Analogue: A Hate Story
By Christine Love, with art by Raide — released February 1, 2012.
Windows, Mac, and Linux. $15/free demo.
Reviewed by Shii
I don’t like video games. I like to read, a lot, and I like to think about what I’m reading. I think, in theory, there are a lot of people like me out there, people who would jump to pay good money for Analogue: A Hate Story if they realized what it was. But it’s a type of work that slips outside the usual categories of book and game, so getting people to realize that it’s something they should be looking for should be hard. I’ll do my best.
[Note: This review contains no spoilers, but figuring out what exactly is going on when you start up Analogue is a bit of a fun challenge in itself so if you want to play the free demo first you should go ahead and do that.]
Christine Love ought to be a familiar name in the world of interactive fiction, OEL visual novels, and really just indie gaming generally, but I have a feeling that she does not have the fame that she ought to have, because she puts a lot of time into each work and it is an unfortunate fact that this is an age of tweets rushing by us at fifty a second. In Love’s first story-game, Digital, a delicious sci-fi romance unfolds itself as you gain access to hidden nooks of the 1980s BBS world. It was noticed by bloggers writing for The Economist and The A.V. Club. Her next work, entitled “Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story”, was picked up by The Daily Telegraph but it suffered a bit for having been written entirely within the month of March 2010.
Analogue is much closer to Digital in spirit than “Don’t take…”, but in fact when you launch the game you discover the format is completely unique. Digital was revolutionary in its own way, but the author kind of played a trick on her readers with that game. Enticed by the promise of a BBS world adventure, something with puzzle game elements like Uplink, typical readers don’t realize that most enjoyable part of the work is not playing the game but reading its story until they’ve been swept up in the narrative.
With Analogue there is no such deception, which makes it a bitter pill for gamers. You’re dispatched to an abandoned spaceship, break your way into their computers, and… suddenly you’re presented with a database of diary entries left by some kind of medieval Korean civilization. And that’s it, that’s all the game you’re going to get. What?? How do I click out of this?! Who do I shoot? It perhaps lands somewhere in the accepted range of interactive fiction, but in this case the fiction is its own, segregated body stuck inside the interaction.
Someone who is told Analogue is like an e-book will be similarly puzzled, but in a slowly delightful way. For you don’t have very much to read at the start. You have to ask the computer to tell you more, and the computer is not totally cooperative. Why not? That’s what you have to find out.
No, what you’ve stumbled into is magical and exciting at the same time: to the extent that this interactive fiction is a game, it is a game about sitting in a library managed by unreliable librarians. An unreliable narrator is someone who can’t be trusted to tell the story properly because of other interests in their head that compete with the truth. The use of this distrust to make a novel better was perfected about 60 years ago, and I would argue that nobody has really radically evolved that model before this game. Here, we introduce the concept of the unreliable librarian, someone whose job it is to simply supply you with a completed text, but for some reason is holding it back, and won’t tell you why for reasons of their own. The relationship between you and the library’s AI is meant to be maddening, and if you start falling in love with the obstinate archivists, well, that’s really your own fault because, as they keep reminding you, they’re only AI programs.
For a bibliophile, this is the perfect game: the object is simply to acquire information, and the driving structure that makes it a game is a literary device! And the more I think about it, the more devices reveal themselves. Because of the structure of the game, the only human characters are the dead Korean noblefolk whose letters you read. The interaction that goes on in the game portion is between you and a computer, and the intro screen gets some potshots in at that (“It should be asocial enough for you”).
Looking at the content of the text and the librarians’ reactions to it, we see a well-planned and grand narrative, too. Before anyone asks, no, this is not the sort of template period drama that clogs up Korean TV. Not to spoil too much of your reading, but in the text we witness a clash of cultures, between medieval and modern Korea. Love has not decided for us whether one has to be better than the other, but allows us to think about that for ourselves. Although her depictions aren’t perfect (come on, this is Korea in a spaceship), you start to see how the triumphs and failures of families are a beautiful reflection of the values of a nation.
The AIs are well-written as well. Hyun-ae is quicker to (over)share what she’d like you to do, and you might end up getting her route first, but you’ll also eventually realize how her selfishness is the root of trouble and reflects her modern upbringing. Mute, the medievalist, is the more difficult character: she focuses on duty first and foremost, and tries to recede into the background and “let you work”, forcing you to come to her and help clarify her duty. As a modern, you’ll see her flaws first but eventually realize how they form part of a coherent whole. And as an AI whose personal longings conflict with her duty, she makes an excellent tsundere.
Oh yeah, and underneath this entire story, and game, is an engine that Love wrote herself, based on RenPy. It’s definitely beyond anything I could program myself at this point and I’m much impressed by what she’s done as a one-woman production house.
I have to head off to bed now and I don’t have time to add any additional thoughts on this game, but I hope to read more reviews in the days to come, and I hope I’ve encouraged anyone on the fence to check it out already.