Here’s a strange thing: I’ve taken more screencaps for Analogue than I have for any other game I’ve ever reviewed.
It’s strange because Analogue: A Hate Story, the latest from independent designer Christine Love, is… you know what? I’ll let another screencap explain it. Here’s my folder for Analogue shots:
Not, uh, not much to look at there, huh? Analogue is essentially a text adventure. There are two characters in it. Neither is alive. Neither moves. Nothing moves. You read. And then you read some more.
But it will get your attention, and keep your brain heavily occupied. Because Analogue: A Hate Story is really good, and unlike stories you sit down to read in book form, this one requires that you participate. Getting the story out of Analogue is well worth your time and effort, but by God, you’ll work for it.
Christine Love garnered significant acclaim for her first work, Digital: A Love Story. Then she got even more attention and praise for her second, the fantastic don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. And now she comes semi-full-circle with Analogue: A Hate Story. It’s the first game she’s charged for; I promised, when I called don’t take it personally one of my Games of 2011, that I’d pay for her next work if she elected to charge. She did, and my $15 was well spent.
The thing about Christine Love is that she is a really, really good writer, one capable of astonishing deftness in her work. Traditionally Love’s pet themes have been concepts related to voyeurism and technology; gay and straight relationships; cultural boundaries; women’s rights and issues. Analogue is right up this alley. Love’s work has always been creatively bold, even fearless, and here again she delivers a game experience that’s far from the traditional definitions we associate with the medium but nonetheless powerful in its own right.
Before this wanders into my usual eleven thousand words I’ll do the verdict. Of Love’s lexicon of work, I’d rank Analogue: A Hate Story as my second favorite, behind don’t take it personally, with Digital in third place. Hard to say why. They’re all really good.
Why all the screenshots, then? Well, reader Matt W asked that I review the game but made me promise not to spoil anything. How, then, can I communicate some of what you’ll experience without giving much away? A lot of screenshots and clever cropping. I present them in no order, with no context, and without motive for what I’ve used. Beyond that I can reveal one more thing: Analogue tells a very sad story, about shocking tragedy and unpardonable crimes, about the reversion of a once-progressive culture to something barbaric.
I Hate Everything About You
In Analogue: A Hate Story, you play an interstellar explorer of sorts, who travels the galaxy doing a job that’s somewhere between salvage, research, and historical sleuthing. It’s a good 900 years or more into the future, and your latest assignment has you puzzling over the fate of the Mugunghwa, a monstrous so-called Generation Ship that fell silent six centuries ago and has only recently turned up orbiting some distant star. Built before the faster-than-light technology that’s commonplace in your time, Mugunghwa’s role was to ferry an entire people – you never learn how many, but the sense is several hundred thousand at least – from Earth to a new home. They’re called Generation Ships because whole generations will be born, live out their lives, and die aboard them. Mugunghwa, home to a very large populace of Korean émigrés, had already been operating for more than 300 years and wasn’t anywhere close to its final destination when all contact with it was lost.
Love’s fascination with technology and voyeurism are on full display here. Where don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story had your protagonist reading his students’ emails and private messages, and Digital: A Love Story was all about the anonymity of modern communication, in Analogue, you painstakingly piece together the shards of a catastrophe by reviewing fragmented messages, ship logs, and family trees. The Mugunghwa’s artificial intelligences, *Hyun-ae and *Mute, may be of some help in assembling the puzzle, provided you remember that they also have their own agendas… and, of course, that they’ve been trapped on a derelict spaceship’s mainframe for six hundred years with no maintenance and a steadily dwindling power supply. Neither *Hyun-ae nor *Mute know the whole story, each knows parts. And since they despise each other, and since both are pretty heavily degraded, you can’t expect them to spoon-feed you everything.
