This is the one hundred seventy-eighth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our one hundred seventy-eighth random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has remotely accessed our comms network, leaving a mysterious plea for help. It’s NOISE1, by ChevyRay (AKA Chevy Ray Johnston, creator of Ikenfell), and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A posthuman stealth/horror terminal-operated unicode space opera.

That, uh… yeah that pretty much sums it up.

You know those espionage thriller movies where someone is sneaking into a secret facility, and they have this hacker outside in the van / bunker / other secret facility who is unlocking doors for them, or repositioning security cameras, or disabling security alarms? NOISE1 is a game where you play as that hacker. Everything is controlled by typing commands into a terminal, with only text messages and a crude Unicode symbol map layout as a guide. Through this interface, players must guide their partner through the corridors of a space station, distracting guards and toggling laser trip wires as they go.

A major difference is that the partner is a stranger. NOISE1 begins when a mysterious message is received from an unknown sender, who turns out to be imprisoned on a space station where some shady business is going down. They managed to hack a terminal and send out an SOS, and I guess the player character received it. With limited remote access, players can scan the prisoner’s surroundings, open and close doors, ping terminals, and more. The station conveniently consists of a series of small floors that are easy to parse, making each a little puzzle to solve. Usually these aren’t too hard to figure out, but executing the escape is another matter. Since everything is achieved through typed commands — and our imperiled associate is running for their life in real time — players better have their typing fingers limbered up.

For example, maybe the prisoner must access a terminal in order to unlock the exit, but it’s across a corridor patrolled by a guard. Convenient pulsing arrows show the path the prisoner will take, so as soon as the door to their hiding place is opened, they’ll make a break for it. But these are high security doors, so only one can be open at a time. So players must wait for the guard to pass, type “OPEN A” to open the first door, then quickly type “OPEN B” to open the second once the prisoner is on the move, but before the guard turns around. Mess it up, and they’ll be spotted and caught, forcing a restart of the level (although there are checkpoints mid-level too). That’s just a simple example: later things get much more complicated, and players might need to use the titular “NOISE 1” command to make a noise from a terminal and distract a guard, then open appropriate doors and mess with lasers and security cameras before the guard realizes it’s a false alarm. Most of my failures came from typos, flubbing a command when I had just a few seconds to execute it. That can get frustrating, but it’s also thrilling, and the checkpointing is usually generous. It’s also possible to skip levels if they simply prove too much for one’s typing ability.

NOISE1 is a short game, easily finished in just one or two play sessions, but there’s a lot of imagination and variety throughout. Security on the station escalates as players realize that the prisoner isn’t just trying to escape, they’re trying to stop what’s about to happen on board. Which means heading deeper inside. More dangerous guards appear, new security systems are introduced, new commands become available, and more diabolical timings are required. ChevyRay keeps the new ideas coming throughout, preventing the action from getting stale. I especially liked levels where the prisoner needs to access and hack several terminals in different rooms. These can often be done in any order, but each takes time to hack, so players must ensure the prisoner is safe for a precious few seconds. Moving cameras and distracting guards with noises might buy just enough time to sneak through. Great stuff.

There’s also a lot of story, and it’s mostly interesting. As advertised, it’s something of a posthuman horror story, but it’s not too scary or grisly (the latter at least partly because of the Unicode graphics). Since I knew little about the prisoner I was assisting, or who my own character was, I kept expecting some sneaky plot reveal that would totally change my motives. But NOISE1 takes a different narrative path. Which was something of a relief, since such mid-game twists have almost become a cliche at this point. I don’t need another game that’s actually about the limits of player agency, thank you. Instead, our desperate escapee slowly explains more about what’s going on (in recognizable text message speech), new crises arise and are faced, new characters are introduced, stakes are raised, etc. It’s pretty cool, but also quite sweary, so beware of foul language. I’d probably be cussing up a storm if I were stuck on that creepy space station, to be fair.

The presentation is surprisingly nice, too. Everything is shown in text and symbols, yes, but it’s all surprisingly well animated. Characters may move jerkily, one “square” at a time, but things like the SCAN command are accompanied with a lovely wash of symbols as a new map forms. Little music notes flutter out from terminals after using the NOISE command. When the prisoner hacks a terminal, there’s a lovely progress bar in the form of flickering symbols that slowly coalesce into the correct access code, one digit at a time. Even symbol colors are lovely, cycling through gradients to give a wonderful sense of motion that can’t be captured in still screenshots. It’s not quite the dynamic lighting effects of Brogue, but it’s close. My only complaint about the aesthetics is that NOISE1 is completely silent. No sound, no music, nothing. I recommend firing up your own tunes to set the mood for hacking.

Overall I came away quite impressed with this one. I’ve always thought that the premise of playing as a hacker assisting an infiltrator would make for a cool game, but I’ve never really seen it tried before. NOISE1 is clearly a low budget project, but a lot of thought went into its design, and it’s a great showcase for the concept. Here’s hoping more games will follow in the same vein. If you fancy a bit of sci-fi hacking, definitely give NOISE1 a try. Don’t worry if you missed it in the bundle, either, because it’s offered for any price you wish to pay, including free.

That’s 178 down, and only 1563 to go!