Friday, April 8, 2011

Dialing Back in Time with Digital: A Love Story

digital a love storyDo you remember your first time on the Internet? Was it on AOL? Did you dig through keywords and other nonsense until you found an IRC client?

What kind of computer did you use? Was it an IBM? Your dad’s old Apple?

Were you actually allowed on the Internet? Did you stay up way later than you should have, covering your modem with a blanket so the blaring noises of the Future wouldn’t wake anyone up?

Christine Love’s 2010 indie title Digital: A Love Story weaves together technonostalgia and point-and-click adventure gameplay into a unique, touching piece of interactive fiction.

Digital takes place “five minutes into the future of 1988,” according to Love. The Internet of this future-past is but a crying babe in Al Gore’s arms. A subculture of tech-savvy hackers post on crude Bulletin Board Systems about everything from FidoNet nodes to fantasy RPGs to the burgeoning genre of cyberpunk. Helping to further establish time period, one user whines about the new Star Trek on TV, declaring “that bald guy is terrible plain and simple.” Another complains about not his computer not having a “massive 100 MB hard drive.”

Save for the credits sequence and the save file system, there is nothing in Digital that does not take place within the narrative. Starting the game equates to turning on your Amie Workbench (a deliberate homage to the late ‘80s Amiga computers). The crude blue GUI is not an abstraction of soldiers on a battlefield or planes in the sky. It is the exact interface that the protagonist, You, uses throughout the story. Opting to play Digital in full screen enhances this immersion; without the branding on my laptop to tell me otherwise, I might as well be controlling the fictional terminal directly.digitallovestory

Digital relies heavily upon this intimacy between player and narrative. You enter you own handle and “real” name. You read the message from a friend of your father’s accompanying your fancy new modem. You dial in the BBS number he gives you, imploring you not to run up your father’s phone bill with any long distance calls. You break that rule soon enough.

Digital is most effective when it’s at its most frustrating. Not once did I feel like the game was cheating or broken. I was feeling the way a character in the exact situation I’d entered into would feel. The expletives flying out of my mouth when BBSes went down were lines in a book I was co-authoring with Christine Love.

Allow me to precariously shuffle to the end of a limb here: the literal act of dialing phone numbers is the best part of this game. It’s clumsy and frustrating at times, yes, but that mechanical obfuscation is deliberate. The emulated technology is twenty years old. Modern shortcuts are nonexistent. This stuff is pre-Windows 3.1. It’s not designed for people who’ve never seen a computer before.

digital-thumbnailThe mundane task of entering phone numbers into a modem also bestows structure and tension to the narrative. Your hunt for answers will lead you to many BBSes, which function simultaneously as locations and chapters of a book. To reach some servers, you’ll need to hack a long distance calling card. The codes required for this process will expire as the phone company cracks down on hackers. There’s no way to know when a code you’ve typed will fail. Sometimes they never work at all. This little uncertainty threatens to withhold information from you right when you want it most.

Perhaps the physical act of punching in phone numbers stands out so much because there Digital provides little else in the way of interaction. You click on messages or programs to open them. You type in some passwords. No text is ever shown when you “Reply” to other messages, but it can generally be extrapolated from the response you get. This reflects the simplicity of the systems in question, but it also shifts Digital away from being much of a Game and more of a Visual Novel. This isn’t a bad thing, merely worth noting if you’re expecting hacking mini-games or some such silliness.

Digital’s particular version of ‘80s Internet culture also speaks to the dangers facing today’s digital landscape. The antagonistic Reaper virus and the adolescent air of impunity of Digital’s hacker community calls to mind the cyberattacks on Georgia, the liberal aggression of Anonymous, and the looming Stuxnet threat. I did not expect a game subtitled A Love Story to so astutely address modern technological fears.

That said, it is still a love story. I won’t say between whom, though it’s not much of a spoiler to say that you’re involved. Digital captures that odd, narcissistic sensation that is Internet romance. You sign online for the first time. A stranger pays attention to you. You don’t know what they look like, but their words are funny and kind so you pay attention back. You’ve only exchanged missives twice, but clearly they must be into you. Sometimes their messages come swiftly, other times it’s like waiting for word from a spouse long at sea. After a period of silence, they ask for your help.

You’d do anything for them. And you don’t even know who they are.

Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story is available on PC/Mac/Linux for free from the game’s official website. Treat it like a movie. It takes just a few hours to complete.