I first heard the name “Christine Love” when Analogue: A Hate Story went up on Steam. I was intrigued enough to seek out information on the title, which led me to Wikipedia and the aforementioned name, as well as one of her previous works: the antithetically titled Digital: A Love Story.
Weeks (months?) passed and I wound up at E3 with an appointment to see IndieCade’s booth. They’d carved out a space alongside the walk between the South and West lobbies of the Los Angeles Convention center and lined it with computers, consoles, and tablets running a slew of independent games of varying degrees of notoriety. Sound Shapes was there, as were many other titles of which I have forgotten the names (one, in particular, involved performing heists a la the “Ocean” movies).
One of the most recognizable, though, was Analogue. I was curious, so I sat down with it for a few minutes. Just long enough to determine how it worked — I activated an AI, read a few logs, and then was on my way.
June passed and, at its end, the game went on sale for 40 percent off. I was talking with my best friend, Dan, and mentioned offhand that I had seen the game at E3 and it had intrigued me. Five minutes later, I had a Steam gift. Dan is a stand-up dude.
I then sat on it until this week, when I was bored and kind of depressed and felt like playing something with “hate” right there in the title, because why not? Two hours later, after escaping the Mugunghwa with Hyun-ae, I found myself restarting the game to go down the Mute path, then again for the harem ending (as well as the solo end). I haven’t unlocked all of the ship’s logs yet, but I’m anxious to go back and do exactly that.
Playing through Analogue, though, also piqued my interest in Christine Love as a writer, and the rest of her oeuvre. Thankfully, her blog contains not only communiques from the author/creator herself, but also links to all of her work. All of it, aside from Analogue, free to download and play (or read, as is appropriate).
And so I played through Digital: A Love Story, then Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, it Just Ain’t Your Story, and even tackled Lake City Rumble II as Yamato. I went on an absolute Christine Love binge, and found that, when I was through, I still wanted more than I’d yet seen. I still do, because Christine Love is a brilliant writer, with tremendous talent in pacing and structuring a mostly free-form experience.
Of her prominent three visual novels (Digital, Analogue, and Don’t Take it Personally, Babe), only Don’t Take it Personally, Babe really follows a linear path. It moves ineffably forward, providing you with snippets of private and not-so-private conversations on a social network shared by the students in your literature class, upon all of which you can eavesdrop freely. They appear at predetermined times, though, and only rarely are you given any actual choice or input into the game’s events (there are moments during which the game will outright stop until you read the messages, or check 12Channel, which is the game’s analogue for 4Chan and its ilk).
This is, by far, the weakest of the big three Christine Love works, and it’s still a compelling narrative. That she built it in a month is kind of mind-boggling; it still effectively tackles issues of sexual identity, modern attitudes toward privacy and the invasion or dissolution thereof, and the moral and ethical implications of abusing a position of power.
Much stronger is Digital: A Love Story, which makes the interesting choice of denying your character a voice. All of his (or her; Don’t Take it Personally is the only of her games to shackle the player with a predetermined gender, as well as the only one to really build a personality for its lead beyond the player’s actions and choices) interactions are unseen, initiated by the player by sending messages that the player never gets to read. As such, others are responding to your proxy, and so you can grasp the basic gist of what the protagonist might have written (Love is a master at such implication), but the explicit content is left up to your imagination. In my experience, this deeply personalized the story, after an initial period during which I had to adjust to the idea.
When the main plot first began to develop, I found myself reluctant to consider my “character’s” burgeoning relationship, conducted through a computer screen, wholly believable. After a message that hit surprisingly close to home, though, I was hooked.
The thing is, the game itself is fairly linear in the strictest sense. To proceed requires one to activate certain triggers and solve a few puzzles, but everything is fairly intuitive and, in the end, the puzzles are just encouragement to skulk around, peeking into threads one otherwise wouldn’t.
Digital culminates in a moment that is affecting specifically because one can exist in the game world once one reaches that point without ever flipping the switch that sets the end into motion. A player can, instead, stand at the precipice, overlooking the ending, knowing what it will entail and that it must be done, but knowing that to do so will require consciously jumping from the cliff. Though Analogue: A Hate Story stands as my favorite Christine Love experience, there’s no singular moment in it that has quite the impact of deigning to click that final icon that sets the game on an inevitable crash course, that finalizes one’s sacrifice.
Analogue: A Hate Story has the most direct interaction between the player and the game’s characters. One reads logs, which tell the story of the Mugunghwa and its passengers hundreds of years down the line from when it originally launched as a colony ship. At any time, these logs may be presented to one of two artificial intelligences on the ship, both to see their reactions and to hopefully prompt them to uncover more logs from the ship’s distant past. Further, they will often prompt the player for more direct interaction, asking questions with binary answers that allow the player to establish their own identity within the game.
Functionally, this is the most open of Christine Love’s visual novels, since it has two completely distinct paths that unlock entirely different content. There are a set number of logs, with static content, but which of those are unlocked in any given playthrough is a function of how one goes about the game. Calling it a “game” might actually be a bit disingenuous, as there aren’t a lot of game-like elements therein. Only one real game-like moment comes to mind, a puzzle about half-way through that determines what path the player is on from that point forward.
Aside from the silent protagonist, Analogue plays things fairly straight as a visual novel, but it’s the content that supports and sells that. Not to spoil anything, but there are twists and turns, shattered expectations and a reveal with some of the most disturbing imagery and implications, which completely alters the context of most of the logs one reads.
Both Digital and Analogue tackle loneliness as a theme, as well as romance in a non-traditional relationship. They go out of their way not to assign one’s character a gender or identity beyond the most basic implications, allowing the player to wholly project themselves into the role, which enhances their impact all the more. In Digital, the result is crushing, melancholy. Within Analogue, it instead provides hope and possibly redemption (though, since Analogue has multiple endings, it is possible to get one that is less satisfying). The fact of the matter is, Christine Love’s visual novels all made me feel, sometimes in ways that were unwelcome or uncomfortable, but for all of which I’m grateful. They gave me pause a lot of the time, and, in most of those cases, I caught myself going back through to see how things would have gone had I chosen differently.
The word “literature” carries with it the implication that a work will explore themes endemic to the human condition, rather than simply serve as a chronicle or a story. In that sense, what Christine Love has created is certainly literature, shot through with the Internet age in both its delivery and content. This makes it accessible and interesting. Maybe not “fun,” in the mindless sense that word typically implies, but it does leave one feeling enriched, which is certainly a positive emotion, and a worthy investment of one’s time.