Even as a millennial with several years of experience in the field, I would be reluctant to classify my legit computer skills as anything above rudimentary. My history of play-acting as a serene yet powerful cyber-warrior, however, goes back to the dawn of personal computing itself. Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers for the Amstrad was a mite more involved than my six-year-old mind could fathom, but it didn’t stop me loading it up occasionally to try. By the time I got to high school, Hollywood hacking films like Hackers and Sneakers were in vogue, and browsing the early internet or school network for the most mundane of reasons could be cloaked in an air of illicit cool if you vibed to Orbital or The Prodigy while you worked.
Precisely these sense memories were awoken upon loading up Mainlining, the boot-up tones and welcome screen of your in-game computer being at once instantly familiar and yet a little different. Starting off in a pixelated and simplified take on a WinXP work PC at fictional government agency MI7, you gain more tools of investigation and manipulation as you progress the narrative, accessing other retrograde analogues of familiar operating systems like Mac OS and Linux to uncover the members of a shady and morally suspect hacker ring and drag them into the light of justice. The first game Kickstarted by team Rebelephant, it was originally released episodically but all thirteen episodes are now included in the finished product.
Hacking the planet has been gamified in an arguably more stark and serious fashion in the likes of Uplink and more recently Orwell, but Mainlining chooses to abstract and hide the complexity of the mechanics in favour of bringing the narrative to the fore, delivered through chat prompts with your co-workers and the secret files you find on the public’s machines, some incriminating, but some bland and others just quirkily personal; cursory investigation reveals one potential suspect to be the author of My Little Pony fan fiction. At times it feels more like a point ‘n’ click detective affair, with the lion’s share of the heavy lifting being done by the absurdly powerful titular hacking tool, leaving you to logically piece together the uncovered fragments. In order to arrest a guilty party successfully you must have their name, current location, and a piece of relative evidence proving their illegal dealings; sometimes it can prove a touch irritating finding the exact combo the game wants you to submit, but you aren’t exactly penalised for incorrect guesses, unless you count the daily paper citing your constant incompetence. For a completionist like me it was somewhat distressing to learn from the web that for certain missions I had passed the mission with a sub-optimal confession (for example, putting away a perp for a mere five years when they had committed felonies worth a much higher sentence), but the game did nothing to advise that I had scraped by with the bare minimum.
The audio work is subtle but beautifully implemented. Rich film-noir electric piano chords and smoky cymbals swirl on the discovery of a new critical piece of information, the rain patters against the window and the cars pass outside as you tap diligently on your keyboard, and the comforting yet harsh screech of a dial tone connection blasts into life when you need to get online. The ‘download file’ tone has just enough ambient echo to paint a mental picture of you chasing that lead, alone in the dead of night, holed up at the otherwise desolate government workplace. It would have been easy to fire in some derivative nineties-style techno to tick the box here, but the understated approach is much more successful in setting the appropriate mood. For your character this is just another day at the office, after all.
While completely recreating all aspects of the parodied operating systems would be unnecessarily complex, unfortunately there are numerous areas where features which would be part and parcel of the software being lampooned are straight-up missing. The internet browser has tabs but does not allow favourites to be saved, and the window can’t be maximised. The notepad app, which you are constantly using to collate relevant information, doesn’t allow inline editing and also can’t be saved. Previous command-line based hacking games espoused these limitations as a realistic depiction of the task in hand, but when it’s 2010-era computers you’re emulating it’s borderline inexcusable. There are also some clear marks that this was a work-in-progress for a while, like text in the newspapers not spaced correctly, typed text occasionally appearing in the wrong window, and at least one piece of placeholder text left unedited. Hopefully these niggles will be corrected in a patch soon.
These slight inadequacies aside, Mainlining is a flawed yet fun entry in a niche expanding genre, breathing in the heady nostalgic air as frequent releases harking back to the halcyon days of computing tend to do these days, but managing to deliver a compelling and witty story. While the writing and characterisation doesn’t quite match the admittedly superlative Mr Robot mobile tie-in Exfiltration from last year, your fellow spies do possess a believable camaraderie and the normal folk you spy on have their endearing foibles. Yes, it is mostly just chasing breadcrumbs from one IP to the next and then tying all the evidence together in a neat little package for submission, and it’s not lengthy, but the entertainment to be gleaned from wading through the minutiae of people’s lives in search of damning proof and chuckling at the parodic interpretations makes it worth the price of admission, especially if this is a style of game you haven’t dipped your toes in before. There is a genuinely tense moment where a fellow agent is in trouble but has gone dark, and all you have to go on is their GPS pin in the in-game Google Maps clone. It’s definitely more John Le Carré than Tom Clancy, but if a little digital sleuthing sounds like your cup of tea, MI7 are recruiting.