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Games That Changed Our Lives #19: Uplink

Back in 2001, hardly anyone had a mobile phone, the internet connected using uncomfortably loud and ridiculous noises, and hacking had only really been seen in Scanners or WarGames. Despite this low awareness of hacking and the limitations of the technology of the time, Introversion Software, a small and independent British developer, decided to release Uplink to the world. All I can say is: thank you, Introversion Software. Thank you.

Uplink, originally released on PC and 2001, is based around the world of “high tech computer crime and corporate espionage on the internet” set in the distant future of 2010. It sounds complicated, but it’s seriously addictive and great fun once you get the hang of it. Allow me to explain.

You play as a nameless Uplink Agent, hacking away at the corporate jungle by way of sabotage (mostly) with a little fraud or straight-up theft thrown in for good measure. Your screen becomes that of an elite hacker and you are given a basic system and basic software, plus a small amount of money to make your way in the world. In the beginning, there are some very low-level jobs for you to peruse. Once you’ve found one you like you can haggle for more money, choose whether you are paid upfront or upon completion and finally, to accept or decline.

“You play as a nameless Uplink Agent, hacking away at the corporate jungle by way of sabotage (mostly) with a little fraud or straight-up theft thrown in for good measure”

Once you’ve accepted a few more jobs and have gotten used to negotiating for a little extra cash, head to the Exchange Gateway where you’ll be able to upgrade your device. Spend out for some RAM upgrades to hack faster, or a firewall upgrade to decrease the speed at which you are detected by security systems, for example. It’s a little overwhelming at first, despite the early missions being pretty straightforward. This means they’re low-risk and so are low-reward missions, helping you get used to doing things a certain way, working around the same security and performing the same tasks, preparing you for tougher systems later on.

The hacking is simple enough to begin with, but if the trace-meter in the bottom corner reaches 100% you’ll be found out. Obviously this means instant failure for the mission, but on top of that you’ll receive a message from the organisation you were hacking. They’re on to you and if they catch you again, they’ll inform the authorities. You can slow the trace using various bits of software but the best way to do it is to bounce your signal around the globe. Each time you hack a new computer, it will appear on your map allow you to use it as a proxy, giving you a few vital extra seconds to work with.

Uplink 3-min

The “International Academic Database” will become very familiar as you are frequently asked to alter clients’ qualifications to allow them to secure a new job. This pays fairly well early on, so it’s worth doing a few of these to help upgrade your hardware.

If the authorities find out about this, or if you’re caught trying to “amend” a police record or something similar, things go a little worse. Perhaps you’ll be arrested, voiding your contracts and causing you to fall out of favour with the employers you let down, who now have less faith in you and so are less willing to allow you to take their contracts. Worse than this though, is the constant threat that you’ll be raided by the FBI. All of the work you put in to building a super-computer with cutting-edge (fictional and now outdated) software will be lost as it is either seized or, if you are savvy and have enough money, destroyed. You can set your computer system to self-destruct if it is tampered with, destroying all evidence against you, but also destroying the expensive equipment you bought. This puts you back to square one and you may as well just start a new game.

“If you’re caught trying to ‘amend’ a police record… you’ll be arrested, voiding your contracts and causing you to fall out of favour with the employers you let down”

The interface is very much based around what you are taught to expect computer hacking looks like, with large Username and Password boxes being the main things keeping you from accessing the files you need. Obviously now, that’s how you access almost every web-based account you have from email to social media, but back then, perhaps it was more exotic. As you progress, security systems become more difficult to bypass and you’ll need to use things like an ECEC (that’s an “Elliptic-Curve Encryption Cypher”, of course). Don’t worry, I don’t know what that means, either.

Once you’ve really gotten the hang of the game you can even begin to alter the world around you. There’s a functioning stock exchange for you to use if you wish, which changes based on your actions around the globe. Pretty sure you’re going to succeed in stealing vital files from Company A to sell to Company B? Buy shares in Company B now to see them skyrocket when Company A folds. This is also where the story of the game comes in. I haven’t mentioned the story until now as that is almost the point of it. It continues in the background, not really brought to the fore unless you want it to be. It revolves around an “Evil” organisation who are creating a virus to destroy the internet. You can work with them or against them, or, if you don’t fancy saving the world, you can continue your “hacktivities” (get it?! HA!) and just watch the story unfold in the background as emails pop up referencing the virus and the consequences of it. Personally, I’ve only ever focused on my own missions and upgrading my system which becomes pretty addictive. The selection wears thin after a little while, but you’ll keep on going so you can afford the next modification for your rig. If the missions available don’t tempt you, however, you can of course pinch money from peoples’ bank accounts or play the stock market that I touched on earlier.

Uplink 1-min

Graphically, Uplink is hardly up there with other 2001 releases such as Grand Theft Auto III, but for what it is, its interface is intuitive and well-presented. As you upgrade your equipment, the various options available to you increase, but it never becomes too difficult to find what you are after. Oh and SPOILER ALERT: There’s a lot of blueness, as the pictures in this article have probably given away.

If you fancy playing something a little different, perhaps a little cracker from way back when, I’d say Uplink is a great way to go. Once you get to grips with the premise and the interface, you’ll find yourself hooked on the risk/reward style of the missions and upgrading your kit. Plus, it’s certain to worry any parents or partners who walk in and see you hacking into savings and loan accounts.

Ultimately, Uplink was one of the first games to explore hacking in any accessible way. It paved the way for all of the hacking mini-games (that we all know and love, right?) in many games today. The interface got many people used to typing and using a mouse as this was still pretty early on in the life of home PCs and the central element of the game, the hacking, was fun and engaging. Although there are several to choose from, if I had to pick one reason that Uplink was a Game That Changed Our Lives, it would simply be that without Uplink (and to a lesser extent the late 90’s TV series ReBoot) I reckon nobody would have a clue what a gateway or an Elliptic-Curve Encryption Cypher even was (and what a terrible world that would be…) although, perhaps more importantly, Introversion Software were something of a pioneer in the indie gaming world and the legacy of that effort continues to this day; with titles such as Super Meat Boy, Braid, Papers Please, The Escapists and even the upcoming No Man’s Sky owing their very existence to games like Uplink.