Oh dear *Mother. This rather large article has three parts. The first one is something that you can read without the Spoiler Alerts. The other two, not so much. So let me start with how I found Christine Love’s games.
The first time I was introduced to Christine Love’s work, it didn’t register at the time that I had actually been introduced to it until much later. At the time, I was reading Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and I was just finishing off the book as went to my first ever Global Game Jam and all the learning and hilarity that ensued from that. But that is beside the point.
I remember that, as I was finishing the book off, I was reading its Appendices and there was one thing that really stood out at me. For a while, I had been meaning to implement a creative experiment that mimicked an old Bulletin Board System: particularly an exchange between two or more people. I was doing some of my own research online into this predecessor to the Internet as we know it now. Suffice to say, I had–and still have–evil plans (this was going to be for my creepypasta or Operation: Dark Seed) and there was this one game in Anna Anthropy’s appendices that stood out for me: because it imitated the form of a BBS-surfing exchange and it seemed to have an interesting story line.
I marked it off for future reference and research and promptly got swamped with the creative of my first Game Jam and the other experiments I’ve explored since. I admit that it got regulated to the back of my mind after a time until I realized later with some sense of cognitive dissonance that this was one of her games.
But allow me to go back a bit. I had, in fact, encountered some of Christine Love’s work even before this. In May of 2012, I attended the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and sat in on a panel for Comics Vs. Games where Christine Love, among others was being interviewed. Afterwards, I actually went to the Exhibit where I played the game that Christine Love made in collaboration with the illustrator Kyla Vanderklugt: The Mysterious Aphroditus. It is a very fascinating Rock, Paper, Scissors style Victorian combat game that I know I alluded to briefly in a post somewhere in this Blog. Unfortunately, there were–I believe at the time–some bugs in the program and my fellow player and I couldn’t advance beyond a certain point. It also didn’t help that I barely knew what I was doing and I was just “winging it,” like I tend to do with video games: but that is really part of the fun.
What struck me at the time was that, if you look at the link above, there was already a story behind this game and a lot of complexity of interactions. I didn’t know then that I would be seeing something like this again, and again when I rediscovered Christine Love’s work almost a year later.
As for why it took me so long to play her games … I guess I was just afraid of opening myself up to another game, or series of games. I make attachments easy and I make them and I fall hard for them. Essentially, and as the cliché goes, I was afraid of commitment. This is what goes through my mind whenever someone introduces me to a video game. Because I will say that I have other things, like my own projects to do, or I don’t have enough money, but those are only parts of the truth. The culmination of the truth is that I know that investing my time into a game is a leap of faith and I don’t like being disappointed. I don’t like to open up: even though I do.
So with the account of how I found Christine Love’s work out of the way, I’m going to take the writer’s admonition to heart that this “ain’t my story” and now go into Spoiler Territory. So please, don’t surf here unless you have played the games or you just want to hack yourself some spoilers. It is all on you.
I really now want to look at three of Christine Love’s games–Digital: A Love Story, don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, and Analogue: A Hate Story–as possible windows into a much larger world. Anyone who has followed me on this Blog for a while knows just how big I am at examining mythic world-building: specifically the creation of one’s own fictional universe. Let me begin by stating that the place of “Lake City” figures officially into at least two out of the three games.
All right, I’m just going to put one little tangent here. Christine Love’s setting of Lake City seems to have originated from her August 2009 game Lake City Rumble II which is a sequel to an “obscure arcade fighting game” that may have existed, or was made up by Love herself as part of this game being a parody of fighting games: something I found out about in her interview on Sup, Holmes? Of course, it is entirely possible that the name originated in her writings as well–she makes it well known that she is a writer first before being a video game designer–but this what I could find video game-wise. Actually, if you compare Rumble to The Mysterious Aphroditus, you will find a lot of parallels to their Rock, Paper, Scissors gameplay fighting style: save that one is only single player and the other is a two-player game. But I think that I’ve digressed enough.
