Mainlining, described by lead developer Sam Read as a "hacking sim point-and-click adventure", was one of the standouts at the PC Gamer Weekender earlier this month. It puts you on the lofty perch of a government official, armed with nothing but an operating system and an over-powered command prompt to bring perps to justice in what feels a little like a dystopian future. But hey, you're on the winning side!
Stopping crime is a matter of gathering evidence online: linking display names to suspects, proving that they've got up to mischief and pinning down where they live. In some instances, whether you choose to do this through a morally grey phishing approach or brute force a system in the knowledge that it's illegal is down to you.
There's certainly a light moralising overtone to the playable—and completely free—teaser that's out now, but Read is keen to stress that Mainlining is more about dark hacking humour than a commentary on censorship and surveillance. Mainlining's appearance just as the British Investigatory Powers Bill (also know as the Snoopers' Charter) was getting a going-over in parliament was, for him at least, happy coincidence.
"Papers, Please did that so well—pulling on everyone’s heartstrings—that I don’t feel like we’re going to come anywhere close," Read tells me, modestly. "There will definitely be moral choices in the game. At the end of each case there are three outcomes: sometimes you arrest different people, sometimes you arrest the same person but with different evidence and, for example, some people you may be able to arrest with a longer sentence, which will get you brownie points, but at the same time you may know that that evidence is falsified. But it’s quite a subtle thing."
The teaser is a pleasing puzzle in its own right, requiring you to link IP addresses to websites and force your way into ownership lists behind the scenes, but I'm told the puzzles aren't the driving force. Rather, like Her Story (a game which Read is determined not to play lest it sway him one way or another), you connect the dots of a narrative across a series of supposedly disparate jobs.
"We’ve only shown off one case as the playable teaser," Read says, "but there will be 13 cases in total and it is one, well structured story, so things from earlier cases will lead on and there will be payoffs and there will be red herrings which will lead you off in other directions.
"One of the jumping-off points that I took when it came to the story stuff was things like Coen Brothers films—this very sort of dark, dry humour. Now in the first act, I’m not sure, to be blunt, that we pulled that off—and that’s because I’ve written it. In the last month or so, Jill Murray, who has worked on a lot of the Assassin’s Creed games as narrative director and now she’s doing more indie stuff, she’s been writing them, and she’s really brought the humour."
Hints in the guise of chat bubbles from colleagues keep you from getting lost in a warren of operating systems and websites. The tone of overworked and underpaid civil servants is already dead-on. Strangely for a game so focused on the hi-tech, however, its origins lie in pen and paper.
"We’re actually inspired by a lot of board games, and I think that’s why it is text-heavy. The main board game which I guess was the start was 221B Baker Street—Sherlock Holmes’ address—but the issue is that there’s 20 cases and once you’ve played those you know who the bad guy is and you can’t play anymore. I started off trying to remake that as a point-and-click adventure but have everything modular, so you could play it as many times as you like. That angle became really hard because everything was really expensive for a small indie to do. Moving onto a desktop [interface]—all gone: it’s just text, display images and wallpapers. That’s really where it came from."
The desktop interface that a shoestring budget gave rise to conveys a peculiar feeling of power as you hammer in new IPs and send your feelers across the net to reel in suspects. That slightly illicit thrill of tapping a few keys and setting a secret service in motion has fuelled endless childhood fantasies, and now the team at Rebelelephant are bringing it into a dark adult world.
Mainlining is asking for the paltry sum of £15,000 on Kickstarter and has nine days left in which to do it (happily, it's already been Greenlit), but if you're in any doubt whether that hacking fantasy still gets you going, tap your way through the first mission for free and dispense questionable justice from your desktop.