One of my fondest early videogame memories is playing the 1988 adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It was just a point-and-click adventure game, but it had a cyberspace to hack into. Once you got in, you could subvert and solve stuff in the point-and-click parts of the game. This interplay between cyberspace and meatspace was my introduction to hacking. Real hacking, not that stuff in Matthew Broderick movies. Here was a way to sneak around guards, get through locked doors, activate switches, and generally get away with stuff I wasn’t supposed to do. Here was stealth gameplay that didn’t mean standing in the dark parts of the level design, memorizing patrol routes, and reloading the game when I got spotted. This was stealth for guys like me fascinated by systems within systems within systems. If I could handle the MFDs in an F-19, by golly, I could upgrade my deck to slip past some ICE!
It’s been an interesting stretch for hacking games, but hacking too often means “doing some minigames”.
For instance, last year’s Song of Farca (pictured) certainly earns its Story Rich tag on Steam as a game about a girl under house arrest who has to use her computer to interact with the wider world. But the hacking doesn’t feel like a system within a system. Instead, it’s a series of puzzles, challenges, brain-teasers, and pixel searches. In other words, a point-and-click adventure game. Song of Farca focuses on colorful world-building over gameplay. It’s lively and chipper and worthy of a Matthew Broderick movie, but it’s not the kind of hacking I’m looking for.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a Zachtronics game from a few years ago called Exapunks (pictured). Which seemed to be exactly what I wanted. I printed out the included ‘zine (in color!) and pored over it, getting the sinking feeling that I was getting in over my head. And sure enough, when I try to actually play Exapunks, I’m keenly aware that my liberal arts education hasn’t prepared me for the average Zachtronics game. I hope to return one day, just like I hope to one day learn Japanese, run a marathon, and read a Tolstoy novel.
Which leaves me with a game with the unlikely name NITE Team 4 (pictured). A bit dry, but detailed and for the most part, manageable. Lots of systems, lots of attempts to make it feel like realworld hacking, lots of lingo, lots of busywork, but shallow, broad, and accessible enough. As I got bored of Song of Farca and frustrated with Exapunks, there was still NITE Team 4. That’s when I discovered Midnight Protocol, a strategy game first and foremost, but also my own personal Goldilocks Zone for hacking games.
Midnight Protocol (pictured, at last!) was made by Lugus Studios, a teensy team of Belgians without much industry experience. As such, they can make a game full of idiosyncrasies a publisher might have smoothed out (props to Iceberg Interactive for not confusing bold design choices with wrinkles). You can’t use your mouse, you have to type a lot, you can’t replay failed missions, you sometimes have to make blind choices based on insufficient information, and heaps of perceived inconveniences might be visited upon you in the name of immersiveness, all to make you feel like someone whose only interaction with the wider world is through a text prompt.
But in exchange for these idiosyncrasies, if you embrace this immersiveness, you’ll get hacking more complex than a box of minigames, but not as demanding as a programming language. You’ll get what I’ve been looking for all along: a strategy game.
It’s not the first time someone has made a hacking strategy game. Richard Garfield, the designer of the Magic the Gathering, made a collectible card game called Netrunner in 1996. It was a cyberpunk variation on the Magic template of two people bringing their carefully built decks of collectible cards to a tabletop battle. But instead of Magic’s five mana colors, Netrunner had a baked-in asymmetry where one player is the hacker and the other player is the mega-corporation being hacked. It was an amazing game that most people ignored. Fantasy Flight dug it up in 2012 and hitched it to one of their sci-fi properties that most people were also ignoring. The result was an amazing game that people continued to ignore until Fantasy Flight lost the license a few years ago.
Midnight Protocol plays like the single-player Netrunner no one else thought to make. Each “server” is a level with its own challenges. Different kinds of connected nodes form a map, each node giving you distinct interactions: locks, bridges, loot, lore. Between nodes you might find ICE, invisible barriers you have to defeat or go around. Many servers have an AI player called a SysOp trying to chase you down. It’s not as robust as the player vs. player model in Netrunner, but it’s got the same feel. You’re running and hiding, trying to accomplish your objectives, navigating dangerous ICE, while being chased by another hacker with his own unique powers.
