EXAPUNKS, by Zachtronics

EXAPUNKS is a cyberpunk, hacker themed programming puzzle game by Zachtronics. It’s the latest of a number of similar games by this developer, which include SHENZHEN I/O and TIS-100.

The player takes on the role of a retired hacker, who returns to action in order to pay for a necessary medication. Viruses are programmed using an assembly-like language, the details of which being revealed largely through a zine distributed with the game.

📼 Gamasutra Plays Exapunks with Zach Barth & Matthew Burns

Q: What media inspired the aesthetic of EXAPUNKS?

A: So many things! Cyberculture magazines (Wired, Mondo 2000), hacker zines (2600), books (Computer Lib by Ted Nelson, Virtual Light by William Gibson), movies (Hackers).

One of my favorite resources we have is a copy of the Wired style guide from 1996, which contains tips like: infobahn: The information superhighway. Can be shortened to I-bahn.

Obviously there’s no internet in EXAPUNKS (another deliberate choice), but it’s a perfect example of the kind of outdated jargon and concepts this book is filled with. It’s like a style guide from an alternate universe! Also, the pages are chartreuse… a bold choice for a bold book.

EDIT: I also forgot about Vurt by Jeff Noon and the comic series Transmetropolitan, which were inspirational for the “weird 90s” vibe we tried to capture in parts of the game.

— Zach Barth in a Reddit AMA

This style of “open-ended puzzle game” has occasionally been dubbed “Zachlike”. It’s a formula that’s been reworked through various narrative lenses, by Zachtronics and others - including Tomorrow Corporation with their games Human Resource Machine and 7 Billion Humans.

EXAPUNKS resembles 7 Billion Humans somewhat, in that each adds an important element to their assembly programming languages; multiple workers. Those who have played Human Resource Machine know that you provide instructions to just one worker, whereas in 7 Billion Humans you are able to program swarms of office workers to solve puzzles. EXAPUNKS similarly allows a player to use multiple EXAS in their solutions.

EXAPUNKS drips with 90s cyberpunk culture, and in the first few minutes describes perfectly the emergent hacker ethic,

Computers are running everything these days. Before long, human beings aren’t even gonna have a say. So now I equip people with knowledge. The knowledge to make a computer do what you want, on your terms.

— Ghast

A sentiment echoed by Zach Barth in response to a question about whether or not he supports modding of his games:

I’m a fan of people taking technology and doing what they want with it, especially when it’s to customize their own experience

Zach Barth