Hack ’N’ Slash

The Dou­ble Fine ad­ven­ture that’s hack­ing apart the fan­tasy genre

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Dou­ble Fine De­vel­oper In-house For­mat PC Ori­gin US Re­lease 2014

PC

The ti­tle may be Hack ’N’ Slash, but it’s clear from the open­ing mo­ments of Dou­ble Fine’s in­ven­tive ac­tion-ad­ven­ture that you won’t be do­ing much of the lat­ter. Alice, a young elf, im­me­di­ately breaks her sword on the bars of her cell, re­veal­ing a USB con­nec­tor be­neath the blade. Plug it into the door’s slot and you can ac­cess its code. Luck­ily, there’s just one com­mand, ‘Open: false’. Change the an­swer to ‘true’, and it swings ajar so her quest can be­gin in earnest.

Hack ’N’ Slash was of­fi­cially con­ceived dur­ing Dou­ble Fine’s Am­ne­sia Fort­night, an an­nual event where em­ploy­ees form small groups to cre­ate game pro­to­types. Yet for Bran­don Dil­lon, the game’s project lead, the idea had been brew­ing for much longer. Dil­lon played games on an em­u­la­tor when he was young, and was struck by the dis­cov­ery of the re­verse-en­gi­neer­ing tools built into the soft­ware. “It felt re­ally em­pow­er­ing to open up the hex menu to fig­ure out how to use those tools, find whichever value I wanted to tweak within the game, and do what­ever I wanted to with it,” he tells us. “I didn’t re­ally have the emo­tional ma­tu­rity to deal with games that were as dif­fi­cult as NES games were. With some­thing like Con­tra, I couldn’t ap­pre­ci­ate the game they were try­ing to present to me. But I could bring it into an em­u­la­tor, tweak val­ues and make it a lit­tle bit more hu­mane. It felt like I had made the game my own, and that way I got to re­ally en­joy it.” Hack ’N’ Slash is about cheat­ing, then, but cru­cially it’s cre­ative cheat­ing. Take one of the first en­e­mies you’ll en­counter: a spiked tur­tle af­fected by the cor­rup­tion blight­ing this fan­tasy world. It will charge at you, but flips onto its shell when dodged, ex­pos­ing its

USB port. Plug in and you can set its health to zero, slow its move­ment speed, turn it into an ally, or even get it to ex­plode af­ter charg­ing. You can have it spit out dozens of health-restor­ing hearts upon death, ad­just its per­cep­tion sen­sors so it can’t see you, or even get a lit­tle more ad­ven­tur­ous and play around with its AI rou­tines, get­ting it to walk around in cir­cles. Soon af­ter, you’re asked to tackle a boss. Dil­lon says that some play­ers cre­ate chaos by spawn­ing dozens of tur­tles from a nearby nest in the hope that the crowd will hurt it. We opt in­stead to play mata­dor: we vastly in­crease a sin­gle tur­tle’s dam­age out­put, in­vite it to charge us (at a re­duced speed, of course) and then dodge at the last mo­ment, fin­ish­ing the job in a sin­gle strike.

As Alice col­lects more items, she’s able to see the in­ner work­ings of her world, re­veal­ing hid­den sym­bols, in­vis­i­ble plat­forms and the vi­sion cones of armed guards. The puz­zles steadily in­crease in com­plex­ity un­til, by Act 4, you’re look­ing at the game’s code in or­der to re­verse-en­gi­neer so­lu­tions. “I al­ways thought it would be cool to make a game that would al­low people to have those re­ally in­sight­ful and em­pow­er­ing mo­ments that I had through­out my his­tory of learn­ing to be­come a bet­ter pro­gram­mer,” Dil­lon says.

As a re­sult, the game’s pro­gres­sion feels strangely ed­u­ca­tional, al­though that’s a happy ac­ci­dent, as Dil­lon freely ad­mits. “It does have a kind of cur­ricu­lum,” he says. “The way I de­signed the game is [to give you] all the cool hack­ing tools and prin­ci­ples, and or­der them based on com­plex­ity. So it ac­ci­den­tally wound up [be­ing] ed­u­ca­tional, be­cause that was the way to work out the puzzle pro­gres­sion.” That un­in­ten­tional pro­gres­sion curve has al­ready had un­fore­seen ben­e­fits: since the game launched on Steam

“Get­ting stuck is part of it, be­cause get­ting un­stuck is what makes you feel smart”

Early Ac­cess, Dou­ble Fine has had re­quests for ed­u­ca­tional li­cences, to al­low the game’s me­chan­ics to be used as a learn­ing tool. A full re­lease is not too far off, but al­ready Hack ’N’ Slash shows great prom­ise. It’s rare to find an ad­ven­ture game that’s pre­pared to let its play­ers get stuck, but Hack ’N’ Slash is all the more re­ward­ing as a re­sult. “It needs to feel a lit­tle bit mys­te­ri­ous and weird and dif­fi­cult to grap­ple with,” Dil­lon ex­plains. “Ac­tu­ally, this is some­thing Tim [Schafer, Dou­ble Fine’s founder] has talked about within the con­text of the ad­ven­ture game. Be­ing stuck is part of it, be­cause get­ting un­stuck is what makes you feel smart.”

Dur­ing playtest­ing, Dil­lon and the rest of the de­vel­op­ment team would watch play­ers strug­gle and won­der if they should make the game eas­ier. The an­swer was al­most al­ways no, how­ever. “You have to [re­treat] from those mod­ern game de­sign in­stincts, hang back and let it sim­mer for a lit­tle bit, and let the player have the in­sight for them­selves,” he says. “Don’t take that away from them.”

You’ll see vis­ual glitches when hack­ing any ob­ject, though the Early Ac­cess ver­sion has its share of bugs, too. A time-trav­el­ling de­vice al­lows you to re­vert to an ear­lier sec­tion should you ac­ci­dently break the game

Hack’N’Slash is a game about hack­ing, but Dou­ble Fine has avoided tired cy­ber­punk set­tings in favour of a fan­tasy world whose physics are “gov­erned by al­go­rithms in­stead of par­ti­cle in­ter­ac­tions”

ABOVE CEN­TRE Alice is joined by a winged sprite named Bob to act as a sur­ro­gate Navi.

ABOVE The an­tag­o­nist is an evil wizard, whom Alice is tasked with de­feat­ing in the game’s cli­mac­tic – and as yet un­fin­ished – fi­nal act

ABOVE These fire­balls aren’t eas­ily dodged at nor­mal speed, but the abil­ity to slow down or speed up time means avoid­ing dam­age be­comes straight­for­ward

TOP Its hack­ing me­chan­ics mean this is a PC game at heart, yet Hack’N’Slash has its roots firmly in the 8bit con­sole era. The en­tire game can be played us­ing a con­troller, and Dil­lon ad­mits that he would love to see it get a con­sole re­lease.

LEFT Achieve­ments aren’t cur­rently present, but Dil­lon sug­gests they rep­re­sent an op­por­tu­nity to push play­ers to­wards so­lu­tions they might not have con­sid­ered

The Early Ac­cess re­lease has al­lowed Dou­ble Fine to re­act to ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proaches from its play­ers. Late-game puz­zles will be tuned “to pull from the vo­cab­u­lary of cool things,” says Dil­lon

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