Can a Game be Too Clever? Double Fine's Hack 'N Slash Aims to Find Out

Can a Game be Too Clever? Double Fine's Hack 'N Slash Aims to Find Out

Anything goes in this subversive take on The Legend of Zelda... including completely destroying the game code itself.

In a decade of playing preview code for games in early development, I've heard plenty of developers warn me about potential crashes as I sit down to have a go at their project. But until Double Fine's Hack 'n Slash, those warnings have never been a point of pride.

"We've given the player access to all kinds of game code and triggers," I was told as I wandered through a beautiful hand-painted forest reminiscent of Eyvind Earle's iconic backdrops for Disney's Sleeping Beauty. "There aren't any protections in place." I glanced up to see the Double Fine representative shrug with an "oh well" gesture. Oh well – someone could crash the game, but that's entirely by design.

Hack 'N Slash operates under the premise of a simple, why-didn't-I-think-of-it-first pun: It's a hack and slash Zelda-style top-down action RPG, but it's also a game about hacking in the Kevin Mitnick sense of the word. Most objects in Hack 'N Slash feature a built-in USB port, and you can wander up to them and literally hack them. Bees hassling you? Set their aggression flag to "no." Bushes in the way? Set their "burning" flag to "yes." Box puzzle confusing you? Change the parameters of the boxes so you can pull them three spaces at once instead of pushing them one space forward.

Better yet, keep the bee's aggression flag to yes, but change the damage value of its attack to a negative number so it flies angrily after you healing you every time it lands a hit. Manipulate those bushes so that when they burn they reveal hidden items. Or go crazy and change the intrinsic value of an object to a number so high it causes a buffer overrun and crashes the game, if you want. Double Fine doesn't care. In fact, they want you to do your best to break the game. If you succeed, that means they've done their job.

The jarring contrast between storybook world and cyberpunk interface makes for one of the most visually intriguing games in recent memory.

According to Double Fine, Hack 'N Slash actually lets players tinker with and modify the game's code on the fly. Every interactive object in the game has certain values that determine how it behaves, and you can directly modify these values for any object or creature possessing a USB port. Of course, you can't just wantonly futz with any program data you like, but nevertheless Hack 'N Slash offers an interesting approach by presenting small windows into the actual game code and giving you the freedom to manipulate it.

The William Gibson vibe of the game mechanics clash with the Little Golden Book artwork with which the pastoral world of the game has been rendered. It's not your typical Zelda clone in terms of play, nor does it particularly look like a typical cyberpunk epic. Combining a sylvan fantasy realm complete with magical sprites and preening wizards with a premise that utterly shatters the fourth wall isn't entirely unheard of – heck, South Park: The Stick of Truth dabbled in that concept from a different angle just recently – but Hack 'N Slash manages to establish its own personality in short order. It's intriguingly bizarre and fairly gutsy as well, and I'm looking forward to seeing how quickly I can crash the game to desktop. Because that's how Double Fine would want it.

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