Within the context of its pretty simple system, Midnight Protocol manages a ton of personality. The varieties of ICE, for instance. Or the different kinds of servers you’ll visit and their various SysOps. Or the different programs you’ll use, as robust as any wizard’s spellbook. Your deck, its upgrades, the cheat codes and back doors you’ll reveal. There’s a lot going on in Midnight Protocol, and most of it is worth your attention. If you care to look, there’s plenty of world-building and even a couple of characters you might decide to care about.
The tension comes from two sources. First, the time limit. It’s a turn-based game so the realtime time limit is infinite. But you only have a certain number of turns before the SysOp turns the tables and finds his way into your deck. Now he’s stealing money from you every turn and maybe even deleting (!) your programs. There are ways to mitigate this time limit, but Midnight Protocol only lets you take so many programs on a hacking run. If you load up on stealth to give yourself more time before you’re discovered, you’re going to have a harder time fighting ICE. Conversely, if you go into a server loaded for bear to take on whatever ICE you might face, you’re going to have a harder time eluding the SysOp. And then there are the programs you might need for your objective nodes.
Midnight Protocol is a game where you can bring five tools to a task, but you’re not always sure which five tools you’ll most need. You’ll know what kind of infrastructure you’ll encounter, so you’re not going to end up with a bunch of useless programs. But you still have to pick and choose what to bring to make your run easier. So the actual gameplay is often an exercise in doing the best you can with the tools you’ve got. That’s the second source of tension. Which wouldn’t work if you could just hack into a server, take a look around, then back out to get the tools to best beat the server. If you had perfect intelligence, Midnight Protocol would be a math problem instead of a game. Fortunately, it’s built around the fact that you won’t beat every server.
In fact, because of the way the story is structured — you decide whether to be a good guy or a bad guy — you won’t want to beat some servers. When you’re hired to set up a murder and it doesn’t happen, maybe it’s because the ICE was too hard, an encryption node blocked your way, or the SysOp pounced on you too quickly. Maybe you instead opted to snoop around and get information about the intended victim. Or maybe you made a beeline for the financial nodes because you’re more concerned with being able to afford a deck upgrade than getting in good with the kinds of people who hire hackers to set up a murder. It turns out that even though it’s a strategy game, Midnight Protocol also earns its Story Rich tag on Steam.
The front end of Midnight Protocol is a faux OS based on bopping around with the arrow keys and sometimes tapping a hotkey. The actual servers look great and play even better, with their cool, no-nonsense, two-color CRT, cyberspace glow (Remember ruthless.com? I suspect Lugus does!). Because Midnight Protocol is built around a text interface, with a focus on elegance and information, it only ever wants your keyboard. You can sit this one out, mouse. Every time you boot up Midnight Protocol, it thoughtfully reminds you not to freak out because your mouse isn’t responding.
There’s something wonderfully kinesthetic about the keyboard-only input. When I’m moving the cursor around the splashy primary colors in Song of Farca, it doesn’t feel at all like hacking. As you might imagine, the actual physical interaction with that game feels no different from playing a point-and-click adventure. But Midnight Protocol’s only opening is through my keyboard. In fact, this might sound a bit silly, but it plays inadvertently into the sound design. Not that it’s got much sound design. It blips and clicks and boops at the appropriate times when something noteworthy happens. I think it’s probably even got music, although I would have turned it down when I went to invert mouselook out of habit. But the sound design I’m talking about is the sound design I’ve provided.
Years ago, for some reason I can’t recall, I was talked into buying a mechanical keyboard. I don’t recall what’s supposed to be special about a mechanical keyboard, much less why you’d want one over an “electronic” keyboard. But I ended up with a keyboard that clacks and rattles to high hell. It’s so noisy I couldn’t use it when I was podcasting. Whenever I typed, my housemate used to joke, “Are you hacking?” Because that’s what people do on TV and in movies when they hack. They type loudly. So as I’m playing Midnight Protocol, studying how best to get around that Skorpion ICE so I can lower the bridge to the encryption node I need to reach that data vault before the SysOp moseys over here to ping me, each decision is accompanied by a machinegun burst of typing on the keyboard. And I can’t help but think, “Yes indeed, I am hacking!” Rattle rattle rattle clack clack, and the data vault has been revealed! To the black market to shop for some new programs and maybe a deck upgrade!
By the way, you know who would enjoy Midnight Protocol? Lou, Maisy, and Poncho.