Wot I Think: Digital: A Love Story

By Kieron Gillen on March 17th, 2010 at 8:29 pm.


Attention-getting top line: right now, I can’t think of a better love story in the western medium.

The proviso on that statement is the “right now”. I’m in a jetlagged state, so there’s all sorts of things I’m missing – like full control of my limbs, and eyes which see an unblurred world – so I’m not going to give it a GREATEST LOVE STORY EVER WITH KISSES AND HUGS AND FLOWERS AND SPECIAL HOLDING award. But it’s a game which I played a couple of weeks back, and has stuck with me ever since. I booted it up right now to take a few screenshots, and felt pangs.

Digital isn’t perfect. But it’s clever, direct and straight from – and to – the heart. You’ll like it a lot.

It’s the work of one Christine Love and set “five-minutes into the future of 1988” and is basically Uplink reimagined as an adventure rather than a strategy/Elite-esque game. An owner of the fictionalised-Amiga-analogue “Amie”computer – Amiga, of course, famously being Spanish for “Girl friend” – you get gifted a modem and start exploring the Internet of the pre-world-wide-web. You log onto the local bulletin board and find yourself rapidly embroiled in a conspiracy. And with a girl. Mainly, a girl.

Digital embraces the sort of storytelling mechanics that games are uniquely suited to – by roughly simulating a system that we’re aware of, we gain information – and so create an internal narrative – in the same way we would do in real life. So, when logging onto a BBS, you can browse the various exchanges, download programs of questionable legality and mail people. The mailing people is where the game makes the greatest leap of imagination – you simply select “reply” to a mail, which prompts their next mail. Assuming they mail back. You’re performing an act of closure. They respond a mail which you, most logically, would have responded with. For example, the opening contact with the lady in question – Emilia – is her posting some poetry on the BBS. You select reply, and she responds with a mail thanking you for the interest, noting no-one ever comments and demands HOT! HOT! CYBER. A/s/l? R u wearing a bra? I am taking off my pants.

There may be a reason why Christine Love wrote this game and I didn’t.

The main flaws of the game are related to this system. In the hour-or-so of the game, you’ll almost certainly find yourself stuck where you’ve failed to reply to a mail or a message-board which prompts the next critical step in the story – or, alternatively, failed to download an attachment. It’s a system made more onerous by the fact you’ll soon be logging into multiple BBSs, and possibly lose track of a key point. In such a situation, where the player is clearly stuck for a long time due to not activating a critical node, it’d perhaps be useful for one of your contacts mail you with a “Interesting post over on the Bruce Sterling’s Sexy Armpit BBS!” style mail.

Where it actually succeeds, mechanistically speaking, is in its actual puzzles, which manage to actually evoke a wonderful sense of place. For example, early on you’re introduced to toll-avoiding phreaking systems, with numbers being used to circumvent the long distance charges for dialing distant boards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s use of codebreakers – but only in a very limited way, with the more awkward boards often being defeated with careful application of knowledge. Much like in the real world – and this is where its atmosphere shines – you’ll find yourself scouring boards, looking for an idea of what to try. It simulates research brilliantly – a kind of one-player ARG in the prehistoric days of net-culture. Its totally delightful music and a fine eye for satirical period detail helps a lot too.

The presentation is what sells the prose, which is stripped down, well chosen and elevated by its sheer naturalism. Characters are clear. Even over twenty years on, we recognise these sorts of people. We recognise them from the RPS comments threads. We recognise them in the reflection on our monitor screens. Emilia starts a little idealised, but her iconic minimalism works well – simplify to magnify, simplify to universalise. We imprint on the shape of Emilia, and that imprinted affection is what gives the rest of the game its powerful direction and real mystery.

I’d rather not say any more about the plot’s specifics, except you should play it. You can download it from here. It’s Wargames about the only two wars that ever really mattered and Neuromancer with tears in the eyes beneath those mirrorshades.

__________________

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130 Comments »

  1. Arthur Barnhouse says:

    I’m excited at the prospect of a game that appears to be more like a text adventure than anything else. I really miss planetfall.

