I just finished playing Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story. I would like to share with you my thoughts on the design, themes, and ramifications of the game, hopefully without revealing many plot or character details that could spoil the experience.
Analogue was a remarkable game that stirred up a wide range of emotions. I felt repulsion at the backwards, patriarchal society depicted. Shock, the traumatic kind, at the depiction of horrific events. Sympathy and affection for the protagonist (at least, that's who she was in my view.) And some funny, cute, and adorably awkward moments as well. It was quite unlike the expectations I had for the game going in. It was deeper, more meaningful, more significant.
For me, Analogue is a game with few precedents. Digital: A Love Story, the only other game by Love that I played prior, was similar in that it offered an experience of being drawn in to an immersive world and connecting with a character whom you know very little about, and who knows very little about you.
Both games are minimalist in their presentation; Digital presents the player with a vintage desktop computer from which you can browse bulletin board systems and exchange messages and files. The fact that you are actually playing the game on a PC heightens the immersion. I was transported back to the days of telephone modems and three-color GUIs.
Analogue presents itself in a similar fashion, in that the fictional game interface and the actual game interface are one and the same. You have access to the command-line interface of a shipboard computer, as well as a graphical interface for interacting with the onboard AIs and reading log files. I would put these games in a category that Adam Saltsman describes as "zero-th person", meaning that there is no difference between your avatar in the game world and you, the real person. There are a handful of games that do this, such as Uplink, Saltsman and Robin Arnott's Capsule, as well as more primitive ancestors such as Battlezone. What this amounts to is that a high level of immersion is created using only text and a minimal GUI. There's no need for animated talking heads or voice acting when you're communicating in text-mode, and in fact this entire avoidance of the uncanny valley problem is part of what gives Love's games such powerful emotional impact.
Love's emerging style of game is self-paced, pensive, and more concerned with human relationships and the details of life than it is with the traditional video game fodder of physical action and immediate objectives. However, it's far from being directionless—I somehow always knew what I wanted to do next, which evidences her skill as a designer. The game left me breathing room: time and space to get acquainted with its intricate world and ensemble of characters, like a good book does. It reminded me a bit of The Last Express, in that it focused primarily on interpersonal relationships and had very little action. Perhaps modern interactive fiction does this as well, although I am currently unfamiliar with most of it. The main action occurred in my head as I reconstructed events, people, and the world as it was described in fragments. I enjoyed this a lot. Again, like a good book, it left more to my imagination so I found myself more immersed and engaged with the game.
The heart of Digital: A Love Story is in the title. It's the moment where two beings learn from each other that they share an emotional bond, where before there were just lonely souls immersed in the glow of a CRT. In my playthrough of Analogue, a similar moment was near the heart of the game, although it was interleaved with emotions that are a lot less pleasant.
Remarkably, I was able to express myself well through the constrained set of gameplay choices in Analogue. I could choose variations on yes and no when asked a question. I could indicate that I was interested in a certain log message. I could control various ship functions from the command line. And that's about it.
And yet, I still feel that I had meaningful choices in the game. I know that there are multiple endings. And it's clear from the choices presented throughout that you could very well play through this game behaving like a misogynistic asshole if you wanted to. Or merely take a different ethical stance than I did. As it was, I tried to express my own gut reactions to things, and I felt that the game took that into account in how the characters reacted to me.
At the heart of Analogue is a heart-wrenching ethical dilemma, and I don't really know what all of my options were. There was only one path that seemed to make sense to me out of the ones that were available. So, I took it, and wound up with an ending that I found heartwarming. At the same time, the events I discovered had left a mark.
Christine Love is a phenomenal writer. I believe she would make a fantastic novelist. In fact, she describes Analogue as a visual novel. I admittedly don't know much about this genre which is primarily popular in Japan, so some of the things that make Analogue stand out so much from other games may simply be parts of the form. Either way, what she has made is memorable and powerful. I'm glad she's making video games. We need more stuff like this.
I see this game as social criticism, a dark reflection of the kind of rampant misogyny I've had my eyes opened to recently. The patriarchy represented in the game is a terrible throwback to real human societies, and a kind of warning sign showing what could happen if the sexist ideas still present in modern society were allowed to progress (or rather, regress) unchecked to their logical conclusions. Even worse, the fictional patriarchy is so ingrained that women themselves have a hand in perpetuating it willingly. The horrifying thing is that a lot of the kinds of oppression and abuse of women depicted in the game still goes on today, in even in western society, though it may not be as overt. And even out in the open, there is still a clear imbalance—the deck is still stacked against you if you are born female most places in the world, whether it be the violations of sexual harassment or the economic reality of the "glass ceiling" in the workplace.
When you are a privileged white male like me, it's easy to overlook the sexism in our culture because it is so deeply ingrained. Even jokes that seem harmless. Even if your present company enjoys them, even if women you know enjoy them, or at least seem to. Making a joke out of sexism perpetuates rape culture and we need to cut it out.
I am glad that stories like Analogue are here to shake up the status quo. It's particularly apt that it takes the form of a video game, since video game enthusiasts are currently engaged in a kind of culture war. On one side are boys and men interested mainly in machismo, violence, and hypersexualized women, and want to remain comfortable in their privelige. On the other side are people who want to help the medium come into its own as a mature art form that can speak the stories of many, and represent a broad spectrum of the human experience. Analogue is one venture into that undiscovered country.