Friday, 27 May 2011

Totes radness, for the bro-est of bros [Review: Christine Love's interactive fiction]

I've been hellaciously ill for a few weeks now. I think I must have coughed up my own body weight in phlegm, most of which was - pleasantly - the lurid yellow of a safety jacket. I'm making it through, just about. Still got a cough and a blocked nose, and a bit of dizziness, but at least I can talk again, which is an improvement over the start of the month. For speeding along my journey to recovery, I am eternally indebted to my girlfriend, Lemsip, chicken soup and Christine Love.

No, my girlfriend is not named Lemsip. You read that wrong.

Unlike the game-stories of Christine Love which, according to the author herself, one can't 'read wrong'. Or as Love herself puts it, " intent isn’t worth shit. All that matters is how you interpret it. If something doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work, and intent doesn’t ever excuse that. Period. Don’t ever accept any argument that claims otherwise." A unique and interesting stance for a game developer - but then, she makes extremely unique and interesting games, and what's more, she's genuinely interested in improving her work, as evidenced by opening dialogues with her game's fans and starting feedback topics for them on her blog. She's taken herself to task, critically (and openly) analysing what she feels were the successes and failures of her titles. It's an admirable mark of honesty and passion, and it's refreshing to see an indie game creator who's happy to publicly deconstruct their own work. I may not agree with all of her stances, but I don't need to - I still applaud the fact that she's willing to share them.

Her best known work to date is Digital: A Love Story, which has the smart and slightly audacious hook of playing out entirely via a replicated Amiga workstation desktop. It's set in the late 80s and the tech level is commensurately primitive, with most of your interactions with other people relying solely on bulletin boards and email. It's superficially similar to Introversion's classic hacking sim Uplink, and Digital features a few very nice puzzles based around deciphering passwords and downloading software-cracking applications. It also sadly relies on long distance calling codes far, far too much, something which is fun at first but becomes a serious chore by the third act. Gaining access to an autodialler app halfway through would have improved matters considerably. It's a testament to how powerfully involving the narrative is that I wanted to keep playing.

Superficially, the game is about cracking sites to uncover a mystery; from a more narratological standpoint, it's about a trapped, lonely girl named Emilia who expresses herself through poetry posted onto internet bulletin boards. But really, the game is about agency; in a brilliant stroke, you never see your own character's messages. How 'you' replied is inferable only from the context of the replies you're sent back. The suppositions we impose on our videogame avatars are front and centre of this one. Are you in love with Emilia? Do you care about her platonically, and is she reading too much into your friendship? Are you just humouring her because she's clearly depressed? Are you the one who's misreading the signals? The correct interpretation of the game's events is the one you assume as you play.

Her latest game - don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story (best title ever, like, f'reals) - is... well, first off, game is an awkward word for it. It's interactive fiction. It's a visual novel. I'll admit I've never had much truck with visual novels; as don't take it personally itself notes at one point, the average visual novel rarely does anything beyond Super High School Pantie Adventure Six and the few which do always seem to cast you as a stupidly-named swordsman saving a stupidly-named kingdom from a stupidly-named dark wizard, using a stupidly-named magic sword.

don't take it personally is set in a near-future high school, and yes, there are panties. But like Digital, it's really a metafictional piece about the concept of a protagonist. You play John Rook, teacher, who finds himself drawn into the love lives of his students via access to their private messages on the school's intranet. The dichotomy is clever - you, the player, are advancing the story and seeing what happens next, but you are also John Rook and you are spying on your students. Although you (mostly) get no choice in the matter of whether or not to pry, which rather lessens the impact of the voyeuristic unease, some of the branching choices depend on how close you want to risk coming to admitting that you've been reading your students' private conversations. At this point the railroading makes sense. You're not playing a cipher for yourself; you're playing John Rook, and the question is what he would do. And what he would do is spy.

It helps that the characters are engaging and believable, each with their own tics and subtleties and contradictions. Perhaps don't take it personally would fail if you didn't care about what was going to happen to these kids, but they're so well-realised it's hard not to. There are multiple endings depending on your choices, and those choices are not simplistic Bioware-esque Good/Bad Guy deals; these are real choices, made by real people, and you know that whatever you decide, someone's probably going to get hurt.

Bridging the two chronologically, Cell Phone Love Letter is an actual, straight-up visual novel with absolutely no gameplay-mechanical elements. However, it still uses the interactive medium pretty darn smartly considering the only thing you ever do is click to advance the text. As with don't take it personally, the author shows a fantastic grip on the teenage mindset, with the characters laying bare their neuroses, their insecurities and their self-obsession both overtly and subconsciously. The three titles form something of a loose trilogy. They're all tangentially connected via references and reappearing characters, but more importantly, they all revolve around the theme of how burgeoning telecommunication technology affects how we relate to the people around us, and they all experiment with the possibilities of storytelling in an interactive medium to a degree rare in this industry. Love probably already qualifies for auteur status; her short body of work is already as identifiably idiomatic as any major league developer you care to name.

Both Digital and don't take it personally sadly suffer from a similar big flaw - third-act twists which, while agreeably provocative, are signposted way in advance and handled clunkily with big dollops of exposition. For my money Digital's is the more successful, but the game doesn't really address the implications of the twist in much detail. By contrast, don't take it personally's twist is just plain nonsensical and left many players with a bitter taste. The game contradicts its own mythos, and while it suggests that the characters are desensitised to implications of the twist, it's hard to believe that in just fifteen short years - give or take - society could have changed so much that [SPOILER]ing a [SPOILER] [SPOILER] just to [SPOILER] a [SPOILER] could be seen as anything but completely batshit friggin' mental. Perhaps it's meant to be a cautionary warning about the accelerating pace of societal change? Or maybe it was rushed to meet the NaNoRenO deadline. Either way.

But you know what? No games are perfect, and judging these by the standards of indie shorts with a one-woman development team, they are remarkable. Relatable emotional depth, boundary-exploring narrative, characters you can truly invest in... Christine's games may have many faults, but they have many more successes. She's rapidly become one of my favourite developers for her sheer disregard for convention. Even her parodic 'action' game, beat-em-up Lake City Rumble, is a character-driven and text-based piece.

Some professional studio really, really needs to get Christine on board. She needs a budget, a proper development cycle, an editor, an idea filter; almost every major development house needs someone who can write characters and plots worth giving a damn about. Seems like an obvious match to me.

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