Uplink:A Case For Transmitting Emotion Through Design

In this post I will anylise the way Uplink transfers it's themes onto the player through clever design choices.

Ah, Uplink! Such a great hidden gem, a Hollywood hacking simulator and I might argue, one of the best examples of transmitting the themes it presents onto the player.
First let's talk about the color scheme, it's mostly based around shades of blue which induces a sense of sadness, yet calmness. It also expresses the feeling of being an accurate, calculated, expert hacker.
The UI also transmits that feeling as it makes everything so effortless, yet it is solely based around how fast the player is, as it's based around the speed of your cursor, and how precise you are with it.

You could technically complete the game in under 8 minutes for the good ending, by doing nothing or you could complete it in less than 21 minutes for the bad ending, so the game isn't long, but it actually takes way longer to complete it as not many people are that fast. The waiting time that the game puts you trough while you are cracking a system isn't as long as you may think, so the game can be completed that fast if you are skilled enough.

The UI might seem a bit hard to get used to at first, but in no time you will hack servers like a master Hollywood hacker. I use the term Hollywood hacker as this is not an accurate depiction of hacking by any stretch of the imagination, as normal hacking is boring, it could technically be a GUI for a set of hacking tools, but it's nowhere near the real craft of hacking. Well technically a Hollywood hacker is a script kiddie but still...

One thing that the game does very well is immersion, you feel like this is a living breathing world that goes on while you are not playing. First, in the intro of the game, you need to sign up for a service from Uplink Inc. so they let you access their gateways in order to start hacking, you have a short tutorial and after that you are on your own. The game doesn't feel like a game, it feels like a toolkit for hacking the internet, it's made to feel like just another desktop application, that was the intention behind the game's presentation.

From there on you can accept missions to make more credits, defrag your drive manually or just sit there until you receive the actual story missions. Most players start accepting missions and go up the ranks, slowly being introduced to different types of servers, from databases to LANs, and to different types of security such as Firewalls, Proxies, Monitors, Password Protection, Encryption and even ciphers.

You play as a hacker, but you can choose by your actions to either be a grey hat, selling data to people or a black hat, destroying computer systems and people's lives.

Unfortunately the game has another mechanic, the hardware system, that goes underutilized before you complete the story missions, as the player cannot possibly acquire enough credits to upgrade their gateway. There was a lot of potential with it, but it's just a way to generate more credits per minute that is more of an incremental upgrade more than anything.

The game has a very steep difficulty curve as after you break the social security database, you jump straight to LANs and banks, which are of a difficulty way beyond any expectation the player could have.

The LANs are not balanced, as they do not give out enough money per mission compared to database modifications, so the player would probably just keep grinding those missions, instead of LAN hacking. Also the tools required to even start hacking LANs are way too expensive for the player.

The Banks are also not balanced, as you only have 2 minutes to make the hack once you entered, as after that you will be caught by the police, unless you delete your logs.

That I would say is the only area where the game really fails, but I don't know whether or not this was a conscious decision or just a design flaw, as the steep difficulty curve expresses the feeling of dread and hopelessness the game goes for.

LANs and Banks feel really underdeveloped, probably due to the studio's budget. I really hate using a game's budget as an excuse, but seeing Introversion Software's amazing track record, I can only think that that is the case, also the game's bible mentions a lot of cut features. The banks could have played a bigger role, as we see a multitude of them, heck, even taking down one is not that impactful.

LANs are made as a brick wall to the player, which shouldn't be the case, as the only way you can even know that LANs require different tools is by the fact that you are allowed to purchase LAN Cracking software.

Also the game is very hard, and you cannot go back to an earlier save, once you are caught, you are back to square one. This only reinforces the feeling of hopelessness the game wants the player to feel. This also teaches the player that they can't get away with doing illegal activities forever, as he or she will get caught eventually. It also teaches paradoxically that in cyberspace, the perfect crime exists.

As a side note, I just hate when people say that games can't be educational and entertaining, I also hate how people think that shoving stuff down a kid's throat is a good thing, which is why people think you can't educate students using games. Games do not need to be straightforward with what they teach you. It's a videogame, let the player experience, not see or hear what they should learn.

Side note done, now let's get back to the game's difficulty. It also shows the game's tight budget, as it was made by a small UK based team, and living in the UK is expensive. The game originally was meant to have multiplayer, but it did not make it into the final game due to budget restraints.

I would love if there were an Uplink MMO but again, what would be the purpose of that? Hacking the planet, making the most money, destroying the most lives? And this brings me to the point of the game itself. Well the game is made as a satirical view of how Hollywood portrays hacking in its movies, and as a power fantasy for the player, it being really one of the first games in its genre.

The gameplay is nothing to write home about as it's a simple point and click, but the game's atmosphere and themes is really what makes it a must buy if you are looking for something different to play. The game also transmits a sense of tension to the player every time they start hacking, as there is a ticking that becomes faster and faster as the police is closer to the gateway's location.

The gameplay could be described as monotonous, as it really is but the game's immersion and tension makes this gameplay flaw into a great design decision. You can actually get so good at the game that you really only need 40 seconds to hack any system. The player gets better as they get used to the controls and get in the flow of the mission structure.

The basic structure of a hacking game is this: You have an objective,  you prepare to get into a system that contains that objective, you analyze the system, you break into it, manage your resources such as time and CPU and memory usage in order to complete your objective, not leaving any evidence on the way out.

Your objective is your mission objective, your preparation is minimal, as is your analysis of the system, you breaking into it is not so hard unless it's a bank so what's the great thing about this design? Well the strength of Uplink is the managing of your resources and achieving your objective. First of all the way you achieve your goal feels monotonous, but the resource management is excellent. You have your CPU resources for each application and you have time management, which for someone who isn't a pro at the game, is a real challenge.

Uplink does resource management really well and Hacknet does mission objectives, preparation and analysis really well. I will cover Hacknet eventually, but until then let's get back to Uplink.

The credits mechanic is not used to its full potential as there is never a point in the game where the player has to decide between a thing or the other, as the player could always just make more credits by completing more missions or taking a loan from one of the many banks in the game. This contributes to the sense of dread and flow the game tries to maintain.

There are no flash sales or anything of the sort in the game, so the credits mechanic is just a cheap way of measuring progress towards another software or hardware upgrade. This is another thing that the game really doesn't do really well, a feeling of progression.

You get more software and the missions are more difficult as you go out the ranks, but so many upgrades are just incremental, there is nothing that entirely changes the dynamic of the game at a certain point, there is no conflict until the story mission kick in, but still the conflict doesn't feel like it's as important as it should be. THE ENTIRE INTERNET IS GOING DOWN and yet nothing is changed, the game doesn't change radically because of that virus.

The game has a news section that shows different news based upon the current events, such as you hacking a corporate entity's servers or ruining someone's life, which creates a real sense of immersion, but it's not enough to make you feel like you are progressing in any manner.

If you really stop and think about it for a second, you are ruining corporations and people's lives, but you are not encouraged to think about it, except for the game over screen, where you are shown the amount of people and corporations you've ruined.

The game's music is very immersive because it's based around techno tunes, using the new stereo system at the time to full effect by playing with the player's ear. It's atmospheric, high quality audio that I have no problem with.

In conclusion, Uplink transmits it's feelings of sadness, dread and meaninglessness through all the means possible, yet it falls short on a few parts of its game design such as the credits system and the sense of progression, but it makes up for it with its flawless execution and sense of immersion.

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