Video games have taught me that hacking mainly involves two things: capturing small computer-shaped nodes and entering a command line. Midnight protocol is no exception. Released last month by Iceberg Interactive, it joins an abundance of cyberpunk games from the past few years, and it does not add a single unique innovation to a fairly familiar formula. But it’s one of the best iterations of the formula I’ve seen: mechanically elegant, narratively economical, and crafted with care.
Midnight protocol is noir cybercrime in the form of turn-based role-playing games and spatial puzzles. When you log in to its lightly air-space-like simulated computer desk, you will learn that your pseudonym is Data, and you are a master hacker who just barely escaped jail. In the beginning, you simply try to get back on your feet and take small jobs from your veteran fixer Snail with a little help from a young, morally conflict-ridden partner named Clover. But you are also chasing the person who leaked information about you online, and as you reveal their identity, you realize that something worrying is on the way.
Developer LuGus Studios draws on the hard-boiled roots of the cyberpunk genre instead of reaching out for extensive world-building, harsh commentary, or retro-futuristic nostalgia. Your main character is basically a futuristic version of the private investigator who has fallen over a dangerous secret that could get them killed. The longer you play, the more the game dives into its sci-fi premise and even the conceit of its fake desktop interface. But the authorship remains admirably restrained, surgically cutting stock genre plots and using transient references and concise messages to build the characters’ stories.
A lot of Midnight protocol‘s story takes place over simulated emails, chat sessions and a small searchable database. The meat of the game, however, lies behind a list of network addresses sent by other characters. Addresses lead to levels composed of interconnected nodes with different functions. Your goal is to complete a task – like acquiring a file or installing a virus – by using a keyboard-only interface to jump across nodes, implement hacking tools, and allocate power between different programs. In its default state, each turn gives you two actions before the network responds to your moves.
Between network thefts, players have access to a black market of hacking programs and hardware upgrades that can be purchased with credits from computer networks. The key to progression is to complete tasks that unlock new programs through a reputation system, look at reports on what’s on a given network, and choose a set of software that allows you to tackle it.
I’ve dropped another link Midnight protocol in The edge‘s Slack gaming channel shortly after I started playing and it drew instant comparisons with the hacking sections from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That’s fair, and there are plenty of other potential comparisons as well. The note system reminds Uplink, while the false command line conceit was used in Hacknet and Square cowboy. Shadowrun returns offers turn-based RPG virtual combat. Moving between the nodes even feels a bit like the riddles Hitman Go, while trying to reach the right goals in the right order while gradually filling up a network tracking bar.
But Midnight protocol synthesizes these elements into something that is minimalist yet incredibly polished – imagine the story of your favorite sci-fi RPG being put into its hacking mini-game. It is an experience with absolutely no filler. Each network is fine-tuned to offer a specific taste of challenge or an exciting bit of world detail, including small choices that the game keeps track of, sometimes by increasing your “white hat” (idealistic) or “black hat” (selfish criminal) reputation and sometimes through emails from your customers or conversations with Snail and Clover.
This can be frustrating at first when you have a bare-bones deck and are in desperate need of money because there is no easy way to find the credits you need to buy hacking programs. Nor is it immediately obvious that you can restart missions and make tweaks to your loadout before jumping back into the network, something that made the game instantly more rewarding for me.
Once you have a well-stocked software library and a good grasp of the formula, Midnight protocol is a perfect blend of short puzzles that require piercing with laser-focused precision, large messy note grids for methodical disassembly, boss fights full of on-the-fly strategizing, and the occasional shattering smash-and-grab level you can completely dominate – plus a few secrets that require you to look around at Data’s desktop. While I leaned heavily on a few core programs, the design encouraged me to blend my strategy to fit the network.
I have not explored every corner of the story or gameplay, especially an alternate mode that lets you play in real time against network protocols. But a reasonably full replay can completely erode a long weekend (or a more restrained series of week nights) without losing momentum or becoming repetitive. There are lots of similar games Midnight protocol, but few deliver so many strong variations on a simple theme.
Midnight protocol was released on October 13 and is available on Steam and GOG for Windows, macOS and Linux.