Road to the IGF: Tholen, Lasch, Nelson Jr., and Cochran's Hypnospace Outlaw
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Hypnospace Outlaw takes players to the information superhighway of a '90s internet-inspired cyberspace, having them enforce the laws of this digital place, battle hackers, or decide to help its online populace.
Gamasutra spoke with Jay Tholen, developer of the Excellence in Visual Art, Audio, and Seumas McNally Grand Prize-nominated game, to talk about the efforts that went into creating Hypnospace Outlaw's vision of the internet, its inspirations from the age of the dream of digital utopias, and the difficulties of making a game about surfing and policing the net.
The web developers
I’m Jay! I am the lead designer, writer, artist, and composer of Hypnospace Outlaw (Hypnospace). Most programming was handled by Mike Lasch, while Xalavier Nelson Jr. served as narrative designer and co-writer.
My earliest game development experience was at age 11 upon finding a demo of Klik & Play in the goodies folder of a CD-Rom. When our family got the internet, I joined the Klik community. Most of the skills I still use today come from that experience. My first commercial release was point and click hugventure Dropsy, published by Devolver Digital in 2015.
Inspirations for a game of patrolling 90's internet
The idea for Hypnospace Outlaw can be traced back to Hypnospace Enforcer, a weird twitchy endless runner car microgame I made while developing Dropsy in 2014. Players tracked down ‘Outlaws’ on a colorful Information Superhighway to effectively ban them for various ‘net crimes. The Outlaws would panic and send you messages as you pursued them, shedding light on the reasons behind their infractions.
Hypnospace Outlaw was initially going to follow that route, with the Operating System and internet bits acting as glorified level select screens - but we enjoyed the OS bits so much that we decided to focus on those instead. GIFs of the OS also gained much more traction when posted to social media.
The tools for building a new internet
We’ve used Construct 2 to develop the game and the Page Builder and Tune Sequencer tools for it. ThatWhichIs Media has developed a few extensions for us that allow C2 to do more than it could out-of-the-box. The only downside to Construct right now is a lack of cost-effective porting options.
The tools I’ve used to make content are as follows:
Graphics: GIMP, Krita, Aseprite, Bryce 5.5, Wings 3D, SketchUp, CorelDraw, Adobe PageMaker
Video: HitFilm, Adobe Premiere
Audio: Ableton Live 9 + plugins, oceanaudio, a $20 spring reverb tank, assorted cheapo FX pedals & amp tomfoolery
Other: Google Docs/Sheets, Trello
Connecting to the dream (and disappointment) of virtual utopias
Hypnospace Outlaw is inspired by the impossible dream of virtual utopias connected by information superhighways that the tech/dot com companies of the mid-late 1990s were using to sell their stuff. The 3D flythroughs that often accompanied the ads of said companies consumed my fertile kid imagination.
In 1999, when I finally convinced my parents to invest in a dial-up internet subscription, I remember feeling lied to about the experience. It was still exciting being connected to people all over the world, but I kept wondering what website I had to find to access those psychedelic 3D worlds I’d seen so much of.
Hypnospace is an attempt to capture this sense of disappointment. It explores both the feeling of an experience not living up to hype, and the self-sabotage of looking back many years later through the rosy haze of nostalgia and forgetting the reality of things.
Evoking an old web vibe while staying culturally accessible
While I wanted the game to evoke that old web vibe, I wanted it to be recognizably Hypnospace - so I developed a design bible thing for the art, audio, and writing that kept everything nice and cohesive. I’m guessing it’s this consistency that bagged us the IGF nominations for Art and Audio - because taken piece by piece, our visuals and sounds are often jarring, comically poorly rendered, or abrasive in some other way.
There’s also a hard rule that no named ‘real’ brands, celebrities, properties, or historic figures exist in Hypnospace. Music genres and art movements are also invented, and often don’t have real-world counterparts (eg Flip-Flop, Earthhaze, Coolpunk), Ideally, this’ll make the game more culturally accessible in that there aren’t specific references to get first for content to be funny or relatable. This game isn’t for people who grew up in the 1990s.
On the nuances of capturing the look and sound of 90's internet (or not)
Initially, I was attempting to use period-accurate video/audio codecs. That proved nightmarish given the amount of content in Hypnospace, so I developed processes that I could do without opening up Windows 98 Virtual Machine every time I needed to implement artwork.
A large portion of Hypnospace’s graphics are color reduced to a “Hypnospace-safe” palette using floyd-steinberg dithering. Most audio is crunched down to 64kbps using an mp3 encoder from 1999. We erred on the side of readability in cases where graphics or sounds would become hard to distinguish after being processed.
The challenges of making a game of surfing the net
After a year of development Hypnospace contained a robust operating system, browsable internet network, and page builder/music sequencer tools to fill out said internet - but no game elements.
In Hypnospace Outlaw, players serve as volunteer ‘moderators’ of Hypnospace: a proto-social media network that functions as a cross between Geocities and Myspace. It became painfully clear that we couldn’t sell the illusion of an active, living, social media network with our initial story concepts. A game about the internet is also dangerous for designers because you can justify almost anything. If it exists and can be accessed on a computer, you can make a good argument for why it HAS to be in the game.
As a result, we brought Xalavier Nelson Jr. on as narrative designer. His direction helped us immensely, though creating a satisfying core progression loop out of the whole thing still took months of iteration.
On creating and adding odd software to Hypnospace Outlaw
Most of Hypnospace’s weird software was conceived as “wouldn’t it be cool if _____?!” discussions between Mike Lasch (Hypnospace’s Programmer) and I. These kinds of tinkery, missable, playful elements were something I felt we should emphasize to hopefully encourage curiosity in folks watching streams or let’s plays. Dropsy, my last game, was a one-sitting experience and there isn’t much value in playing it yourself if you’ve just watched the whole thing on YouTube.
My favorite is the Soundscape Generator. It generates soundscapes based on how much a player is clicking/scrolling/typing, and can even trigger semi-randomized vibrato, tremolo and delay effects, as well as arpeggios! Players can mod in their own too (Though players can mod most of the things in the game - the data files are accessible and open!).
A story of tech and change
Merchantsoft, the company that runs Hypnospace, is inspired by a few specific real world 1990's tech startups whose leaders were completely winging it after achieving freak success. In spite of the police-flavored language (Enforcer, Detainment, Outlaw, etc), our intent has been to tell a more mundane and grounded story that steers clear of Dystopic and/or Orwellian themes. The plot that drives players forward culminates in Merchantsoft’s big HypnOS Year 2000 update, and how Hypnospace’s users react to (or cope with) changes to technology that they’ve become reliant on.