Darknet injects you into a computer system, and that introduction is thrilling.
You fly through a long, glowing tunnel, and you see the creation of a grid that slowly turns into a connected series of nodes. You look around to explore the extent of the system.
Then it’s time to take it over.
The game was created by E McNeill, based on his award-winning title Ciess, which earned him $10,000 in the 2013 VR game jam. The idea is that you’re a hacker who has to break into and control different computer systems, but the hacking has nothing to do with reality. This is a simulation of the sort of hacking made famous by B-movies in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
"I started with the most cyberpunk movie of all: Johnny Mnemonic. God, that one was awful. But after that, I buried my expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by Hackers, The Lawnmower Man, and the TRON films," McNeill told Polygon. "None of them seem like masterpieces to me, but they're lovable in their own way."
The game does an amazing job at exploring those hacking tropes and often silly visuals to give the player a sense of control and power. This is "real life" hacking as filtered through a Michael Bay fever dream. The move from basic game jam title to more fleshed out world was aided by Michael Heald, who created the game's aesthetic in two weeks of intense work.
McNeill created a "fair use" trailer that shows some of his inspirations, although he warned it could be taken down by the time this story ran.
The game is designed to be played with the Oculus Rift, and the final version will be released alongside the retail hardware. McNeill sent over an early version of the game, which included a five minute guided demo that explored the concepts of the game. You have to inject your programs into different nodes to take over parts of the system, and each node earns you money. The money is then used to buy more equipment to make your hacking more effective. The goal is complete control.
It sounds grindy, and it can feel that way in this early version of the game, but the final game will use time to pressure the player into attacking each system without simply using brute force.
"'No grinding' is a core part of the game's design. Aside from the new mechanics, the other important ingredient is a time limit which isn't included in the demo. The game is designed to always push you to your skill limit," he said "If you try to take the easy route (by, say, hacking a bunch of easy nodes instead of a truly difficult node), you'll always use up more time. Ciess had a simple time-attack structure, but in Darknet you'll actually lose the game if you try to grind your way to victory."
You're not playing as a specific character in the game. You're a faceless hacker, someone sitting in a dark room somewhere hiding behind a handle.
"I was partially inspired by loose online collectives like Anonymous," McNeill said. "I was briefly a member of Anonymous in early 2008, during the Scientology protests, and I was intrigued by the structure of the group, if you can even use the words 'structure,' 'group,' or 'member.' The player is more like a part of Anonymous than a traditional hero."
That's not to say there won't be a story. "I'm not ready to talk about it yet, but it's big. And I promise: you'll have a reason to take down these networks."
Darknet is one of the most comfortable games in virtual reality right now, and it took an immense amount of work to make that possible.
Developing for VR presents challenges that don't exist in standard games: Everything in your world is in 3D, everything from the menus to the cursors have to exist somewhere in that three-dimensional space and getting these details wrong leads to players who will become physically ill.
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"Nausea is problematic, but not for the reasons you'd think. Early on, I would get sick testing my own game. That was hard, but really useful, since I could tell when the problem was fixed," McNeill said. "Now that I've developed a strong tolerance, I don't know what parts of my game cause nausea or not, and I have to rely on external testers."
If you thought QA was a thankless job before, wait until you're put on a game where your vomit is just another data point.
Anything that keeps the player from moving their head is also tricky, as the game has to pause at some point. It's not a matter of re-inventing the wheel, but hiding those moments.
"One trick I use is to flash the screen with color when the game needs a moment to think. When you enter a node or restart a hacking challenge, the game freezes for a bit to do some heavy computation," he explained. "Having your view freeze in that moment would feel awful if you were freely looking around, so I blind the player for a half-second, and they're none the wiser."
The game also binds the crosshair, which is what you use to aim your attacks and make selections, to the middle of your view. You look at something inside the game to select it. This creates problems when the nodes look like they're very far from you, while the menu and storefront float around a foot from you head.
"I blind the player for a half-second, and they're none the wiser"
"The crosshair needs to appear at the same depth as the objects you're looking at, or else you'll get double vision. But what happens when suddenly you need to look at something nearby, like a menu that just popped up?" McNeill asked.
"The obvious solution was to smoothly move the crosshair to the new depth, but that turned out to look and feel really unnatural. Right now I fade it out really quickly and then fade it back in at the appropriate depth, but the timing is still pretty sensitive."
Development in this area is in its infancy, and developers like McNeill are creating the vocabulary the industry will be speaking as virtual reality gains an audience. Darknet is one of the more polished launch games announced for the Oculus Rift, and the use of hacking clichés using real-world virtual reality provides interesting meta-commentary on the genre.
The game itself is only part of this story, however, as McNeill is creating solutions for problems that will vex every developer working in this market.
"We haven't figured out what works yet, and it's a challenge just to try to explore that possibility space," he said. "For risky new hardware, the bigger devs will try to design commercially 'safe' games. But the indies can afford to double down, to try a risky design on a risky platform, and I think that's how we'll really start seeing where VR can take us."