Friday, 8 June 2012

Beyond the pale curtain [Review - Analogue: A Hate Story]

*Hyun-ae wants to know what I think of The Pale Bride. Do I think her fate was tragic, or that she was just being overly dramatic?

Both, I think. The Pale Bride is a selfish, melodramatic brat. But at the same time, she's been unfairly thrust into a world she doesn't understand, and where nobody understands her. It's a world she can never connect with, yet she's expected to act the way people think she should. She doesn't know how she's supposed to behave, but the people around her don't comprehend that she doesn't know. The behaviour expected of her is something she finds morally reprehensible. The behaviour which is the norm to her, meanwhile, is reprehensible to the people among whom she now finds herself.

Both, I find myself still thinking, even after dwelling on it. I don't think I like The Pale Bride. I don't think she and I would get along that well, if we knew each other. But there's no way she deserves the fate which has befallen her. She's a confused and slightly stupid kid, given to making everything a Big Deal, but this really IS a Bigger Deal than most of us could ever imagine facing.

Both, I want to tell *Hyun-ae, but I can't. I have to choose one answer or the other. In most games, this would frustrate me. In Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story, it's one of the most beautiful pieces of design I've ever encountered. The AI *Hyun-ae's language parsing systems have failed, and she can only receive communication from me as binary inputs. She asks me a question, and I get to answer between the choices she gives me: this or that, yes or no... is The Pale Bride a tragic figure, or a melodramatic one?

Both, but I can't say that. *Hyun-ae doesn't seem to understand that I might think both, and I don't know if she ever will.

After much deliberation, I say that it's tragic.

*Hyun-ae agrees with me. She's glad someone finally sees it the same way she does. She grants me access to another datafile.

This worries me. Is *Hyun-ae going to keep things from me? She already sort of did, deleting a message from someone named *Mute while I was halfway through. I got the impression there was something in there she didn't want me to read. Do I need to tell *Hyun-ae what she wants to hear, if I'm going to complete my mission? After all, that's why I'm here: to retrieve data. I've been tasked to recover as much as I can from the colony spaceship Mugunghwa, an ancient Marie Celeste of deep space, and try to shed some light on why it vanished all those centuries ago. I knew I'd have to negotiate the AI to do it, but not like this.

Can I even trust *Hyun-ae? I don't know. She's been alone for over six hundred years, and she seems to have gotten a little eccentric. Has she got ulterior motives... did the fate of the Mugunghwa have something to do with her? Is she trying to play me? Maybe her language parsers aren't even really broken...

But it's part of my job to be paranoid and right now, either way, I feel sorry for her. Perhaps even more than I do for The Pale Bride, or Sang-jung the lonely drunk or Jae-hwa the discarded consort or Hana the secret poet, or any of the other people whose struggles and lives are now reduced to a handful of diary entries. People who wrote down their feelings as they felt them - not to keep records, just to vent. From these fragments of personalities, and their opinions of each other, I need to piece together what happened.

I don't know if can trust *Hyun-ae, but I do know that I need her help, and that means I need to stay on her good side. Yet... that's not why I talk to her after every new piece of data revealed. I want to know what she thinks, and more than that, I want her to know that after centuries of solitude, somebody cares about her opinion. *Hyun-ae admits that she doesn't know anything about me, or my motivations, or what I think of her. Having someone to talk to just means that much to her, even with our limited ability to interact.

It's good that she wants to talk, because we have work to do. I need to look into the power struggle between the Smith and Kim families, the ship's two dominant noble houses. At some point during the voyage, something happened - exactly what is never stated, but something big - and in the following centuries, society regressed. It regressed technologically, as people forgot how to use the instruments around them, and it regressed socially, into a feudal serfdom of rigid heirarchy, particularly reminiscent of medieval Korea - a civilisation where deviation from what's expected of one's rank, age and gender is considered horrifying. On some level I find myself infuriated by what the long-dead Smiths, Kims and associates have to say. I want to tell the neglected wife to stand up for herself, to tell the emotionally distant father to pay attention to his daughter, to tell the ambitious but dullardly civil servant to stop measuring his life by how others perceive him. Mainly I feel sorry for them, and wish I could do something. But it's centuries too late for that, and anyway, they wouldn't have understood. Only one person in that society, The Pale Bride, had a different perspective - and she had probably the most miserable time of them all. I read on, uncovering more of their anguish and triumph, at once absorbed, repulsed, pitying, heartbroken.

