Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #11: Uplink

In PC on November 29, 2011 at 11:42 am

Title: Uplink

Format: PC

Release Date: 1st October, 2001

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I’m just going to go right and out say it. Uplink – by British developers, and self-professed “Last Of The Bedroom Programmers”, Introversion – is the greatest marriage of form and content in the world of videogames.

I’ll let that process for a second.

Picture the scene: a man sits at his desk, in a darkened room, hunched over his computer. The blinds are closed, and a blue glow diffuses from the monitor onto his face. Perhaps he’s wearing glasses, and the pale light reflects off them, twinkling across the desk. Perhaps an ash tray sits to the left, piled with used butts. Perhaps a freshly-lit cigarette dangles from his lip, jiggling encouragingly as he taps furiously at the keys and conjures transactions unknown and ungodly across the intangible ether of the internet. Suddenly, a knock at his door. He looks up, panicked, drawn away from the power of the screen to the more pressing concerns of the immediate now. A voice utters from the darkness:

“Hello mate. Want a tea?”

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Uplink is a hacking simulator. What an amazing idea for a videogame. If you’re anything like me, and fingers crossed you’re not, you may have occasionally dreamt of the life of a hacker. Travelling around exotic European cities, with nothing but a laptop and charger, conducting missions of great importance, breaking into the highest security mainframes the world has to offer. Taking anything you want.

I suspect hacking isn’t so glamorous in reality, but this is the vision Uplink taps into. And how it taps; anywhere you sit down with the game, it is just you and your computer. This could never work on a console; it’s tailor-made for immersion. You turn on that system, and you’re in the game.

As soon as you load it up, it’s simply an alternate interface, as if you’re running a streamlined, neon blue version of Windows. From there, it’s a case of kitting yourself out with basic software, accepting a job from the mysterious “Uplink” corporation, and getting your absolute hack on. It’s immersive as hell.

I can’t overstate the brilliance of the idea. This isn’t playing as Nathan Drake, two removes from the character as an observer over the shoulder. This isn’t even inhabiting another person, say Gordon Freeman, and seeing things through his eyes.

You are sitting at a computer as you, logging on to a programme on your computer as you, fictionally hacking the world’s largest networks. As you. Never has there been a thinner divide between game and player.

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It’s largely down to graphic and sound design. The neon blues of the interface invoke stylish cyberpunk, without ever trying to be uber-futuristic, and therefore sidestep the trap some would-be-prescient games fall into, that of aging faster than Julian Glover at the end of The Last Crusade. The soundtrack is equal parts ambient and urgent, pulsing with slow, insistent grooves that make you feel the next knock on the door could be the last you ever hear.

Uplink is all about paranoia. As soon as you buy your first tracing programme, and embark upon your first mission for “Uplink”, a constant beeping in the bottom right of the screen tells you how close your hack is to being picked up. Because as soon as you connect to a system, looking for data, you will start being traced. As soon as you make that click, you’re under pressure.

Yet initially complicated ideas (to me, anyway), like bouncing signals through various servers to put any security programmes off the scent, soon become second nature. But no matter how facile the target is, you’ll always keep one eye on how close you are to being caught. Initially all it means is a ticking off and a mild fine, but as the targets you are assigned grow in importance, so do the consequences.

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The game is brutal. Once you’ve made your first few advances up the “Uplink” ladder, being fully traced means the men in suits kick your door down, and you go to jail. That’s it. You can save your game all you like as you go, but once you’re caught, you are kicked out of the corporation, and you’ve got to start an entirely new game, all those hours you invested going down the tubes.

It makes that 93% trace as you’re deleting the last digital footprint in the mainframe that would give any indication that you were there all the tenser, as you rush to log out, all the while the bleeping rises to a crescendo, and suddenly stops. You breathe a sigh of relief. You escaped, this time.

Then comes a notification a few days later – they’ve tracked you through another system where you left traces of your presence, and you have been caught!  Not knowing if faceless agents are tracking you down across the globe as you sit in front of your screen, frantically working on multiple, increasingly complex assignments, is the closest I have ever felt to being in a conspiracy movie.

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In a similar manner to Grim Fandango, I don’t have specific memories attached to Uplink. It’s a game I have played on and off since I bought it, 10 years ago. It’s certainly not something I play regularly, but such is its unique appeal, that it’s one I would never dream of selling.

Far from the one-shot, quick-fire campaigns of Call Of Duty or Uncharted, where the whole aim of the game is a one-time rollercoaster of blockbuster set-pieces, Uplink plays a different game; one of a slow-burning, very unique tension. It’s not a game to play for weeks at a time, but the gameplay mechanics are so perfectly matched to the source material, that every so often, maybe a couple of years down the line, I feel a powerful urge to go back it again.

And it’s always the same. That sense of tension when you load it up – sometimes on a new laptop, which brilliantly feels like you’ve updated the game, somehow – and that deep-seated, powerful excitement. It’s like being in WarGames, where the fate of the world can be affected by the single click of a boy in front of a screen.  And those first few jobs start coming in, and every time, I think: “Yeah, I’d make a great hacker.”

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And then a couple of hours later, I emerge, dazed and a little older, still in my room. I never really left, unlike a visit to Hyrule or Black Mesa. But for a short while, I strode the world like a digital colossus, reaching down into any secret database I liked, pulling the information I wanted, and selling it to the highest bidder.

In a similar vein to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there’s a powerful draw to seeing things that were not meant for public consumption. The jolt of intrigue that shoots down your spine a friend leaves their inbox open is the same part of the brain that gets fired up when you sneak into a government database to erase someone’s criminal record. Being where you’re not supposed to be has excited us since we were kids sneaking into neighbour’s back gardens to retrieve lost tennis balls, and Uplink jumps on that and gives it a whole new spin that excited at the turn of the 21st Century as it still does to this day.

So here’s a challenge for you, Dear Reader. Play Uplink. The demo’s here. It’s difficult, occasionally awkward, and a little ugly even by its own modest standards, but it was programmed almost entirely by one guy and self-published by a team of three Imperial College graduates, and it is genuinely one of the most immersive things I have ever played.

The three are no doubt rich now, and have released a good few (well received) games in the wake of Uplink’s success, but at the time it was a make-or-break move, and it paid off. In a climate where videogame budgets are spiralling increasingly into the stratosphere, just think about those three guys – Chris, Mark and Tom – sitting in their bedrooms, frantically burning copies of the game and packaging each copy themselves to meet the slew of pre-orders they got when they eventually made it public.

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There are so many examples of necessity providing greatness. Raiders Of The Lost Ark: Indy shooting the swordsman instead of a protracted sword fight, because Harrison Ford had the shits. Simpsons episode Cape Feare: Sideshow Bob stepping on those rakes far more than times than was written, because they didn’t have enough material to fill the episode.

And Uplink, because they had no money, and they took the cheapest idea they could: a computer game that looked like you were looking at a computer screen, and wove it into fucking gold.

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The game went on Steam as of 2006, but I’ll lend you mine if you don’t want to shell out. If you don’t like it I’ll buy you a beer. We can have a sit down and talk about it. Though I suggest you watch your bank account late at night, because you never know when that £3.50 might mysteriously slip away through information airwaves, and off into the night…
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  1. […] back in Games That Rocked #11, I talked about hacking simulator Uplink being “the greatest marriage of form an content in the […]

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