Hack ‘N’ Slash is the Double Fine adventure that deconstructs and rewires the genre

Publisher: Double Fine Developer: In-house Format: PC Origin: US Release: 2014

The title may be Hack ’N’ Slash, but it’s clear from the opening moments of Double Fine’s inventive action-adventure that you won’t be doing much of the latter. Alice, a young elf, immediately breaks her sword on the bars of her cell, revealing a USB connector beneath the blade. Plug it into the door’s slot and you can access its code. Luckily, there’s just one command, ‘Open: false’. Change the answer to ‘true’, and it swings ajar so her quest can begin in earnest.

Hack ’N’ Slash was officially conceived during Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight, an annual event where employees form small groups to create game prototypes. Yet for Brandon Dillon, the game’s project lead, the idea had been brewing for much longer. Dillon played games on an emulator when he was young, and was struck by the discovery of the reverse-engineering tools built into the software. “It felt really empowering to open up the hex menu to figure out how to use those tools, find whichever value I wanted to tweak within the game, and do whatever I wanted to with it,” he tells us. “I didn’t really have the emotional maturity to deal with games that were as difficult as NES games were. With something like Contra, I couldn’t appreciate the game they were trying to present to me. But I could bring it into an emulator, tweak values and make it a little bit more humane. It felt like I had made the game my own, and that way I got to really enjoy it.”

Hack ’N’ Slash is about cheating, then, but crucially it’s creative cheating. Take one of the first enemies you’ll encounter: a spiked turtle affected by the corruption blighting this fantasy world. It will charge at you, but flips onto its shell when dodged, exposing its USB port. Plug in and you can set its health to zero, slow its movement speed, turn it into an ally, or even get it to explode after charging. You can have it spit out dozens of health-restoring hearts upon death, adjust its perception sensors so it can’t see you, or even get a little more adventurous and play around with its AI routines, getting it to walk around in circles. Soon after, you’re asked to tackle a boss. Dillon says that some players create chaos by spawning dozens of turtles from a nearby nest in the hope that the crowd will hurt it. We opt instead to play matador: we vastly increase a single turtle’s damage output, invite it to charge us (at a reduced speed, of course) and then dodge at the last moment, finishing the job in a single strike.

As Alice collects more items, she’s able to see the inner workings of her world, revealing hidden symbols, invisible platforms and the vision cones of armed guards. The puzzles steadily increase in complexity until, by Act 4, you’re looking at the game’s code in order to reverse-engineer solutions. “I always thought it would be cool to make a game that would allow people to have those really insightful and empowering moments that I had throughout my history of learning to become a better programmer,” Dillon says.

You’ll see visual glitches when hacking any object, though the Early Access version has its share of bugs, too. A time-travelling device allows you to revert to an earlier section should you accidently break the game.

As a result, the game’s progression feels strangely educational, although that’s a happy accident, as Dillon freely admits. “It does have a kind of curriculum,” he says. “The way I designed the game is [to give you] all the cool hacking tools and principles, and order them based on complexity. So it accidentally wound up [being] educational, because that was the way to work out the puzzle progression.” That unintentional progression curve has already had unforeseen benefits: since the game launched on Steam Early Access, Double Fine has had requests for educational licences, to allow the game’s mechanics to be used as a learning tool.

A full release is not too far off, but already  Hack ’N’ Slash shows great promise. It’s rare to find an adventure game that’s prepared to let its players get stuck, but Hack ’N’ Slash is all the more rewarding as a result. “It needs to feel a little bit mysterious and weird and difficult to grapple with,” Dillon explains. “Actually, this is something Tim [Schafer, Double Fine’s founder] has talked about within the context of the adventure game. Being stuck is part of it, because getting unstuck is what makes you feel smart.”

During playtesting, Dillon and the rest of the development team would watch players struggle and wonder if they should make the game easier. The answer was almost always no, however. “You have to [retreat] from those modern game design instincts, hang back and let it simmer for a little bit, and let the player have the insight for themselves,” he says. “Don’t take that away from them.”