Picture it: your nameless character, alone aboard his or her tiny little far-future ship, orbiting a colossal hulk in deep space, poring over messages and notes from a people that died six hundred years before you were born, and three hundred years into a journey that had only just begun when it reached a violent and tragic end. You never board the Mugunghwa, never walk its corridors. You never even see it, or its steel bulkheads, or the corpses that have lain inside for half a millennium. Your entire contact with the ship is through an interface that *Hyun-ae cobbles together upon first receiving your scans. *Mute and *Hyun-ae are in pretty bad shape; they can only communicate with you in binary yes/no exchanges, and occasionally unlock blocks of information that you must painstakingly read, digest, organize, and rearrange into the story of what happened.
You know that first, overwhelming feeling you get upon starting a huge RPG? Like you talk to a bartender and they say something like “To reach Korsohn, head north across the Zinta Bridge – watch out for Neeliks – then bank west at Effulde Hill. You can stop in Minto if you need supplies, and if you do, be sure to say hello to Elbred, the Julk of Hierdahl.” And you’re, like, “Wait… what after north, again?”
Analogue: A Hate Story does that. The colonists were Korean, necessitating a short primer in Korean naming conventions and pronunciation. Follow that up with some tantalizing insights into a “Korean” culture that doesn’t seem to jibe with the Korean culture of the 21st Century… if anything, it seems practically Medieval. The first of many mysteries. And then you’re walloped by a family tree to which you’ll feverishly refer again and again as you pick through the handful of early archives the increasingly bizarre *Hyun-ae releases to you. Heo Min-jun married who again? Yeong-Seok was adopted by… wait… now, is Jung-Su a man or a woman? Han <unknown> hated Ryu Jae-ha, and then there were two hookers and one nameless character called “The Pale Bride,” and then HOLY DAMN, the other AI just gave me another family tree.
I took notes.
Seriously. I can’t remember the last time I took notes to play a game. I take them when prepping for a review, obviously, but that’s more reminders and stuff. In the case of Analogue, I was like a kid with graph paper playing Ultima again. I copied all the genealogies into Powerpoint and printed them out, scrawling in pencil to fill the holes. Once that became illegible, I found a free online genaeology maker and went to town. I also jotted constantly on a legal pad. And, just as with a good RPG, eventually all the disparate concepts and names that I thought I’d never get straight sort of crystallized, and I knew who was part of the Kim family and who was part of the Smith family, and which of the Sang brothers was the drunk and which was the brute; I remembered who was involved in a very forbidden (and really hot) lesbian relationship and who was who’s favorite courtesan and so forth.
And as that happens the mind’s eye opens and you begin to picture these people. You see the incongruity of paper dividers separating “men’s” and “women’s” living areas on a spaceship the size of a city. You smell the lotus flowers in the gardens where the elite walked and carried out business. Analogue achieves a double transport – first, you’re a person sitting in a room in 2012, staring at a computer screen. In short order you stop being that person and become this nameless other, hunkered down in a dark, tiny spaceship, face illuminated by another screen. Then you stop being that person and you’re on the Mugunghwa, six hundred years ago. Or, rather, six hundred years from now. Or whatever.
And I Will Always Hate You
Love’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story divided some players, because she chose to go with an anime style for the art, something which I guess certain people didn’t like, or found out of place or something. It didn’t bother me there and it doesn’t bother me here. There’s something evocative about a manga style. Interestingly, I remember reading or hearing somewhere that autistic people really relate to anime and manga, because there’s a simplicity to the art, but also a complexity – it’s easy to see what characters are feeling, but the presentation isn’t grossly minimalist either.
The rest of Analogue’s presentation is very minimalist. To be honest I liked that too. In fact I think there’s something to be learned about clean, elegant computer interfaces from this game. Of course, you can only really answer A/B questions when you’re talking to *Hyun-ae or *Mute, and the rest of the game’s controls are pretty simple – look at the main menu, look at the family trees, review the Korean culture primer that Love put together, and so forth. It’s funny, though, with so many huge-budget games with crappy interfaces, making it a labyrinth to look at information that should always be at your fingertips, there’s a lesson here. Analogue’s interface isn’t perfect (it would, for example, have been nice to be able to bring up a family tree alongside an email message; it would have been nice if the game included its own note-taking function), but it’s very slick, futuristic – almost antiseptic.
