Hypnospace Outlaw is at once both unsettlingly strange and yet endearingly familiar.
Tender Shoot’s game, set in an alternate universe’s internet in the late 90s Y2K era, certainly doesn’t play like your standard video game. It’s perhaps best compared to the works of Sam Barlow, of Her Story and Telling Lies fame – the player operates a 90s era OS and web browser, unravelling the story via emails and by trawling the overly-earnest blogs and disparate internet communities familiar to veterans of the era.
The player takes the role of an ‘enforcer’ for the Hypnospace, policing illegal content, copyright violations, viruses and cyber-bullying. During the game, the player explores teenage messageboards, with posts dedicated to fawning over first boyfriends, or the new age, spiritual types finding a way to connect with one another like never before – all entirely separate communities before social media and Google united us all, for better and for worse. It’s a fascinating window into an increasingly distant past.
It can make for something of an unsettling experience at first. Particularly to aging staff writers who spent their early teenage years on websites such as Geocities and Neopets (instead of being invited to parties), this alternate universe brings up a strange cocktail of emotions – a nostalgia for a forgotten internet battling the unquestionable alien nature of the Hypnospace, this universe’s version of the internet that the player accesses in their sleep.
If it was strange for us, we can only imagine how it must have felt for Xalavier Nelson Jr., who not only joined the project as narrative designer and co-writer midway through development, but is in fact too young to remember the Geocities glory-days of the internet. Which quite frankly, makes us feel older still.
“Jay [Tholen, game designer] had just done the Kickstarter, and I had been pestering him for months to bring me on,” says Nelson. “I was brought on early 2018, and the team will attest to my role on the project as being able to make it feasible for us to ship in 2019. We were making an alternate universe Y2K era internet simulator – that’s a potentially limitless scope.
“Coming in as the narrative designer of the project, my job was to find a way to bring together all of this material we were making, and have it all work towards our goals. What are our beats, and how do we hit them? How do we take this giant pile of stuff and have it actually release within the next 20 years?”
RUNNING IN THE NINETIES
The mass of content that Nelson had to wrangle was in part due to its unusual development – the game in its earliest stages was in a whole different genre to what ended up being released, largely due to the excitement
the team felt about the world they had created.
“Originally Hypnospace Outlaw was supposed to be an arcade-style game, where you’re driving along the information superhighway and catching internet criminals.
“And by looking at the brief pages displayed above the internet cars, the team discovered that it was more fun making and seeing the web pages of the people than just catching their cars. And so they started to build up the webpages, and then they started to build up an entire fake OS… and well, things escalated.”
As a side note, those who have played Hypnospace might find its arcade origins familiar. As the Hypnospace features a game within a game, a buggy mess of an arcade game where the player is racing a car down the internet superhighway, with the aim of catching other cars.
As Nelson reveals, this is something of a knowing nod from the developers – a relic of the game’s early stages hidden within the final product.
“That’s something I’m really proud of. As we started to bring structure to the overall game world, we were able to have this remnant of what the game used to be, an actual arcade game in the universe. That brings the narrative full circle, both for the team as well as for the player.”
Back to Hynospace as it exists today – far from being daunted by the task of tying this fictionalised 90s universe together, Nelson felt a perfect fit within the project.
“So when I came to the project, they knew what they were making, but it was that pivotal moment where it needed structure, and it also just needed more. I was brought in at the exact time where my skills and specialties were most needed – finding a way of making a project feasible, bringing the structure to it so that it can ship, bringing narrative structure to a vision so that it can communicate everything it needs to within its runtime. It was almost as if there was a me shaped slot that was just ready at that exact moment.”
WHAT’S MY AGE AGAIN?
While Nelson may have felt perfectly at home on the project, it’s hard not to wonder if his youth was an issue. The world of Hypnospace Outlaw is drenched in 90s internet culture – a culture that Nelson himself is too young to remember.
“My internet was basically when flash was becoming a thing, the step after the Geocities era. The internet was starting to gain structure, but those structures were malleable and it was still the Wild West in some regard.
“So I approached writing in the universe almost like I would if I was working on the Lord of the Rings game, a fictional universe with people who deeply cared about it. I researched it as if I was looking through a Game of Thrones wiki or something.
“I think that distance added something really interesting to the team dynamic. Suddenly it went from everyone almost taking for granted what this world meant because they grew up with it, to this completely fresh outside perspective, where all of this was new to me and I found a new sort of magic.
“In my research, I’d talk to people and they’d do an imitation of the dial up startup sound for me. Totally unprompted – though I do treasure that for the rest of my career I’ll have people screaming dial-up noises directly into my face. And every person’s imitation is different, by the way.
