Press H To Hack: Hacking in Videogames

Press H To Hack: Hacking in Videogames

The first time I realised hacking existed was tied into the world of computer games, way back on a Commodore 64 where hitting the RUN STOP key allowed me to enter lines of code altering the game in some way (commonly called a poke).

It pretty much blew my mind that with a few lines of code I could turn my weird-looking pixelated character made up of muddy green and brown hues into, well, a weird-looking pixelated character made out of slightly different shades of green and brown. A game of crazy golf became the Battle of the Somme. One time I turned a spaceship into a cucumber.

I can see you’re impressed.

It blew my tiny little mind even further when I realised people were making games based around the same concept – get into a system, tamper with it to get the job done and get out before anyone notices (hopefully in a spaceship that looked like a cucumber, which had nothing to do with me, your honour and members of the jury).

Some 20 years on, hacking in games continues to surface – more often than not an excuse for a storyline progressing mini game than any sort of actual feature (a rare thing indeed if you see a game dev video where they spend ten minutes talking about pattern matching instead of all those explosions and faces being punched. I had a nightmare trying to find developer videos discussing these often overlooked aspects of video games, and I can’t link you to videos of 14-year-olds screaming profanities every five seconds).

Watch Dogs is the latest title to step up to the hacking in video games plate, and amazing bomb squad pr disaster aside it looks pretty decent.

Focusing on the interconnected nature of a city and using those connections to HACK THE PLANET, a lot has been made of how realistic the concept of taking over a city with your cellphone is.

I recently talked to Cameron Robinson over at Gamespot Reality Check on this very subject (and the state of our CCTV tinged existence in general), and here is the video:

This got me thinking about notable (and terrible!) examples of hacking from video games gone by.

Almost all hacking in games has to walk a fine line between simplistic puzzle mini games so everyone can take part, and somewhat realistic depictions of command line interfaces to appeal to those with a more definite hacking mentality.

Go too far in one direction and you risk losing a good portion of your audience. Make a hash of the hacking and you risk losing all of them.

Alpha Protocol, take a seat – we’ll be giving you a good telling off later.

I couldn’t cover everything – apologies to System Shock 2, Shadowrun and Fallout 3, and an honourable mention goes out to the fake internet complete with emails buried inside Front Mission 3 – but I did look at some titles you may not have seen before.

Apart from Deus Ex. You’ve all seen that one.

Paradroid (1985)

Paradroid was probably the first game I saw which focused almost exclusively on hacking (sure, there was Hacker but I had no idea how to play that).

Cast as an incredibly weak robot on a deadly space cruiser filled with trigger happy droids, you had to hack your way up the food chain and take over increasingly more powerful enemies to clear the ship.

You did this via a hacking mini game which involved logic gates and a fixed amount of “charges” to fire at the enemy set against a time limit. If you ended up with more of your own colour in the central section of the screen, you won – if not, kaboom.

With a little practice, gamers could quickly leap from the 001 droid to very high levels. There was a pretty good YouTube video of someone leaping from 001 to 999 a while ago, but it seems to have turned into an advert for a wine bar or something. If you know where it is, feel free to share.

Deus Ex 1 (2000) and Deus Ex Human Revolution (2011)

Deus Ex came out in 2000, yet really gave the player a lot of options in terms of social engineering.

Who needs potentially terrible mini games when you can exploit the all too trusting humans wandering around the gamespace? Meanwhile, the much more recent Human Revolution gave us more chances to find clues, listen to people going about their business and, uh, guess the password (along with the occasional business proposition).

There was also a pretty fun mini game that balanced a countdown based system takeover with real-time consequences – while hacking, you could be caught by guards wandering around so the player was encouraged to be an unseen stealth ninja of silent footsteps and wavering shadows.

Me, I did this.

Realtime hacking – that is, being aware that the game environment is still playing out in the background and can catch you unawares – has become more popular over the years, a bit like those first person shooters which insist on you selecting weapons in realtime while terrorist organisation x is still firing fifteen RPGs and a thermonuclear warhead at your face.

I think I prefer the realtime hacking, to be honest.