I really, really, really hope that Christine Love makes enough money with Analogue to go more big-budget with her next game. This is not because Analogue comes off as cheap; it does not. I’m thinking about the future. And I’m not asking for a 200-hour epic or anything, but man, her work implies that it’s capable of so much; I’d love to see what she might do if she knew she could afford, say, voice acting in her next game. Again, don’t get me wrong, Analogue doesn’t need it. In fact, voice acting would ruin it… you’re a detective, studying the 30th Century’s version of handwritten notes. I’m not saying this game should have had voices, or that what she’s done so far comes off as low-budget. It’s just that somebody like Christine Love could do something really cool if she were able to approach a whole next project knowing she could try something like voice, or hefty animation, or what have you.
With this in mind, ultimately Love is a novelist, taking advantage of gaming technology to put you in the book without giving you enough control to ruin it. Despite the fact that it’s a slow game – one in which you’ll spend hours at a time reading, then asking an AI what she thinks of what you just read, then reading some more – it has pretty keen pacing. Around a third of the way through there’s a moment that’s genuinely heart-pounding, and it’s funny, during this period, to try and remember that your own character’s life is not in danger.
Analogue: A Hate Story is not really designed to be won or lost. Like a book, it’s designed to be finished. I finished twice – once I completely messed up an obvious situation and wound up with a “The End” about halfway through the Official Story, but it wasn’t a failure. It was just as far as my character had gotten. In fact, I got a thank you message from my employer, and a new job offer, even as the credits rolled.
Those Three Words are Said too Much
The second time I did get to the end, or at least another of the five possible endings. And here in Analogue, much more than in Digital: A Love Story or even don’t take it personally, I kind of got why Christine Love doesn’t just write novels for a living. She could do it, but the fundamental weakness of print is that you’re seeing and experiencing the story exactly as the author wants you to.
Historically some critics have derided games for this very thing – because you’re not experiencing the story precisely as the author wants you to, you’re taking artistic license from that author. I can understand that viewpoint, though I don’t entirely agree. Analogue: A Hate Story demonstrates that there’s a middle ground between total affordance for the consumer and total control by the author. For the vast majority of the game you’re seeing what Love wants you to see, when she wants you to see it. You’re engaged because you’re reading, then consulting characters, then looking at your notes, then reading some more. It’s parceled out to you. And you can miss segments here and there, depending on decisions you make. But all in all this could have been a novel, with a front and a back. I just get the sense that what Love is exploring is the possibility that we can have more: a front, and a back, and different paths leading from one to the other.
You’ll see the almost-but-not-quite-end of Analogue coming. Believe me; I’m nothing special and I knew what was going to happen in the pre-ending ending. In fact the agony was the waiting for what I already knew to be revealed. It was like watching a horror movie, knowing what was about to happen and curious only how awful the director’s willing to get. Love is not gratuitous but doesn’t disappoint – the fate of the Mugunghwa, and the event that precipitated it, is as valid as it is appalling. Then you get to the end-end, and that’s influenced by choices you’ve made. All in all I got a reasonably good one.
So, yeah, if you’re the sort of gamer who enjoys the visual novel style (or if you’d like to try it out); if you don’t mind a dense storyline that really does require a few notes to ensure that you know all the details; yeah, if you’re that kind of person, pick up Analogue: A Hate Story.
It’s intimidating enough that it might drive away those who feel like playing a game without studying it, and despite its more harrowing fiction it will not stay with me the same way don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story will. But if you have $15 to spare and you want to support the truly adventurous among game developers, if you can appreciate fearless writing and a payoff that requires some investiture from you, then yeah, Analogue: A Hate Story is worth the money.
Developer: Christine Love | Publisher: Christine Love | Released: February 2012
Available on PC | Time Played: Finished (two of five endings); about 6 hours
System Requirements: You’ll be fine, don’t worry | Reviewer’s System: Core i7 2600K, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX Ti560
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org