When you think about it, the view of our computer screen encompasses our attention every time we sit in front of it. Everything else around you melts away as you surf the web or write an article. There’s something about this limiting of viewpoint that’s just ripe for a new sort of existential horror to be wrapped around. In fact, we’ve already seen games try this to mixed results. Pony Island used a computer interface to mess with the user, but it was far too cheesy and obvious to be effective. More than anything, though, it wasn’t grounded in something real, something pernicious that’s exclusive to the computer screen viewpoint.
Enter Hypnospace Outlaw, a game designed to evoke the golden age of Geocities sites and everything early internet. The interface is that of an early internet browser a la Netscape, and you use it to visit web sites that just scream early World Wide Web, complete with garish backgrounds, obnoxious animated gifs, and intrusive music and sounds. The goal of the game is to solve different mysteries by exploring specific cordoned off zones and browsing the different pages in them. You’re essentially cast as a moderator of the virtual space and are tasked with finding violations to earn in-game currency. It feels very much like how Her Story structures its individual video entries, but with web pages instead.
But there’s another component to Hypnospace Outlaw that causes it to hint at a horrifying direction. Certain events in the game will warp your screen in familiar yet disquieting ways. Professor Helper is a PC help program that you can download in game as part of an investigation into illicit businesses in Hypnospace. Once you install Professor Helper, a virtual representation of the titular character appears asking if you need help. If you say yes, a pop-up ad appears. Click on it and you’ll be taken to a page with the illicit links you need to stamp out. But installing the program also installs a virus on your HypnOS that makes the screen rock back and forth, intruding on your perception of the world of Hypnospace.
Another case involves a much more malignant virus, one that takes over your view of the world from the moment you click the wrong link. Dubbed True Tranquility, a bunch of graphics will be superimposed on the screen, like a laughing head and several chunks of floating flesh. Much like the Professor Helper virus, True Tranquility invades your screen, adding an unwanted layer of malignant stuff over everything you want to do in Hypnospace. You can get rid of the viruses if you purchase Hypnocure, an antivirus program. But until you do, the viruses basically take over your perception of everything Hypnospace.
There’s inherently something horrific about computer viruses, especially weird ones. Since you’re so keyed into the view of the screen, that screen becomes your whole existence. You control every input for what happens on the screen unless you invite something on the web to do otherwise. When you get a computer virus, some amount of control is taken away from you. Something unwanted invades your existence and makes your life in that existence a living hell. Something else is controlling your perception, and the only way to get rid of it is to wade through it as you find the necessary tools on that same terminal. It’s appropriate that the Hypnospace is only accessible through a head band you wear during your sleep, because it perfectly illustrates the all-encompassing nature of your computer screen and hands you a scenario in which you can’t escape from a virus because your consciousness is glued to a computer screen.
Where Hypnospace Outlaw succeeds is in making these viruses both as real and as surreal as possible. They’re the most obnoxious kind of malware, ones that eat up your precious screen space and distract you from your primary mission to enforce the rules of Hypnospace. The flesh chunks of True Tranquility are actually windows that bounce around the screen and virtually block you from clicking on things. And the only escape is to sift through the crap that’s taken over your screen in order to buy and activate Hypnocure. The nature of these viruses in the game are further darkened by the fact that there’s no other view in the game but Hypnospace. There is nowhere to escape until you’ve cured the problem. Your senses are hijacked, your very existence in Hypnospace infected. The sense of ick you feel from these viruses is oppressive, and unsettlingly true to life.
The idea that something needs to be threatening someone’s personal safety to be scary is outdated. Horror comes in all forms. Something that warps your existence or takes away control can be just as scary as something that’s coming to hurt or kill. Hypnospace Outlaw is by no means a horror game, and the viruses that happen in game are harmless at best and childish at worst. But their innocuous nature is also drawing on something true to life even if you don’t happen to be familiar with Geocities. When you take away control and dominate someone’s senses with unwanted audiovisual feedback, you truly take them to a fresh new hell.