“The dial-up noises were unprompted, but the feelings were real. One big moment for me in understanding the project was when I was in England for a contract job and I was talking to an extremely British goth roadie.
“He spent a half hour walking me through how the burden of progress had eroded away the communities that he had grown up with. Angel Fire, CloudFlare, Geocities… all these things going down, becoming inoperative. He showed me the graveyards of people’s paths where you could still find remnants on the internet, and how much of that had been destroyed over time.
“I saw that it’s easy to be cynical about this period. Laugh at the nerds, laugh the goths, laugh at the typos and the extremely edgy communication. But the most needed approach was not to make fun of it, it was to be sincere and human.
“This is what the communication was like before we had built up our digital brands that we have used to cocoon ourselves from pain and criticism. Doing those worlds and that legacy justice is a huge part of why the project exists in the first place.”
FORGOT ABOUT DRE
His age isn’t the only reason the project might have been outside Nelson’s comfort zone. The unconventional nature of the title – particularly its use of 90s-era music on its blog pages (think Myspace themes) had the unexpected side effect of launching Nelson’s rap career.
“The weekend before launch. Jay sends me a desperate Discord message saying: ‘we’ve half an hour of prog rock, but no rap, no hip hop, everyone’s gonna think we’re racist!’ So I’m like, hold up, calm down – give me half an hour.
“So I wrote a rap about a buffet heist, in which a bunch of people who are not actually staying in a resort, make friends with the waiters and eat as much of the food as they want. And another rap about a bunch of people talking about the cool things they’re going to do at a party, but never actually going to the party. Very relatable subject matter.
“And then using my crappy laptop mic, because this was never intended to be used, I recorded these raps as reference for the rappers who would come later.”
Fans of the game might be unaware that Nelson can be heard rapping in the game’s soundtrack. They can hardly be blamed for this, as Nelson himself wasn’t aware either.
“On launch day, we were addicted to watching streams because people are just streaming this game for hours and hours. There was a person who at that point had been going over ten hours and had managed to make their way through the core narrative of the game. And then they found the raps for a quest, they press play and suddenly I’m hearing my own voice, but even more deeply compressed. And for the first time in over ten hours, the streamer muted the recording, and said ‘I can’t deal with this shit.’ He completed the rest of the game on mute. And that’s how I learned I was a rapper in the game.”
Nelson is keen to stress how poorly these raps were recorded. They were already heavily-compressed recordings through a broken laptop mic, and when it came time to add them to the game, the team compressed the recordings even further – an act of self-vandalism that was true to the development’s entire philosophy.
In a bid to capture the spirit of 90s technology, alongside the passionate early-internet communities, a lot of the development time was spent on intentionally breaking aspects of the game – from the intentionally buggy arcade racer within the Hypnospace, to the rampant typos found in the game’s blogs and emails.
THIS IS HOW WE DO IT
“The creative process for that was really fascinating,” says Nelson. “Because everything that Jay and the team does is really good work. So a lot of our development process for the game was taking good things we had made, and breaking them.
“So for the arcade game, they had to break it to make it work within the universe. And for myself, when I was writing certain pieces of content, I would make a typo. And I’d face a crossing in the woods. I’d have to say: ‘No, I’m committing to this typo, this typo is how this character writes forever now.’”
For the record, any typos found in this or any future feature from MCV/DEVELOP is an intentional homage to Hypnospace Outlaw, and we’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.
“People intentionally putting in typos, intentionally putting in obtrusive ways of working through an environment… Extremely skilled people intentionally breaking their work to make it better is an absurd design dynamic. But when you bring that to bear for a common creative goal, instead of a self destructive act of just tearing apart your own work in a fury, what results is something that’s genuinely kind of miraculous.
“Hypnospace Outlaw isn’t a game that should be able to ship. It is the game you tell people not to make because there’s no way in hell that it’s ever going to release. And this group of people managed to build it. And I had the opportunity to be a part of that group of people and I’m deeply thankful for that.”
The resulting combination – a remarkable attention to detail in capturing the history and the feeling of those early internet days, while still writing a fictional, alternate universe, underlines the game’s development, and the lesson Nelson has taken from the experience.
“What I learned is that the content can be inaccurate, if the feeling behind it is true. [The result] is an internet that feels like the one you were on when you were 13, but also like one you’ve never experienced before.
“The largest thing to take away from this is the creative instincts of everyone on the project – taking the absurd, taking the weird, taking the objectively bad ideas and making them meaningful. Hypnospace Outlaw is the impossible made possible, and gosh, it’s cool to be a part of something like that.”