Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Digital: A Love Story (Mac)

It's often taken for granted that people who play a lot of video games know a lot about technology.  I'll attest that there is generally aptitude in these circles beyond that of the non-gamer crowd, but it's not something that comes entirely natural.  Maybe I'm just being defensive because I was always late to the party on so many aspects of new and emerging technological trends in the past 3 decades.  I didn't send an email or use AIM until I started college in 2002.  Same goes for having a cell phone for more than emergency calls.  I would have needed to be unrealistically aware of the personal computer scene at a very early age to feel nostalgic about the interface of the Amie Workbench, an Amiga analogue, and Bulletin Board System (BBS) communications represented in the game, Digital: A Love Story.  Since I wasn't, few of the game's techie in-jokes and references stick.  However, since Digital places you in a sort of 1988 simulation mode, the unfamiliarity lent itself to a more personally authentic experience.

You begin Digital as a someone who's using, for all intents and purposes, the Internet for the first time, but through the very limited lens of the Amie Workbench.  Visually, the game is the computer screen: everything fits the blue/white/orange color scheme, the monitor has heavy scanlines, and the cursor is a big, fat, red arrow.  You receive a message from a friend of your dad that tells you what to do to get on BBSes and chatting with folks.  Where instructions in a game can often remove you from the experience, here everything is presented in proper context and actually reads like messages real people would send.  Because the connection between using a computer to play and the game virtualizing a specific operating system is so direct, very little suspension of disbelief is needed to jump into the narrative.

As the title suggests, Digital is a love story, but it's also a mystery.  You're introduced to the "love interest" character, *Emilia, early on, and when she disappears, it's up to you to figure out what happened.  The narrative convention, which is also the primary game mechanic, is the exchange of BBS posts and private messages.  Everyone you interact with has a unique voice and motivation, creating conversations that reach far beyond typical NPC fare.  You never actually type any messages, instead simply hitting reply and reading contacts' responses.  This string of communication works best when you're in "conversation" with one or two other people and the back and forth is readily apparent.  At other times you'll just callously reply or send PMs to everyone on your list, making sure you're doing everything necessary to trigger the text that will allow you to progress further in the story.  The introduction to *Emilia follows the better of those two paths, and though it's clear that I was just messaging a fictional character as part of an interactive short story, I did develop an attachment to that character; enough of an attachment to drive the mystery plot forward with a degree of urgency.

The writing in Digital is very consistent, believable, and emotionally affecting.   Digital's designer and author, Christine Love, bills herself as a writer first, and it shows.  That's meant as a compliment to her writing skills, not a knock on her game design abilities.  Truly well written games are few and far between, but even fewer are as dependent on quality writing as Digital.  Characters' messages vary in articulation and sophistication, as you'd expect from a bunch of random people on the Internet.  I'm reminded of Gus Van Sant's teenager-starring Paranoid Park for how real its characters felt despite, or perhaps because of, the amateur statuses of its actors.  Love is likewise able to find a tone that is reflective of the production process, and somehow more authentic in doing so. 

Digital plops you into the world of BBSes, stranger-in-a-strange-land style.  Yes, there's a missing person mystery to solve, but navigating the uncharted online world is a mysterious voyage in its own right.  Imagine a game that has a clear story objective, but in order to proceed you need to drive a tractor, and before you can drive the it you have to figure out how it works.  Do you need keys to start it?  Where are the keys?  Which lever is for reverse?  Oh wait, does this run on gas?!  BBSes are just as foreign to me as tractors, and I appreciated how Digital didn't assume any prior knowledge.  If there's a tendency nowadays to forget just how open the Internet is, typing in phone numbers in hopes of connecting to a heretofore unseen places is a healthy reminder.  No one even dials numbers to place phone calls anymore, further distancing us from the real technological processes happening in the background.  If you did hand-dial phone numbers, you might mess up and call a random bystander by mistake.  In Digital, instead of hanging up and correcting the error, every number has an unknown on the other end; there's a sense of discovery.

The feeling of openness makes for an ideal learning space, which goes as much for the in-game world as the one outside of it.  Digital teaches you about BBSes and early Internet history through message texts, but in allowing you to actually dial the numbers and direct message other users, you learn by doing.  The mystery/love story paces you through the learning process, heightening the meaning behind your actions.  Later on, the Internet "history lesson" takes some sensationalist turns, but it makes for a great moment of culmination when you finally gain access to the fabled University BBS where they don't just have direct messages, they have email!  A story that's willing to go a little over the top is helpful to make up for the potential dryness of a game centered around an archaic computer interface. The online communications depicted in Digital remain the foundation that our modern Internet is built upon, reminding us of the vast expanses available to users at increasing speeds and densities.  It's up to us to make the stories real.

Digital: A Love Story is available to download for free here.

No comments:

Post a Comment