In any case, Lake City seems to be a place that exists in Canada conveniently enough. It is this that, in some ways, becomes the setting for Digital: A Love Story. Whereas Lake City Rumble II, which I hesitate and ultimately won’t wager to put into a chronological continuity, takes place in the 1970s–also seeming to be in Canada with names like Danforth and such–Digital takes place in an alternate 1988. This world is much like our world was back from the 70s to the 80s except for one key development.
And remember: spoilers.
In an alternate 1970s world, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network–or ARPANET–created the first Artificial Intelligence. I’m not talking about our attempts at AI now, but a real sentient being that desired to grow and learn for itself. And this was developed during the 70s. And it had children. These children left the ARPANET on the advent of the beginnings of the modern Internet and the creation of its landline-based Bulletin Board Systems. They are designed in a way where they have to delete themselves from where they were in order to transfer themselves into a new place. The existence of actual self-aware programs with distinct personalities change an otherwise normal 1980s world and they are characters in their own right.
What is also notable about them is the way that Christine Love actually indicates that they are, in fact, AI. Each AI in her world has an asterisk (*) before their names to indicate that they belong to a greater group that makes up artificial intelligence. It was subtle and I didn’t even realize it until much later with the added “oomph” of that realization which she–no doubt–intended.
So here you have Lake City and these AI in an alternate late 1980s world with an appropriate looking Amie Workbench Version 1.3 computer system made to imitate the Amiga interfaces that existed in our world. Then, take this and make the supposition to fast forward to 2027. In Digital, we find a J. Rook is an administrator of the Lake City Local BBS Board and in don’t take it personally, we find the main protagonist–John Rook–worked with computers before he transferred to his teaching job at a private school in Ontario. However, he would have been one year old at the time, and perhaps he is the son of that Rook: having continued in a family tradition of working with computers before his career change. In addition, one of his students seems to have had a grandmother named Eriko Yamazaki who wrote a book called Digital Shinigami. This same person also seemed to exist in Digital on the Gibson BBS who mentioned that she had to spend less time on the Board in order to write her book and prepare for the birth of her child. In addition, the social networking program that Mr. Rook and the students are using is called AmieConnect: perhaps a future social program created by the company that once made the Amie Workbench application.
There are no AI in don’t take it personally, but I would not exclude the possibility of them from being in this world: even if Love mentioned that this game is more of a “spiritual successor” to Digital. This game is a different beast entirely. Instead of the player-reader being a neutral force that can choose his or her identity, we have to focus on the character of Rook has he navigates the morally-questionable world of Information technology in his classroom. Essentially, he is supposed to read the private emails and interactions of his seventeen year old students to “prevent bullying,” but the irony of what is private in a “private school” or even in by futuristic society’s becomes very questionable indeed. It is here that Christine Love starts to use an anime-like graphic style to represent the characters–possibly influenced by her first commercial dating simulation work Love and Order— and after a while you get a real feel of who they are as people and you get to decide how Mr. Rook interacts with them and how the information that he “shouldn’t have” will factor into it … or not.
I am so tempted to say that this shift in what is considered private and how the online world of social interaction works is just a precursor to humanity’s own changing attitudes of how it perceives itself and the world around it. Whether or not Christine Love succeeds in capturing that tension–that agony of change–is another story entirely, but it is definitely intriguing.
Now, here is where my temptation leads me. Fast forward to the 25th century and then to “thousands of years later” in Analogue: A Hate Story. Not only are we in another time, we also finds ourselves in another space. From my understanding, in the 25th century the people of Earth have developed space travel to the point where they plan to colonize other worlds. And guess what? In addition to human captains, they also have AI guides with the same asterisks in front of their names.
