'Darknet' Preview: Abstract Hacking Game Using Oculus Rift

By Published April 22, 2014 at 8:11 pm
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Several generations of games spanning System Shock 2, Uplink, the Deus Ex franchise, and now Watch_Dogs have implemented hacking as a gameplay element for a greater cyberpunk-themed adventure. E. McNeil’s Darknet, initially a prototype called 'Ciess,' takes place entirely within a hacking GUI -- it's no after-thought here. McNeil is also bringing this world (and interface) to life on Oculus Rift. I spoke with McNeil at PAX East and got a brief hands-on preview with his cyberpunk project, Darknet.

Darknet Game Trailer

This should get you started on the basics:

In short: Darknet puts the player in the position of a hacker attempting to exploit network vulnerabilities to gain access to varying systems; it's your job to perform injection attacks, spread malware, and otherwise play a visualized, amped-up role of a traditional hacker.

Game Premise and Mechanics Overview 

Darknet presents a simple, vibrant GUI in the form of a 360-degree interconnected network. Oculus Rift enables players to look at one large piece of the network at a time and target which areas they’d like to interact with; the press of a button flips our view 180-degrees, making it easy to navigate around what will effectively wrap around your head when using the Rift (this can also be navigated with motion sensing or keyed input). Players are tasked with hacking the network by selecting checkpoints ("nodes") that each contain small hacking puzzles. The objective is to hack through the network to gain access to the network’s critical node before the timer runs out, but how players do so is entirely up to them. This is hard to understand without a visual aid (the game is very visual, so players who aren't as hacking-inclined will still have fun), so in attempt to convey information, here's a screenshot:

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One layer deeper, the nodes are protected by security programs that the player tries to defeat. The player can target a security program with a tool called an 'exploit,' and with the proper exploits, she can expose an entire node to hacking. Players have access to a few hacking tools and, once they hack a node, earn money to purchase other tools that they can use on that specific level.

The game uses a time limit that starts only after a player initiates her first hack, so the player can analyze the network and strategize before the timer starts – similar to the hacking mini-game in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The AI, the security programs, and the network’s firewalls react according to how players attempt to hack the entire network, forcing careful consideration of overall strategy even when tampering with individual security programs.

Oculus Rift’s primary function in gameplay is targeting the particular node that the player wants to hack and the security programs she wants to exploit. The network is spread out across a 360-degree view that is viewed in 180-degree increments. The level I played had about 200 targetable nodes, but other network maps can contain up to about 10 times that amount.

Darknet Hacking Items

Darknet currently features four hacking tools that players can purchase (in-game) to deploy a better hacking strategy. The terms and functions here aren’t foreign, but for the gameplay’s sake, let's break them down one-by-one:

Exploits are the cheapest tool to begin hacking a network. A level initially gives you a specific number of exploits you can execute to expose a node, so efficient and planned use is critical.

Cracks are attacks that weaken the overall network. They can be used to destroy nodes and they can take out firewalls, thus enabling a player-deployed virus (below) to spread to more nodes. Cracks are a crucial tool in controlling chunks of the network; for example, the player can deploy a crack to target a piece of the network that’s more heavily guarded by security programs.

Viruses initially target a node and then spread outward to other nodes. To imagine a scenario, this effectively forces the computer to adapt its firewall as a last-ditch defensive effort.

Worms are programs that emulate desirable behavior, as with real worms. Worms are self-sufficient once deployed and will follow-through with their malicious tendencies automatically, freeing-up the player to attend to other sections of the network.

Every time a player buys a hacking tool, it doubles in price. This challenges the player to use the other tools and mix up her approach to exposing and hacking nodes.

AI and Strategy

McNeil said that the security programs respond according to a deterministic AI algorithm, which basically means their reactions correspond to the particular exploit the player initiates; their response is not randomized. This is what developers refer to as "emergent gameplay" or "emergent AI" -- the game is actively working to adapt to hacking attempts. He added that an adept player (and perhaps computer science buffs) will be able to predict how a program will react depending on the move she has in mind. This knowledge allows players to mix up strategy by targeting isolated security programs or by targeting a threat at a group of programs to be wiped as a diversion.

McNeil is also considering adding variable attributes to security programs, effectively allowing the anti-hacking software to react to threats in different ways and encourage replayability. Some possible functional variations include different movement patterns, movement speeds, and alert radii (the maximum distance an affected program 'reaches'). One of the security programs or pieces of the map could even act as a mine, so if a player trips it, it could switch off any possible connected hacking opportunities. This can be thought of as a sort-of bait or honeypot.

About the Creator

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“Apparently, my pattern is doing launch titles for kickstarted hardware. Also, my games tend to be very abstract,” said McNeil of his development background. His prior projects include a celestially-inspired RTS for PC and mobile devices called Auralux, as well as a top-down sports game called Bomb Ball for the Ouya.

I then asked McNeil to share how his interest in cyberpunk allowed him to infuse the same type of abstract game architecture.

“[The cyberspace theme is] so flexible that it gives me the opportunity to build whatever abstract gameplay I want, and then sort of justify it within the story’s context. Because nobody knows what hacking looks like in the future, this is straight out of some Hollywood fantasy” (referring to cyberpunk films such as Johnny Pneumonic and The Matrix). 

Continuing from later in the conversation: “I think [the cyberpunk concept of hacking] is already pretty abstract. In some sense, this entire game is one big user interface. […] It allows me to take abstract gameplay and color it in however I need to.”

I also asked McNeil how he thought Oculus Rift enhanced the presentation of the game.

“It’s more […] the composition of the scene, like whether things are close to you or far away, sense of scale, or feeling like you’re being surrounded – those are the things that the Oculus Rift is going to add that I couldn’t do otherwise.”

What was not in the Demo

What I experienced at PAX East was actually one layer of the overall Darknet experience. McNeil is constructing a greater game architecture that will support networks upon networks and will motivate players to complete all of the levels. I’m excited for what he reveals later on in development.

McNeil’s also adding and modifying some of the game’s smaller elements. In the demo, I noticed orange packets that would pass between nodes – something McNeil said symbolizes the network traffic data. He’s working on a password feature in which players will analyze the network traffic in order to hack a password for a node, instead of spending money hacking it.

Upcoming features and enhancements aside, Darknet is coming together as a polished, cerebral game. It takes advantage of an abstract, albeit beautifully minimalistic GUI that introduces hacking concepts and challenges playfully, instead of screaming "CS training exercise." Oculus Rift amplifies the presentation of the network to place the player in a world that she can manipulate and visually admire.

McNeil expects to release Darknet on PC, Mac, and Linux approximately during the launch of Oculus Rift. The game’s price has yet to be confirmed. 

- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.

Last modified on April 22, 2014 at 8:11 pm

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