.hack//Infection, even eighteen years later, does a compelling job of capturing what life can be like while playing through an MMO. Being stuck in one’s house for an indeterminate amount of time works wonders for your backlog, which is why I found myself picking up .hack//Infection for the first time. While the game is definitely showing its age, as far as its visuals and play go since PS2 games and HDTVs don’t mix well, the game still does a sharp job of capturing the feel of MMOs through navigating its complex world, finding online friends, and carrying a useless party to a dungeon’s conclusion.
.hack//Infection‘s story follows Kite, a player character being guided through an MMO called The World. Kite was just supposed to be running some dungeons with his high-level pal, Orca, but Orca gets attacked and beaten by a monster that’s showing signs of a strange corruption/virus. This defeat is followed by a full server crash, which gives Kite’s real-world player time to find out that Orca’s player, Yasuhiko, has fallen into a coma. …As have a handful of other people who were also playing the game. Now, it’s up to Kite to play through The World to find out how an MMO is putting its players into a catatonic state.
It’s a bold narrative move, one its developers could possibly written through story moments within the game itself, but the folks at CyberConnect2 instead put in a lot of work to make this feel like you’re the player of the MMO. To do this, the team placed the game within a mock PC interface, complete with email, message boards, and a launcher for the game itself, all of which connect the player with the game’s protagonist by making them take on that role through their in-game actions.
Being able to log out of the very game you’re playing to head to a fake desktop is a nice touch and creates a separation between the game and reality that was far from common in games at the time. Most titles aim to drag you into their world and forget reality for a time, but .hack//Infection wants you to be very aware of the outside world. This breaking of immersion within the realm of The World actually increases the player’s sense of connection within the game itself, putting you in the shoes of a player trying to solve a mystery on their computer through playing an MMO.
It’s the chat boards and emails that remind me of old days spent playing MMOs or just the earlier days of the internet and video games. If you got stuck, you would have to log onto message boards or contact friends to figure out how they accomplished a task or found a secret item. You had to send your question out into the internet and then wait for an answer in the days before videos and walkthroughs seemed to spring up overnight and even before launch.
While this might connect it better to MMOs from years ago, it is still a clever recreation of the connection and companionship that fuel a solid MMO experience. Shared thoughts and discoveries help open up an MMO to all of its players, and that pool of knowledge that comes from the other players – in .hack//Infection‘s case, the invented message boards and emails – mimic that connection with other players in a clever way. It makes things feel more real to discover hidden realms and glitches within the game through this message-style sharing than in just butting heads with the game itself.
Also, I had to comb message boards for answers on certain things about the game that would direct me to in-game message boards. Which I thought was kind of neat in a surreal kind of way.
Got stuck while playing .hack//Infection? Log off and check your email. Look into the message boards to see if anyone has suggested a new realm or event. It’s a neat touch that, while contained within the game itself, sets up this interesting disconnect that somehow makes it feel more true to an MMO experience, and still reminds me of many of the times I’ve gotten stuck in FFXIV these days. Still got to check out boards and videos for advice on how to run bosses or figure out where I should be going when I’m scrambling to find the last Moogle.
.hack//Infection isn’t only clever with its systems outside The World, but also those within it. Combat is live as you auto attack whichever target you’re aiming at, and you’re free to use special attacks that add onto this basic onslaught (although cooldowns aren’t a big issue here). Other than digging through some clunky menus to get to your abilities, it doesn’t feel too different from MMO combat now.
That’s not where it really feels like an MMO, though. It’s more in the connection the game creates with the other players you can bring with you. Kite will meet a variety of people throughout the game, all of whom can join your party when you head out into a dangerous zone. If they show up, that is. The game features a possibility that the NPC players won’t be online when you’re heading out into combat. Like your real raid buddies, sometimes they’re just not available to play with and you have to work with who’s around.
Don’t rely on them a whole lot, either. While a full party is helpful, these lunkheads can be largely useless, forcing you to carry them through the dungeon as they serve as distractions. They’ll take down foes and do things, don’t get me wrong, but they can make some idiotic moves often, requiring frequent healing and revives (even when one of THEM is supposed to be a healer). It’s an experience that was annoying, but reminded me of many bad parties I’ve been a part of in a way that brought back some funny memories. It’s strange to find bad NPCs being a positive thing, but it works to make .hack//Infection feel that much closer to a real MMO.
The NPCs even straight up ignore the better armor and tools you give them sometimes, just like real people! So realistic (infuriating)!
These varied elements all mix to make .hack//Infection feel like an MMO in ways that feel both nostalgic and all-too-familiar for modern MMO players. Useless party members, outside systems, and a realistic connection to other players (even if they’re fictional) give this game a memorable personality that help it stand out from many RPGs with its sheer ambition to capture the experience of MMOs within a single-player game. Even today, it’s an impressive feat that I’m excited to keep digging into.
Unless my party of morons gets me killed in a long dungeon again.