  2. Clovis says:

    I kept reading “Amie” as “Arnie”. I couldn’t play a game that involved me constantly using the “Arnie” system. I’d keep thinking about What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

  3. Nosgoroth says:

    Nitpicking: “amiga” = “girl friend” with a space. As in, a friend that is also a girl. An abstract concept.

  4. HairCute says:

    Sounds interesting. Finally a game that promises I might be able to HACK A GIBSON!

  5. Petethegoat says:

    I played quite far through this, I think, but then I got stuck. Still really enjoyed it though, and I especially liked Hollister.

    • Petethegoat says:

      Whoops! I meant Hollinger, actually.

      There is no Hollister. He is a non-entity.

  6. Shazbut says:

    There are hundreds of love stories in this medium. They come from the Far East. I’ll give this a go though, thanks.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      I did actually distinctly mean the western medium. As I said, jetlag. Will tweak.

      (I think it’s certainly a damn sign more interesting than the majority of eastern examples I’ve played though, not least because it’s mechanics really do help.)

      KG

  7. terry says:

    Really liked the execution of this one, brought back some memories of Killed Until Dead or the Fourth Protocol games, or maybe those GEM-desktop early graphic adventures. I also got stuck after finding the (third?) BBS with the invite only policy. I hate looking at walkthroughs of any form so I left it there. Fun game though.

  8. juv3nal says:

    It really is super great. It’s also testament to the author’s powers of research seeing as she was born in ’89 which would mean that she came of age when all this BBS stuff (which she renders in a manner that absolutely oozes authenticity even to oldster “I was there” folks like myself) was already ancient history.

    • user@example.com says:

      She cites textfiles.com <3

      RPS: You should do something on that guy's text adventure documentary when it's out.

  9. Schaulustiger says:

    I wish there had been more puzzles or general gameplay mechanics. After a while it became a bit tedious to just check all the BBS in order to get the story going. The overall style was great, though, really brought back some memories.

  10. l1ddl3monkey says:

    I thought it was awesome, the sense of place and the 8 bit soundtrack were perfect. I did think that the references to certain cultural landmarks in the Cyberpunk genre were a bit overdone and gave the plot away a bit early but I forgave it as that didn’t make it any less endearing.

    And I award bonus points for one of the BBS admin names managing to reference both Neuromancer and 4Chan simultaneously.

  11. Harley Turan says:

    The music is what did it for me. ‘The Stars Come Out’ by Brother Android is incredible.

  12. CdrJameson says:

    Ram it Stark, I got Chinese to debug.

    Or Something.

  13. bit_crusherrr says:

    [minor spoilers you have been warned]

    Im stuck after the bit where you get into the underground library and your screen turns to white lines. So i reloaded and didnt open the virus laden mail. What do i do now? i tried replying to everything, PMing everyone…. i cant find this *paris dude… any times?

    • bit_crusherrr says:

      Herp derp i ment to say tips not times.

    • Lewis says:

      That it all goes to shit is part of the story. Run with it.

    • bit_crusherrr says:

      Yeah i just worked it all out, fixed the screen, and im progressing again.

    • l1ddl3monkey says:

      SPOILER: You have probably already DL’d an updated OS from one of the BBS’, if not then look for it. It’s one of the first things you DL but if you’re trying to play it through in one go then you wont have followed the basic instruction to reboot (no one ever remembers to reboot!).

      Open the pinwheel menu and select “Shutdown Workbench” (save first). The just select run; upgraded OS and no white blurry lines.

    • l1ddl3monkey says:

      Beaten by 4 minutes…

    • bit_crusherrr says:

      Just finished it, i have to say that was a pretty cool game.

    • Dextro says:

      Look in other BBSs, there’s a way out of that virus ;)

  14. Psychopomp says:

    KIERON AND AMIE, SITTIN’ IN A TREE

  15. Mil says:

    I would rather say ‘female friend’. ‘Amiga’ is just the feminine form of the Spanish word for ‘friend’ and doesn’t imply anything about the age of the friend in question. Have you heard of ‘the three amigos’? If they had been women they would have been called ‘the three amigas’.

    Spanish is easy :-)

    • Mil says:

      Of course that was in reply to the earlier thread about the meaning of Amiga.

