Cyber-security can be a scary topic for a lot of people. With daily reports of hacking and stealing personal information the topic has become an issue everyone needs to pay attention to, not just those hackers on both sides of the law. Mainlining takes this topic and creates a point-and-click simulator of “hacking”. Using a simple UI of a screen-within-a-screen Windows XP era look the simulation takes you through investigations working to make the world a better place.
Mainlining takes places inside the computer of a new agent of MI7, a secret service type organization. You are provided a set of case files that run the gamut from drug dealing to identity theft to, of course, hacking. The base of the gameplay is analyzing case files along with “real world” information gathered from websites you hack into. As the game progresses you acquire additional software to assist you on these cases which adds new layers to the game which greatly helps break up the ways you gather evidence on the suspects.
After all the information is gathered and you are ready to arrest your subject you select them from a large list of possible subjects. If you are correct you move on to the next case and the story continues but if you are incorrect, you are allowed to continue looking and select a new suspect. The story itself does delve into the idea of security versus privacy which is to be expected with this type of narrative. Each subsequent case felt more challenging asking you to balance a host of evidence that wasn’t always as easy as ‘hack website, pull name, arrest’ which required more out of the box thinking to really nail them down.
The basic game play going to be familiar in ways as it takes many cues from daily computer use. You have a left docked ongoing chat with another MI7 agent who will prompt you to check out new case files, or software as they become available. Once you look into your case file you can gather basic information, a website, a username, or a crime to start your digging. Once you have your target you can either gather additional information by digging in your Internet Explorer stand-in browser or by starting up your hacking program to hack a website and looking through their files or users to build your case.
As your cases grow the ability to jump from one digging to hacking become natural. The more information you gather and the more dirt you have on a suspect the greater chance you have of making the arrest. Once you have a mountain of evidence that all points at one suspect you pull up your list of possibles and select them along with all the evidence you want to use against them. The overall goal remains straightforward but the path you take to get to that goal is where the game shines, asking you to figure out what evidence is credible enough, and how tangible the information you have is.
The game is a clever take of a realistic simulator of what hacking investigations could be. Mainlining uses just enough hacking to ground it and make it semi-real while still having clear directions on how to go from point A to B to C with the tools at your disposal. Developers Rebelephant made a great decision in using the Windows XP interface which adds a pop of color and a nice throwback to those of us who still have a soft spot for it.
Mainlining is a fun game to masquerade as a hacker chasing down bad guys. Those that are familiar with hacking and the process of it will probably laugh but truthfully, an actually simulation of hacking would not be the most entertaining game, so sacrifices are made to keep the game enjoyable which is greatly appreciated. It is important to draw attention to cyber security and the game does an admirable job of bringing that up, which no matter how realistic the hacking is, should be a valuable lesson for anyone who plays it.
The game does somewhat falter as it progresses which happens less by game play choices and more just overall fatigue on the player. After so many investigations it can start to become more of the same which is, I think, a calculated choice of the developer. The almost automatic nature of hacking for information becomes less of a new experience as the game progresses and more just means to an end, as you hack for information, knowing that it is invading privacy, you push more to accomplish the job. Is that reading too much into the game? To feel like you’ve compromised your beliefs in-game through repetition without even thinking about it?
I think these questions are invaluable to ask yourself after you finish the game because there isn’t a correct answer. These are the same questions hackers in the real world deal with daily, how far is too far to do something for the greater good? Mainlining may not be the most unique game play experience you will play all year but it certainly brings up questions and ideas that you will be playing out in your head long after the last suspect is caught.