Once, on the TV show Pretty Little Liars, a woman hacked a police van being used to transport prisoners. By hacking the on-board computer, she took control of the vans’ steering and made it crash. On the same show, one of the main characters hacks a police computer from her laptop via a Bluetooth USB stick. This, needless to say, is not how hacking works. Video games don’t generally approach hacking with the same laissez-faire attitude towards realism, but they haven’t pinned down an accurate representation of hacking that’s engaging and enjoyable either. From the stick-twiddling style employed by the Batman Arkham series to the Sudoku-esque glyph matching in Mass Effect: Andromeda, there are a myriad of different ways to isolate the node and dump ‘em on the other side of the router.
Sometimes these work in the games’ favour and lend themselves to a more fluid experience overall. In Dishonored it’s as simple as approaching a wall of light or clockwork soldier and slapping on a rewire tool. Seconds later you’re right back to disintegrating people with exploding razor traps, the gameplay experience unsullied by lengthy stretches of reprogramming. In the sci-fi fantasy world of Shadowrun, you take on a digital form and navigate a virtual world where security programs take on the form of patrolling bots. Your allies have to provide you with cover in the real world while you do this, and the whole experience carries a feeling of espionage and urgency that makes it incredibly satisfying.
Other times, however, it doesn’t pan out so well. The system of finding words to match to a passcode while plucking out sections between parentheses and brackets to gain extra tries or to remove false answers feels novel at the beginning of Fallout, but three games on it wears incredibly thin. It becomes part of the grind, with the minor amount of experience gained for each terminal hacked becoming the only motivation to continue on. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is guilty of similar crimes against fun, with the player in the present day being forced to play several different minigames in order to hack terminals, cameras, and servers. This consists of the obscure matching numbers to waveforms, the frustrating leading a dot across a moving grid (much like a graphically limited Frogger), and guessing your way through guiding a dot around a sphere. These moments only serve to detract from what are otherwise exciting games.
With the exception of Fallout, where the hacking is based around guessing a passcode, none of the hacking in these games features any firm basis in reality. Generally the gameplay doesn’t suffer for this, considering that taking the time to perform anything akin to actual hacking would be detrimental to the pacing and flow of those games listed. With that said, some games set out to embrace the mundanity of sitting hunched over a keyboard and writing line after line of script. In else Heart.Break() most objects the player encounters have their own code running them, which can be accessed and rewritten to do almost anything the player wants. Out of cash? Just write some code to generate more whenever you check your balance. Don’t feel like sleeping? No problem, just reprogram a sandwich to decrease your sleepiness by 100%. It’s challenging but engaging, and flexible enough to allow you to modify code gleaned from everyday items to suit your purposes.
Quadrilateral Cowboy also subscribes to the idea that coding can be fun, putting the player in control of one of a group of hackers for hire who execute elaborate heists by writing code that enables them to get in, get the goods, and get out. This involves opening doors and disabling cameras with clockwork precision, as well as operating robots and turrets which are acquired as the player progresses through the game. It’s an involved process, requiring the player to connect to each piece of equipment individually and chain together multiple commands to ensure a smooth caper. Cybernetic enhancements make this easier, one of which allows you to execute a given string of pre-programmed commands simply by blinking. By the time the game ends you feel like a bona fide secret agent, with the toolset to match.
So, of the above depictions of hacking, is there a correct one? In terms of what constitutes actual hacking, maybe. But realism is necessary only insofar as it remains fun, and there are plenty of fun ways to tackle this mainstay of modern video games. Just, maybe stay away from the ones that involve pipes.
Also: bonus hacking video. Just because.