The thirteenth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a game which presented you with nothing more than a blank LOGIN prompt. Unusual for games at the time, it eschewed a title screen in favour of putting you in the moment. Faced with a LOGIN prompt – what do you do next?

It was 1985 and we were playing Activision’s Hacker. In 2019, I sat down at the Leftfield Collection to play Wardialler, and its similarly stark presentation in green text reminded me of Hacker: MEMORY OK. READY.

The trouble with Hacker is that it offered the fiction of breaking into a top-secret system a la WarGames, but failed to follow through. It was an early discoverable system and what you found on the other side of the LOGIN prompt was a weird fetch quest game which didn’t feel anything like hacking. Wardialler, however, is much more WarGames.

I am not implying Wardialler is the only hacking game in existence. The key to a real hacking game is making the user type on the keyboard (or perhaps its the green text and fixed-width font). We’ve seen Hacknet (Fellow Traveller Games, 2015) really go to town with the concept and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016) also does a great job of exploiting the command-line interface to heighten terror.

Wardialler is an interesting halfway house. It doesn’t take too long to figure out how to get hacking and this generally comes down to finding out what kind of system you’re dealing with and the matching exploit. In the section I played, I didn’t have to do much more than that: it’s almost like digging out a password. A lot of the initial information comes from an enormous repository at the hackers’ site which, I think, tests the player’s patience a bit too much. Imagine forcing someone to read a chapter on pure lore before getting into the action. (No one mention the prologue to The Lord of the Rings.) There was a notebook beside the Wardialler seat, inviting you to write copious notes; I did, because I needed to note down commands, servers, exploits, people’s details…

Still, Wardialler only implies hacking because it seems to be much more interested in narrative (it is the second time in this series I am reminded of Subserial Network). I completed a simple hacking operation which then led the protagonist (I think?) to recount a memory (I think???). And then the game reset. I broke into a few other systems but didn’t really achieve much of note.

Without playing more, I’m not sure how to view Wardialler: as a hacking game or a twine with an elaborate interface. But I was intrigued to see more.

Wardialler is a solo project from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, one of the co-founders of Mode 7. There’s no website for the game at present: if you want to know more, all I can do is suggest you follow him on Twitter.

Interested in other games I’ve dabbled with? Check out the series index!

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