On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... a bitter lesson in what love really means (or doesn't). What could have made this iron man (cough) feel so low? I'll send you a private message explaining everything, but don't tell anyone, right?
If you haven't played Christine Love's short follow-up to Digital: A Love Story, you either should do so first or at least read what I've previously said about it. Oblique, thematic but non-direct spoilers below.
Perhaps more a visual novel than it is a game, and as such not something I'd recommend to everyone, but Don't Take It Personally wormed its way into my head precisely because I felt a part of it rather than a mere observer. It made me simultaneously paranoid and the presumed perpetrator of others' paranoia, before ultimately pulling the rug out from under my feet.
I'm not entirely sold by the climactic reveal and justification: that privacy doesn't really mean anything in this online age, and no-one expects to have it. It felt like the end of a discussion, rather than the discussion itself, and had gone to a slightly absurdist extreme that somewhat departed from the dilemmas I'd truly experienced. But, for me, the game's strength was never going to be in its dénouement anyway. It worked so well, and so painfully, because I became complicit in what seem like enormous life-and-love choices of the teenagers I was really only supposed to be teaching literature to. I had the presumption, the sheer gall, to believe myself worthy enough to alter their lives, and then I felt entitled to spy on the consequences of my advice and actions.
Further, I had the option to twist them to my way of seeing the world, and even, had I so chosen, to reach my own sexual gratification through them. My character - me - was not a bad person, but it was almost impossible to not behave badly. Not to be an intruder in the lives of others. Even aside from that awful option to sleep with a student, or to snoop at the sexy photos of another, The Right Thing becomes more and more muddied as the game wore on.
I knew some of these kids, in the full flower of their sexuality and self-awareness, were suffering, or at least they appeared to be. But I knew this because I'd read their supposedly private messages to each other. Is intervention the morally correct act? Especially when you know you can peek at its consequences. Have I done the right thing, by reading all those Facebook messages and knowing the grief and pain some of these students are in, or did I just exchange one ill for another?
I kept being bad in Don't Take It Personally because I wanted to be good - a harsh lesson in meddling in matters I only have peripheral understanding of. And, unlike RPGs that promise moral consequence, this wasn't a matter of checking in later and finding out someone had had a bit of a rubbish time as a result of my actions, but of being there for the whole process, never leaving the claustrophobic confines of the situation I'd become embroiled in. Real-time, haunting consequence, the constant sense that a stiff breeze could permanently fracture this loose alliance of bickering students who were in the complicated, painful process of discovering who they really were.
I hate the character art and I often became frustrated by all that click-clicking-clicking through bickering dialogue in search of the point where I could intervene. That didn't matter, because I was there, absolutely a part of these sinister and yet in the end purely transitory micro-dramas, building a teetering Jenga tower from other people's lives. Convinced I was being paternal, wise, necessary, but really I was steeped in ignorance, presumption and self-interest. Don't Take It Personally? I can't help but take it personally. With deft, dark cunning it made me feel absolutely awful.