There was a time, long ago, when the internet wasn't always there. It was something you 'went on' rather than the constant background radiation it is now. It was an event. An occurrence. If you were born in the 1980s you've almost certainly started romanticising the superior internet of the 2000s, when it felt like a cool underground club full of creative weirdos rather than an all-consuming Hell that—speaking as someone who is terminally online—underpins everything we think, say, and do. I get misty-eyed thinking about warez, Napster, forums, Winamp skins, and MSN Messenger alerts the way previous generations would be overcome with nostalgia for Glenn Miller, singalongs around the piano, and the Lindy Hop—and it's only going to get worse as I get older.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a trip back to those days, albeit viewed through the funhouse mirror of an alternate future. The year is 1999, but another 1999. A world where people go to bed, strap on a high-tech headband, and are transported to a fictional immersive internet called Hypnospace while they sleep. But it's not a 3D virtual world: it's essentially the internet as you remember it at the turn of the millennium, viewed through a browser, with websites, hyperlinks, animated gifs, and auto-playing midi files. In other words, for someone my age, bliss. A joyous simulation of a pre-algorithmic web inspired by the digital cathedral of imagination, expression, idiosyncrasy, and garish design that was GeoCities.
For many, GeoCities—a free web hosting service operated by Yahoo—was the first time they were able to create their own space on the internet. Whether it was a Buffy fan community, a virtual shrine to Freddie Prinze Jr., or a site dedicated to close-up pictures of Mulder from The X-Files' ears (amazingly, I didn't make this one up), GeoCities let you take the contents of your brain, no matter how niche, and dump them online for all to see. You didn't even need any web design skills, which resulted in a chaotic aesthetic that Hypnospace Outlaw both perfectly observes and pays loving tribute to. The likes of GeoCities, Tripod, and Angelfire democratised the internet, and this game is a celebration of that.
There's a whole internet in here, with hundreds of pages to explore. Similar to GeoCities, the pages exist in zones reflecting the personalities of the people who virtually dwell there. Teentopia is home to try-hard edgy teens, nu metal, attention seeking, and bitchy posts about other people in the community. (Which was, incidentally, my experience of the actual internet in the early-to-mid 2000s.) The Open Eyed zone is where the hippies, spiritualists, new age healers, and conspiracy theorists hang out. Goodtime Valley, meanwhile, is more conservative, its tagline being: "We remember the way things used to be." It's a pitch-perfect, but very much tongue-in-cheek, facsimile of the internet in 1999.
Today, websites all look basically the same because there has to be standardised gaps for ads to slot into. The page you're reading this article on probably looks near-identical to a dozen other websites you've visited today. That's what happens when algorithm-driven capitalism dictates how a website looks, not a human being with an idea. This isn't our, or any other website's, fault—it's just the way the internet works now. But there were no such concerns when the web was young and untarnished. Hypnospace Outlaw captures this aspect of the Old Internet brilliantly too, its pages exploding with wild colour palettes, intrusive animated gifs, deliciously hideous typefaces, and repetitive background music.
I should mention that it's more than just a retro internet simulator: it's a great game too. You play as an enforcer hired by Hypnospace operator Merchantsoft to locate and destroy what it deems 'objectionable' content. Whether it's copyright infringement, bullying, harassment, or sharing malicious software, it's your job to rid the internet of it by slamming it satisfyingly with a little pixelated judge's gavel. But then it dawns on you that you're actually the obedient tool of an invasive, censorious, and controlling corporation, which makes you question the nature of your career and sends the story spinning off in some interesting directions. The fact it features an entire fake internet to browse is just a bonus, really.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a journey back to the days before the internet turned into the wasteland of targeted ads, privacy invasion, and outrage-fuelling algorithms it is now. Okay, the internet in 1999 wasn't perfect either, but I've chosen to selectively ignore all the bad things about it. That's what nostalgia is. Rose-tinted glasses? I'm wearing rose-tinted ski goggles, baby. The word 'nostalgia' itself comes from the Greek word nostos, meaning to return home, and algos, meaning pain. That's what slapping on that headband and drifting into the sleepy digital wonderland of Hypnospace feels like. A wistful, dreamy trip down memory lane, but also a painful reminder that the web will never be the same again.