Do you remember what using the Internet was like back in 2002? What about the late 80s? You can’t really travel back in time, but here’s a bunch of games that re-create that ancient Internet feeling quite nicely.
You can debate whether or not these are all are even games: several are related more closely related to interactive fiction. But all of them use a familiar computer interface as a framework to tell a story, to great success.
Emily Is Away: Bring Back That AIM Angst (And Those Sound Effects)
If you spent any time in the early 2000s using Windows XP to chat with friends on AIM, Kyle Seeley‘s game set in that interface will have an immediate impact on you.
The look, the sounds – it’s all there. You even make that oh-so-important choice of which chat icon to go with in 2002– Lord of the Rings or Blink-182?
I’ll admit that, growing up outside the United States, I used MSN more than AIM – but the specific platform doesn’t matter as much as the feelings.
This game captures the angst of being a teenager on the early Internet – of weighing your words carefully and hoping that your friends will get what you’re saying. Yes, it’s basically a conversation tree baked into in a familiar interface, but the game uses that interface to great effect – even the gimmick of needing to mash keys in order to make the character type becomes intense after a while.
This isn’t to say there aren’t problems (longtime interactive fiction creator and reviewer Emily Short recently pointed out a few), but if you want a quick jaunt through tech history with an emotional story to boot, Emily Is Away is well worth checking out. It’s about an hour long, and you can choose how much to pay for it.
Digital A Love Story: Hack The Gibson, Discover a Conspiracy
The above story showed quite clearly that an operating system can be a setting for a story, and Christine Love‘s 2010 game is maybe the best example of this I’ve ever seen. It’s a story set entirely on an Amiga-like operating system sometime in the 1980s. You just got a new computer, and you’re figuring out how to use it.
You’ll connect to a BBS, argue with a troll about the recent premier of Star Trek: The Next Generation, make friends, download pirated software, and eventually do some good old fashioned phone hacking. Without getting into spoiler territory, there’s a really compelling story hidden in all this – and a real feeling of stakes.
The ambiance is pretty great too – the above music is just a sample. The game is free, so dive in and see what you think.
Coming Out Simulator 2014: Gut Wrenching Game About Telling Your Parents
There’s something really intimate about text messages, which makes them a perfect medium for storytellers to imitate. Nicky Case‘s intensely personal Coming Out Simulator is well worth checking out. It uses the SMS bubbles we’re all familiar with to re-create what was probably one of the hardest things Case has ever done: tell his parents he’s gay.
This game packs an emotional wallop in a way I’m not sure any book or video ever could, and the text-messaging framework is a big reason why it works. Seriously, this game will give you the feels. It’s free to play online, and there’s a mobile version as well.
Uplink: Hacker Simulator That’s Straight Out of Hollywood
And now for something completely different. Have you ever wished you could be a 90s Hollywood hacker, breaking into systems with just a few keystrokes? If so, Introversion’s Uplink is the classic game you’ve always wanted.
A cult classic released in 2001, Uplink was released on various mobile platforms in the past few years. Being a game about hacking, naturally you can get it on Linux as well.
In it you’ll break into various computer systems and generally wreak havoc. It’s a fun romp through the idea of what being a hacker was all about before phishing scams and social engineering turned the techniques away from big companies and toward normal people. (Harder to root for hackers these days, isn’t it?)
4 games that bring back the retro internet
Experience Windows 95 In Your Browser
Windows 95 is never coming back, and a few simulations on the web are here to remind you why that’s a good thing. Windows RG, or Really Good Edition, captures the spirit of using a computer in the mid-90s really, really well. When you first log in you’ll see a cascade of error messages.
Trying to get rid of these is futile, so just dive in and see what you can find. I’m a particularly found of the ambitious-sounding features that never quite work out, like ordering food. And, of course, Clippy makes an appearance.
Explore a little and see what else you can find, okay?
There’s also Windows 93, which is a way more extensive take on the same idea. There is so much to explore here, so dive in. I couldn’t help but click the Wolfenstein link, and was shocked to find a playable game, but things seem different…
Be sure to dive into the filesystem too, because it keeps going. Forever. It’s not an accurate recreation in the technical sense – the window animations run way better here than they would have on a 90s computer – but in some ways it kind of does feel like you’re sitting at an old computer when you load this up.
What Games Capture Your Memories of the Web?
These are just four games that tell stories mostly set in computer or phone interfaces, but there must be more. Do you know of any? Let’s compile a few more in the comments below!
Of course, if you like these sorts of games, you could pretend to be a hacker in another text adventure, or find more text games to play online. There are a lot of narrative-driven titles out there to discover, set on a computer or otherwise. Let’s talk about those too.