At the end of the first Matrix, the audience gets a brief view through Neo’s newly awoken eyes. As “the one,” Neo sees the world around him for what it is: lines of code scrolling all around him, systems, and scaffolding. This is the coveted power we ascribe to all hackers and knowledge heroes: the ability to see through, to pierce the veil and see things—whether they be puzzles, mysteries, or impenetrable firewalls—for what they really are, and to perceive the hidden details necessary to solve the whole shebang.
Like the matrix, video games have their veils, too: symbols and images and ideas that obscure the whirring mechanisms of code and math underneath, hiding the fact that games are just fancy computer programs. In the interest of accessibility and imagination, we tend to switch out ones and zeroes for swords, staffs, and guns.
Double Fine’s Hack ’N’ Slash is all about giving you the coveted power of perception, peeling back the game’s symbols to reveal the mathematical viscera underneath. In its opening moments, your Link-like adventurer gets a sword, which promptly breaks, revealing what looks suspiciously like a USB connector. When you swing the sword against a nearby door, a pop-up menu appears, letting you edit the state of the door. You flip its “closed” value from [true] to [false], leave the menu, and the door slides open. From here, the game begins gleefully showing its inner workings, turning its internal logic into puzzles. Hacking the game around you makes for a fascinating time, but Hack ’N’ Slash too often gets lost in its own guts.
It owes much of its aesthetic and structural trappings to the 2D Legend Of Zelda games. You roam a pleasant, cartoony fantasy world in the company of a fairy (well, sprite, but you get the idea), gathering useful items on your way to confront an evil wizard. All of your items and interactions with the world beyond walking, however, give you methods to manipulate the game’s code: a boomerang that lets you hack from a distance, a hat that lets you see object information overlaid on the game world, bombs that open up hidden algorithms to meddle with. The fiddling behind the scenes conceit is satisfying and rewards cleverness at every turn, and Double Fine has fun with it. One of the binary values assigned to bushes in an early area, for instance, is “on fire/not on fire.”
That same style of humor, typical for a Double Fine production, runs through the whole proceeding. The writing, which delights in genre pastiche, feels of a same mind as the hacking: Both are about what’s underneath the surface, the writing highlighting the (often silly) mechanisms that make the plot of a typical fantasy game function the same way the hacking highlights the mechanisms that make the game itself work underneath the bright colors and boomerangs. This is far from the funniest game in Double Fine’s ouvre (for my money, Psychonauts), but the writing is snappy and clever enough to keep the mood airy even when the puns don’t produce quite the amount of guffaws they seem intended to.
Bugs start showing up, however, the deeper into its own logic Hack ’N’ Slash dives. Its six-to-eight hour runtime is divided into five acts (well, four: you start in Act 2, which might be a joke or an implication that Act 1 needs to be hacked out of the depths of the game’s code later on, I’m not sure), and the further you go into the game, the more complex the hacking gets. Earlier puzzles are mostly a matter of figuring out what object you need to access to get where you’re going, and the design even mixes in some standard adventure-game puzzling fare into the mix, trotting out such familiar standbys as password guessing and an honest-to-god dial puzzle. These puzzles aren’t particularly well designed, and are further complicated by your character’s troublingly slippery movement (I fell into a lot of pits), but they add some familiarity to the proceedings that helps ease the player into Hack ’N’ Slash’s particular class of logic puzzles. By the halfway point, though, these all fall away very suddenly, and the programming logic involved gets dizzyingly complex.
At this point, you’re introduced to hacking not just the states of objects but the algorithms and settings that make entire rooms and game mechanics run. And this isn’t just a puzzle designed to look like programming—these sections are graphical interfaces that offer you access to the game’s actual code. If you fail to solve a puzzle in a particularly spectacular fashion, you can make the game crash. The solutions to these puzzles are still often simple—a matter of just changing one or two variables—but they’re couched in enough real algorithmic logic that they can be nigh on indecipherable to someone without programming experience, changing what might be a satisfying puzzle-solving experience into trial and error. If you don’t have an intuitive understanding of how algorithms work, and if you’ve never spent any time with Boolean logic, you could end up feeling like a lost child.
The problem is that in revealing the skeleton that most games cover over, Hack ’N’ Slash forgets why the skeleton is covered up in the first place. A large part of the gaming audience is not made up of programmers, and cold logic stops being fun to play with when it stops being understandable. Puzzle games, in particular, exist to give up their secrets eventually, forcing you to climb the ladder up to knowledge but promising that you can always reach the next rung. Done right, they turn you into knowledge heroes—into Neo. There are parts of Hack ’N’ Slash that feel less like reaching a place of understanding and more like barely passing the intro to programming class I took in college. When it’s understandable, Hack ’N’ Slash can be as satisfying as clearly seeing the Matrix for the first time. But for those of us without the requisite coursework, clarity feels a long way away.
Hack ’N’ Slash
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Platform: Linux, Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC