A couple years ago we gathered three shadowed men in our secret, extremely leet lair to discuss 2001's Uplink, the film-inspired hacking sim by Introversion Software. In 2006, Uplink came to Steam, where it's still humming away today for $10 (or only $2.49 during the Holiday Sale!). Though it's over 10 years old (and actually takes place almost three years ago in 2010) and our panel had a few issues with it, there's a strong case to be made for retreading the rise from script kiddie to black hat hacker one more time.
Logan Decker, Editor-in-chief: I know that crime is bad. I understand that it’s wrong to steal. And I realize that the reality of computer hacking and subsequent criminal conviction is not as easy or as pretty as it is in the movies. But the truly awesome achievement of Uplink is that all of that gets turned on its head. Being a sociopathic criminal with the l33t3st skillz this side of Angelina Jolie in Hackers is high stakes, low-risk and fun as hell.
Robert Hathorne: Knowing nothing about Uplink going into this, I was blown away by how minimalistic everything is. The game is nothing but a fake OS interface. There’re no cutscenes or mood-setting graphics, just some programs and the next job. What I was surprised by is how quickly I became comfortable with it. I didn't need high production values to be immersed; that was taken care of by great design. Shut the door, turn the lights off and hunker down in front of the monitor—you’re a hacker.
Erik Belsaas, Podcast Producer: Yeah, a rookie hacker. Your first email introducing you to the mysterious worldwide hacking organization “Uplink” makes you truly feel like a part of something bigger than your own computer. Unfortunately, working your way up from the bottom means your first job of changing a kid’s grades isn't exactly thrilling.
Logan: And that’s the game’s worst crime: repetition. Many of the missions—OK, most of the missions—are essentially the same thing: back and run a few more of those tedious missions before you can crawl out of the little leagues. But that’s not a terrible trade-off. It keeps the risk at the right level: low enough that rewards are worth the danger of getting caught, but not so high that you want to quit.
Robert: Uplink really gives me that “just one more turn” feeling; it has to do with the upgrade system. As I began a new job, I always had my next upgrade in mind, which would lead to another, then another. There’s always the next big thing to earn, and getting there is so fun you hardly notice how quickly you’re burning through missions.
Erik: It captures the hacker movie vibe so well—an alternate title for Uplink could be Action Typing 2001. I love the pressure of setting up a fake proxy server to get through a firewall. The overarching plot of (spoiler alert!) an ominous corporation developing a virus made to destroy the very internet adds a dose of drama, too. Yes, it’s cheesy, but it makes the game more interesting. The story keeps you on your toes, 'cause who wants to be responsible for the end of the internet?
Robert: There’s something to be said for a game that drops you right into an interface with a brief tutorial that you have to find and execute in order to use. You’re given all the tools necessary to get the job done from the start—you just have to figure out how to use them. This isn't a drawback at all. If tool tips walked you through the whole thing you wouldn't feel like a hacker, just a hack.
Erik: But if you spend too much money upgrading hardware and not enough on programs, you can dig yourself into a rut and get stuck. Something not too fun I've done more than once.
Logan: Agreed. The lack of information provided to make good judgements on upgrades is frustrating. It takes a lot of trial and error to understand when it pays off to upgrade, but that part is so tedious that I eventually caved and consulted a guide. And I've played the game before! The same goes for the software, which isn't clearly explained and takes a lot of painful stumbles to get the hang of, thus further extending your tour through the minors.
Erik: Totally forgivable in my mind, though. Introversion changed what I thought a game could be. Instead of blowing stuff up or crunching RPG stats, games can create entirely new genres. Uplink even had a secret IRC chat you could execute to talk to other people playing!
Logan: Lots of game developers at the time rocked us silly by crushing the barriers of what was possible on PC hardware at the time. But Introversion’s genius was to match its game—the concept of hacking as entertainment and the simple “terminal” style of its graphics—to the hardware and its own resources. That it’s still enjoyable now—and I don’t mean in the novelty “retro” sense—is proof of that. You could never fairly adapt this game to a console; it just wouldn't have the tasty verisimilitude.