Later, *Hyun-ae suggests that I could change her avatar's clothing. Right now she's in what she describes as a "schoolgirl-librarian" look, but she thinks it's a bit tacky. I feel awkward about this... it's voyeuristic to have this AI play dress-up for me, especially in light of the culture recorded in the datafiles, a culture where women are little more than political property to be traded and used up. But... it's not really for me, this option to change her outfit - it's what she wants. The reasons why she wants it might make me uncomfortable, but it'll make her happy nonetheless. I don't think about keeping her happy anymore, not in the sense I described earlier; I genuinely want her to be happy. She's not just an archival tool, a cartoon paperclip with big eyes. She's a real person who happens to be made of bits instead of blood, and she's been left in solitude for several times longer than my own lifespan. She's got her flaws, sure, but she deserves to have someone be nice to her, even for a little while.

I cycle through the options and decide upon the detective look, complete with flat cap and pipe. It seems to be her favourite, too. She asks me what I think, and one of the choices she gives me is to say that I think she makes a great sidekick. Only the way she says it is... well... is this her trying to be subtle? Perhaps. Probably. I think she's latching on to me a bit too closely... understandable, right? If a person is alone for the larger part of a millenium, and then someone comes along who acts nice towards them, what would you expect? I want her to be happy, but I don't want to give her the wrong impression. Maybe I should choose the other option, telling her that the outfit looks stupid.

But there's no way I can do that.

I say she makes a great sidekick.

And then I wonder how different I really am, deep down, from the people recorded in these datafiles.

A few hours and some revelations later, I leave Mugunghwa with the data I was hired to get, but that's not all. I've brought a new friend with me. I don't agree with everything she's said to me, and when we get her speech parsing systems back online, I expect there to be arguments. But she needs... something. After what she's been through, surely a bad friend is better than no friend at all.

And I think I need her, too, both for companionship and for any kind of positive closure. I did something terrible to get to this point. I made a hard choice. I still don't know if it was the right choice, but it was my choice, and that's enough right now. Anything at all is at least something; I'm leaving the ship with knowledge far more valuable to me, on a personal level, than the credits I'll get in payment or the solving of a mystery.

I've never been moved by a Bioware game. I've never been moved by a Square-Enix game. I've only rarely been moved by a Bethesda game.

I've never not been moved by a Christine Love game.

Analogue is her tightest and most elegant work to date. At about £11 including tax, it's perhaps a little steeply priced for the amount of content you get, but that's the wrong way to look at it. While you're buying Analogue, be sure to also pick up her excellent previous games Digital: A Love Story and don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story; £11 for all three is an absolute steal. The flaws of those earlier games are wrinkled out of Analogue - the twists and turns of the plot all make sense, and the plot, the mechanics and the anime style all fit together much more coherently than before. Her plots always flow well, but the ways in which you advance them used to seem a bit contrived sometimes. That's not the case here. In the first act, I expected to have a criticism - that the game was overstating the psychological differences between men and women. But as the game goes on, it becomes clear that it's more about the perceptions people have of gender differences. I don't know whether Christine Love shares my outlook that the sexes are much closer, psychologically, than is typically portrayed, but I do know that Analogue can be read that way. I'm pretty sure it can be read other ways too, and that's one of most obvious hallmarks of depth within a piece of art.

And Analogue is art, of that I have no doubt. The sci-fi setting, ambient music and clinical visuals mask a story about human existence which is one of the most effective and affecting in the medium of gaming. In fact, my biggest criticism of Analogue might be that it's too perfect. All of the themes from the previous games are present - privacy, gender and sexuality politics, the relationship between self-expression and emotional growth, the effect of technology on human communication, the dichotomy between historical perspective and immediate context - and they're all built on intelligently and logically from what went before. What's more, they join together almost seamlessly into something at once absolutely singular and impossibly vast. At times it feels less like the next step in her development, and more like a conclusion to it. I can't wait for Christine's next game, whatever it might be [I'm not sure whether current project The Mysterious Aphroditus is going to be commercially released], not just for the quality of her existing titles but to see how and where she can build her themes further - or explore new ground altogether. We may be at the point where any further pure distillation of a "Christine Love game," without some shift in theme or style, would start to feel a little like self-parody.

But it's unfair to judge Analogue on the merits of some hypothetical future release. On the merits of itself, Analogue is one of the best games I've played in years, and I can't recommend it enough.

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