Trust is a Weakness: An Uplink Retrospective
One of the first lessons that Uplink teaches you is the neccissity of covering your tracks. One wayward log, one unsecured connection, one second too long before disconnecting from your target system, and it’s all over.
Released in 2001 by Introversion Software for PC and Linux, and eventually ported to Mac, Uplink is (for lack of a better description) a hacking simulator. Or at least, the way hacking looks in the movies; the good ones, like Sneakers, and… Sneakers, when you rewatch it.
The actual business of hacking in Uplink is incredibly streamlined. To disable security measures, you simply launch the appropriate application from within the game’s Uinterface. Similarly, finding out if you’re being traced is as easy as running the Trace Tracker application. If that makes the game sound painfully simple, rest assured that it really isn’t. While the game doesn’t bother with trying to replicate real-life hacking in all of its frequently boring details, what it does do is replicate the thrill of the chase, the exhilaration of staying one step ahead of the authorities, and the dark delight to be found in being where you shouldn’t be.
The game is played out in a virtual operating system environment. The bastard child of early-era Windows, Unix, and Tron, on paper it sounds like a migraine-inducing nightmare. Incredibly though, it not only works, but works well. The mixture of cold blue, clean silver, and plain black come together and draw you in, making it worryingly easy to forget you’re looking at a game and not a custom OS skin. It’ s a triumph of minimalism, removing distraction and freeing you to focus on what’s important : how long until you finish downloading your target’s secrets, and how long remaining on your current trace. The soundtrack fits the mood like a glove; eerie, electronic and frequently unsettling, it’s the perfect counterpoint to the relentless ping of your trace tracker counting down.
Set in the far-off future of 2010, Uplink has you play the part of a freelance hacker, working for the Uplink Corporation, which acts as an employment agency, shop, and social network of sorts for hackers worldwide. Through Uplink Corporation, you take on jobs, or missions, performing various kinds of hacks. You’ll start off deleting or stealing files from poorly-protected terminals before graduating up to amending academic records, destroying entire systems, and stealing whole networks worth of data. Along the way you’ll also forge criminal records to send innocent people to jail. Those people are frequently hackers like yourself; try not to feel bad about it, they’d have done the same thing to you.
Uplink is a game that revels in paranoia, fear, and suspense. Every name in the International Criminal Database could be another hacker, which means they’re a possible threat. You don’t communicate directly with anyone else in the game, and it’s just as well, as you wouldn’t be able to trust them. The game’s tagline is “Trust is a weakness,” and it’s terrifyingly true. In Uplink, not only can you not trust anyone, you can’t trust anything. Your own skills, your own machine, are all under suspicion. Have you given yourself enough time for the big hack? Do you need to more secure connections to slow the trace? Can you delete your connection logs quick enough?
The game’s story unfolds as you play through posting on the in-game bulletin board, which reports on notable hacks (some of which you may recognize, because you’re responsible for them) and arrests. As time goes on, you’ll find yourself caught between two competing groups, fighting for control of the internet. Or not. You’re quite free to ignore it and do your own thing while the world carries on without you.
You see, for a relatively small game, Uplink is incredibly open-ended. Although you’re free to simply pick up the proffered missions (and you’ll have to, if you want cash early on), you are just as free to go off-mission and hack any and every terminal, server, and database you can find. The game not only allows it, but it encourages it. For example: a common early-game mission is to hack someone’s bank account and report the balance. If you get lucky, you’ll stumble across an account with a big, fat sum sitting there. The only thing standing between you and that sum is the bank’s proxy server. Disable that, and you can transfer as much or as little to your own account as you like. Just be make sure to clear your traces afterwards. Uplink doesn’t care if you get greedy, just so long as you stay clever.
Uplink drip-feeds you rewards, and you have to earn every one of them. Successfully performing hacks will see your ranking within Uplink Corporation increase, unlocking harder and more profitable missions. To complete those missions you’ll need to upgrade your hardware and software; faster machines to run more powerful versions of your cracking tools so you can tackle the toughest targets. That said, you don’t need to climb the ladder the usual way. The game keeps note of what you’re doing, so if you do decide to steal that money and you manage to cover your tracks, you’ll find that your ranking will increase drastically.
The game is not without its flaws, of course. The lack of clear instruction will almost certainly send you screaming for an FAQ, guide, or spoilers. Much of the lessons you’ll learn come through failure, not success. The game does reward experimentation, but only careful, well thought-out experimentation. It can get repetitive; ultimately, you’ll find yourself repeating the same steps again and again, regardless of the nature of the mission, the employer or the target. After a slow start you settle into a steady routine: setting up secure links, performing the mission hack, erasing your traces.
Despite that, the sense of nerve-shredding terror haunts you throughout the game. No matter how much money you’ve got, how powerful a system you’re running, you’re still only one bad hack away from losing it all. Uplink takes no prisoners and pulls no punches. You learn fast or you lose. There are no save points and no extra lives in Uplink. Mess up even once, and it’s game over.
Could the game be improved? Certainly. It seems de rigeur for remakes and reboots to get a graphical overhaul, but such treatment would simply soil much of the appeal of Uplink. The bare-bones, minimalist UI leaves you free to concentrate on the gameplay, and not how many frames per second you’re hitting.
It could also stand to clarify things a little. Extensive hand-holding would be inappropriate for the kind of mood the game sets, but a thorough tutorial wouldn’t go amiss. Despite my claims that the world is quite open, you’re still corralled into one of two paths if you want to stick to the story, and it’s a fairly standard good/evil split. Try to choose a middle road or play the game’s two main antagonists off against each other and you get nowhere.
It’s tempting to suggest some kind of multiplayer mode, but Uplink excels at creating a sense of isolation; remove this and you would lose much of the game’s magic. Some variety in missions would be refreshing; once you’ve hacked one bank, you’ve hacked them all. You’ll use the same techniques again and again and in the end you’re faced with little to no choice about how to approach each hack. Different types of mission and different types of systems could require different tools or tactics to breach them. Sprinkling secrets around would be a fun way to liven things up; uncovering badly-written fan fiction when you’re simply trying to perform corporate espionage could be toe-curlingly hilarious, for example. Randomly-generated “sidequests”, activated by stumbling across hidden files on a target’s machine might add replayability and longevity as well.
One thing that shouldn’t change is the all-pervading sense of danger. At no point in the game are you ever really “safe”. You’re only ever as good as your next hack, and there’s no way to get hold of an ‘I win’ button, and nor should there be. Towards the end of the game, the difficulty becomes eye-wateringly hard, with hack requiring lightning-fast reflexes and inordinate amounts of planning before you even have a chance of success.
For a while there, Uplink was a difficult game to get hold of. Fortunately for you, that’s no longer the case. You can pick it up for Windows on Steam and GoG digitally and via the Ubuntu Software Centre for Linux. You can also buy direct from Introversion’s website. I’d recommend the latter, simply for the opportunity to get a physical copy of the game. My copy dates back to 2001, and it’s loaded with secrets, background fluff, and concept notes by the developers. A Mac version has been available for some time now, but just last month an iPad version was also released, and is available now on the App Store.
Any of these version is available for less than £6 or $10. Do yourself a favour, miss out on two coffees, two pints or one-tenth of a single Games Workshop miniature, and buy Uplink.
Follow Craig’s intermittent tweets @d20shapedheart