Hacking It in Hack ‘n’ Slash

Somebody at DoubleFine has been playing FJORDS, I daresay. They’ve now got their own game that asks the question, What if, while playing a game, you could break it open and mess with its rules?

As the name puns, Hack ‘n’ Slash is a Zelda-style top-down action-adventure game where the hero’s sword is a USB key. Anything with a port, you can hack into, adjusting variables much like you would if you were futzing around in the code itself. Need to push a block? Program it to do what you need it to do when pushed. Need to use a monster’s behavior to solve a puzzle? Rejigger the enemy.

Low on health? Find a bush and set its HEARTS_TO_DROP variable on that bush over there to a high number. Then (here’s the important part) change the bush’s ON_FIRE variable from “false” to “true.”

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Where FJORDS evokes the ragged arcana of early videogames, Hack ‘n’ Slash belongs to the plot-propelled milieu of the 16-bit era and beyond. As Leigh Alexander described them in Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers, the earliest games

were finicky about their syntax—”TIE ROPE,” you’d demand and “TO WHAT,” it would ask, and “TO TREE” would confuse it, but merely answering “TREE” would not. It was always, always possible that you had the right answer to the puzzle, but the wrong words, the wrong verbs.

Not so with the Zeldas of the world. Text-entry gave way to the endlessly pleasurable sensation of moving a little physical character around a little physical location, knowing what verbs you had at your disposal, and using them to gradually explore and master a fantasy space. Hack ‘n’ Slash feels much more like that, but the toolset is cleverly proximal to how the game-world is, in fact, working under the hood. You don’t need a candle to set that bush on fire, nor do you need better armor to reduce the amount of damage that spiky turtle does to you. If you can understand how something works, then that’s usually sufficient to change how it works.

There’s some typing, true enough, but it’s within the confines of orderly and context-specific menus. There’s no omnibus terminal for changing the whole of the world like there is in FJORDS—just a menu for that rock, for that raven. This makes the wider game-world feel a bit less thrillingly hackable, but it also makes the play feel less daunting, more inviting, even once you’re fairly deep into the freakin’ code of the freakin’ game.

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As a fullscreen, right-off-the-bat disclaimer is quick to remind me, Hack ‘n’ Slash is still a work in progress. It’s not always elegant in how it handles the stupider situations I can get myself into—stuck between two rocks, to cite the simplest example—but none of those foibles have so far impeded my progress or muted my desire to tinker.

And tinker I have. Things get markedly crazier in the game’s procedural dungeons. I won’t spoil those bits, but as the game’s marketing blurb promises, “You’re hacking the game for real! You can totally break it,” though you can also always roll back to some more innocent time before you broke it.

It’s the most accessible version of the hack the world gameplay idea that I’ve encountered so far, as it comes packaged with the snappy dialogue, pithy characterization, and lovely visuals that you’d expect from DoubleFine. It’s an awfully good little game that could end up being a truly great little game.

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