Worms and the Data View

While I wait for the Gear VR to launch (and Darknet with it), I thought it might be fun to talk in greater depth about two of the more complex and opaque aspects of Darknet’s gameplay: “worms” and the “data view”. These are both advanced, unlockable mechanics that the player can use to great effect, but the game doesn’t explain how they work or what the player ought to do with them. I’m hoping that they’ll be the subject of research and discussion among high-level players once the game is released. If that’s the case, players who dig up this blog post might find it a decent starting-point for their investigations.

Worms are one of the four types of software that the player can purchase while hacking a network. A worm is used by targeting an already-captured node, at which point it elongates outward and glides into the captured node. At that point, the worm travels outward, moving from node to node, eventually stopping and “corrupting” its final destination. (A corrupted node reduces the security of all the nodes surrounding it, making the network more vulnerable to attack.)

Worms are powerful if they corrupt the right node, but they have a mind of their own. You don’t choose the final target; you only choose where they start their journey. Used correctly, they can be extremely helpful, and they’re critical to success in the game’s most difficult levels. Used inefficiently, they can be a waste, targeting and corrupting a useless out-of-the-way node. The question is: how do you determine where a worm will go?

I’m not going to tell anyone the answer, but here’s a hint: A worm is greedy. Each worm uses a simple algorithm to determine how it travels through the network. It has to start in a corrupted node, but after that, the worm prefers to travel to more secure nodes. And it will only travel so far.

To master the use of worms, players will need to deduce the exact algorithm that drives them, and that will require some expensive experimentation. My hope is that fellow hackers will work together to solve it.

Even more powerful, and more mysterious, is the data view. Like worms, the data view is an advanced, unlockable game mechanic that offers a huge advantage to players that understand it fully.

Once unlocked, the data view is free to use. You can turn it on or off at any time while you’re viewing the network. It appears as a constant flow of green letters and numbers falling down from the sky, like the famous “digital rain” in The Matrix. “I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead...”

It always frustrated me that the code in The Matrix didn’t actually mean anything. So, I made a game in which it does! The falling letters and numbers actually reflect information about the network that the player is hacking. The trick, of course, is learning how to read it.

A hint: The code shows information about the nodes that appear directly behind it. The code is always consistent. Sometimes, it lies. But even those lies are consistent. And even those lies contain useful information.

Why would you want to know how to read the code? Well, one answer relates to ICE, a kind of virtual armor in Darknet that protects nodes from being hacked. ICE is a direct obstacle that can only be defeated by using an exploit, another type of purchasable software. But ICE also acts as an indirect obstacle by hiding information about the node underneath. Is the node valuable and worth attacking, or is just a distraction? Normally, it’s impossible to tell. But a player who knows how to read the code in the data view can see through the ICE and get information on the node underneath. That’s one of the big benefits of the data view (although, in my opinion, not quite the biggest).

I honestly don’t know if any players will have the inclination to investigate the behavior of worms or the meaning of the data view. I also don’t know if any of those players will want to share what they discover. But there are hidden secrets in these mechanics, and they have the potential to separate the elite hackers from the merely skilled. They add a bit of depth, and a bit of mystery, and they make the experience of playing Darknet feel that much richer.

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A game by E McNeill.