For the uninitiated, Michael Brough's 868-HACK [$5.99] is a masterpiece. It's a roguelike that's much more than it appears to be at first glance, and could be mistaken for yet another retro-inspired, throwaway dungeon crawler. It's anything but that. It's impeccably designed, brutally tough, and has enough layers of strategy to suffocate an elephant. In our review of 868-HACK we likened the game to an onion, as once you peel off one layer you're left with another, then another, then another and with every game you're left with new knowledge and are better equipped to excel on a subsequent try. It's the kind of game that you feel like you're always getting better at, but that you'll never truly be able to fully master, because it's just so damn deep.

Ok, that's enough gushing over 868-HACK for now, but the point I'm trying to make is that this game is really, really well-designed. It's the type of game that's so well-designed that it makes other game designers envious, and determined to find a way to break that design in some way, perhaps as a way to prove that Brough is human after all. One of those designers is Shay Pierce of Deep Plaid games, creator of the wonderful little puzzler Connectrode [$0.99], a game that he turned down a lucrative job with Zynga in order to protect. It's another well-designed game, both aesthetically and mechanically, which is I think a big reason behind Shay's determination to break 868-HACK.

868hack

As Shay explains on his blog, "I'm a gameplay programmer by trade, so I think a lot about 'edge cases'… ways to put a program into a rare and unexpected state, a state that maybe the game wasn't coded to handle." He noticed something about two of the special items, or "progs" as the game calls them to keep with the whole hacking them, that seemed interesting. The .STEP() prog allowed the player to step inside a wall, and the .DEBUG() prog destroyed enemies that were inside of walls. If he stepped into a wall with one prog, then killed everything inside walls with the other, would it kill the player?

The answer: hell yes it did. It was a cool discovery because, just like a real software program, the prog in 868-HACK just did what it was designed to do, destroy things in walls, even if that meant killing the main character. As Shay explains in his blog post, "That was the moment I came to really respect the game."

That experience led to another interesting question. If the player used a .STEP() prog to enter a cluster of walls, then used another to travel even deeper into the cluster, and left themselves without enough energy to .STEP() back out of the cluster, what would happen? Would it break the game, leaving the player stranded with no way out? Had Michael Brough thought of this situation and programmed the game to handle it? Shay set out to find the answer to that, and after struggling a bit to get the game to generate a scenario where this whole thing was possible, it finally happened. In these below screens, you can see on the left his first entry into a wall cluster, and in the screen on the right his second step in, which left him surrounded by walls on every side.

screen1 screen2

So, there he was, stuck in the walls and with no way to escape. The only possible move left in that situation is to siphon, which unlocks any hidden resources or enemies in the cells surrounding the player. In theory, a .EXCH() gained from the siphon could give him enough energy to back out of the situation he was in. So that's what Shay did. The siphon of course spawned a screen full of enemies, but nothing helpful. Then something really strange happened. As Shay explains, "…The screen started flickering, the colors started shifting. A warp effect went across the screen. Yellow turned to red. And the game ended, and I got this:"

deadlock

Yep, a "Deadlock." It almost feels like a draw. Shay definitely didn't win, but he didn't really lose either. He succeeded at forcing himself into an unwinnable situation in the game, but much to his dismay, it did not break the game. Michael Brough had planned for that situation to happen, and created the "Deadlock" endgame to account for it. This is the point in the story where I imagine Shay Pierce dropping to his knees, raising an angry balled fist into the air, and shouting "Damn you Michael Brough! Damn you!"

I saw people talking about Shay's adventure on Twitter yesterday, and being a fan of 868-HACK I found the whole thing incredibly interesting, and so I'm passing the story on to you. Also, I've never heard of the Deadlock in 868-HACK before, and as far as I can tell, Shay is the first person to encounter one. I'm dying to see if I can achieve this strange goal myself, but I'm seriously so pitiful at 868-HACK I don't even think I could get myself into this situation if I tried.

But I will keep trying, because that is the curse of 868-HACK: You just can't quit this thing. Of course this goes without saying, but if you enjoy extremely difficult, highly-strategic roguelikes, then you need 868-HACK in your collection, like, yesterday.

  • diego

    I got it on my 3rd or 4th try. I posted a picture on my twitter, I don't think they allow posting links here.

    • Ekaraj Sirkureja

      Wait, aren't you the guy who make Amber Halls? So let me get this straight, a dev is commenting about his attempts to deadlock a game via an internet article that talk about another dev attempt to deadlock another dev's game...... Mind=Blown

      • diego

        hahaha yes. I also managed to get the deadlock thing without using .step. You can see the pictures on my twitter (@diego_cath)

  • Xaintrix

    This was a really nice story! Huzzah for well designed games.

