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. Matt says:

    This is very interesting-looking. See, this is what indie gaming needs! Not another bloody platformer, something with heart and direction and – more importantly – using and subverting the capabilities of the PC. (Ask me about my idea for an indie horror game that makes the PC speaker generate weird noises when you’re least expecting it.)

    • RogB says:

      ‘tell me about your idea for an indie horror game that makes the PC speaker generate weird noises when you’re least expecting it’

      hehe sounds like a fun idea, but can you guarantee that all modern pc’s even have a hardware speaker anymore?
      im all for messing with the player, even though im too much of a pansy to play horror games…

  2. Mario Figueiredo says:

    It’s not my cup of tea at the moment. I tried, and not even 5 minutes later quit. It’s however respectfully put on my TODO list and gently tucked away on my TOBACKUP list. Thank you for letting me know about it.

    It’s no doubt a little gem as someone put it before. You can tell that right from the start. And I’m sure I’ll get in the mood sooner or later. I’m a strong fan of text-only games and particularly interactive adventures. I’m just not into it right now.

    In any case it’s games like this, and the fact so many people like them, that makes me believe there is still some sanity left in the world and not everything has turned upside down in the gaming industry.

    • Lewis says:

      For the record, when you do get round to it, give it more than five or ten minutes. It took me 20 to really get into it, and it ended up being my favourite indie game of the year so far.

  3. Vinraith says:

    Finished it. By the time I got to the end the mechanics had become such an irritating chore that none of the emotional content resonated, I was just relieved to be rid of it. Considering the praise it’s getting here, I’m forced to consider the possibility that the adventure genre and I are just done.

  4. kieran martin says:

    I liked it. Did get annoyed round the part where I kept getting kicked out (apparently theres some way round that? I didn’t discover it!). Running out of the codez was just a little tiresome. The central story was great, and the ending was hard to do- I looked quite hard for an out.

    • FhnuZoag says:

      Rot13′d solution:

      1. Gel qbjaybnqvat gur zrffntrf naq ernqvat gurz bssyvar vafgrnq
      2. Vs lbh rkcynva lbhefrys gb gur OOF nqzva, lbh jbhyqa’g trg xvpxrq nal zber. Fraq n CZ gb uvz.

  5. Lim-Dul says:

    Poor Emilia and, uhm, me. :-(

    Interesting game. For all you Amiga fans I also recommend http://chiptune.com/ for an excellent experience. :-D

  6. luphisto says:

    Just finished it. Thought it was touching despite the somewhat tedious dialing mechanic (though i suppose that does make it feel authentic.) Even though i found some of the writing a little bit twee, I’d love to see more games that can engage me on an emotional level and get me to care about a character as quickly as digital did in future.

  7. pikul says:

    When I’ve reached the Underground Library for the first time, the password cracker doesn’t work and I’ve tried all the passwords I can think of. Am I missing something?

    • FhnuZoag says:

      Yes. The person who gave you the number of the Underground Library had a password, which doesn’t work. If you look around for CoreBBS bugs, though, you’ll be able to find a way to turn that password into one that does work.

      (Vaperzrag gur svany qvtvg)

    • pikul says:

      I’m not being deliberately obtuse (just a bit thick), but I still can’t figure out the password.

    • misterk says:

      The person who sends you the link gives you a password he used. It doesn’t work, but if you check messages posted, you’ll find that there is a particular vunerability that, if used to alter that password, will grant you entry.

  8. mister_d says:

    Excellent. Didn’t see the initial twist coming at all. For such a functionally simple game, the sense of immersion was great accomplishment.

    There were a couple of plot points that didn’t quite make sense to me, but I don’t want to post about them for fear of spoiling the experience — short as it is — for others.

  9. Phoenix says:

    That was really really good.

  10. J-Spoon says:

    ’82. not quite 30, but still old enough to remember (and actually have dialed into) ANSI BBSes. at a blistering 2400 baud though, unheard of for you fogeys in your youth :P

  11. dr_demento says:

    Um…. I can’t get past the pre-tutorial. Dialling the number Mr Wong left me doesn’t connect.

    *awaits massive truck-collision of obvious solution*

    • GameOverMan says:

      The Amie S.O. can’t multitask very well, if you click anywhere while it’s dialing you cancel it. Apart from that… perhaps you didn’t notice the new window that opens in the background, it has “Log in” written at the bottom. You have to click there and the rest is self-explanatory.

    • GameOverMan says:

      I meant AmieOS, I wasn’t thinking in english (bad multitasking on my part, too) :P

  12. Tornik says:

    Thanks Kieron, It’s not often I get my heart broken on a Friday afternoon, you swine.

    Seriously though, thank you – that was a wonderful game.

  13. Risingson says:

    I’ve just have finished it. LOVE.

    It’s an amazing work of sensibility. It manages to be romantic at so many levels at once that I still can’t believe how powerful it is.

  14. Roberto says:

    For me the old question of “Can a videogame make you cry?” Has been answered with a Yes now. I suppose its not the most interactive thing, but its enough of a game for me, and I will proudly admit that the end brought me to tears.

    Perhaps not the most original plot line but that doesn’t bother me in the least because of how quickly and completely it got under my skin. It had me hooked 5 minutes in and strung me along the whole way, even when I was frustrated and confused.

    Lovely experience, first time in a long time I’ve tried to look up the creator to e-mail them a thank you, which I couldn’t find. If anyone has some way for me to reach the author/creator I’d be extremely grateful

  15. sfury says:

    What a lovely retro-computer-ish gem that game is! Not perfect, but probably the best and most memorable thing I’ve played so far this year!

    Who would have thought I’d be so happy to hear the screeching sounds of a modem again? Now excuse me, I’ve got to hunt down some retro Amiga music.

  16. vexis58 says:

    I thought it was cute, but certain parts felt way too convenient for me. It feels like having one person tell me “this is a really hard puzzle, but I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out” and then turning around and finding another person handing out flyers with the puzzle’s solution printed on them.

    But at the same time, some parts required such specific actions that I found myself brute-forcing the answer by clicking on EVERYTHING until I stumbled across the one that actually triggered the next part of the story. I got stuck for about a half hour just because I needed to send a PM to someone, and nothing triggered until I did.

    I had the compiler downloaded a REALLY long time before I actually needed it, and kept thinking it was the answer to some puzzle or other, but couldn’t figure out how to use it — it didn’t appear on my desktop until after I’d had a several-message exchange with someone who basically said “You need to compile this. Do you have a compiler? You DO have a compiler, right? You should go get a compiler.” and the whole time, I was getting more and more frustrated, repeatedly checking that message to make sure I’d actually downloaded it or to see if I was missing something. No, I wasn’t missing anything, the game just made this thing I downloaded invisible until I was actually supposed to use it.

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