Embrace the Weird: A Review of 868-HACK

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Having a lot of weird games coming out is not just interesting, it’s important for the medium. If you’re not consistently seeing a lot of odd titles released, you’re probably not looking at a healthy industry. “Weird” is of course a very broad descriptor, it doesn’t refer to a single aesthetic or emotional experience. The weird of Katamari Damacy is different from the weird of Jazzpunk and they’re both different from the weird of McPixel, but the uniting element in these games that creates that sense of slight confusion and uncanniness is that they work outside of the box. Strange games are original games. What’s somewhat uncommon however is a strange game that doesn’t come with a wink and a nod about its strangeness. That’s not to say they don’t exist, but typically games deploy surrealness for the purposes of being comedic or light-hearted. Now and then however you end up with something like 868-HACK, beautifully strange in both style and substance, but with an almost completely straight face about its bizarreness.

868-HACK has a tutorial, but I found it so much more rewarding to just jump in with no briefing, not just because the tutorial is bad for the reasons most video game tutorials are bad, but also because going in blind lets you experience a direct face full of 868’s capability for generating confusion. The premise of the game was transparent: You’re someone trying to hack a computer system, but beyond that it was a mystery. I had so many questions: What do the odd symbols on the floor mean? What are the numbers on the tiles about? Why do I sometimes shoot a laser? Why am I a smiley face? But what really rams home the surrealism of 868-HACK is the sound design, which manages to operate outside of so many of the standard rules for creating audio.

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It’s debatable whether or not whether the game even has music. There’s continuous noise at least, most of it consisting of this low, penetrating electronic oscillation that jumps and dips in pitch at unpredictable intervals. If this is a genre of music then it’s ambient drone. The sound effects are just as disorienting. There are a few standard “beep” and “swoosh” sounds in here, but even those echo in this way that suggests an open space that isn’t fully conveyed by the graphics. A number of triggers in the game cause a quiet static fuzz to play and a lot of the noises sound like they may be digitally manipulated human yelps. There’s one enemy that makes this intimidating bark every time it gets a dig at your health and another sound that’s like a more abstract version of Mortal Kombat’s “toasty” soundbite. It’s so wonderfully odd and it completely works.

When media depicts hypothetical worlds inside computers it tends to heavily humanise them, to make them places that feel natural to us. This is frequently justified in stories by the computer world or the interface to the computer world being built for human minds, but if you have seen the way that data is stored and jobs are performed inside a computer system, it feels somewhat alien. If cyberspace is this radically new and unexplored frontier as it’s often talked about, then media aiming to accurately reflect its grisly depths should make you feel like you’re a stranger in a strange land. 868-HACK is an example of media that effectively conveys that sense that you are in an alien place. I wish at this point I could just say if this sounds like your kind of thing, go out and buy it. Unfortunately, this is a game that costs ~£4.60 and does not have the breadth of play experiences that many other games in its class do, and so I feel obligated to pull back the curtain on some of its mysteries. If that’s not something you want, feel free to jump out now, because as weird as this may sound, gameplay spoilers follow.

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868-HACK’s genre is turn-based strategy roguelike or roguelite, depending on how your classification boxes work, and yet that tells you almost nothing about how it plays. Each level is procedurally generated and has you trying to make your way from your starting position to a goal tile. Every time you move from one space to another, your enemies also get to move, often over more tiles than you do. Each enemy represents a different software element: Viruses, daemons, glitches, and “cryptogs” (representing encryption). Some of them can move through solid objects but only move one tile at a time, others are invisible when you don’t have a line of sight to them. If an enemy is on the same row or column of tiles as you and you try to shift in their direction, then instead of moving you will shoot a laser at them, dealing a point of damage. If an enemy is in an adjacent square to you and you do not shoot them however, they get a hit on you.

The board is relatively small and enemies persist between levels, meaning that just looking for gaps in enemy ranks and dashing towards the exit is not a viable tactic. You have to formulate a strategy for eliminating the enemies on the board while avoiding damage. It pushes you into performing with at least some serious thought behind your moves. You’ll also notice that unlike most other roguelikes, 868 lets you see the entirety of a level on-screen at all times. This means that there’s little element of exploration or pleasant surprise to the levels, but the game is played in this manner because you need the maximum amount of information about the board possible if you’re to make informed strategic decisions. The game often comes back to the basis of tile-based strategy games: predicting the moves your enemy is going to make and thinking one step ahead. However, the relatively simple enemy movement patterns and 6x6 grid make predictive play more accessible here than it is in games like chess or Advance Wars.

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Another hallmark of tile-based strategy present here is that getting boxed in can easily be fatal, and it is often inevitable given the small number of spaces and high number of enemies in the later levels. This means that using special “programs” obtained from the environments is a must if you want to make it through all eight stages. You can pilfer programs and resources from levels using “data siphons”, special pick-ups in levels. Programs include the “Antivirus” that damages all viruses on the screen or the “Reset” which restores your health. Using these abilities expends energy and money, but you can siphon more from tiles, giving every space in every level unique utility and adding a dash of resource management to the game. At the same time you have to pick and choose your siphons carefully, as siphoning abilities or points spawns in more enemies, creating a greater risk-reward. If only the game did more to make siphoning points an appealing prospect.

The score is a tiny part of the UI, there’s no end-of-level score screen, no particular show is made of your score increasing, and your points have no practical utility. The real measure of success still feels like how many levels you get through in a run because it’s the metric you’re constantly paying attention to. The game, frustratingly, can also spawn programs you want in blocks that are literally inaccessible, and the relatively small variety of programs, as well as limitations on their acquirement and use, mean you don’t get that same sense of steadily growing power that you do in a roguelike like Binding of Isaac or FTL. It’s really more about use of your fundamentals: Moving and shooting. Overall, the identical graphical styles of levels, the small enemy roster, and the way the programs are treated also mean that there’s somewhat scant variation in play.

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868-HACK is flawed, but it’s also a strong symbol of how an indie game can often get so much more out of being weird than being normal and being unconventional rather than using the “safe” creative options. There are many indie games with far more assets and a far greater scope than 868, and yet this title surpasses many of those games because it embraces the weird. If you want to experience something truly different, you could do far worse than 868-HACK. Thanks for reading.

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