  16. mathew says:

    I’m glad you finally posted about this, about three weeks after I told you too!

    Well, technically I told @rockpapershot, which I get the feeling none of youse pay attention to.

  17. Jimbo says:

    Do you ever find out if she’s wearing a bra?

  18. Baltech says:

    And again RPS proves, why it is the best PC gaming blog out there. Thank you for this little gem. Reminded my why I loved gaming in the first place, something one tends to forget in this world of shiny shaders and gaudy gore.

  19. Sagan says:

    Great game. Just finished it and was moved by it.

    One little thing: I would consider the screenshot at the top of this post a spoiler. Not because it reveals part of the story, but because that message should probably be read in the right context.

  20. Christian says:

    Not very interested in this, but still a perfect example why I really love RPS (and not just like it, like I do a lot of other sites). And PC-Gaming in general.
    Something similar gets said by other people when something like this comes up, but still I felt the need to point it out again. Nice, just nice. Thanks!

    p.s.:
    Although, after scrolling through the comments again..and finding the ‘no bra’ spoiler-hint…I might give this a try. Things like this (and women wearing tops not covering the back, if you know what I mean with this rather clumsy explanation..) really are..interesting, even if virtual.

    • Auspex says:

      Should I feel bad for, effectively, misleading perverts?

    • Christian says:

      Well..that depends, I would say. Should I feel bad for misleading people into getting a pervert-vibe from my posting?

      But I guess you don’t have to stay awake, thinking about and feeling guilty about how you got somebody’s hopes up. I wasn’t really expecting any porn in this (if that’s what you were going for here..).

      But reading my post again, yeah, I understand. Sounded more clear and less creepy in my head actually ;)

    • JuJuCam says:

      @Auspex: If it gets them to play a truly amazing game then you can’t feel bad. And in a very real sense you gave the true answer. Not your fault they asked the wrong question.

    • Christian says:

      @JuJuCam:

      But if ‘No Bra!’ is the answer…how could one possibly have asked the wrong question?

      (p.s..: sorry, don’t want to derail this..just couldn’t resist..).

    • vagabond says:

      Well, if they’re truly disappointed by the lack of porn in this game they can always head over to the author’s website afterward (while you’re there, read/play the Street Fighter text adventure thing).

  21. JuJuCam says:

    I found it wonderfully written and fairly perfect aesthetically. It does have a pretty severe case of designers-pathitis, though, and it’s a bit annoying that taking actions and looking in places that you’d expect to be helpful is inevitably fruitless. I was stuck for quite some time at one point before discovering the plot thread in my own inbox pretty much accidentally.

    Also typing in numbers was fun in an “oh man I remember when things were like this” kind of way but gets tiresome, especially when you’re not certain how to proceed.

    • JuJuCam says:

      Although on the flipside when you are certain how to proceed those numbers are among the most exciting keypresses in gaming history, even / especially in the closing fifteen minutes of the game. Testament to the power of the storytelling here.

    • Lewis says:

      Absolutely nailed it, I reckon. It does an incredible job of making you feel incredibly clever and giddy about that.

    • Cymril says:

      I know what you mean, I cursed the heavens every time one of the {VERY MINOR SPOILER: long distance access codes} failed and the list of valid numbers kept getting smaller.

  22. CMaster says:

    I liked it, even though it bugged out on me once and I spent a while stuck.
    Certainly, it had that “one more page” thing that kept me going until silly o’clock when I had to teach the next day.
    I really like old hacker lore and so on (I love The Ballad of Mel for example) so the setting and idea appealed.
    The thing was in the end though, that it was just a story. A cute, nicely told story, but just a story that I clicked buttons to move along. I never felt involved, I never cared for Emilia myself. I just wanted to find out what would happen next to our teenaged hacker. Does that make sense? I found it a good short story – I’m not so sold on it’s merits as a game. As a work of fiction of unspecified medium, I liked it, is I guess what I am getting at, but not blown away or brought to tears.

  23. disperse says:

    I liked the story a lot, but was disappointed that the game was so linear. I ended up replying to every email I could to make sure I triggered the right switch to keep the game progressing. There are a couple puzzles that require thought and at least one moment of epiphany though, definitely worth my time.

