The best hacking games on PC

Jack in for the best games that will make you see the world in 1s and 0s

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Looking for a list of the best hacking games on PC? Game developers have long valued the ‘hacker ethic’ — the will and skill to grab a game by the scruff of its code, rip it apart, and put the pieces together in a new way.

Id Software prioritized the nascent modding community when they were creating Doom, Valve courted it from Half-Life onward and the entirety of the MOBA genre stems from folks futzing with Warcraft III.

Of course, most players are just that: players. We see numbers and letters in a line of code; not meaning. But, there’s a lineage of games that have sought to deliver the fantasy of being in complete command of a computer’s functions; of using that control to wreak destruction, or to avert it. Some of these games present a simulation of hacking, with the player inputting real lines of code. Others, though, abstract hacking to the point that it becomes a magical ability you can use with the press of a button. We like both, and you’ll find both represented in our hacking games list below.

The best hacking games on PC are:

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System Shock 2

The hacking minigame in System Shock 2 is nothing special. Basically, you play a simplified game of Minesweeper where you’re required to link three mines in a row for a successful hack. It’s pretty basic. As far as abstracted versions of hacking go, I much prefer the weird pipe puzzles of BioShock, its spiritual successor. But, System Shock 2 is notable for its implementation of hacking as one of multiple skill trees that the player could pursue. While the player was cast as a hacker in the original System Shock, they had the toolset to roleplay a hacker in its sequel.

Many sci-fi RPGS released after System Shock 2 have followed in its footsteps — especially those with an immersive hacking simulator bent — offering hacking abilities as one route to accomplish a goal. None present hacking realistically; you’re not entering lines of code (and NieR: Automata abstracted the process to the point that it became a twin stick shooter). But, if you enjoy avoiding fights and rigging turrets to take out enemies, you have System Shock 2 to thank.

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Uplink

Originally released less than a month after 9/11, Uplink is a throwback to a simpler time, emulating the aesthetic of ‘90s hacker films in its presentation of code-cracking. Unlike in System Shock 2, hacking is not one option among many here; it’s the whole game, and as a result, your screen is an exact representation of the screen your player interacts with (a presentation that many other entries on this list have borrowed).

After receiving a message from a deceased hacker (a surprisingly common theme on this list), the player has the choice to target a villainous group who is using a virus in an attempt to destroy the Internet. Fascinatingly, though, you can choose to opt out of the main story entirely, focusing instead on completing freelance hacking gigs.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The Deus Ex games are the anti-Star Trek — every odd-numbered one is good. The original Deus Ex was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but its follow-up Invisible War was retrospectively regarded as a major misstep. But, Human Revolution, the series’ long-awaited third entry was hailed as a return to form. As in System Shock 2, hacking is one skill that protagonist Adam Jensen can dump points into, allowing him to bypass fights and rummage around where he shouldn’t. The interface is similarly interesting, with players capturing nodes on a grid to build a path between two points. The system returned, mostly unchanged, in the 2016 sequel Mankind Divided.

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Watch Dogs 2

In 2014, Ubisoft’s open-world hacker fantasy series had new and interesting ideas, but stumbled out of the gate. The initial Watch Dogs was okay, but some critics took issue with its representation of Chicago, and most critics took issue with its protagonist, Aiden Pearce, who was simultaneously extremely bland and a giant grouch. Watch Dogs 2 addressed those criticisms, jettisoning Pearce in favor of the likeable Marcus Holloway, a colorful cast of DedSec hackers and a lively recreation of San Francisco.

Related: Explore the best open-world games on PC

Turns out, the hacker fantasy and the Ubisoft formula mix pretty well. Our hacktivist hero goes down pretty quick in a firefight, but with two RC gadgets — the wheely Jumper and the Quadcopter drone — Marcus can accomplish many objectives while hidden in cover, unlocking doors, downloading data, disabling robots and distracting guards. As you progress down a series of skill trees, Marcus gains access to a wild roster of chaos-causing skills. You can hack pedestrians’ phones and wire yourself money, briefly take control of cars to force them off the road, cause gas pipes to explode and more. Don’t expect an attempt at verisimilitude, though. Watch Dogs 2 offers a lot of contextual button prompts, and Marcus’ hacks then play out like magic tricks.

