A Hacking Retrospective

Hacking has been portrayed in many different ways in games. There are hacking simulators like Uplink and then we have traditional genre games where hacking is one of the courses of action.


System Shock, the precursor to System Shock 2 and the recent BioShock, had a vibrant hacking system where the player is immersed in cyberspace, similar in appearance to the movie Tron or Lawnmower Man. Various colored shapes roam about, Cyberguardians and Watchdogs attack, and functions are objects in this virtual world.

At the beginning of the game, the player needs to hack the medical suite’s door open, and so he jacks into cyberspace, picking up hacking softs along the way that allow him to shoot at these Cyberguardians. In order to succeed at the hack, the player must navigate through cyberspace until he reaches the shape that represents the door lock he wants to open. To leave cyberspace afterwards, he must find a portal, similar to the rings in Starfox, that will allow him to exit.

This system can be considered cumbersome and outdated nowadays, but in System Shock, you were the Hacker partially responsible for the AI’s rise to power, therefore the elaborate hacking system made sense, and was an intriguing twist that went beyond being a mere minigame. Since then, game designers have been finding different answers to hacking.

For System Shock 2, Ken Levine and the rest of the designers of Irrational and Looking Glass implemented a system that worked the same way for 3 different skills: hacking, repairing and modifying weapons. Presented with a grid that abstracted the electronic innards of the object you were interacting with, the player had to connect three nodes. The chance that each node had to be successfully hacked depended on the skill being used and the player’s Cyber-Affinity statistic. This statistic determined how many red nodes would appear on the grid. If hacking these red nodes failed, the system would respond differently depending on the skill: while hacking security stations, it would set off the alarm, while hacking locked boxes, it would destroy them, while repairing a weapon, it would damage it.

SS2‘s grid system was spiced up by describing an event every time you clicked on a dot. If the hack worked on that dot, it would display a line of text saying something like “Re-routed security system successfully.”, and a contrary phrase in case of failure. These lines also refer ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, a term popularized by William Gibson in his cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer.

This grid system required nanites, System Shock 2‘s currency to be used, and every time you tried to hack again you had to pay the nanite cost. Nanites were the currency of System Shock 2‘s world.

So while it was at its heart a minigame of connecting dots, there were at play several statistics, whose evolution was chosen by the player during the course of the game. It’s definitely a simpler method than the first game in the series, but it’s still pretty complex and interesting.

After System Shock 2, Deus Ex was released by Ion Storm. This game was much more of an FPS than the Shock series, but it borrowed the idea of skill levels for various possible actions, and with it, the hacking skill. This skill’s progression was more linear than SS2‘s. Only one skill was used, and it determined how fast would the player hack, and how long would it take to be detected while interacting with a hacked terminal. One important thing to note is that the player had to spend the skill points to obtain the first level of Hacking if he wanted to hack at all, like System Shock 2, it wasn’t given to the player from the start. Also like SS2‘s system, Deus Ex‘s hacking also featured flavour text and also mentioned ICE.

Hacking in Deus Ex allowed you to read emails of the accounts you hacked or change security settings, such as altering the turret’s affiliation, remotely controlling cameras or shutting them off. With higher levels invested it was possible to discover the killswitches to two of the hero’s nemesis.

It was a streamlined but immersive way to implement hacking, as you had access to several computers spread across the game and could interact with them. Logging on them, either by hacking or by finding out the password through datacubes (similar to the audio logs of System Shock 2, but not as intricate or colorful), allowed you to learn more about the story of the game, be it from the logo of the company that owned that computer, by the net address below that referenced Daedalus, a being that contacts you in the middle of the game, or by the emails themselves that not only enhanced the personality of the various characters in the game but also contained key data that could help you.

This was lost with the sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War. While the datacubes remained, hacking computers became merely watching a purple loading bar reach the end, accompanied by sounds resembling a 14.4 modem, and you couldn’t read any email, only the security settings remained. To perform a hack you required a biomod, which were basically the same as the first game’s augmentations, and can be equated with BioShock’s plasmids. Once you had the biomod, you could improve it two times, the first to control cameras and shut off turrets, and the second time to make the turrets attack your enemies.

Gone were all possibilites of finding out secrets that could be used during cutscenes or to avoid a boss fight. It was a simplified system that removed all the flavor and most of the fun of hacking.



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