  24. mm says:

    Man, anyone else tired of typing in c0dez? I just got into the bbs that logs you out after reading every message which means rooting for codes constantly to get the messages. PITA.

  25. Will Tomas says:

    I really liked this game. I got stuck twice but did eventually figure out how to do it, which makes me feel very smug, and it’s a lovely story, well written. Typing out the numbers so many times was frustrating (although you can skip the modem-logging-in bit with a mouseclick) but it added to the old-school nature of it. Really well worth playing. Lovely stuff.

  26. SteelMilquetoast says:

    This was a great game until it became:
    915-3347, code, other number, failure to find anything, repeat. I was really enjoying up until the point it decided to become the most inhumanly and unnecessarily frustrating game imaginable (perhaps that is hyperbole, perhaps no).

  27. Indagator says:

    I’ve been waiting for this post since you mentioned you were writing it in your twitter feed.

    The game has some real flaws, flaws that at their worst can break your immersion and sense of immediacy in the story. Still, it moved me in a way that I can’t recall a game moving me for a long time. I think this is most due to the characterization. Ms. Love nails the way we communicate online, now or in 1988. And, at least in my anecdotal experience, she also nails how people can quickly and completely fall in love with someone on the other side on an electronic stream.

    I’m curious where others see Digital falling in the ever present narrative vs. mechanics debate that surrounds games these days. The interactivity in Digital is really quite limited, but the game itself is a wonderful experience that couldn’t be told as well in any other medium.

  28. Helm says:

    The game is very well written, has some small UI flaws and is too reliant on repetition of the same, non-challenging task (phoning in) to extend length, but on the whole I liked it a whole lot.

  29. dragon_hunter21 says:

    The story brought back memories (Some fond, some not quite so), and the gameplay certainly reminds me of Uplink in that really surreal, awesome way (Sort of the “Oh yeah, hacked your server, what’re you going to do about it” sort of thing), but *SPOILERS* I got myself stuck shortly after the part where I was supposed to be infected with the virus. (I’d already rebooted it, so it didn’t affect me.) I went through all the Underground Library posts, disconnected, then tried to get back on later. Suddenly, I found that the password didn’t work. I tried the permutation it should have been according to the book, tried the next few in sequence, even the last few. Suddenly, I couldn’t connect at all. Li’l help for a kid who was but an embryo when BBS was popular?

    • jonfitt says:

      The counter got messed up for me, try one number lower.

    • dragon_hunter21 says:

      Eventually, I found it. Don’t ask me how. The ending was… wow. This person certainly knows how to pull at heartstrings. I *almost* wish there was an alternate ending where you don’t compile her.

  30. Swanky says:

    In a word — sweet.

  31. tssk says:

    After being thrown out 3 times I just logged in and d/loaded rather than reading the messages. Now that took me back :)

  32. Bloodloss says:

    Just completed it. Thought it was awesome.. enjoyed it a lot. Thanks.

  33. Vinraith says:

    An interesting, atmospheric little game that rapidly turns into a boring chore. Unfortunately I’m never going to see the end of it, as I’m stuck and just too damned sick of going through the mechanics of dialing and checking.

    • The Great Wayne says:

      In fact it’s pretty quick when you stop succumbing to the reflex of the point/click adventure player: trying to click and reply to everything just in case, then go to every possible board and repeat. There are obvious important messages, and once you get it everything goes on quite smoothly with far less code typing and number dialing.

      *spoiler inside*
      Anyway, while the concept is interesting, I didn’t bought the story as much as I would have liked to, I think. Maybe my cold stone heart is less prone to be warmed by the babbling of a female proto-AI, especially when served a finale which reminded me of the worst that Hollywood can produce in terms of romantic dramaturgy.
      */spoiler*

      That said, it’s not a critic on the game, just my personal perception of that particular element. Apart from that I’ve enjoyed it, some good ole typing is good, and god did I miss those crappy synth music… ahhh, nostalgia…

    • Vinraith says:

      @The Great Wayne

      In fact it’s pretty quick when you stop succumbing to the reflex of the point/click adventure player: trying to click and reply to everything just in case, then go to every possible board and repeat.

