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Project .hack

Chris Williams

hack reminds us that we live in worlds within worlds in a newly unfolding virtual culture, but that culture is not separate from reality -- it is a part of our reality.

Publisher: Bandai America Incorporated
Genres: Action, Action RPG, RPG
Price: $19.99
Multimedia: Project .hack
Platforms: PlayStation 2
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: CyberConnect2
US release date: 2007-07

From the moment the metal bustier-clad warrior BlackRose approached me, wielding a ludicrously long sword and sneeringly asked, "Are you a newbie?" I was hooked.

This moment was so familiar, so altogether "real" for myself -- a gamer who has spent several years "living" in persistent worlds (also known by the awkwardly verbose moniker of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games like Ultima Online, Everquest, Asheron's Call, Star Wars Galaxies, etc.). Anyone who has spent any time in these simulated worlds -- be it the aforementioned MMORPGs or their predecessors, the MUDs and MOOs, or even the death match and co-op worlds of Quake or Diablo -- should "know" BlackRose. Worlds of these sorts are populated with friendly people, but also with hard core aficionados whose snobbery -- derived from their knowledge of their world -- doesn't make it easy for someone just learning the ropes. To be frank, these societies are all too familiar; they're just like real life only smaller.

This is what the .hack games do so very well. They are games about games, simulations of online video games, simulations of what is already a simulation (I can hear Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard rubbing their hands together and cackling madly in the background). For the gamer, these worlds can become a kind of tiny life (see my previous link), a living world, a simulation of our own (or a slightly more fantastic version of our own), yes, but a living one, in which we interact with others, buy, sell, trade, fall in love, get married, witness birth, death, and rebirth -- all of these on two levels -- in the simulated virtual world as well as in RL (real life for the uninitiated) as we get involved with both our characters as well as the real people playing them.

This sort of meta-game is not without precedent, though, consider the Commodore 64-era classic Hacker, for instance. On loading up this hacking simulator, the player is confronted with a familiar (for the time) prompt: "Login:" and a flashing cursor. What to do? Like any good hacker, the player begins screwing around, typing in random logins and passwords, seeing what might be done to crack this login screen to see what secret lies at the heart of this virtual world. Like any good gamer, the player begins screwing around, typing in random logins and passwords, seeing what might be done to crack this login screen to see what secret lies at the heart of this new game. Real life and the simulation have become intriguingly intermingled in this moment.

Hacker presents a more subtle approach, perhaps, to immersing the player into the game world or more appropriately subsuming reality into the simulation than .hack but the idea here is similar in principle: both create a confusion between real world experience as a gamer and a gaming experience as a player that supposedly has a real life.

Indeed, that is the premise of .hack. You, as Kite, a dual wielding Twin Blade, have just begun playing an MMORPG entitled (appropriately enough given the confusion of RL and simulated worlds) The World. But, you aren't merely playing Kite, you are also playing the player who is playing Kite. When you load up .hack, you will not immediately enter The World. Instead, first, you find yourself confronted with a desktop area not unlike a Windows or Mac OS, which you can navigate, utilizing the various options that it provides (check your simulated e-mail and send some to the characters you meet in game, check out what's going on outside The World in the simulated "real" worlds by browsing a news database, or, heck, customize your desktop, so the place feels like your own -- this is your "computer" after all and your world).

.hack the game, and its narrative consist of exploring both worlds, jumping back and forth between The World and Kite's operator's world in order to unravel the mysteries at the heart of the game The World, and the mysteries surrounding its creation and continued development that seems a bit outside the control of its development team. While dominantly, you play as the Kite avatar, exploring dungeons and battling monsters with a party of virtual friends like BlackRose, the central focus of the game's narrative is the "larger" world of Kite's operator who was invited to play The World by a long time player and friend of Kite's in RL whose in game name is Orca.

In the first part of this series of games, .hack//Infection, Kite and Orca explore a dungeon and there encounter a mysterious female avatar named Aura and a monster that the veteran Orca has never seen before. Orca's battle with the monster and defeat by it has more devastating ramifications than a typical MMORPG death -- normally, maybe a few lost items or loss of experience points. Instead, in RL, Orca's operator and Kite's friend, goes into a coma. If .hack, simulates the way in which very real social interactions occur online with players by not simply role playing characters, but by getting to know others, making friends, making enemies, and acting, well, like real people, this moment suggests that simulated worlds can have significant effects on our real lives -- to the point of moments of crisis -- life and death.

