Digital: A Love Story

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[edit] Digital: A Love Story

Review by Adam Christensen, April 26, 2010

Digital: A Love Story, by Christine Sarah Love, is a historical game. This remains true despite the author not explicitly stating that the game is historical and the subject matter not falling into the traditional realms of historical computer games. This a game about relationships, not war or politics; a far cry from Age of Empires or Civilization. She accomplishes this feat by embedding her narrative in an incredibly well-realized virtual environment that recreates the heady days of early computer networks. Set “five minutes into the future of 1988”, the player can only perceive this world as it can be seen through the simulated screen of an “Amie” Workbench (a convincing simulation of a 1985 Amiga Workbench operating system). The player has just received a new dial-up modem which she can use to connect to various Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) across the world. The player can exchange messages with other game-controlled users to gain information, create relationships, solve puzzles and eventually uncover a retro-futuristic conspiracy plot inspired by the cyberpunk genre that was so popular amongst fans of science fiction during the 1980s.

Digital Love BBS Dialer
Digital Love BBS Dialer
At first glance, it all seems very limited and while that first impression never fully goes away, the minimalist feeling can be considered a strength. There is not much to the game mechanics. Players type in phone numbers they learn from messages they receive to connect the various BBSs where they can browse the discussions or send private messages to users. The sending of a message is the primary game mechanism used by the player. Instead of typing out a personal message herself, the player is only able to click on the “send message” or “reply” button, which instantly sends a message to the non-player characters of the game. The player never learns the content of the messages she sends, but can infer its meaning should the non-player character reply back to the player. This seems to be an alternative to not giving the player any choice in the content in the message (reducing the agency of the player), allowing the player to type the message herself (beyond the scope of a small project like this one) or offering multiple choice dialog options (which would reduce the realism of the game). Love’s choice is perhaps the best available; the player is able to imagine what she says and thus she is not drawn out of the immersion by odd game mechanics. Consequently, the players begins to develop relationships with the non-player characters.

These relationships and the plot that connects them lead the player to explore an incredibly well-realized world. For never leaving the desktop of an Amie workbench, players will truly feel like they are exploring a variety of environments. Each BBS feels like a different place, and the ASCII art is perfectly executed. Reviewers across the board commented on the authenticity of the game. Those who were old enough to actually remember dialling into BBSs in the 1980s commented on the strangely nostalgic experience of hearing a simulated dial-up modem each time they connected to a different location. Various commenters on reviews posted at websites such as Gamasutra and Boing Boing have expressed surprise that Christine Love, who was born in 1987, could have developed such an authentic experience without ever having experienced the phenomenon for herself in real life. It is obvious that Love put a great deal of research in to the game. In the closing credits of the game, Christine Love cites the website as one of the main sources she drew upon for inspiration in creating the game. Anyone interested in the history of cyberculture could do worse than to spend some time exploring the website. It is an immense collection of transcribed and converted text files from BBS boards from various sources in the 1980s and covering a wide range of topics. This reviewer was unable to find any direct quotations that Christine Love used from Textfiles, but the language and content were clearly inspired by these text files. NPCs discuss current events, write short stories, share software and complain about Captain Picard not living up to the legacy of Captain Kirk. All of this happens in the background, unessential to the actual plot of the game, but it never gets in the way of making progress. It only enhances the realism of the experience. Players will be reminded of browsing blog posts and message boards in the present day; absorbing the ideas that random users post as comments on so much of the landscape of the internet.

The comparison with normal, everyday internet use in the present is very interesting. One reviewer of the game called it a “a kind of one-player ARG in the prehistoric days of net-culture.” Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are games that blend a fictional narrative through real devices, typically on the Internet, through web pages and blog posts. The gaming environment is the mundane world of the web which users experience every day; the “game” and excitement comes from the content, puzzle solving and collaboration. Likewise, users playing Digital will perform mundane tasks that take on aspects of excitement because of the narrative and perhaps even the novelty of stepping into a time that is both familiar and strange. The sensation is akin to watching television from the 1950s; you can make sense of the world because things retain some semblance to their modern counterparts, but you are also puzzling out what is different and why things changed.

Digital Love Email
Digital Love Email
In Digital, cyberculture is in its infancy, but the communities and their concerns are something that continue in various forms up until today. For instance, intellectual property and piracy are still things those involved with cyberculture are concerned about. Though the types of files and method of transfer has differed, many of the ethical issues remain the same. The player is directly confronted with the issue when she is forced to download pirated software that is essential to complete a specific task. The game creates a narrative where these kind of illegal activities are essential and the moralities of such actions becomes blurred. Likewise, the player is exposed to the hacker culture which thrived on the BBSs of the 1980s. These shadowy activities both increase the drama and expose real parts of the history of the pre-Internet era. Those who were active in the online community were genuinely excited about the possibilities of BBS systems; it was a dangerous place where boundaries could be pushed; a new wild west that only existed in the wires of networked computers. It was this kind of attitude that inspired William Gibson to call the hackers in his cyberpunk novels “console cowboys”.

Digital teaches us history by immersing us in a very specific environment. By creating this group of BBS boards for the player to visit, Christine Love has given a series of static textfiles a genuine sense of space. We can observe how Love created this space by using Aarseth’s typology of games. Your perspective is vagrant – limited. These ancient machines and direct connections only allowed users to visit one board at a time. Your entire attention is focused on your current location as you scour lists of messages and files because you cannot have any knowledge of what is occurring in other parts of the world. Your movement is limited and topological. You are limited only to the BBS boards that you know exist, and your movement is restricted to constantly repeating the same ritual of dialling into the boards . Thankfully the once nostalgic but quickly annoying dial-up noise is skippable with a click. Finally, what truly makes the game immersive is that the environments are dynamic, sometimes spectacularly so. Your Amie workbench evolves as you upgrade your software, and download files and applications. The BBSs change as messages are exchanged between the NPCs, sometimes commenting on your actions as you progress through the game. At one point, the first BBS board you gain access to becomes unavailable due to the action of the game, and it provoked a genuine emotional reaction as your “home” is destroyed.

Digital: A Love Story is not perfect. The game is very linear and sometimes it feels like a mildly interactive piece of fiction, cleverly implemented. Players might have benefitted from having more control in the game. Thankfully, the narrative is excellent and very engaging; players will be motivated to play until the end. The puzzles were often too simple, but they often created a sense of exploration. Bypassing the security system of a BBS gives you a sense of accomplishment, regardless of how easy it was to do so. Ultimately, Digital: A Love Story is short and endearing; it creates an environment that immerses you in the cyberculture of the 1980s by allowing you to live within it. Digital: A Love Story was released under a Creative Commons License in February, 2010, by Christine Love. It is available for free for Windows, Mac and Linux here.

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