A cartoon cat clings onto the back of a polygonal car as it speeds across a rainbow covered highway

The Influences and Surprising Origins of Hypnospace Outlaw

6 min

Hypnospace Outlaw underwent significant changes during its development process. Originally conceived as an elaborate level select system for an endless runner-style game set in a replica of the 1999 internet, the game evolved into the detective adventure we know today. In honor of Hypnospace Outlaw being the RPS Game Club’s pick for this month, we reached out to the game’s creator, Jay Tholen, to discuss its unconventional origins, the influences that shaped it, and what lies ahead for the world of Hypnospace.

Hypnospace spin-off Slayers X is a very fun game that you should go and play immediately. Watch on YouTube

The interview below, conducted via email, is filled with intriguing insights about the development of Hypnospace and its subsequent spin-offs. It is presented here in its entirety for your enjoyment.

RPS: What are your earliest memories of the Hypnospace project, and what were your inspirations?

Jay Tholen: The initial idea came to me while I was working on Hypnospace Enforcer, a microgame, in 2014 during the development of Dropsy. It was a side project I worked on during periods of low motivation. In that game, you cruise down an “information superhighway,” pursuing internet users who had broken rules. Between levels, you learn about the accused through their avatars and a summary of their misdeeds. Later that year, I started working on the sequel, which included a small faux-OS that allowed players to browse an assailant’s personal pages for more context. At that time, it was primarily a level select system, with the main gameplay taking place on the highway.

A cartoon cat clings onto the back of a polygonal car as it speeds across a rainbow covered highway
A screenshot from Hypnospace Enforcer, the hobby project that became Hypnospace Outlaw. | Image credit: Tendershoot

RPS: The Kickstarter for Hypnospace features “Pursue outlaws on the Hypnospace Highway” as a key feature of the game. A few years ago, you mentioned that this “endless runner” mode was eventually removed in favor of the detective game we have today. Could you elaborate on this initial version of the project and the decisions that led to its removal?

JT: We didn’t have enough time to fully realize the initially envisioned version of the game by our planned release date. However, it wasn’t entirely removed; it was repurposed and scaled back. We realized that we couldn’t make it as amazing as we had hoped, so taking inspiration from one of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies (“Emphasize the flaws”), we made it a central plot element. We decided to release a half-finished version, highlighting the fact that it was a “bad car game,” which became a running joke among the characters in Hypnospace. Rather than pretending it was a fully fleshed-out feature, we acknowledged its shortcomings and incorporated them into the game’s narrative.

The appeal of the original design was the concept of a quasi-MMO game imposed on users who weren’t necessarily interested in gaming. Some cars would be confused, sitting on the side of the road, while others would be racing around as professional gamers. Each zone would have unique ads and decor. If a user had a virtual pet, it would follow their vehicle. We also planned to allow users to access other users’ file storage through the highway via a hack. While we could have spent another year to fully realize this concept, as development progressed, we realized that the appeal lay in the web itself and the evolving capabilities of HypnOS.

RPS: Were there any other features that had to be cut?

JT: Not really! We did have to forgo dynamic resolution support due to early decisions we made that couldn’t easily be reversed without major rewrites. We also had to eliminate smaller quality-of-life features, like a grid view for the download manager.

RPS: Is there anything in Hypnospace that’s inspired by a specific experience you had using the internet at the time?

JT: Two of Corey’s journal entries, in which he laments being single and lonely, were directly copied and pasted from my own livejournal when I was a kid. Zane’s comics were inspired by the bloody anime-style comics my friend and I used to create in middle school, called Scion X. The Dumpster was a mix of Suck.com and Something Awful. M1NX was influenced by the early 1999-2000s content on Something Awful. Suck.com was a good-natured, sarcastic comedy “blog” (before the term blog existed) while Something Awful was a comedy website with a large forum, albeit with a less friendly tone. Being part of Something Awful, as well as the Klik game-making community, was my first deep immersion in internet subcultures, which greatly influenced me. The two main “villains” in Hypnospace were also inspired by previous bosses I had.

