Outsmarting the Game 2: Uplink

I wrote an article not too long ago about games that make you feel as though you have outsmarted them. This is a rarely-realized gameplay mechanic in which the player thinks they have discovered something in a game that the developers did not intend them to find. In essence, they “broke” the game. In reality the developers fully intended the player to break the game as part of the natural learning experience.

I struggled to think of games that included this innovation, only caming up with Dungeon Master’s original spell system and Portal’s clever puzzles. It wasn’t until UpLink was announced for iPad that I realized I missed the absolute best example of “outsmarting the game” that exists. I have been meaning to write about this game for a long time because it is easily in my top ten favorite games of all time. Not because of the graphics and not even because of the gameplay but because this game really made me feel like a hacker. Finally I have a good reason to expose people to it!

UpLink takes place in the (future) year 2010 in a world where corporate cyber-espionage is a career path for many computer nerds. As one of those nerds, you work for a company called UpLink which acts as sort of an Craigslist-style bulletin board for hacker jobs. You choose to perform different jobs such as:

  • Steal important files
  • Delete Data
  • Change people’s criminal history
  • Change people’s grades or degrees
  • Create new identities
  • Many more

In the game, you need to purchase software programs (firewall bypasses, decrypters, trace trackers, you know hacker things) as well as upgrade your computer’s hardware. While you are hacking, the trace tracker beeps at you with increasing intensity as the security programs are trying trace your location. You need to finish your job and terminate the connection before the beeping flatlines. Some hacks can get very intense if you like to play loose and cut corners. However, if you act like a professional and make all your moves carefully there is little chance of getting caught unless you make a big mistake (like forgetting to delete your connection logs at InterNIC). The software itself is presented in a cliche Hollywood-hacker style. The password breakers flash a bunch of letters, numbers, and words trying to get a match, the trace tracker beeps and changes colors, things flash, loading bars move around, seconds tick down; It’s all very visual and flashy and makes you feel like you are in a movie.

As you finish jobs your rating goes up and gives you access to higher level jobs, but you need to be careful biting off more than you can chew. You might not be equipped to disarm some security measures and could run into dead ends in the middle of a hack. There is a good amount of discovering things on your own in the game as you try to build the best computer and become the best hacker.

Aside from doing UpLink agent odd-jobs, there is also an overreaching plot. One day you get an email from a fellow hacker, after he goes missing, telling you about something he discovered while diving into a particular system. If you keep an eye on the news, you will notice that many hackers that are employed by a particular company are disappearing…

I hope all of this sounds cool because I haven’t even told you the best part yet. The part where you transcend the gameplay you are taught, and begin to think for yourself and truly feel like you have become an elite hacker. I am going to spoil this for you right now because I assume you either have already played this game, or likely never will. But if you don’t ever play it at least you need to know what this game got right. What makes this game so special.

Once you reach a high enough hacker rep-level you will begin getting missions from corporations asking you to investigate people’s bank accounts looking for unusually large deposits or withdrawals to catch executives stealing money, taking bribes, or whatever. You begin taking some shallow dives into the bank’s security and looking at people’s balances. Eventually you will run into an account that hold hundreds of millions of credits.

You spend the first part of the game performing small time espionage missions for 2300-8000 credits trying to get enough money to afford that next modem or memory upgrade hoping that one day you will have a really good computer. Good enough to hack into some REAL tough software. But all the big upgrades seem so far away… When can you finally get the big money?

Then it dawns on you. Like the most brilliant idea anyone has ever had.

I can see these accounts with millions for credits. Why can’t I transfer some of that money into my account? This is when the player seemingly goes off the beaten path, goes rogue. The game never suggests you get money any way but by doing missions. You are never told you could, or should, steal money from corporate bank accounts. You need to come to this conclusion for yourself, you need to attempt it on your own. But there is plenty of risk. You go for it, everything goes as planned, you check out your bank account and it’s overflowing with credits! You immediately spend it all on the best possible computer software. Life is great! Until the FBI shows up.

Getting caught in this game is no laughing matter. There is no saving and loading. You only get 1 life and once caught, game over. But once you get the taste of the bank hack you go at it again, and again, faster, better, more precise, until one day… no FBI, no game over. Just money. After this moment the game completely changes. You can automatically purchase the best possible computer, all the most advanced software. There is no longer a need to perform those stupid low-paying jobs. That is when the story of the game really begins to progress. And the player is free to do as he pleases. After this rebirth, the player finally has the ability to truly progress in the storyline.

It turns out the developers were waiting for you to figure this out. In essence, figuring out how to get the big money was the “first level” of this game but no one ever told you. The developers allowed the player to break the system that they put in place as a form of progression. This game delivers a truly fulfilling sense of accomplishment. Absolutely brilliant.

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