Digital Love Stories

I spent a couple of hours this evening playing through don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story. It’s billed as a “visual novel”, and by the end I was wondering whether I wouldn’t have been better off just reading a novel instead.

I downloaded it in the first place because I’d previously played Digital: A Love Story, a game by the same author, and while it did not quite live up to the hype, it had a lot to recommend it. You’re surfing around bulletin boards on your circa-1988 computer, uncovering the story as you go, along with a lot of incidental but amusing side-plots and details. It had a clever concept, some puzzles which were just difficult enough, and the brilliant idea that whenever you hit “reply” to one of these bulletin board messages, you never see what you write – you only see the response, and have to imply what you wrote. Where it fell down was on the story – maybe it was an intentional nod to the 1980s and cyberpunk, but there was no surprise in finding out that the mystery girl I was corresponding with was an AI, and then it went on to do some standard stuff with self-aware AIs and uploading and I’d have to help them in some way, and then there was the ending, and judging by the reviews, nearly everyone found that more affecting than I did.

don’t take it personally, babe, is another game about love and sex and relationships and the internet and how they all interact, although we’ve jumped forward to 2027. You play a high-school teacher in an exclusive private high school, and play through several months with your class, watching their relationships evolve and change, through the uncomfortably voyeuristic mechanism of being able to view all their public and private messages on Amie (the Facebook-equivalent of 2027). It’s much less interactive than Digital – you run through scenes, simultaneously keeping an eye on the main plot and on the conversations the students are having on Amie, until you reach a decision point and have to make a choice. I’ve only played it once, so I don’t know how much influence you can actually have on the story, but while my character was clearly a bit of a dick and a loser, I decided he was not quite enough of a dick to sleep with one of his students. It’s very much playing with the metatextuality – alongside the anime influences, you can check out “12channels”, a version of 4chan which comments on the story like a Greek chorus, and the sections between each chapter are foreshadowing what will happen next. It’s all entertaining enough, and there are some sweet moments – there’s a nicely-handled coming out story, and I felt like my decisions did prod some students towards a happy ending however ineffectual I was.

At the end, it all seemed to be coming to a head. I was about to be rumbled for reading all the kid’s private messages, which seemed a little unfair, since it was part of the game mechanic that I read their messages, and while I might have been able to play the whole game avoiding them, why should I deliberately avoid the interesting parts of the game only to have my character punished for it at the end? Of course, that doesn’t happen – I make a pre-emptive confession of my snooping, which there’s no way to avert, and find the kids knew all along I was reading. It’s trying to say something interesting about privacy and the concepts of public and private lives in the age of ubiquitous social networking, but it didn’t manage to say anything new or unexpected, and it fell flat. I couldn’t help thinking of The Quantum Thief, which I wasn’t completely sold on as a novel but delves into the same ideas of privacy and shared knowledge and different levels of public and private life, and does it in a much more interesting fashion.

The game title is true in some ways – this one ain’t my story. Digital won me over from the start with happy nostalgic memories of usenet and modem connection noises and replying to trolls about spaceship fights, but don’t take it personally is about a future I haven’t grown up in, and doesn’t resonate in the same way. It suffers from lack of interactivity, being a more straightforward story-with-decision-branches, rather than having puzzles to solve. Good and engaging gameplay can compensate for an unoriginal story, or you can get me invested in the protagonist and eager to see what effect my choices have, but when it comes to playing a mostly-fixed character in a mostly-fixed story, it has to be better than just reading a good book instead, and sadly neither of these games have quite reached that level.

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