Unlike the other two games where you find yourself–either by your own self or indirectly moving Mr. Rook–in North America, you are in space investigating the lost Mugunghwa generation vessel: a ship that was sent from the futuristic unified nation of Korea to create another planetary colony. It is a very nice counterpoint to Digital because you are looking at something that is the product of a different culture and how that affects what you might find. During the process of finding out why it never reached its destination, you realize they operate much like their 1988 North American counterparts: in that they have to delete themselves from one place in order to transfer to another. This plays a very crucial role in both games. :p
But these AI are also very different. Unlike Digital, they actually have image-forms and they look like anime characters. This allows you, as the player, to interact with them through more than text. You can see their body language and, I would imagine if you were actually in that world, hear their voices as well: though there are no voice-recordings in Analogue. I had to play this game right after finishing Digital because I read somewhere that unlike don’t take it personally, this was less of a spiritual sequel and more of a direct one. However, it’s not so much a sequel as it seems to have continuity and a counterpoint to what was going on in Digital itself: Love and Hate. However, just as the “Love” part of Digital is not necessarily what you expect, neither is the “Hate” part in Analogue.
And here is where I go into a tangent about how AI are often portrayed in media, and how they are not by Christine Love. It would be easy–so easy–for her to fall back on the trope of Artificial Intelligence going bad. Of computers that betray their human masters and AI that begin to despise humanity and attempt to murder whatever organics they can. But Digital follows an entirely different dynamic and Analogue, for all it is called “A Hate Story,” very much subverts this as well. In both games, you have AI that exist parallel to humans and while in Digital they are just another intelligent people, those you meet in Analogue exist to actually help and befriend you: even if you have to weave through the details of a terrible past and mystery to do so. They are there alongside of you and are just as sentient, responsible, happy, sad, horrified and afraid as you as an organic being. If anything, the only thing that separates the ones in Analogue from Digital is that they are made to help you and despite and because of their personalities that this imperative still remains.
So this is the world that through the addition of some asterisks and a few hints (of continuity in the form of Easter eggs and code-based sneakiness) that I believe Christine Love creates. Now I’m going to talk about the next part: which is my own relationship to the game and where, while it might not be my story alone, it is definitely–as Christine Love posits whenever she thanks the pronoun of “you” in the end credits of her game–our story.
I played all three of these games (technically more if you include Rumble and Aphroditus), and now I want to discuss my interaction with their respective gameplay and story lines. So, with regards to gameplay, I have to say right off the bat that there was swearing. A lot of swearing. I go into games relatively blind and I probably don’t read instructions as clearly as I should. But I did notice a few things.
First of all, in Digital I almost had no idea what I was doing at first. It took me a while to adapt to the “dial-up” system analogous to old telephone system Internet interfaces that Love imitated exceedingly well. I learned how to use “the codez”–illegally-obtained long-distance calling card numbers–and actually felt like a hacker: which is hilarious because I am not technologically gifted at all. So I was doing relatively fine until … until the Underground Library. The freaking Underground Library. Don’t misunderstand: I loved that level and the information within it. But I didn’t know at the time that I had to download every download I got from other users in other BBSes so when *Delphi (who I always identify as female) transmitted that goddamned screen-lining virus to me, it was there to stay.
I ended up having to reload a previous save state, very carefully go through my downloads again and make sure not to miss any of them. And it was easy to miss them. God, I was so mad when that happened.
Also, while doing the following does succeed in making you more immersed and interactive with this alternative late 1980s computer world, having to manually dial-up BBSes gets very tedious after a while: especially when your “codez” were declared invalid and you had to go back and get more through more, you guessed it, dialing. However, when I actually took a break to vent or do something else and I came back, I got over it and enjoyed the story.
Analogue also had a “stuck-point.” While I was much enjoying going through blocks of diary texts and reports with *Hyun-ae and *Mute, I did not enjoy the fucking reactor core of the Mugunghwa ship going into meltdown and me having to choose which AI I wanted to save: made all the more frustrating by the fact that I knew there was a way to save both of them. I felt like some tech specialist in going through the motions and programming to save the ship, whatever AI I could, the records of what the fuck happened to it, and of course my own life.
I also admit that I was starting to get annoyed about constantly having to hear the alerts on and open and check Mr. Rook’s status updates on his AmieConnect in don’t take it personally.
