Here’s the thing: I very quickly figured out what Digital: A Love Story was on about. I could see where the story was headed. I suffered through some sketchy story mechanics.
None of that mattered. In the end, Digital: A Love Story told an affecting story superbly, bolstered by its evocation of a specific moment in online history.
It’s set “five minutes into the future of 1988”, and takes place entirely in the proto-cyberspace of bulletin board systems. You’ve been given a brand new Amie (an Amiga-alike) with a modem, leading you to dial into your first local BBS. You read through the posted messages, replying to one user, Emilia, who’s posted a bit of poetry. As your relationship with Emilia deepens you find yourself hopscotching across multiple BBSes, using phone codes to steal long distance so you can call the ones that are further away.
And that’s all there is to the gameplay, really. You dial into BBSes; you read messages; you hit reply. You don’t even see what you write, only what (if any) response you get. At first I found that approach very distancing, since I didn’t know what I was saying. But as the game went on, I became more and more of a fan of this approach. It helps immersion, since you’re less likely to say, “Hey, I wouldn’t have written that!” It keeps you focused on the other characters in the story. And in one notable exchange between Emilia and me near the end, I was replying to messages as fast as she was sending them and felt like I was having a real conversation.
That helped counterbalance the other glaring weakness in the game. Since the gameplay hinges on you replying to others’ messages, there are times where the story pauses while the game waits for you to read and reply to the right message. At those points, I quickly began lawnmowering through the messages, dialing up every BBS whose number I had and hitting “reply” for every message until the story proceeded again. It’s the same problem often seen with dialog trees in games, where you select every dialog option without paying attention, pressing the conversational lever until you’re rewarded with a food pellet of story. More side-discussions would have helped, like my argument with a guy who introduces his thesis that Japan is taking over everything by saying, “Ni hao, bitches!” At times the game’s world felt empty, every message read and my replies gone unanswered. But, then, that was part of early online culture, where you might send a message to Usenet and see no replies for days, or log onto BBSes with ten users who were more interested in playing door games than chatting.
Why does the game work so well? Digital: A Love Story does two things absolutely right. One, its interaction fits the story being told, even if there are sections that you lawnmower through. The story unfolds, paced by the rate of messages and the occasional light puzzle that you have to work through. Two, it’s rooted in a very particular time and virtual place. It captures the heady days when being able to talk to people on a computer was new and amazing. It’s a tour de force that’s made more astounding by Christine Sarah Love, the author, having been born in 1989.
Digital: A Love Story is free to play, and will take about an hour of your time. It’s a neat demonstration of how digital storytelling can make stories more visceral, and it’s touching and poignant. Go give it a try.