Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, You Just Ain’t No ‘Digital’

[12 April 2011]

By Aaron Poppleton

A few years ago, a writer by the name of Christine Love released Digital: A Love Story quietly into the wilds of the internet.  Set in a idealized vision of late 1980s computer culture, it told the story of two people who meet on a BBS and fall in love—albeit with a few Gibsonian complications thrown in for good measure.  The story was well written, capturing the feel of not only the first stumbling steps into adolescent romance but also the contradictory connected isolation of the early internet.  The story on its own would have been interesting enough, but Love’s decision to present the story via an old looking interface added to the immersion of the story as well as pushed the right nostalgic buttons for some members of her audience while also evoking an idealized image of the past for others.  In short, Digital was a period piece, set during those infant days of networking when stealing long distance codes in order to connect to a remote BBS was done without a second thought (I suppose it goes without saying that it was also set during a time when long distance phone calls were actually a big deal—before cellular telephones made the concept archaic). 

Digital had its flaws, which are mostly courtesy of its occasionally clunky interface and a few design decisions that were symptomatic of Digital’s short development cycle, but the strength of the writing and the charm of its unique presentation were more than enough to make it something of a critical success.  Here was a solid example of what electronic literature could do, something which hadn’t really been in evidence since the days of Patchwork Girl or Twelve Blue—and Digital’s youth meant that it was better able to take advantage of the electronic format than its predecessors.  Thematically the narrative was exciting as well, as it provided an interesting, if idealized, view of the role of technology in forging new relationships and ways of relating to one another.  Setting it in the early days of the internet (back before it was the internet, really) better helped to highlight these themes by restricting the interaction to text on the computer screen—no pictures, no face to face conversation.

Digital's computer interface.

Digital‘s computer interface.

This past week, Love released don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story (which I’m going to shorten to don’t take it personally in an effort to keep my fingers from falling off), calling it a ‘spiritual successor’ to Digital.  Unlike Digital, don’t take it personally is set not in the recent past, but in the recent future—2027, to be precise.  I initially didn’t see what the point of it was—certainly there’s no technology on display in the setting that seems to indicate any sort of real need for a futuristic setting—but as I continued on, it soon became apparent that it was not set in the future for the sake of featuring unique technology but in its presentation of its attitudes.  At its core, don’t take it personally is a meditation on privacy in the modern age—an age that includes Facebook and Twitter and twenty other kinds of ways that we can delve into the lives of others, lives that were once far more insular than they are now.  It is impossible to say anything on the internet and remain safe in the knowledge that it will not be seen by people who were not its intended audience.  By setting it twenty years in the future, Love allows the shifting attitudes toward privacy to run their course into what is now considered “the norm”. 

Don\'t Take it Personally\'s computer interface

Don’t Take it Personally‘s computer interface

It also gives the opportunity to have the protagonist come from the current generation, the generation who now is in their late teens and early twenties.  The other characters are all children who would have grown up with these new ideas from day one and children who more than likely to have baby pictures on Facebook, who would have been plugged into the social networking world and its incredibly open environment from day one.  There has been a shift in the view of what privacy is and what it means in those sixteen years, so much so that the premise of the game is built around reading what the modern player would consider to be “private” conversations between students at a high school.  Ostensibly this is in an effort to prevent cyber-bullying, but ironically the protagonist’s discomfort with the idea prevents him from using the information that he gains from his spying activities.  As you move through the game, there constantly exists the option to check on the online activities of your protagonist’s charges, and the game even helpfully (and annoyingly) provides a chime sound every time that a new message is sent or a wall is posted to or a relationship status changes or really anything happens that could be remotely internet-related.

Just in case the player feels like taking the high road, the game will refuse to progress at several points should you neglect your spying, which makes sense as the story would not progress without the collection of certain information.  This also can lead to some disconnect, where the player may have read some information that the protagonist fails to acknowledge until much later.  This is one of the design flaws that mar the work.  Although at times, the awful art assets (which I won’t even show here because I don’t wish to frighten potential players away) certainly don’t help matters in the slightest.  It should be stressed here that don’t take it personally was developed over the course of a month, so there are some definite flaws there.  It is the presentation that is—unfortunately—the biggest offender.  Abandoning the isolation of Digital means that there is face-to-face interaction in the game, which in turn means that we’re treated to a more “traditional” presentation of the visual novel: character sprites on static backgrounds and the odd moral choice here and there.  The addition of the faux-Facebook interface adds an extra element to the presentation—there does seem to be a strange humor in checking messages while a student pours out their little teenaged heart to you (and indeed there’s an interesting element of detachment in that action, of throwing up the extra filter to decrease the connection with a student)—but it’s not quite enough to cover up the otherwise uninteresting presentation. 

The Greek Chorus, so to speak

The Greek Chorus, so to speak

There are a few other interesting quirks to the game, not the least of which is the use of a faux 4chan board (why the protagonist feels the need to investigate the board is never explained, especially as he displays zero interest in the topics discussed) as a sort of modern Greek chorus is an inspired touch, but making these mandatory reading sessions might not have been the right idea, especially when the protagonist comes off like a junkie in need of his fix.  “Let’s go meet that student,” you’ll say to the game, “because they seemed to have a real problem.”  “Yes,” the protagonist will reply, “but first I need to read this message board.”  “But she’s been bullying the gay kid and his boyfriend, and we need to put a stop to this!” you’ll cry.  “BUT I NEED TO READ THIS MESSAGE BOARD.  LOOK I PROMISE WE WILL TAKE CARE OF THIS GIRL LATER, BUT I NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE MESSAGE BOARD THINKS.”

Multiple endings depend on the choices that you make, which will of course motivate further exploration of the game, and while the story does seem to hit the player over the head with its moralizing in the end (summed up by the question “What’s wrong with his generation assuming that knowing more about someone is always a good thing?”), it is still well worth exploring.  There’s more to say about this game, especially its somewhat unsettling subplot involving a student-teacher relationship that seems to encourage some especially dangerous behavior in order to fulfill some kind of bizarre need for everyone to get a happy ending or the strange use of a clue that can only be found by exiting the game and actually googling the answer (the reward, crassly, is a set of risque photographs of one of the protagonist’s students that would be titillating if the art weren’t so bad), and even if you, the player, choose not to uncover the photos, it seems fairly clear from the text that the protagonist looks anyway. 

The moral of the story, in case you were confused.

The moral of the story, in case you were confused.

This is a semi-interactive experience that could have benefited greatly from a little more time and care, and while Love would point out that making the whole thing in a month was part of the challenge, it almost seems like a waste of a good story.  A more polished presentation and a few tweaks to the interface (personally I have never and will never be a fan of the traditional visual novel presentation) could have made this game a more worthy successor to Digital, but as it is, don’t take it personally falls short of its predecessor.  That’s not to say that it isn’t worth a look anyway.  It’s still one of the more thoughtful games to come out in a long time, and the themes that run through it are certainly deserving of exploration.  However, it is vital to go into the game focused on the text of the story instead of the presentation because the presentation just isn’t quite there.  That the story is strong enough to make this almost entirely a moot point is a sign of its strength.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/139333-digital/