Cyberpunk Hacking Experiments

Posted Nov. 9, 2014, 10:50 a.m.

After thoroughly reading the advice and best practices for making multiple-choice text games in ChoiceScript, I wrote my first chunk of story - not the beginning chunk, but one that might happen toward the early middle of the game. I learned a lot about how to set up choices and communicate with players, but am still unsure about the overall structure. I want the player to have autonomy, and am considering a non-linear mission system that allows players to spend and gather resources between missions. I’m not sure if non-linear missions is worth the added complexity, but at the very least a shopping hub will give a sense of progression and choice.


As far as communicating with the player, there are some options available to me that are unique to stories about computer hacking. One potential I see is the parallel between the player/reader and the protagonist. Since the protagonist is reading text off a screen too, I can deliver important snippets to the player by adjusting the style like so:


So while I need to explain things that are happening in the real world to the player, I can give them a wall of all-caps text and they know that it’s from the computer. This allows me to use potentially cryptic terms and leave it to the player’s instincts to choose what to do next in certain circumstances, which fits with the game’s feel of being a hacker shooting from the hip. The other nice thing this allows me to do is use text input fields in a hackish way - ask for a user login to get the player’s desired name, or have some secret options require a password to progress. Maybe one of the early missions requires you to input a password this way to acquaint you with the mechanic, but it’s hidden behind an obvious search option like “Look under the keyboard.” Later only non-essential rewards would be hidden behind password gates - almost like an ARG - that would ideally reward the player for paying attention to the story and getting to know how certain characters think.

Hacking with Style

This brings me to the question of what stats a hacker should have. It may be interesting to have a race against the clock as corporations tighten their security, in which case some sort of time variables will be necessary. Health indicators might be required for tracking status of the player as they are worn down mentally and physically from late hours engaging in cyber-struggles that could leave them destitute. There should clearly be money involved so the player can feel like they’re making progress on a personal level as well as with the overall story. Some other variables I’m toying with are in this example stat screen:

So maybe security systems are not only trying to force you out by attacking your mind, but also trying to pinpoint where you are in the real world. On hacking runs, you might have to budget your actions since each one will increase your Heat a little bit based on how risky each option is. If your heat is too high, there might be real-world retaliation from the corporations you’re hacking - draining your bank account, throwing your personal contacts in jail, or raiding your den.

Then there’s the question of Style for your protagonist. This could affect how effective you are at various hacking tactics and real-world negotiations with corporate insiders or black-market tech dealers. In order to not burden the player with too much jargon, I also thought it would be good to generalize hacking into Tricks - security exploits that will give special access to data, but can only be used once since security systems will easily adapt. The player has to choose how best to use them.

Other possible elements would be some sort of resistance to corporate tracing attempts, and number of Surges you have left - energy drinks that will improve your psyche at the cost of physical health.

Game Loops in Stories

So the player has credits, but how do they spend them? One way to do this would be to give an A, B, C, or D choice at the end of the mission with a vague clue about how much money the player has. For example, “You earned a lot of credits from that last run, would you like to use them to improve your equipment, stock up on energy drinks, or learn more tricks of the trade?” After the player chooses, the money is gone. The other way would be to treat it like a traditional storefront. The player has an explicit quantity of money, and the game presents a sort of loop that the player goes through to choose what to buy.

Loops like this are interesting in that they can’t be easily replicated in paper game books, but might feel a little too “gamey” for the average player... This might be no big deal since the players who choose to play a hacking game might also be comfortable with shops, but it’s still a concern. Also, what if loops like this happen in a story? In my example mission, there is a moment where the player has to balance risk and reward by choosing when to stop an account syphon.

Staying longer will increase your rewards, but also allow the security system to wear down your psyche and trace your location.

From a game perspective I find this moment cranks up tension and lets the player feel in control of their situation, but from a story viewpoint the repeated description text is a little jarring.

As I continue to write this story and get a better feel of how the world works, I’ll share what difficulties I’m running into and which techniques I’m finding satisfying. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to share a playable version of the story just yet.