Hack the Planet!

The last couple of days, I’ve been implementing a Breakout-style hacking/lockpicking minigame.

When I started thinking about doors and locks in Die Augen der Welt, I realized that a lockpicking minigame based on a pin tumbler lock wouldn’t be thematically appropriate. Die Augen‘s world is a slightly futuristic alternate timeline version of our own world, so I imagined that most secure facilities would use electronic locks instead of mechanical locks. This meant I could develop a single minigame to be used for both lockpicking and hacking, because they share the core premise of unauthorized entry into an electronic system.

Although I couldn’t utilize the affordances of mechanical lockpicking, I wanted a minigame which modeled breaking into a secure system, at least in an abstract way. For inspiration, I talked to friends and looked at reference from hacking interfaces in other games. The node control minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a favorite for a few reasons: it was tense and fast-paced, it modeled the domain in a clever way, and it had room for player growth and expressive play. I wasn’t sure I could afford to develop and iterate upon a completely original minigame like DXHR did, so—validated by BioShock‘s appropriation of Pipe Mania—I looked for classic games I could repurpose as a hacking minigame.

My first idea was a sort of Tetris puzzle mode where the player would have to clear the board using a fixed number of pieces. In a very abstract way, the fixed bricks would represent firewalls and the falling pieces would be some sort of software to bypass them. But that sort of puzzle was more prescriptive than I wanted. There is generally only one correct way to solve them. And designing interesting and unique puzzle boards for each locked door or hackable machine in the game would be an additional burden.

I liked the simple, abstract affordance of breaking through literal barriers with a piece of software, which led me to my second idea: a version of Breakout where the goal is not to clear every brick but simply to get the ball to the far end of the board. In a way, this is a more intuitive model of breaking into a system, poking holes in each consecutive barrier. It fits my needs for the scope of the minigame, as boards can be both rapidly developed and reused. And it offers the possibility for some player growth or expressive play, if I choose to add Arkanoid-style power-ups.

The first pass implementation is completed, but the pace of this minigame needs further testing and iteration later, in the context of real levels with proper lighting and AIs on patrols and such. The main world simulation (physics, AIs, etc.) continues to run while the player performs a hack, so she may be discovered if she takes too long. This increases tension, but also requires that the minigame be able to be completed in a timely fashion. (I also believe it is generally desirable for hacking and lockpicking minigames to be brief because the player may play them dozens or hundreds of times over the course of a game, and these minigames can feel like a chore when they take a lot of time to complete.)