One thing you must remember above all things is this: Uplink doesn't smile. It doesn't smirk about how clever we are for acknowledging we're playing a videogame, and it doesn't get so involved with itself that it seems hilariously serious. Uplink is a simple Windows application that runs like any other, casually pretending to download a program that makes it possible to hack the planet. It's got the simple but effective interface a hacker would make for himself, not the flashing whiz-banging electronic geegaws of a videogame. The only acknowledgement to fiction Uplink makes is the date at the top of its stark main screen: 2010. Even then, I unplugged my ethernet cable, just in case I really was bouncing signals off open servers while investigative hounds chased me across the electronic moors of the internet.

Introversion hacked its way into my life, and my heart, with Uplink and returned to my attention with the world-ender DEFCON (Darwinia was enjoyable, but not quite my thing). DEFCON, like Uplink, is an unsmiling game, though DEFCON is less about hacking and more about destroying the planet. Players hunch over a retro '80s display screen depicting missile bases, fleets, submarines, airfields and cities, and hurl nuclear death at each other. DEFCON reports the body count/score with all the cool detachment a computer can muster. 1 million killed. 2.5 million killed. 10 million killed. The punch doesn't come through the graphics or writing - no CGI cutscenes of mothers clutching children as they are immolated by fire - but through that same clinical detachment. 10 million just died a horrible, flame-drenched, screaming death, all because you forgot to put up a missile base to defend the Pacific Northwest. Thanks for playing.

The common thread in the two games is that simple but enthralling feel. Uplink doesn't go overboard with flashing graphics and sirens when the electronic Javerts begin their pursuit. Terror comes in a beep, like the motion trackers in Aliens. I'm in. Beep. Now, where do they keep those files? Beep. Beep. Just a little more looking. As they get closer, the tracker speeds up. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Time to pull the plug and cover my tracks. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep! I've faced down the hordes of Hell itself, battled through games written by horror masters, but nothing made ice-cold fear wash down my spine like the frantic beeping of the tracker as my hack went awry, to the point that I reached around my computer case to make doubly sure I'd unplugged my network cable.

DEFCON also uses subtle touches to draw you into the world of annihilating humanity. The cool, detached display and simple icons wouldn't impress the "Real is Brown" crowd, but it wouldn't be out of place in a quiet Air Force bunker in North Dakota. The interface is simple and utilitarian, all about conveying information - as one imagines a military computer might - rather than impressing with graphical wizardry. The soundtrack is haunting ambient music, making it easy to sink into. And it's embedded with little audio bits to enhance the mood: A child's laughter echoes from far away, someone - perhaps the other fellow with a launch key - coughs and clears his throat. After finishing an office LAN game, one of my coworkers blurted, "God, I hope we didn't really nuke a bunch of people." Silly as it is, we all shuffled to the window to make sure mushroom clouds weren't blossoming over downtown Raleigh. Yes, we checked.

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