      Quite a few times doing that is the only thing that’s allowed me to advance. Quite often, to my mind, the important message is NOT apparent, so the only safe course is to reply to everything. Several times even that has been insufficient, as best I can tell, so I PMed everything as well, then went to the next board to do the same. It’s the brute force solution, but the only one that seems to continually move the game forward.

      Well, up to the point at which I’m stuck, anyway. Now nothing seems to move it forward. Presumably I’ve not replied to something, or otherwise missed something that I couldn’t afford to.

    • Vinraith says:

      Scrap that, I just figured it out. Wow, a puzzle that required me 1) to actually read the content of a message and 2) to actually thoughtfully apply said content. That’s an outlier, thus far, but a welcome change.

  34. Kovah says:

    Thank you. I loved this. Not sure how some text can be so moving.

    • Tom O'Bedlam says:

      Gah! Anna Karina! Romeo and Juliet! Bleak House!

      /goes for a lie down in a dark room

  35. JonFitt says:

    The counter got messed up for me, try one number lower

  36. Malawi Frontier Guard says:

    Why yes, I would like to hack the Gibson.

    Finished it. It is good, yes. Now I want to play Uplink again, even if it doesn’t have a love story.

  37. Risingson says:

    Thanks for this, rps. I wouldn’t know about it you didn’t mention it, and a retrofuturist love story in the style of the old Portal is too good on the paper to miss it.

  38. SmallIvoryKnight says:

    Help! I think I’m at the end, all the other sites are shut down except The Underground Library, and I don’t know what to use as a password to get back in.

    • Vinraith says:

      @SmallIvoryKnight

      That’s where i got stuck. Go back and actually read your last few emails, the way to get the password is spelled out in one of them.

    • mickiscoole says:

      Once they stop kicking you, you don’t need to increment

  39. Bib Fortuna says:

    The narrative mechanism reminds me a lot the old “portal” (1986) adventure game.

    ( http://www.mobygames.com/game/portal )

    • Risingson says:

      Trivia time: metagames. This, Portal, President is missing, Hacker 1 and 2, Uplink, “Inner Space”, Companions of Xanth, some infocom experiments ….

  40. mbp says:

    I have only just started it and already getting overcome by mega waves of nostaigia although [Nerdy] I am pretty sure that modem noise is from a faster modem than was available in 1988 [/Nerdy].

    Question: what does someone under the age of 30 think of the game. Surely they won’t have a clue what is happening.

    • Kovah says:

      Born in 85, fully understood and enjoyed it.

    • JuJuCam says:

      Another ’85 vintage human here, although my family was sufficiently advanced for me to catch the tail end of dialing into BBS’ and mostly playing MUDs so nothing went over my head at all.

    • Atalanta says:

      Born in ’89, did just fine (it probably helps that a) my dad’s a huge nerd who likes talking about the history of computing almost as much as he likes talking about code, and b) I read a lot of cyberpunk growing up). Which parts specifically did you think would be confusing for us itty bitty internet babies?

  41. Hodge says:

    I loved it. Great plot and a nice faux-nostalgic take on computing in the late 80s. As Kieron said about VVVVVV, how you remember it as opposed to how it was.

    It also reminded me that great writers can create wonderful, evocative stories with only tiny amounts of text.

    It could have done without some of the excessive typing of phone numbers, though – a case of the interface getting in the way of the game. Access to a quick dialer program about half way through would be a great improvement.

    That’s the only thing I’d change, though. I think it’s my pick of the year so far.

  42. Leonard Hatred says:

    “It’s Wargames about the only two wars that ever really mattered and Neuromancer with tears in the eyes beneath those mirrorshades.”

    you shameless master of hyperbole you!

    • Wulf says:

      I actually really like Kieron for that, there’s a lot of things I’ve come to enjoy about Kieron and the odd bit of silly hyperbole is one of them. It’s not exactly unwarranted hyperbole either, since he’s writing about a lovely little gem of a game, the likes of which we rarely see.

      Hyperbole can be a very human thing though, and there’s really little harm in it as a literary tool providing it’s not used to nefarious ends, and I see nothing nefarious about this. It’s free, after all, and the more people who download it and give it a poke, the better!

