In 2015, the FCC passed the Open Internet Order, which barred internet service providers from blocking, slowing, or otherwise unfairly manipulating traffic on their networks. Not long after, a group of students released an indie parkour game named 404sight, translating the concept of data throttling into a physical race through high-tech "fast lanes" and "slow lanes." The Open Internet Order was repealed today under new FCC chairman Ajit Pai — but the game remains as quirky and relevant as ever.
One of the past year’s greatest political victories is that net neutrality — a slightly wonky name for a set of rules governing which companies can send which traffic at which speed from which carrier — has become a hot enough political topic to draw millions of messages to the FCC, Congress, and the White House. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s now a video game about fighting an evil ISP intent on throttling your traffic. What’s more surprising is that it’s actually fun.
404Sight is created by Retro Yeti, a team of students from the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program. It’s a running game set in a surreal pastel manifestation of cyberspace, where bandwidth is life and "fast lanes" are hidden green strips that boost your health and accelerate your pace. Your service provider is intent on taking your bandwidth with angry throttling drones, which you’ll have to evade if you want to stay online. But you have a secret weapon: a "ping" that helps you find the fast lanes and, eventually, save the internet.
"We were trying to kind of steer away from the Tron look."404Sight, which is being released today for free on Steam, follows in the footsteps of Mirror’s Edge, a 2008 parkour game about a courier in a dystopian future city. It owes a little to simple endless running games like Temple Run, although there’s a lot more control and it’s divided into set levels. Where Mirror’s Edge tried to make a city full of linear paths, levels in the preview build of 404Sight are empty and stylized, a series of flat blocks and platforms that players need to run across and jump between. The ping system is a high-tech version of Mirror’s Edge’s "runner vision," which highlighted paths and hazards.
What’s interesting about 404Sight is the elegant way it changes this from an incidental hint tool to a central mechanic. Pinging your environment lets you see fast lanes, but it also opens you up to damage from the drones’ slow lanes. Throttling doesn’t just slow you down, it drains your bandwidth and eventually kicks you offline. It also self-consciously avoids the black-and-neon palette of a stereotypical cyberpunk game. "We were trying to kind of steer away from the Tron look, that's kind of been overdone," says artist Rachel Leiker. "So we decided to go with a kind of brighter, more electric sort of feel."
404Sight didn’t start as a game about net neutrality, and it remains heavily abstract. The team came up with the basic idea — a 3D running game with a tool for finding hidden paths — first, testing it as a superhero-themed game called Super Fail in mid-2014. Soon, though, they started questioning their premise. "Superheroes were swell, but it wasn’t quite as boundary-pushing as we’d like," community manager Tina Kalinger wrote in a blog post. The team thought about issues they found interesting and relevant, coming up with two ideas: surveillance, which would eventually give them the drones in 404Sight, and net neutrality. "It wasn't something that was slapped on," says lead designer Kyle Chittenden. "It was something that we all wanted to kind of voice our opinion on."
At the time of that post, net neutrality wasn’t a real, enforceable rule. It had been struck down by a court in early 2014, and the FCC was getting ready to end the public comment period on a new proposal. "Everyone was still trying to fight for the idea of net neutrality," Leiker says. Today, the tables have turned. Net neutrality laws officially took effect earlier this week, and 404Sight is coming out a few days after CTIA, AT&T, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have all filed challenges to them. "It's similar as far as the theme goes, but how we participate in that conversation has changed a little bit," says Leiker. "The fight is still there, and we're still going to be making a statement about that fight with the game, and hopefully informing people how important this is."
The team sees net neutrality as a personal issue. "One of our designers was one of the first people to really use Twitch," says Leiker, "and he ran into issues like Comcast coming down on him and saying, ‘You're using too much bandwidth.’" It’s no coincidence that, according to the team, one of the game’s goals (spoiler ahead) is "blowing up" your ISP to get friends back online. "We're students, and we basically live and breathe the internet," says Kalinger. "It's just kind of a nightmare to deal with the ISPs that are available for us."
"It's really about connecting to people and losing that."The political lessons in all this can be a little fuzzy. In cases like Twitch, for example, it’s hard to clear up whether fast and slow lanes exist at all, let alone where they are. Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon have all been accused of degrading service to the streaming video platform. Time Warner Cable, for example, flatly denied throttling video, but it admitted that service could be sub-par and met with Twitch to try and solve the problem. The peering disputes between Netflix and internet service providers are considered a prime example of cable companies demanding pay for play, but they raise complicated questions about who’s responsible for upgrading an overcrowded internet. Killing Comcast won’t get you better bandwidth; it will get you no bandwidth, unless the sequel to 404Sight involves building your own ISP.
When 404Sight works, though, it’s a worthy little addition to the genre of high-concept sci-fi action games. A deceptively simple landscape full of hidden tricks and pitfalls, with the threat of total disaster always on the horizon, is a perfect symbol for a network that almost everyone uses but few people really understand. And Retro Yeti wants to convey that losing bandwidth isn’t just about having trouble loading Netflix; it’s about degrading the quality of what has become, to many of us, a second home. "A lot of people these days, some of their best friends, they've never met in person. So it's really important to understand what net neutrality means on that level," says Leiker. "It's really about connecting to people and losing that, and how dangerous that is."