Watch Dogs 2 proves that the Ubisoft open-world formula can pair well with mechanics that don’t involve pulling a trigger. There are bandit camp equivalents to infiltrate — and you will feel very cool when you manage to pull that off without being seen — and plenty of side quests to tackle. But, the ‘80s teen comedy vibe and unique skills make Watch Dogs 2 feel genuinely refreshing, despite its familiar structure.

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Hacknet

In Hacknet, you are a hacker with access to flexible code and a database filled with Easter eggs. After a dead hacker contacts you via automated message in a ghostly inciting incident, you set off on a range of hack-centric missions. As you play, Hacknet simulates real-world hacking, teaching you UNIX commands similar to the ones you would use to, say, empty someone’s bank account IRL. A 2017 expansion, Labyrinths, added intriguing ARG elements and new tools to play with.

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Quadrilateral Cowboy

Like Watch Dogs 2, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a game about using hacking to get in, grab the thing, and get out without anyone realizing you were ever there. Unlike Watch Dogs 2, the hacking in Quadrilateral Cowboy is a lot more like actual hacking.

Billed as ’20th Century Cyberpunk,’ Blendo Games’ stylish first-person puzzler casts the player as a hacker thief pulling off Ocean’s 11-style heists with the help of a portable computer or ‘deck’. You’ll open doors, turn off lasers, control a mechanical quadruped — all with lines of code. Most games abstract hacking to make it as quick and intuitive as possible. But, typing commands, loaded with numbers and odd punctuation, is not an intuitive act, and Quadrilateral Cowboy doesn’t try to make it so. Instead, with a gentle learning curve and smart tutorialization, Quadrilateral Cowboy teaches you the basics of code, and makes you feel like a badass for being a good student.

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Hackmud

Hackmud is an MMO that casts the player as a hacker in a ‘90s-inspired interface. It’s got ample tutorials, but ultimately, to play this game well, you’re going to need to learn some Javascript. But, if you do, the world is your oyster.

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This crunchy 2016 hacking sim is a hive of scum and villainy that has drawn comparisons to EVE Online and Jurassic Park. Equal parts a hacker’s paradise and a social deception game like Mafia (the party game, not the open-world action series), Hackmud is the next step for master hackers who have cut their teeth on Quadrilateral Cowboy and our next entry.

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Exapunks

Exapunks, the 2018 puzzler from Zachtronics, casts you as a hacker in an alt-past 1997, even if some of its alternative history elements feel awfully at home in the present. The cyberpunk world is ravaged by a plague called the ‘phage’, and our hacker protagonist needs to shell out $700 a day for life-saving medication. A mysterious AI promises to keep the doses coming if the protagonist works for her.

You do that by learning to code — courtesy of Trash World News, a PDF zine that comes with the game — and inputting commands to send little digital robots called EXAs skittering around virtual grids. Like Quadrilateral Cowboy, Exapunks wants to teach you a new skill, not just feed you the power fantasy that you already have it. The programming language it teaches you is full-featured enough that you can even program your own games within the game. Exapunks demands more work from you than something like Watch Dogs 2, but absolutely rewards your efforts.

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Observation

Observation is the rare game that casts the player as the computer. As SAM, a HAL-like space station OS, your goal is to help Emma, the lone (?) occupant of the station after a mysterious event leaves it powerless and stranded. SAM can swap between cameras, providing viewpoints around the station. Eventually, he gains mobility, too, taking control of a spherical camera and floating around the station in zero gravity.

Like No Code’s previous game, Stories Untold, Observation is intimately concerned with the ways the technology we use mediates the stories we can tell. It isn’t a hacking game, per se. But, it does provide the best approximation of what it would be like to be inside the machine. Assuming that machine completes complex processes by participating in WarioWare-like mini games, that is.

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Telling Lies

Most of the games on this list attempt to make players feel the prowess of the skillful hacker. Telling Lies, however, focuses on the voyeurism. Like Observation, Telling Lies’ protagonist isn’t strictly a hacker. But, as a former FBI agent with access to a trove of stolen, classified video clips, she sure feels like one. After an initial cut scene that shows our whistleblower plugging a filched USB into her computer, it’s your job to enter search terms that will yield the trove’s secrets. To say too much more would spoil the fun; for all the time you spend fastforwarding and searching terms, Telling Lies’ core mechanic is mystery.

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