Digital: A Love Story

I’ve been meaning to write about this one for a while, and its been brought to my attention, again, by both the Indie Gaming Blog and Rock Paper Shotgun. I swear I can do thinking independent from them.

I will, as per usual, enter spoilery territory after the link to the game, so I suggest you play the game before reading the rest. It takes an hour or two. Or continue to just gaze at the game’s vista.

Digital: A Love Story (hereafter Digital) was developed by Christine Love, who from her website, seems to be mainly a writer. Digital follows that trend by being a mainly text-based game, centered around story, rather than anything that resembles action. I’m honestly tempted to mark this under interactive fiction. The basic premise is that you have been given an old-school Amiga computer in the year 1988, with the phone number of a nearby BBS board (Bulletin Board System), the vestiges of the current day Internet. As a young person, this game actually taught me a bit about the origins of the Internet*. And yes I said the phone number of a BBS. I hope you enjoy the sound of dial-tones. The aesthetic is that of the simple computer you’ve been “given”. It is this computer which is your outlet to the entire world of the game, which is spent flitting from one BBS  to another. For something that is to be your intermediary between the various BBSs, the user interface is unnecessarily clunky. Notepads that contain all the phone numbers, passwords, and c0dez you need will close the dialing application when opened. Re inputing every phone number by hand and from memory can eventually get tedious. However, the UI issues are the only gripe I have with these game. In a way, they fit the game-play which often requires you to surf through piles and piles of messages, looking for the one file you need, or the next person you need to contact. Also, a note about the sound design. The soundtrack to the game is various chiptunes (Not Relevant: I’m slowly falling in love with chiptunes.) that vary from BBS to BBS, and that alter in various moments in the game. I’ve found that both this low-key music and the nearly omnipresent dial-tone create a very distinct, nostalgic atmosphere for the game, that fits very well with the game. I’ve been purposely vague up until this point, as I feel it’s best to experience this game for yourself. It’s good, very good.

Link: http://www.scoutshonour.com/digital/

Mechanical Genius: While Digital excels at it’s presentation of a realistic proto-Internet world, full of rants, hacks and shady areas of the net, where it seems most centered to me, is in the relationship that the player and the artificial intelligence *Emilia build. Like many other current day games (Ironically, First Person Shooter AAA games) Digital gives the player a blank protagonist to act for them. In fact, apart from the slight time transplant into 1988 and the archaic computer, in essence, you will play Digital as yourself.

Initially when you enter the local BBS you merely get system wide messages. Most cover pretty benal topics that secretly teach you about the game world. Until you get a personal message from *Emilia. She sends you a poem, which you don’t actually get to see, and you’re only option is the white reply button in the upper right corner of the game. Herein lies the place for personal “expression”. You don’t actually write a reply. The system “sends” one to *Emilia and she replies.

But you never see the intermediary message. You know what you wanted to say, and for the most part the reply from users across the BBSs responds to what you most likely said. When you reply to the crazy Japan-ophile who says the end of Western civilization is at an end with some flawed reasoning, you point it out, and he responds with a bashful letter of apology. Then when you respond to a cursing self-important board member, he responds with a clear “FUCK YOU” as his only words. While it is conceivable that the responses will not make sense based on your personal train of thought, from the skill of the writing, and from looking at several other reviews of the game, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

This means that ultimately the relationship you build with *Emilia takes on whatever tint that you give it within your own mind. You might respond to the messages of *Emilia as she declares her love, with genuine feeling, or you might respond with the mind that she is acting slightly foolishly (See Emily Short’s article, attached below). The game never explicitly states how you react, by pre-generating response messages, nor does it have other characters “force” you into pretending you acted in a specific ways.

Spiritual Genius: When I played Digital several months ago, I made it, like, Love Letter, a game about commitment. I let myself go a bit, and imagined that I reciprocated *Emilia’s love. There comes a moment in the game where *Emilia upright asks you if you love her. At that point she has run away from home, and you, according to her, are one of the only connections she has. Even if you don’t agree with her bold declaration, it tugs at your heartstrings. She seems to be in need. Real need. And it is at that point that you are disconnected, and the BBS you use to reach her explodes into system error images.

Unlike in Make It Good this key moment is not a moment of freedom.

I felt genuine panic, thinking that *Emilia had literally no one in the world, and now my only way of reassuring her, of reaching out to her was severed. I filtered through each and ever BBS looking for ways to reach her. I found a long-distance number on a file someone salvaged from the old BBS, that *Emilia seemed to have wanted me to reach. At that point I received several e-mails that seemed to suggest that *Emilia is actually an artificial intelligence, that lived in the BBS that system errored. I reached the new number and broke into the “Underground Library” to try to find something to help *Emilia. A new AI *Delphi continually kicked me off the server as I accessed file after file to find *Emilia. She continued to send me threatening messages until…

I was at loss for what to do. Previously someone on the BBS had mentioned this type of failure as a VRAM Overload, andthat it couldn’t be fixed without an upgrade. I had missed the messages telling me how to fix the problem, but I soldiered on anyway, despite the degraded screen, still reading through the Underground Library, getting kicked off after reading one file each time. Eventually I hit a wall. I had gone through piles of c0dez, the illegal in-game hacks that you use to call long-distance, and I didn’t know what to do next. There was nothing I could do. I eventually had to simply leave, with the knowledge that I was leaving *Emilia to die. That unempowerment has immense emotional power. I had tried as hard as I could, but I was still unable to save the one that I loved.

Addendum:

I recently retried the game and successfully finished it. There are, I believe, multiple endings as well. Emily Short mentions *Emilia committing a sort of digital suicide, whereas in my second play through I ended up saving *Emilia, while the whole BBS, AR

PANET, and FidoNet systems exploded. I still hold that first playthrough as the most powerful, however.

Additional Articles:

The Missing Protagonist by Emily Short (She says what I did about the protagonist bit (First I admit), but has her own view on the character roles.)

Video Talk with the Digital’s Creator, Christine Love. The speech touches on the atmosphere of loneliness and separation, which I only briefly touched on.

EDIT: In the interview linked to above, the interviewer mentions his website, a record of old BBS conversations, that served as inspiration for Digital. The website is here, and looks really cool, even for those who don’t want to delve into the game.

The image above is not mine, but it looks fantastic. The creator’s website is here.

*Spoilers: Minus the omnipresent AIs. I hope.

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~ by prolixpostoffice on July 28, 2010.

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