’t have enough space on your gateway to handle it all. Or others, where the information given to you is incorrect, or outright inaccessible. But each time you get in, there’s this enjoyable pressure in the hacking process, which can build up to working against seconds to delete any trace of your presence on the system.
The concept and potential of hacking is taken to its absolute extreme in Uplink, where everything just connects in the most perfect way. Voice passwords require you to call the system administrator, which requires you to find the admin’s phone number. Illegitimate bank transfers can also be directed to your own account, at the risk of a much higher security. A console can be accessed for easier mass deletion of files, and an IRC client is included in the game for some reason. There doesn’t seem to be anything missing from the package in Uplink, which makes it constantly enjoyable every time I boot it up. If there’s one think lacking, it’s only got the hacking missions, which only increase in challenge. I would appreciate a simpler puzzle minigame like the solitaire in Shenzhen I/O, or a class of intentionally easy hacks, given at all difficulties. It’s probably a good thing I can’t spend 10 hours straight in Uplink, but feeling tensed up after a session makes me unable to really dig deep unless I force myself. But I’m glad I did, since Uplink has a lot beneath its already impressive surface.
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Also published on Medium.