Hacking isn’t always about the serious breaching and security manipulation. Hacking can also be a form for art and other media, specifically with video games. Alas, here are our top 5 best hacking games that we found for PC.
When you start playing this colorful Scandi adventure, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a slow, cumbersome point ‘n’ click without any direction. But if you persevere, you will find one of the smartest games you will ever play. Heart.Break() puts you in the bright green shoes of Sebastian (or Seb if you like) who moved to the big city of Dorisburg after landing a job selling soda. You stroll through this strange town and sell cans one after the other to cranky citizens, most of whom don’t even want one.
What’s all this got to do with hacking? Well, when you enter this brave new world of refreshment, you will meet some new friends (and a girl you like, of course). It becomes clear that they are in fact a group of hacktivists fighting against the monstrous Computer Ministry. Soon you’ll get your own “modifier” – a device that allows you to hack any useful object in the game.
At this point, Heart.Break() takes over. You go around and explore the code of everything you can get your hands on. You find people who can teach you to read and write this code – a full-fledged programming language called SPRAK (the Swedish word for “language”). You start playing and fiddling with everyday objects in a way that helps you cheat the game. For example, Sebastian usually gets tired every day and you need to go to bed to recharge your energy, otherwise you will collapse. But what if you chop a glass of water to reduce your “drowsiness” by a factor of 100? Little things like this are just the beginning. Do you want to hack a door so that it takes you halfway across town? Figure it out. Do you want to transfer your body to the city’s central financial computer via the Internet? You can do that. Do you want to rewrite the software of said financial computer so that everyone’s bank account is reduced to zero dollars and the money itself is abolished, a la Tyler Durden? Do it. I have done it. And I don’t regret a single line of code.
But the most wonderful thing about Heart.Break() is its humanity and youthful exuberance. This isn’t just the dull green glow of a computer screen, it’s a functioning city with drunks, smokers, factory workers, bellboys, bums, activists and bureaucrats. You can see how your changes affect the world around you, which lives on regardless of your actions. And the world itself is a bright, beautiful place. The art of Niklas Åkerblad and the rest of the team gives it a liveliness that one would not normally associate with computer programming. Soulful, lively and clever, otherwise Heart.Break() won’t be satisfied with making you feel like a hacker. It makes you feel like a magician.
I can understand if some people believe that Minecraft is not so much a hacking or programming game as a game for hackers and programmers. But from the examples above, it is clear that the latter is good enough for the purposes of this list.
Pneumatic pants have never been so inviting. In Gunpoint, your shady spy protagonist must break into guarded buildings and steal data for his private clients. For this you will receive the Crosslink, a device with which you can manipulate the wiring of the individual levels. You are basically a secret electrician with trousers that you can use to tie yourself across buildings. You can rewire light switches to give the guards electric shocks, you can play with the elevator to make it go up and down, and (finally) you can rewire firearms yourself. Because dystopia.
But it’s not all a jumble of wires. Gunpoint has retained the love of crazy violence. You can slam a door in front of a guard, jump on her from the ceiling in ninja-style or jump on her from a distance and let her fall from the roofs, only to hit her in the snout dozens of times after the impact. I think it’s called ‘social engineering’.
Do you know the opening scene in Aliens, where the small probe in Ripley’s escape capsule comes and scans the room with a shaky blue light? That’s how Duskers feels. You control a squad of drones as you search for rescue between the stars. You need scrap metal and fuel to keep your ship running. To get it, you’ll need to board and explore the wrecks that are ravaging the galaxy (for reasons that are not entirely clear). Any other designer who comes across this premise would immediately think, “Okay, so point and click controls and maybe a few hotkeys”. But not the attic of the outsiders. In this work you will rely almost exclusively on a command line terminal.
It’s a chess move that fits the atmosphere and art style of the game perfectly. The interface is all about that chunky 1970s Nostromo vision of the future, right down to the break menu. Using a ship schematic, you type in commands to move a drone to an electrical outlet and generate electricity. Then you type in more commands to open doors. Slowly you make your way through the wreckage, hoping that there is no alien threat behind the next door. That would be terrible news. Your robot helpers are so fragile that they might as well consist of telephone screens.
Many hacking games are about panicking under pressure and typing fast. But Duskers is about being meticulous. Use motion scanners and sensors to detect harmful bio-forms. Flush aliens from the ship by remotely opening airlocks or luring them towards gun turrets. The rogue structure and FTL-like fuel consumption will make it even more tense.
Another Zachtronics game? Well, if you want to play your games within the boundaries of a fictional operating system, why stop at one? Here you are an expatriate living in industrial China and working for an electronics company called Longteng. Email notifications ping and tasks are set. You have to make equipment for different customers. Sometimes it’s as simple as a flickering neon sign. Sometimes it’s a little more… stealthy. In all cases, you need to look up the instructions the game recommends you print and put in a folder (I support that advice).
You may consider Shenzhen I/O as the successor to TIS-100. You’re still tinkering with numbers, pushing them from one node to another, and you’re still trying to optimize your designs to run more efficiently. You’re moving chips, switches and gizmos around on a circuit board. In more ways than one, you try not to cross the wires.
Excuse me. I’ve been trying to think of a good reason not to put Minecraft on the list. It’s a survival game. It’s about beating trees. It’s infected millions of innocent children. But the more I tried, the harder it became to disregard all the crafting, playing and creativity that goes into Mojang’s indie turned superstar. From building 16-bit computers within the game to constructing huge circuit board structures with divisible RAM, to creating music box landscapes that could play whole songs, crafted older Notch games inside the game and establishedWHOLE DESKTOPS with working keyboards. Then they built hard drives where they could store all their hard work, and then, because you need a place to put all these machines, they built all of Denmark. Even RPS was involved, with RPS employee and living intelligence quotient Duncan Geere giving readers an ongoing lesson in code and using the game as a teaching tool.