Wot I Think: Don't Take It Personally...
The next game from Christine Love, creator of remarkable 2010 adventure game Digital: A Love Story, was released a few days ago. It's another adventure of sorts, but more specifically it's a visual novel with heightened interactivity. Here's how it made me feel.
I know next to nothing about visual novels, I don’t know anything about anime, I’m only passingly familiar with 4Chan, I’ve never been a high school teacher, I haven’t had to wrestle with coming out and I’ve never been seduced by someone half my age. Clearly, I am completely unqualified to write about Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story. Fortunately, the universality of its theme and its observations means I feel completely qualified anyway. I know what it is to feel like someone’s kicked me straight in the heart. For all the otaku trappings, that’s what Christine Love’s latest is really about.
It’s a game about love, sex and the internet, as was its forerunner Digital: A Love Story. This spiritual sequel takes the form of a visual novel, told with text and very occasionally animated anime art. The latter means it’s an instant turn off for some, but quite frankly I suspect anyone with so stubborn a reaction was never going to take all that well to an only semi-interactive tale of emotional drama and catastrophe anyway.
You’re in the shoes and mind of John Rook, twice-divorced but apparently still super-hot high school teacher, who’s found himself teaching literature as a result of panic as much as profession. His class is a half dozen or so social network-hooked 16-year-olds, only two of which are male. The story primarily tells itself, as Rook observes the squabbles and romances between the group, which inevitably escalate into high and sometimes tragic drama. At critical junctures, the game asks you to make an A or B choice, the repercussions of which may not affect the broad course of the game but can deeply affect certain characters.
It’s not especially accurate to claim that you play as Rook; while you have access to his thoughts, the visual novel construct means your access to his larynx is very limited. He will say and do things you would not, because... well, don’t take it personally, but this ain’t your story. It’s his. This is one of the many car-crash horror elements of the game: you feel as though you’re in control, but it will occasionally very brusquely remind you that you’re not. Spoilers obviously this way lie so I’ll say no more, but that this offers the illusion of involvement but (aside from at a few key junctures) the reality of only observing is why it frequently manages to be powerfully affecting.
As the slim story plays out, you’re forever distracted by a pinging noise. In this near-future school, every pupil and every teacher is equipped with a tablet computer/phone. The students use this to communicate, flirt, argue and gossip on a Facebook-aping service known as AmieConnect – with their private and public posts observed by Rook. Knowingly sinister from the very start, this serves two purposes. Primarily, it makes the story much, much more than a matter of clicking to see what happens. You’re piecing together conversations and information that inform what’s going on centre-stage, and which often foreshadows key events.
Secondly, it means you’re using the game like you (if you’re anything like me) use the internet – forever distracted, forever diving out of whatever you’re doing to follow some new train of information, with this true even of how you keep an eye on and remain a part of people’s lives.
Even in the midst of a critical event or decision, the temptation to click on the omnipresent numbered speech bubble and spy on the students’ latest nattering is extreme. I know it’s wrong, I know it breaks every moral I have about privacy, but at the same time both the school and the game expect me to keep an eye on these highly-strung teenagers’ lives. A suspension of disbelief is necessary, as clearly the concept seems ludicrous (the pupils would simply find another, more private channel; while the issues around this do not go undiscussed, you need to make a fair few conceptual leaps in advance of that) but it is a fairly deft way of telling half a dozen stories at once, as well as granting the element of interactivity necessary to elevate this far above a digital picture-book.
The information – someone’s burgeoning realisation of their sexuality, an uncomfortably inappropriate crush, terrible threats, the sweet possibility of a couple’s reconciliation, the revelation of homophobic bullying – is critical both to understanding the characters and to the decisions you make. When a pupil comes to you for advice, you have some insight into what it’s about and how the other students are likely to react to it. Often enough, either choice will lead to the same, or at least a similar result, but how you’re left feeling about it won’t be so clear-cut. Telling someone not to act on their feelings or claiming you don’t know what to tell them will leave them upset or disappointed, and you’ll know you’ve done the wrong thing.
As for whether or not you succumb to one cute student’s persistent advances... well, that’s one hell of a moral litmus test. (Important point I should mention, actually: the age of consent in the UK is 16, the age we're told the students are. This means that, while that dilemma and certain other elements of the game certainly made me incredibly uncomfortable, I and other British players may have had a different reaction/objection than that of some players from territories where that age is higher. I leave discussion of any finer points around the very, very limited and mostly purely implied sexual content to non-British websites. Even so, bear in mind the game's intention is not titillation - it's about exploring the nuances of the awful wrongness of such situations). Despite the cutesy presentation, Don’t Take It Personally doesn’t pull many punches. It doesn’t shy from discomfort, it doesn’t shy from lurid language and most of all it’s capable of being profoundly sinister. Even before an apparently metaphysical element is introduced late in the game there’s a background hum of creeping horror behind all the peppy bickering and flirtation.
It’s also capable of being profoundly moving. One happy event, which at least seemed to be a result of the choice I’d made/advice I’d given, reduced me to brief tears. I fear overstating this, but a game’s never done this to me before. I suspect part of the reason it happened here is because this is in many ways a soap opera, with that kind of line in knowingly effective emotional melodrama, but that may be underselling the effectiveness of Christine Love’s dialogue. Not arch, not vapid, not overwrought, it may not give the characters as individually distinctive voices as they perhaps need, but it does make them real enough that I cared, and was invested in their fates.
It isn’t consistently effective, alas. Sometimes the students’ webspeak jabber becomes wearisome, there is a late game turn towards silliness, and it probably goes on longer than it needs to, with focus and punch slipping in its latter chapters. The use of occasional visits to ‘12Chan’ as a sort of Greek chorus, abstractly commenting upon and prophesying the game’s events via a typically coarse and lol-flecked discourse of an unseen anime series, is perhaps a meta-layer too far, but then again the sneering, satirical reactions of the Chan-lurkers to these other tales of love and pain do create a sense of how meaningless your pupils’ tales would be were you not directly involved.
While I can’t help but feel it’s a slightly lesser game than the starkly affecting anonymity of Digital, none of this undoes the powerful tragic-comic horror of watching young lives collapse and rebuild and collapse and rebuild. It’s happened to us all: errant crushes, unflinching belief that you know love, utter devastation following rejection, fear to act, the sick of thrill of knowledge you shouldn’t have...
Visual novel it may loosely be, but this isn’t simply an observation - it's direct action. Through your control of Rook’s occasional decisions and persistent digital voyeurism, you are made very much a part of these events. You will feel like they’re your fault. Don’t take it personally, but this is your story.
Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story is free, and available now.