Computer hacking is a big deal at the moment. If you’re an Ashley Madison user, you’re probably sweating profusely right now. If you own a new Jeep, you’re probably driving that car back to the dealership soon. If you’re a celebrity, you won’t be saving your private photos to a remote server ever again.
But if you’re local gaming developer Matt Trobbiani, hacking is not something to be afraid of – it’s something to be embraced. Matt’s latest game Hacknet, is taking the gaming world by storm. Playing as yourself, you explore the wonder-filled world of Hacknet servers, gathering clues about a mysterious hacker’s death in order to find the truth.
Just days after being invited to the massive gaming showcase PAX, I caught up with the Adelaidian to chat about his gaming journey, Hacknet and the ethics of computer hacking.
Matt, how did you get in to the gaming industry?
I was training as a compiter programmer at Adelaide University and I didn’t really know where I was going to go. I think I fell into the trap that a lot of people fall who don’t really know what they were doing. I had made a whole bunch of games throughout school but never really took it that seriously. I guess I was really into computers and programming and while I was at Uni, some friends of mine started the game development club. It snowballed a bit out control from there I guess.
Hacknet follows the story of ‘Bit’, a hacker who doesn't access his computer for 14 days which activates a fail-safe system, then contacts you to find out the truth about his death by collecting clues on servers around the world. What inspiration brought about such a creative concept?
I suppose I really like the idea of purity in games. I had this rare opportunity with Hacknet to create a game which removes that barrier [avatars and main characters]. You don’t play as anyone – you’re just at a computer and your computer is running a computer programme and that interaction is the whole game.
Do you think that makes the game more accessible or less accessible to your average player?
I’m not sure if it is a question of accessibility. I think it’s a bit unusual. It’s definitely different. But a lot of games can’t remove the avatar. Most first-person games are trying to bring you closer but in Hacknet, you play as yourself and I think it’s nice. It’s nice because as a developer I have a direct channel to the player. It’s always me talking to the player and I think that helps a bit with connecting them to the game.
With the development of the game occurring over a three-year period, you would have had some major challenges. What was the biggest challenge you faced while making the game?
At one point I had some problems with Slovenian keyboards. For some reason the game wouldn't recognize the Slovenian keyboard ‘@’ symbol and the game requires you to send emails in order to complete levels. So that was a huge problem. But I don’t have a Slovenian keyboard to test that on…and there is no way that I could have predicted that….
Have you considered what might happen if people take the skills they learn from Hacknet and use it in the real world in situations which have some questionable legal standpoints?
Yeah, of course. I’ll preface this answer by saying that Hacknet isn’t going to teach you to be a super-hacker. But if you finish Hacknet, you’ll definitely be in a better position to get those skills and to understand that culture. But I don’t think we should be concerned about teaching people things that are useful and helpful just because there’s a potential for them to be used badly. We’re not going to ban gyms just because if you get really strong you can beat up everyone on the street. What if people get really ripped and go on a massive rampage? It’s clearly not the case. And it is the same for this. Giving people really strong technical skills, security skills and security breaking skills are much more easily used for doing some good.
There seems to be a really strong discussion on personal privacy in Hacknet. Do you want people to take away something else other than learning how to hack by playing the game?
A lot of the game is a discussion on security and information and the strange world we’re coming to live in where everything’s online, even though people are only ok with some of that being online but they’re putting it online anyway. I think the game was originally a lot more about that [commentary on privacy and personal information]. The original ending – and I can spoil this because it got cut – was that you were left with a choice. The choice was a switch that made everything public for everyone forever – or -made everything private forever. Both have some positives to them but ideally we'd be leaning more towards the first one.
Have you had anyone come up to give you a bit of a ‘talking to’ about the game and Hacknet's perceived ability to teach some potentially dangerous skills?
(Laughs) No not really, not yet. But they probably will at some point. And that’s fine. It’s important to be able to say that just because you can do these things, it doesn't make it a good idea. It’s like saying, 'you've gone to the gym so just punch whoever you like ‘cause you’re bigger than them'. It’s not a thing, you shouldn't do that. But sure, there will be people who look at it on the surface and say, 'Hacking Training Simulator, the terrorists are going to get a hold of this! Disaster!' But it’s not really a problem. I wanted to make something that was going to make the world better and I am confident that it’s going to do that.
Only days after chatting with Matt, Hacknet won the AusAsia SimTect 2015 Serious Games Showcase and Challenge Indie Award, so it’s pretty safe to say that Matt isn’t your regular hack…
Play on, Radelaide.
All images courtesy of Hacknet.
Special thanks to the University of Adelaide and Radio Adelaide for their help in producing this article.