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Hyperbole is the best thing ever!!!!!!!!

      KG

  43. Pie21 says:

    Nit picking: “But it’s clever, direct and straight from – and too – the heart.”

    Kieron, I am disappoint.

  44. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    I downloaded this the other day, when I think one of you guys mentioned it, but seeing your Wot I Think prompted me to actually install and play the bally thing.

    Lovely little game. I’m in agreement with Schaulustiger and others that logging in and out of BBSes to check for messages can become a little tedious, but the general atmosphere and a couple of nice little touches just make it.

  45. Phil Armstrong says:

    Text adventures are not dead you know.

  46. Phil Armstrong says:

    Great, that was supposed to be a reply to Arthurs comment at the top & now it’s lost on it’s lonesome down here where it makes no sense. Oh well.

  47. john t says:

    This game actually made me cry, if only because I actually had a tragically doomed relationship with a girl named Amelia when I was in my BBS dialing phase.

    She’s quite a good writer and her characters are well observed. Someone like Valve or Bioshock should be looking to recruit her, ASAP. I don’t think there are a lot of games designers who write this well.

  48. RogB says:

    considering the flood of praise above, i feel strange. its got a nice retro vibe with the workbench 3.1 look and retro music (and the modem login.. ahhh), but I got utterly bored of it in 20 minutes doing the same thing over and over, just to ‘unlock messages’.

    nice, but no ta. :(
    waiting for the ‘you are impatient/dumb/incapable of love’ grilling.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Reply to RogB, if it’s not working – WordPress being very odd for some reason.

      It’s not just you. Nice, but eh – writing varied from all-right-I-guess to nigh-on insufferably twee, progressed far too fast, too reliant on doing the same thing over and over and over again, never once really engaged me. The mechanics didn’t help at all – if anything they irritated me. When it got to the end I thought ‘That it?’ and felt distinctly underwhelmed.

      As for love stories in the Western medium, it doesn’t even hold a tiny, flickering candle up to Planescape Torment, nor even, say, the emotions raised by Bioshock 2… now that was an ending that had me in tears. And in the good way, to forestall any smartasses.

    • JuJuCam says:

      @Eight Rooks, I’m as big a fan of PS:T as anybody, but I would never ever characterise it as a love story. It’s an Epic, in the proper literary definition of the word, and as such contains thematic reference to love amongst many other themes, but it can’t rightly be placed anywhere near the same ballpark as Digital. They’re not even remotely attempting to tell the same sort of story.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      JuJu: Yeah, Planescape isn’t a love story. Except, possibly, a solipistic one.

      KG

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Can’t seem to reply to JJ/KG’s posts.

      Of course PS:T isn’t a love story in and of itself. But the relationship with Annah is far above anything depicted here. I guessed the ‘twist’ in about ten seconds – though that’s possibly because apropos of nothing I’d been thinking of writing a story touching on the same things, just with a different hook rather than the nostalgia stuff. There’s no depth of any kind to this – it’s just twist, awww, SUSPENSE, silly ending without any element of interactivity or player investment to make you really care what happens. What have you actually done beyond read a few PMs?

      Not trying to troll; it’s just I really was pretty much underwhelmed. It’s cute, but forgettable. Being the only, or perhaps the only recent Western release to supposedly centre around a love story and nothing else doesn’t automatically make it any good. Nor does hinging on some effectively meaningless act of altruism, if that’s what you’re driving at. There are any number of other games developed anywhere in the world that are more moving, more effectively developed, more mature and more satisfying than this. I mean, yeesh, you want Asian, Shadow of the Colossus and ICO both comfortably flatten this in that respect (and I could argue endlessly about how both are effectively love stories where the mechanics serve the sense of investment infinitely better).

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Eightrooks: I don’t think you’re trolling, sir. I just think I disagree with you. :)

      KG

  49. Zomby says:

    OMG this is fun! :) I’m hooked. Just like in the old days.

  50. Dave says:

    I’m so depressed now… I think I may have missed a couple of interesting bits (Hollister? I don’t remember talking to him). I take it there is only one ending?
    SPOILERS…That was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a game I think…