Sunday, September 30, 2012

Visual Novels, Why Not: Digital: A Love Story

So, this post only took 6 years to make. This is due to school work, and the fact that I constantly procrastinate from said school work, so I end up doing nothing whenever I get home.

But, without further ado, let's talk about some video games.

Digital: A Love Story was released in 2010 from Christine Love's website, which you can visit here, for free. It takes place "Five minutes into the future of 1988" all entirely on an old computer running an Amiga operating system, called an "Amie" in game. The majority of the game involves the player dialing up Bulletin Board Systems, think current day message boards or online forums, and reading/responding to either posts or private messages on said BBSs. While in most other games the tedium of typing in the numbers of these BBSs and waiting for the dial-up to work would be, well, tedious, but here it works in the game's favor.

See, this is a game about love.

While Love (The person not the abstract concept) describes the game with having telephone fraud and HACKING THE GIBSON, which does actually happen, the game is actually about the creation of an emotional connection and the pursuit of said connection.

Let's not jump too many guns here though, first let's actually describe the game a bit.

Digital starts out with the player booting up their Commodore 64, or whatever old computer the Amiga OS could run on, and entering both their screen name and real name. From there the player dials up a local BBS number provided by the helpful Mr. Wong and begins talking with the residents at "Lake City Local." There the player sees a post entitled: "First Poem" by someone named *Emilia, shown in the image above. If you haven't gathered yet, to respond to messages the player has to click reply up in the top left corner of the message window.

Note: The player does not actually have to type out a message to send back to people, it's done automatically and off-screen. These replies aren't even readable in fact, so their contents have to be inferred from context clues in the reply you get.

The first message you receive from *Emilia after replying to her poem
The back and forth exchange with the player and *Emilia goes on for a bit, with sixteen messages from *Emilia by the end of it, until something... distressing happens. To make a long (See: more than two sentences) story short, the player has to find and reunite with *Emilia.

Since this is going to be the last I talk about the game's content so directly in the post, I'll just say it right now: Go download this game and experience it. Digital takes less than a full afternoon to finish, and it is completely worth it. For real, just download it. It doesn't even cost money and you can run it Linux for Christ's sake. This entire sentence is a link to the page where you can download it, just click ANYWHERE in this sentence and you're taken straight there. By the way, make sure to type in your real name when it asks, it makes the game a lot better.

Now time to be all pretentious and stuff.

If there's any big failing that Digital has that genuinely hinders its effectiveness, it's that the entire experience is hinged on the emotional connection that the player creates with *Emilia, or rather whether or not one is created at all. Without an emotional connection then the motivation for playing the game just sort of dies. That was the main failing for Skyrim for me. The game was too shallow to get emotionally engaged and I abruptly stopped playing. The Mumbles Problem discusses this, which can be seen here, and explains the reason for my lack of emotional involvement pretty well.

But, Digital does work at crafting an emotional investment, or at least among the majority of those who played it if the game's warm reception is to be believed. Thus, the question is how does Digital get the player to care? How does it get the player to feel? To love?

By clicking.

Video games have this weird thing about them, in that they actively engage the player into interacting with them. Without the player the game wouldn't progress, it wouldn't be finished, and it would be wasted. With a film there doesn't need to be a viewer, just someone to start it and it'll eventually finish. Same with TV shows and music. Hell, if you put a book's pages in a slideshow, turned the slideshow on, and read it that way then there doesn't even need to be a reader (Personally, the act of turning pages is really just due to physical limitations more than anything else).

Because the player is such a more integral part of the game compared to the viewers of a movie or readers of a book, a more intimate emotional connection develops between the player and the game. If the people who played Mass Effect 3 didn't care about the game emotionally then they wouldn't have put together an entire movement dedicated to only fixing the ending's problems. ME3 isn't the first game with a poor ending, but the writing and universe building was significant enough for most players that they genuinely and passionately cared about the game's characters and universe.

One could even look at Fallout: New Vegas, one of my favorite games I've played in the last ten years, which had flaws in physically moving around the game's level geometry and had numerous bugs, but was redeemed by the game world's inhabitants. The game's writing was such to the point that the biggest draw to the game was the ability for the player to feel empathy towards New Vegas' characters and become engrossed into its world. The Mumbles Problem, which I linked earlier above, also discusses this briefly.

Interaction and engagement are what facilitates all of this empathy that the two aforementioned games generate, and here in Digital they do the same.

Of course, don't let what I'm saying make it sound like Digital's success isn't from Christine Love's fantastic skill with writing. This kind of emotional attachment in general wouldn't work without exceptional writing in some area. If games inherently created strong emotional connections then Marcus Fenix from Gears of War would be the most compelling character in gaming since The Nameless One from Planescape Torment. Good writing is needed for emotional connections to be made, whether it be in gaming or movies or books. Jon Jafari points out that the main reason why the original Jurassic Park movie worked so well, which was because of the emotional connection that the viewer had with the characters, in his (Downright hilarious) review of Jurassic Park: The Lost World, as seen here. So when I say that Digital: A Love Story is an amazing game that evokes insanely compelling emotions be aware that a lot of that is due to Christine Love.

But while Digital is a testament to Love's skill at the written word, it is also a testament to the nature of video games to evoke an emotional involvement and connection. Like I said earlier, the entire game is dependent on whether or not the player can become emotionally invested with *Emilia. And how does it do this? By having the player reply to *Emilia's post and messages, despite never showing the player what he/she is actually sending to *Emilia. All the player knows is that as a direct result of an input by them *Emilia received a message and responded to them with one of her own. Not only is this a fantastic use of the "less is more" principle, but it also is a fantastic way of directly engaging the player with the game. They know that when they clicked "reply" that a message was sent by them, and while their imagination fills in whatever the exact contents were, they still know that is was them who sent the message. They are talking with *Emilia themselves, they are having the conversation and building the emotional bonds. That's what drives the entire experience, the development of a relationship between the player themselves and a single individual piece of all of Digital.

And all of this with but only a single click of the mouse.

This is why games are an artform. This is why they matter. They speak to the human condition and to us. They can make us happy, sad, horrified, overjoyed, regretful, dismayed, and cry bittersweet tears all within one experience. They're different from movies and books and any other medium of art in existence, because of the direct involvement of the player, which makes them an active participant, not a passive observer.

Games are truly beautiful things.

No promises on what the next post will be or when it will be, but the next visual novel I'll discuss will be Love's Don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story.

See you at some point in the undetermined future.

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