Hack ‘n’ Slash begins at Act 2, and then you get a USB stick for a sword.
I began the demo by instructing a female character that looked a lot like Link of the Legend of Zelda series to hack through a dungeon door. But when I swung at the door with my sword, the top broke off to reveal a USB input. The sword was now my way of changing the very coding of the game itself. I changed the line “DOOR_OPEN: FALSE” to “DOOR_OPEN: TRUE,” and proceeded onwards.
I met with a red fairy (basically, your Navi), dodged some angry ravens, and pushed some blocks out of my way, all by using my sword to alter the game’s code. You can appreciate the charmingly playful dialogue and gorgeous art style so much more when you can blink an enemy turtle out of existence by changing “HEALTH: 3” to “HEALTH: 0.”
My playthrough at E3 was short, but effective. This game isn’t like anything I’ve ever played. It makes you feel like a Hollywood-embellished hacker while forcing you to think outside the box in a way that no other game really does. But being able to set a bush to drop 99 hearts when you destroy it doesn’t take away from the challenge of the game, the developers told me, as the game progressively tests your hacking ingenuity. By the end of the game, you will literally have to hack the game engine’s internal coding to proceed.
When I asked the developers why they would make a game like this, they told me that they were already breaking game engines trying to do something different, and the idea to make a whole game out of that just sort of came to them. They really loved the idea of teaching gamers about hacking, though they hope you won’t use that knowledge to rob a bank.
Hack ‘n’ Slash won’t replace a computer science curriculum any time soon, but it might be a perfect introduction to programming for the average gamer. The game doesn’t teach or lecture, it just lets you mess around with it and learn hacking organically. You aren’t programming—you are experiencing the trial and error process of discovering how a system works from the inside.
Hacking isn’t just a gimmick in Hack ‘n’ Slash either. You can break the game. During my time with it, I saw other players alter the coding in such a way that the game simply quit, presenting an error screen that the Double Fine developer on hand had to remedy. A robust auto-save function is supposed to keep the consequences of breaking the game engine to a minimum. But again, even these failures are encouraged.
When Hack ‘n’ Slash ships in September for PC, Mac, and Linux, it will be integrated with Steam Workshop and all its assets in an open format, letting players tinker with the game code however they like. They could build an entirely new game or add on to Hack ‘n’ Slash proper, and then upload their game to Steam servers, letting others experience the fruits of their hacking labor.
Though Hack ‘n’ Slash only lasts 4-6 hours, it is bound to have a second life in this open-access format. For me, being able to see the variables that go into game coding and mess with them was very satisfying—something the developers has obviously taken advantage of. I mean, do all game enemies have a “EXPLODE_ON_CHARGE_HIT: TRUE/FALSE” variable?
Hack ‘n’ Slash is available right now on Steam Early Access, where you can play the game as it enters final development.
Kyle Hill is the Science Officer of the Nerdist Enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.