Uplink (2001)

Uplink is getting on a bit now, but still offers one of the “purer” strains of in-game hacking that doesn’t descend into peculiar mini games disconnected from the world around them in both execution and spirit. It has you hightailing it out of systems, it has data streams tracing across the globe, it has IRC(!) and it has the PC effectively standing in for your character, which must be upgraded to survive the increasingly difficult hacking challenges thrown at you.

Humorously, when you create an in-game user account you also need a password so it is entirely possible to forget it then lock yourself out of your game and have to start all over again.

Number of times I have done this: six.

If only there was an in-game password manager…

Bioshock (2007)

Taking the whole “Internet is a series of tubes” thing a bit too literally, Bioshock can be felt even now where influence on hacking in video games is concerned.

For reasons best known to the game developers, they decided to represent the act of hacking various machines in the game world by funneling some form of liquid from one pipe to another on a slide tile deck.

If you ever played Pipe Mania back in the day, then congratulations: you’re already a level 99 Gibson hacker and will likely breeze through these sections.

They tried to make the hacking more immediate and realtime for Bioshock 2:

Unfortunately they ran into some issues with colour blindness (later fixed with an update).

Alpha Protocol (2010)

Alpha Protocol is an astonishingly underrated game, where you take on the role of a spy trying to save the world from [generic bad guy group goes here].

The controls are clunky, the crosshairs for your weapon is hilariously gigantic, the lead character is the most non-spy type of guy you could ever imagine – nice disguise – but the whole thing is very hard to stop playing despite the flaws and somehow works.

What doesn’t work, is the hacking. My initial 20 minute playthrough of the tutorial went from “ooh, nice” to “ooh, I’m going to switch it off now” after running into the brick wall that is the hacking mini game.

It’s rather difficult to explain, but you have a screen of rapidly changing codes and about 10 seconds to find the two which don’t alter. You then sort of move the two codes you control with your left and right hands simultaneously, dropping them onto the stationary sequences before they decide to move on you.

Steel yourself, then try to make sense of this video.

A mini game so bad, people found it helpful to develop independently moving retinas to continue.

After somehow finally being able to muddle through the hacking, the game then throws circuit breaking at you and it all goes wrong for the second time. You have a very short time limit to clip the circuits in order, which is accomplished by

a) looking for the number 1 on the board b) following the line back to the bottom and clicking it c) doing that all the way up to 10, unless the timer counts down for the fiftieth time and you throw your keyboard out of the window.

It was entirely possible to play this game on the hardest difficulty level, be confronted with a door you didn’t have enough skill points to open without sheer luck and be stuck there forever (or at least until such time that the PC followed the keyboard out of that same window).

Weirdly, this game never had a sequel.

Sleeping Dogs (2012)

Set in Hong Kong and placing you in the shoes of an undercover detective taking down the Triads from the inside, hacking was more of a multi-stage journey than a “hack and you’re done” affair.

First, you beat up a bunch of thugs in a designated location. Then you had to trace a power cable to a junction box (assuming the game didn’t do something odd). Then you had to hack it in order to monitor a drug deal on a nearby CCTV camera and call in the cops to make the arrest.

Unfortunately the “hacking” was a case of simply selecting 1234, then working your way up to 9 and reordering the numbers as required. The CCTV bust wasn’t exactly difficult either, given a large shield indicator appeared over the dealer after about ten seconds.

Nice idea, but let down by the execution. You did get to jump kick terrible people down stairwells though, so there’s that.

Gunpoint (2013)

Gunpoint does a great job of integrating the hacking into the game  – no disconnected mini games here, everything is done on the fly and when you’re trying to rewire lights or elevators the stylised beams of light being shuffled across the screen feels more natural than a Simon Says puzzle (Mass Effect, what were you thinking).

I think I’m all hacked out.

If I didn’t cover your favourite bit of in-game hacking, feel free to give it a mention in the comments. There’s quite a lot of good examples I didn’t mention, and I am curious to know if you prefer the “Hollywood movie” style realism of something like Uplink or terminal based shenanigans, weird simplistic mini games which often have little to do with anything in the game you happen to be playing or a big red button with an onscreen prompt that says “Press H to Hack”…

Christopher Boyd


Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.