Hence, while living out the fantasy hack and slash game play of a "game," as a player of both the fictitious World and .hack, one is reminded of the way that reality and fiction blur in our culture and the significant effects that media and simulations have on our lives. Hence, .hack's presentation, not of typical fantasy archetypes, but archetypes of the sorts of players one meets in online worlds who are playing out those typical fantasy archetypes (from the sneering hardcore l33t d00d to the role-playing nut who maybe overplays his fantasy persona to the point of frightening nerdiness to the pragmatic trader who deals in wares that are virtual but is all too aware of the real value of these items to the players in this "world").

Hence, why .hack also emphasizes the hacking cultures within these sorts of games. If Kite and his friends are to have an effect on The World, they have to be able to manipulate The World in some meaningful way. So not only are you playing a Twin Blade warrior advancing the plot of The World through your adventures in it, but Kite is also a hacker who can manipulate monsters and enter unfinished areas in The World in order to pursue whatever is the cause of his RL friend's coma.

The additional "secrets" pursued throughout the game concern the meaning of a mysterious text that Kite receives during Orca's encounter with the monster. The Epitaph of Twilight is a cybertext, a hypertext book that was published on the web before The World's creation and on which The World is based. The text allows Kite some of his abilities to hack the world, but that makes some sense if Kite has access to the story on which the game is based. If he can alter that story, he can alter the game. Like Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk thriller Snow Crash, .hack suggests that true power is the ability to hack language itself. The appearance of these mysterious monsters in The World seems likewise to be related to The Epitaph, they are a fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy written in The Epitaph. This interaction between text and World and author and character(s) is a further mirror of .hack's themes and concerns with the way that fiction (and simulations) are written by us but also write us. If we write stories to help organize the world, how often do those stories begin writing us and organizing our world and culture? Hence, .hack's suggestive nature that The World is at once a fantasy game but also a world altogether too real to its players.

But, lest I forget that I am writing a review of a series of games and not a review of an 80-100 hour long film, I should address some of the game play elements, which are seemingly related to some of the themes that I have described. .hack is an RPG, but a very fast paced one, drawing some of its tricks from RTS games, but it lacks the ability to allow pausing to determine your party's next moves. While the game is menu driven, you make selections for your actions during combat as the action occurs by having Kite "tell" the other players in his party what to do via the menu system. Interacting with the characters again simulates a multiplayer experience as they respond to your commands as appropriate to their given personality and even call out for healing or complain that you're taking all the treasure. The game play is fast and frantic and, with each new title, I've discovered a new layer of depth to what seems to be a basic hack and slash menu system but, as I've discovered the games offer the chance to consider more complex strategies the longer you play and grow accustomed to the system. Combat is as deep as you want it to be.

That being said, if you like the way the game plays, you will likely enjoy all four games, but, if you hate it, you're in for a long 80 hours with all four games. While I learned more strategies as I continued to play the games, the gameplay itself (as well as graphics, sound, etc.) change very little from volume to volume. These aren't sequels or upgrades to a game, though, these games are intended to be serial, so changing the rules in the middle of the series would probably be unwise and, given the nature of the relationship between the game and its narrative, detrimental to the story as a whole, which is about a game, not several games. I found the game play initially fun and grew to enjoy it more and more in the next two chapters. Admittedly, though, by hour 79, it begins to wear thin. But, in my mind, this is a game that you ultimately play for the sake of the story. Those not interested in its interesting themes and MMORPG styling need not apply unless they have a high tolerance for repetitive game play.

But this discussion of the game .hack does little to describe the whole of this franchise and the total multimedia presentation of The World and the "real" world created by CyberConnect2. In addition to the game, each installment comes with a half hour anime called .hack//Liminality. The "liminal" space described by this DVD is Kite and friends' "real" world, which is being shaken by the events of the game. It provides additional insights on what we can't see in the game. Likewise, the television show .hack//Sign, which aired on Cartoon Network briefly, is a story that precedes the game series, providing the simulated World not only the connectedness to the "real" life and current events of the anime, but a "real" history of The World as well.

In other words, if .hack interrogates the relationship between media and reality, it generates a similarly overwhelming and invasive media reality of its own that asks us to become involved in. It's an investment of time, money, and potentially emotional involvement that real life MMORPGs similarly provide their characters with and in a broader sense most media from television to film to popular music similarly immerse the American public in on a regular basis. What .hack reminds us of is that like its characters, we all live in worlds within worlds in a newly unfolding virtual culture but that culture is not separate from reality, it is a part of our reality -- realer (at times) to us than the real itself and reality and culture have consequences. Simulations have become a way for us to play, but also to live with others.

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