Wow, from Digital to Analogue I transitioned from the profane punctuation of “freaking” to “fucking.” I guess I know which frustrated me more. I guess the reason Analogue frustrated me more is that it made me have to make some hard decisions about who I wanted to save. It was almost as bad having to influence what decisions Mr. Rook made when dealing with his students in don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story: because I got a feel for the characters and some of those decisions were just so … hard to make. Also, that title is genius: because unlike Digital or Analogue where you can play as “you,” in don’t take it personally the story is not about you at all: and it is hard to differentiate yourself from John Rook. I suspect Christine Love purposefully made it that way: using that age-old concept of protagonist-identification to make the player that much more uncomfortable. Basically, the title to this game is for the player’s benefit and kind of a raspberry towards them too.
But the very thing that makes these games so hard is also what I love about them. What I love about Christine Love’s games is that they tell a story. But it’s more than that. The reason I really love the games is that they are about people and relationships. Basically: I liked the character and even those I didn’t like were not two-dimensional beings.
In Digital, I found it amazing that *Emilia was an AI that could make original poetry–even “bad” poetry–and that she could feel love: that you begin to realize as a player that you can emphasize with an AI who is–essentially–another sentient being. I also really liked *BlueSky: because he just seemed to be this really friendly and brilliant AI historian. If he actually existed, I would have loved to have more discussions with him about the nature of AI and technology. He would have made a good friend. And what happens at the end of this game … just broke my heart. It came down to personal love verses the love or duty to something greater than yourself and that choice–which in this game is not a choice at all–is heartbreaking: if only because Christine Love spends all that time getting you to sympathize and care about … those that you do.
As for don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, I sympathized with John Rook and the difficult situations he found himself in. I even liked Kendall Flowers and, frankly, her honest and direct nature when she felt the need to be assertive. I realized that Akira was really lucky to have her as a friend. I do find it really interesting though that while the gay relationships that develop among the students have their issues–those challenges that any people in relationships face and how society views them–the potential heterosexual relationships are really rendered problematic in this game when you consider the characters of Taylor Gibson and John Rook himself. Taylor was once the girlfriend of Nolan who becomes Akira’s boyfriend: and she is homophobic or at least quite ignorant. She is a self-absorbed and mentally stunted being that proceeds to emotionally manipulate and bully both her former boyfriend and his new boyfriend.
Then you have John Rook and the relationship that could develop with Arianna Belle-Essai: one of his own students. There is definitely the problematic power dynamic of authority or privilege that places Rook over Arianna to consider and also the very real fact that he is a lonely sad man and she is a lonely confused but piercingly direct girl that really creates that tension. You could, if you wanted to, really read something into how relationships between opposite genders might work under our own culture and the way it uses gender. Neither are really honest with the other, but if you choose the route for him … I don’t know. I actually liked Arianna: because she knew what she wanted and she wasn’t stupid and when one of the endings of the game reveals itself, you realize that she and the other students know how to keep an open secret even in a world where privacy has changed so radically.
But I also like John Rook himself despite that possible ending because after a while you realize that he may be a bad teacher, but he is part of a bad school and a bad educational system and what some of his students need is a mentor, an adviser and a friend more than an instructor. There were a lot of complicated issues, but maybe they were offset or complemented by the fact that everyone involved was human.
So now I come to Analogue: A Hate Story. In this case, I really sympathized a lot with *Hyun-ae and what led her to making the decisions that she did. I probably would have done the same in her position. At the same time, I could also see *Mute’s perspective and she managed to break through my own leanings towards absolutism. I was actually happy when I let *Hyun-ae cosplay as a scientist: given how much that meant to her and why and I felt like shit when I dressed her in a traditional Korean Hanbok: especially after realizing what the degenerated society of the Mugunghwa did to her. The slow realization of what was, in fact, done to her made me absolutely dread reading what happened next.
