Come with me now, as we attempt to picture the year 2010. Let your mind stretch out and attempt to perceive the thrill, the technological adventure. What manner of life will we be living? And most importantly, what sort of computers will we be working with?
Uplink disappointingly fails to get it embarrassingly wrong. The nine-year-old game was set in 2010, and ideally you want something created in 2001 to have made sweet predictions of machines coming with over a gigabyte of RAM, or similar. Instead, well, they either wildly over-estimated or got it pretty spot on.
Uplink was - and very much still is thanks to its simplicity and ageless design - a hacking game. You play a bedroom cracker, burrowing your way into multiple computers for cash payment. With money comes the ability to purchase better equipment, and with better equipment comes the ability to complete more complex hacks.
This is a time when gateway computers would be able to handle as many as eight CPUs. Which is, um, pretty accurate. What's slightly less accurate is Introversion's optimism that by now they'd be running at 200GHz. I'd like me one of those 200Gig Octo-cores very much. I'm also not entirely clear what a Gq is, and therefore can't figure out if 32Gq of RAM is good. But it seems fairly unsilly, overall. (I'm sure people in the comments will point out how much I've arsed this up.)
The presentation, while peculiarly spaced out and in teeny text at current resolutions (didn't predict those eh, Introversion?!), was already harking back to a classic design a decade ago. Simple, elegant text, a basic world-map interface for establishing your connections, and little else to trouble your machine. In fact, the full download of the game via Steam is 14MB. And most of that is sound files.
Introversion have always been developers of extraordinary economy. Darwinia, famously, had to be given an enormous opening movie file so people installing it didn't think it hadn't worked. They're a team who have to fake progress bars for our own comfort. With Uplink you have a game that would rattle around on a free USB stick from five years ago. Heck, take out the sound and it would fit on a couple of floppy discs. Size is certainly not everything.
What's so fun about it is how it makes no qualms about entertaining that same part of your brain that was thrilled in every eighties movie as the blur of blinking text scrolled down the screen, eventually allowing the angelic-faced teenager to download the FBI's most important files. All that fun is in place.
But most of all, Uplink is a game about chase sequences.
You dial up to the main Uplink server, and check the mission list. Here will be available jobs for ne'er-do-wells like you to take on, beginning asking you to complete basked tasks such as stealing a file from a server, or changing someone's academic records.
Then, should you progress, the tasks get tougher. Fiddling with criminal records, transferring funds, destroying computers, framing people, and ruining lives. Each new task requires new tech, with a learning curve that easily has you running multiple systems simultaneously, without feeling overwhelmed. By the time you need to get around a proxy server, all those tasks like trace trackers and password hackers will seem like background details, instinctively run.
But it's always about those countdown timers. It's always about sneaking in as much as you can before the counter reaches zero. It's always about that chase.
Hacking into a computer may require you to bypass a proxy server. There's a countdown. And of course hack a password, maybe a cipher. That's two more. You may need to play some voice-recognition software in time, copy a large number of files, and of course then get into the logs and delete any trace of your having visited.
All the time there's that mother of all timers, the Trace Tracker, which if you've upgraded it enough will be counting down the few seconds until you'll be traced. It's about economising time, but also furiously scrabbling. It's about that awful moment of wondering if you can just hold out long enough to finish this task, and still clear the logs, or if you need to abandon the mission and just get out of there.
Because failure isn't instant. That's the real fear in Uplink. Failure creeps up on you.
I think it taps into a nightmarish fear that we all must have experienced at one time. That thing we did, or may have done without knowing it, that catches up with us. Like that time I paid for a packet of Fruit Pastilles in pennies, knowingly one coin short, and the man in the petrol station said to me: "I won't count it. I'll trust you." Mobil closed down a few years later, which surely has to be at least partly my fault, and I know that one day the policeman will knock on my front door. I'll look up from the jigsaw puzzle I'm completing with my wife and our two children, and he'll say, "Are you John Walker? I'm going to have to ask you to come with me."
Uplink's endings are as sudden. You were on a hack, things got backed up, and you overestimated how long it would take you to clear the logs. Some of them survived, and even though you closed the connection down before an active trace could identify you, the company completed a passive trace later on. It's a couple of days later, you're doing other work, and the screen goes black.
The Uplink organisation destroys your gateway computer and all records of you, and denies any knowledge. You're done, it's all over.
It's interesting that after a failure, you can start a new game, with a new account - the old in-game login will never work again - and blitz through the early stages far more efficiently that before. And this time you can refine things, spend money on new software and hardware more efficiently, make better use of registered accounts on servers for routing your connections. Rather than a time of tediously repeating yourself to get to the good bits, it can be a time of feeling ruthless and powerful, making you better at the skills involved, more ready to get further this new attempt.
It's so very smart, and so deeply involved. It's important to remember why Chris Delay and Introversion didn't need to pay to advertise this game - why word of mouth was not only enough to see it spread widely, but also to gain the company the reputation that saw the British gaming press so very excited about, and latterly delighted by, Darwinia. It's still properly great.