The psychic page was based on an extremely difficult client I encountered while working on the phones for a WYSIWYG page-building website. She dictated the content of her website to me over the phone, monopolizing my time for hours. After my boss requested that I stop working with her, she left multiple abusive messages threatening supernatural consequences for “leaving her to rot.” Eventually, her daughter contacted me and revealed that her mother couldn’t read and needed me to handle everything for her so she could continue her psychic calls. It turned out the daughter was on the verge of eviction. Dealing with this situation posed moral and ethical challenges for me. Finding work is difficult when you can’t read, and while offering psychic phone counseling is questionable, it’s a potentially viable income source in such circumstances. Although I was forbidden from working with her again, the experience left a lasting impact on me.

I still have an .mp3 recording of one of the angry messages she left me, which I contemplated using in the game after the player identifies the psychic character. However, I decided against it due to potential legal ramifications.

A blog of Pete's Love Poems in 90s web surf 'em up Hypnospace Outlaw

RPS: It’s been four years since Hypnospace launched. How do you feel about the game’s lasting legacy all these years later?

JT: I’m pleased with it! People who take the time to immerse themselves in the universe seem to enjoy it. Initially, I was concerned that people would see it as just a “cop game” because that’s how it’s initially presented. Some players who don’t invest enough time or who struggle with subtext might misinterpret it, but I believe the majority of players appreciate where the game ultimately takes them.

I’ve noticed that the game seems to resonate more with younger players rather than older people seeking to relive the early days of the internet. Older players sometimes approach the game with more cynicism and struggle to fully engage with the characters and the minutiae of their webpages. Progression relies heavily on players recalling information they’ve encountered. Fortunately, most players don’t encounter this issue, but when it does arise, it tends to be among older players.

RPS: What aspect of Hypnospace are you most proud of?

JT: There are three things: the OS itself, which is enjoyable to tinker with (credit goes to Mike Lasch for the coding), the characters and how they are portrayed with dignity and coherence, and the music. I believe our music is likely the standout feature of the game.

Zane shoots at a horde of stampeding Pskos with dual pistols at the Boise Potato Festival

RPS: Slayers X: Terminal Aftermath: Vengeance of the Slayer was a fantastic addition to the Hypnospace world that I thoroughly enjoyed. Where did the idea for a retro-inspired FPS spin-off originate?

JT: As a youngster, I was a fan of Duke Nukem, and after playing Sigil (as well as numerous user-made Doom levels) and Nightdive’s Blood remaster, I felt inspired to create my own retro FPS. The game initially started as a faux 1990s Christian FPS (which is hinted at in Hypnospace) titled C.H.O.S.E.N. Anointed: No Fear, No Limitz. Eventually, I decided to make it a Zane game, as he was a popular character, and I saw Slayers X as a “practice run” for CHOSEN, which I believe is a more intriguing concept.

Watching J.P. LeBreton’s WAD Wednesday video series also influenced the development of Slayers X. I adore how user-created maps made by young people often resemble a digital blend of Lego dioramas, sketchbooks, and diaries.

Browsing the mock noughties Internet in a Dreamsettler screenshot.

RPS: I’m personally very excited for your upcoming Hypnospace successor, Dreamsettler. How is the project progressing, and what has it been like to create something similar to Hypnospace but set in a different time period?

JT: The project is coming along well. Developing the characters, alternate reality events, and content has been an enjoyable experience. Presently, I’m having a lot of fun working on the music. However, creating content has been more challenging due to the increased fidelity and resolution requirements. Internet content’s standards were lower in 1999 compared to 2004. Additionally, lower-quality audio files could obscure certain flaws.

Development for Dreamsettler has been more taxing than Hypnospace because of its complexity. We have created our own Sleeptime Markup Language (STML) and a feature-rich in-game page builder. It’s an incredible accomplishment, but it doesn’t offer the same immediate immersion as the Hypnospace page builder. It sometimes feels more like work rather than method acting as a character while creating their webpage. It’s akin to the difference between Geocities’ page builder and software like FrontPage or Dreamweaver.

I’m also struggling to find aesthetic inspiration from the 2003-2005 time period. While movements like Vectorheart, Metalheat, McBling, and others are interesting, most homepages during that era still had a Geocities-inspired look, which might not feel era-appropriate, even though it was.