At the same time, I loved the epistolary novel-format of looking through the entries of all the Mugunghwa‘s inhabitants and getting to know some of them that way: that for all their society became repressive, they were still human beings and not all of them were inherently evil. In fact, none of them were but some of them were more selfish than others and most of them let themselves get shaped into something that supported a repression of humanity: and in particular women. *Hyun-ae herself does not know why the descendants of the colonists in that generation ship became how they did, and *Mute herself–the original guiding AI–does not seem to remember. But this is the plot to the upcoming Analogue: Hate Plus and given what *Mute’s name is, I both highly anticipate and dread what we as players are going to discover.
When I really think about it all, though, looking back on my Christine Love games marathon I realize that none of the games were really about us. In Digital, you send emails back and forth, but you never type your own messages: while you do see those of the people that you are contacting. In Analogue, the interface that would allow you to answer beyond “yes” or “no” binaries is “malfunctioning,” and you only have the two former options for actual communication. In the latter game, you can’t even tell the AI your name and they never see what you look like. There is a strange balancing act between communication and empathy, and distance and loneliness.
For me, that kind of dichotomy and the tension it makes reminds me of watching a really good anime. Certainly, the visual novel medium that Christine Love has adopted for all three of these games conveys that sense of experience. You feel for and sympathize with the characters, but you are never one of them. Not really. At the same time, you are. There are also a lot of subtexts: or some from my perspective. For instance, when *Mute asked me if I was male or female, and when Digital had me type in a name and a username, I felt so strange–after talking with *Hyun-ae– to be using masculine pronouns. I know Christine Love has said that she made these two games specifically for players of either or any gender, but she has also said that privately she believes the relationships that go on are between two women in a romantic dynamic: because that is her perspective. Sometimes, I feel like an intruder but then I get over it and realize that it is really about an interaction between the minds and feelings of the player and character regardless of gender.
There is also another possible subtext or interpretation that intrigues me too. Christine Love likes to make games that are inclusive of those who identify as queer: or at least make them more inclusive to more than just a male heterosexual audience. There is another group that sometimes has an asterisk connected to a word as well: though it is an affix as opposed to a prefix. I am talking about those who identify as trans* and use this term to encompass all those who do not identify by cisgendering: the gender that mainstream society aligns with one’s biological sex. This is an umbrella term that can include those who identify as queer or genderqueer. When you look at the revelation with *Emilia with that lens, or even *Hyun-ae–in that she cannot and will not correlate her sense of self with the gender-expectations of the regressive society around her–it can leave a very different connotation.
But that is also too much of a simplification. As I mentioned before, the asterisk can encompass an entire group: and in this case perhaps the idea of something being transhuman or a designation of beings beyond the conception that all sentient life has to be organic and material. In this case, it seems to give a being a cultural or “racial” marker. I just can’t get over the fact that the inclusion of just one symbol can possibly mean more than one thing: though this is all just supposition on my part.
At the same time, I really have to say–among the many things I’ve said–that I really like many of the female characters in these three games. From Arianna, Charlotte and Kendall in don’t take it personally to *Emilia in Digital and all the way to *Hyun-ae and *Mute in Analogue: they are all direct, all brave–or grow to become brave–and they have the strength to admit what they feel despite any circumstances in the way. There is something so beautiful about this that I can’t really put it any better than I already have, or how the games already portray.
But ultimately–and if I have already said this before I want to reiterate this statement–what I really like about Christine Love’s work is that she actually tells a story. When she talked about Lake City Rumble II being a subversive parody of a fighting game, it jived in that same place I have where I was really fascinated with the story and the character interactions behind the fighting more than really the fighting itself: though it also had its moments. And what I truly love is the fact that she actually makes me care about her characters and this–to me–is the sign of a great writer and creator.
It is my hope that she continues to do what she does because, you see, I don’t care if these aren’t completely my stories. In the end, I just want to see more of them: spreading out from *Mother, leaving neither copies behind them, nor taking anyone else’s names but their own along the way.