A Process of Discovery
Hate Plus is the seventh game from Christine Love’s Love Conquers All and the fourth of the “visual novels” that she is best known for. The term visual novel seems appropriate at first glance since most of the game is communicated through written words, but the term is actually a bit misleading. Hate Plus demonstrates some of the best virtues of videogames in the way that it’s structured as something to be explored with no clear starting point and as something that is completed only after a process of player exploration. It isn’t meant to be read cover to cover; it’s a process of discovery. As much as players like to champion their own influence in the game world as the distinguishing artistic quality of video games, sometimes there’s no need to interact with a game—just occupying it is enough. I’m not sure if there’s a word for that, but that’s what Hate Plus does.
While it’s technically an expansion to the universe created in Love’s previous release, Analogue: A Hate Story, it was perhaps more compelling for me having no familiarity with its world or its history. The player takes the role of an off-screen investigator combing through the logs of a derelict space station, the Mugunghwa. With the help of one (or both) of the ship’s AI programs, *Hyun-ae or *Mute, the player slowly discovers how the Mugunghwa’s society paved the way for the dictatorship in Analogue: A Hate Story.
While having played Analogue may provide a context for Hate Plus, again, it’s almost better approached with a clean slate. The world is illustrated piecemeal in documents spanning the seven year collapse of the inhabitants of the Mugunghwa’s old way of life. Newspaper clippings, letters, diary entries, and security reports breathe life into the empty station, deftly connecting the political and personal through the tangential relations of the main cast. The tragedy of the Mugunghwa is a foregone conclusion and the player’s role is to put themselves in the place of its doomed people. Uncovering causal relationships of events occurs by reading the logs in chronological order, by reading through the stories of one central character after another, or by experiencing them completely at random. The player determines how events will be unveiled. Only a handful of documents are kept out of reach until certain characters have their say. Bit by bit, the world’s history and the game’s themes gradually come into focus.
Much of this is due to the deliberately stunted pace of the game. Between each of the three in-game days, the player must wait twelve real-time hours to continue. The player may also only read six logs at a time, and even then, they’re often interrupted by their AI sidekick—heck, even the scrolling speed is slow. Reflection then is built into the game. There is no option to devour all of the content in a single sitting. As tempting as it is to dig through everything that Hate Plus has to offer at once, it’s broken up in manageable chunks. As soon as the game begins to feel overwhelming, it forces the player to, for example, stand up, get away from the screen, and bake a cake to prevent them from becoming too immersed in everything that’s going on (for review purposes, I resorted to rice cakes and peanut butter).
Though the game works primarily through words, again, Hate Plus works best and was designed as a game. It places its player in a whole society’s wreckage with nothing but a flashlight to illuminate one crevice at a time until all at once a coherent image forms. Pieces of information gradually pare down into a connected string of logical events. The numerous characters living through the Mugunghwa’s last years are tied together by superficial relationships at first, but in the end, the interplay of political manipulation, sexual abuse, artistic freedom, and institutional class-ism all seem naturally and logically connected.
The accompanying AIs, *Hyun-ae and *Mute, provide color commentary and a bit more context for the documents that the player reads through. Beyond that, their strong personalities are a more lively window into the Mugunghwa. Initially, each is quick to judge the people that would ultimately undo the deeply flawed but stable society of the ship pre-Analogue, and they’ll occasionally interrupt the player’s investigation to have their opinions verified. But situations and characters become more complicated and difficult to pass absolute judgement on through a three-option dialogue wheel. The game is aware of the limitations of interacting with another person with something as tyrannical as a dialogue wheel, yet the only living people in the player’s company can only be interacted with in less than nuanced, more clearly absolute terms. The same kind of absolute interactions that led to the Mugunghwa’s first collapse.
Still, Hate Plus is hopeful in the end. All of the endings mark a rebirth of sorts for *Hyun-ae or *Mute (or both, if the player has unlocked the option by playing with both earlier). By the time it’s done, Hate Plus states its purpose in no uncertain terms. But it never feels like it’s moralizing or making excuses. When the player reaches the credits, the oblivion that they walked into has been transformed into a rich world with a complicated but understandable story.
Much of this comes from its structure as a game. It is a room whose contents are waiting to be uncovered by the player.