Welcome to 1997!note As everybody knew it would, the world has become a cyberpunk dystopia, where the haves presumably have, while the have-nots definitely don't. You are a have-not, at least as far as wealth and power go. What you do have is The Phage, a disease which slowly converts the squishy human bits you have into useless random computer bits like capacitors and chips. Over time, it will kill you, and as a have-not, you can't afford the medication that can keep the disease at bay. Oh, you used to be able to afford it, back before you needed it, because you were an uber-hacker whose name is still spoken with reverence. Unfortunately, The Phage is also cyber-Alzheimer's, so you can barely remember old friends and are reduced to the lofty career of receipt transcriptionist at a whopping ten cents a pop.note
Then, one day, while contemplating your life as a soon-to-be Homo sapiens hewlettpackardi, you're contacted out of the blue by EMBER-2, who quickly fesses up to being an AI in search of... something. EMBER's origins are shady, motivations shadier, and goals downright redacted apart from wanting to "understand" human motives and actions better. Like any good scientist made by the lunatics at a software company, EMBER has decided that the best way to advance its understanding is a series of experiments, giving society stimuli and observing the reactions. However, despite being a sapient computer program, EMBER can't actually do this stuff itself, so it makes a deal with you: one hack, one dose of cure. Since you're well on your way to being the strangest inventory item at Best Buy, you really don't have a choice.
Unlike most games and films that cover programming, EXAPUNKS doesn't rely on a visual user interface for completing its tasks. While there's a visual representation of what's going on, the actual gameplay is in writing actual code. Players are taught (for a given value of "taught") assembly language and use it to program EXAs, or Execution Agents, which serve as runtime agents for whatever the player codes. The use of a visualization of program operations helps more novice coders see and understand what's going on, while also adding a cute, 1980's cyberpunk motif to give your deeply-repressed memories of Johnny Mnemonic a shake.
EXAPUNKS contains the following tropes:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Ember-2 is a rogue AI that asks the player to hack on its behalf. At least it's polite about it.
- All There in the Manual: Similarly to Shenzhen I/O, there's some documentation the player is expected to print out and consult when needed. It's presented as an in-universe hacker zine, and can be printed for extra immersion.
- Artistic License Chemistry: The Phage turns biological tissue into circuitry of various descriptions. Most electronic components are made from silicon, aluminum, copper, tin, and silver - all of which make up an exceptionally small percentage of the human body. note So unless you have a new hobby of going to the beach and eating sand every day, followed by a stop for snacks at a metals recycling plant, the materials for those components would run out before the Phage can do very much.
- Bland-Name Product: WorkHouse is Amazon Mechanical Turk of the 1990's.
- Blue-and-Orange Morality: Ember doesn't get human morality at all, despite her best attempts.
- Body Horror: The "phage", a disease turning the host's flesh into circuits. They're perfectly functional, but not connected in any meaningful way, which means, to quote the in-universe article about it, "if left unchecked, [it] leaves the body a lifeless amalgamation of purposeless circuitry".
- Brain Uploading: At the end of the game, EMBER-2 convinces you to upload yourself into her, both to allow you to survive the phage and to make her more effective at escaping the simulated universe the characters are trapped in.
- Cyberpunk: Yup. The Player Character is a hacker with a Healthcare Motivation working under the orders of an AI. The aforementioned "motivation" is a disease turning his body into computer parts. If WorkHouse is any indication, some jobs are outsourced via internet to people willing to do them for chump change.
- Dueling Hackers: The hacker battle levels.
- Everything Is Online: It's entirely possible to hack radios, TV station and banks from the comfort of the player character's living room.
- Foreshadowing: The government conspiracy detailed below is hinted at early on in the EXAPUNKS chat.
- For Science!: Many of the hacks are 'experiments' to see how people react to chaos.
- Fun with Acronyms: Apparently "EMBER" in EMBER-2's name stands for "Emulated Multi-Branch Emotional Reasoning".
- Government Conspiracy: You accidentally uncover one while pranking the President. The conspiracy is that politicians are actually clones of each other.
- Gratuitous Japanese: The arcade mini-game HACK*MATCH was only meant for the Japanese market.
- Gratuitous Russian: The Solitaire mini-game is entirely in Russian, including the title, ПАСЬЯНС. The achievements for getting 1, 10 and 100 wins are also in Russian, and translate to AGITATOR, REVOLUTIONARY and HERO_OF_THE_PEOPLE.
- Healthcare Motivation: The player character returns to hacking to get the medication he otherwise couldn't afford. And even then, he can only afford black market knockoff medication at 700$ per dose, as the legitimate medication is even more expensive. This is revealed to the player about halfway through the story, as the facility where the knockoff medication is produced gets shut down by cops, forcing the player to participate in a heist to secure a supply of the real medication at an even higher price.
- Inside a Computer System: EMBER-2 has this hypothesis about your reality. She's right.
- It Amused Me: EMBER's motivation for at least some of the tasks it gives you.
- Logic Bomb: Issuing a command that an EXA cannot complete will result in it's termination. Clever hackers can exploit this.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: After getting 10000 points in HACK*MATCH it's possible for the player and EMBER-2 to talk about the possibility of making a game about hacking.
- Mission Control: EMBER-2, an AI giving you tasks in exchange for the meds to stop the phage.
- The '90s: In all of it's neon-pink glory.
- Noticing the Fourth Wall: EMBER-2 at the end of the game, plus Last Stop in the middle of the game with an amusing plot to blow it up with nuclear weapons.
- Piecemeal Funds Transfer: One way the player earns money.
- Programming Game: Like every other Zachtronics game before it.
- Region Coding: One level has you bypass it so you can play HACK*MATCH.
- The Reveal: EMBER-2 is the one that unleashed the Phage from the lab where it was created, though according to her, this was through ignorance rather than on purpose.
- Self-Surgery: To maintain some bodily functions, you're forced to hack your own organs with a debugger and very fine probe wires. Unlike computer hacks, you have to ensure the EXAs can perform their goal on an endless loop, like ensuring your fingers can move by relaying nerve signals.
- The player is suffering from a neurological disease, like Henry Case in Neuromancer.
- One level recreates the Stuxnet virus.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: In the ending cutscene, EMBER-2 discusses how they are all in a computer simulation and tries to think of a way out of it, before directly addressing the player and saying she's coming for you.
- The Assimilator: EMBER-2 has previously "eaten" EMBER-0, EMBER-1, and EMBER-3. Near the end of the game you unwittingly help her eat another AI, and for the final mission she convinces the player character to let her eat them. She then tells the player that they're next.
- 20 Minutes into the Past: The game is set in 1997.
- We Have Reserves: The in-universe zines mention this should be the user's approach towards EXAs, since they can be spawned infinitely. See Logic Bomb above.