  • rymdkultur

    awesome!

  • http://development.christopherdrum.com Christopher Drum

    This is only game I continue to play every week. Though I'm not one for hyperbole, I feel it is safe to call this game a masterpiece.

    • subshell001

      I consider it a masterpiece in game design, unfortunately I cannot give it that title as far as generic app development is concerned. It could use just an extra shine of polish on top, and I don't mean the graphics. For example, I'd love if it was playable in portrait on iPhone. The play field is square - it *should* work, but I don't think it'll ever happen.

  • Adams Immersive

    I love his other games, and love the style of this, but I don't yet "get" it. Rather than deep and brutally difficult, it seems (key word!) shallow and impossible! I haven't spent the time I need with it. I WILL do so, and I WILL join the rest of you who know the secret of its depth!

    • spader623

      I have to agree with you. I'm not saying this isn't an amazing game, but I just can't seem to get into that level of OMFG ITS SO DEEP yet with all that strategy. Heck, I didn't even think of going into walls.

    • subshell001

      this is the only game where looking at the leader boards made me think "wow, so if a streak that long is possible, with that high of a score, there must be a lot more for me to learn" and beyond that, created a desire for me to learn.

      typically leaderboards give me the impression "there's no way in hell am I going to do that, or even try, I have a life, thank you very much!" but 868-HACK is different. it's slow and methodical. literally every turn is precious and you have to think about 10 moves ahead. it's 100% systemic, except for one enemy that sometimes has 2 different ways it could go. It's somewhat hard to explain, but there's a reason why 868-HACK is the first game organized on my iOS devices on Springboard. That will never change.

  • JCho133

    "Damn you Michael Brough! Damn you!"

  • bitbit

    Is accounting for being trapped in a wall in a tile based game where you can enter walls _that_ big of a deal?

    • David Ratner

      Lol, seriously. That's all I kept saying to myself while reading this article. I'm definitely in the camp that thinks it's a cute tough game, but doesn't seem to understand in what way it's mind blowing.

    • http://twitter.com/JaredTA Jared Nelson

      No, the existence of the deadlock isn't a big deal. But I found the story of one game designer attempting to "break" another's game, and then failing, pretty funny. And it IS a testament to Brough's good design that he considered that unwinnable situation, but that in itself isn't especially noteworthy or anything.

      tl;dr I just thought it was a cool story.

      • KaoseT

        Cool story bro.

  • Pray For Death

    This game is so awesome for quick sessions. Perfect for subway rides.

  • armilla

    Thanks for posting such an awesome story; this is easily one of my favorite games on any platform, and this story exalts its greatness.

  • witedahlia

    Very cool story. I love reading about stuff like this and I'm glad TA writes about it.

  • Ubisububi

    Had to buy Connectrode after reading this (already own 868-HACK).

  • Chq

    Loving the short loading time so much!!

  • nicoper

    This was one of the best articles I have read on TA in a while, keep up the good work guys!

  • your personal robot

    Wow! Why was I waiting so long getting Hack? Zaga 33 didn't hook me that much, but this one! Wow, see myself playing the hell out of it. Really amazing! 5 min in, and it totally clicked with me!

  • bcredonk

    Pretty funny, if the other developer took the time too look up 868 strategy online he would have known this though.

    • Design by Adrian

      Or maybe he wanted to find out himself, which is the point of the game?

  • Michael Standefer

    Any chance we could see a video of you or Eli playing? I'm one of those that enjoy the game, I just don't "get" it. Seeing someone actually play may be useful!

    • collasta

      The video capture doesn't work when they play it on Twitch. Just shows a black screen on the viewers end.

  • Plynx

    Hoplite has this too... it can detect things like jumping onto an "island" without having enough energy to reach the exit. Since you also can both throw your spear and need to bring it with you to the next level, it also detects if you throw your spear someplace you can't get it back.

    Considering the (relative) difficulty of detecting these unlikely scenarios vs. merely providing the player a suicide button like earlier roguelikes, I do find it a neat touch that speaks the polish of these fine games.

  • anabolicMike

    I didn't have any interested in this game. None at all. I do love roguelikes, my favourite by far. If i were to get stuck on a desert island and I could only have one game it would be DCSS. Seriously it would. Then minecraft. Well because this article grabbed my attention and slammed my phone up my nose. I bought the game. Gonna check out the other fellers game (no promise to buy) and then I'm firing it up! Wish me luck nanamio bars!

  • Design by Adrian

    Does that mean that pickups have the same program every time? I lose patience with games where you have to use it to find out what "that red item" does, either killing yourself, or wasting it...

    • Design by Adrian

      Bought the game. Powerups are, indeed, constant. Which is good - you get better at planning your run.