For the uninitiated, Michael Brough’s 868-HACK ($4.99) 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 (Free), 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.
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.
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:"
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.