Digital: A Love Story is available for free for PC platforms. You can download it here.
I love me a good bit of interactive fiction, from the choose-your-own-adventure-like visual novel genre all the way up to in-depth open-ended role-playing like seen in Morrowind or Mount & Blade (and, technically, just about any video game with even a cursory story). A lot of that affection goes back to old play-by-post forum role-playing games, which consumed huge swaths of my free time in high school and even into college; I suspect that to be a substantial part of why creative writing is now a consistent hobby for me in the form of this blog.
Unfortunately, in the context of video games, it always feels like there’s some degree of separation between the fiction itself and the delivery method. Visual novels and their related ilk, while very heavily weighted toward their narrative, also play out a lot like illustrated books in how they tend to dump chapters upon chapters of text on the player-reader, with very infrequent input in the form of multiple-choice selections (with a few notable exceptions). Then you have the more “game-y” games, which regularly cordon their plot off into non-interactive scenes, giving the player control only between important story beats and a few rare properly-integrated moments.
It seems easy for a game to fall on one side or the other, but incredibly difficult to reach a proper middle ground – and most of the time, it actually works just fine. After all, I’ve covered something in the neighborhood of twenty-five different games in eleven months on this blog, and I think I’ve only brought up the gameplay-story segregation problem once indirectly.
But it being so uncommon makes games that do bridge this gap well that much more notable.
Games like Digital: A Love Story.
What struck me about it on reflection is that Digital feels less to me like the visual novel that it’s been billed as and more like a new, more modern take on old 1980s text adventures – which, in turn, are probably the closest video game genres on the whole to properly bridging the story-gameplay gap, aside from perhaps the odd cases of a few player-driven simulation games.
And it’s funny that it should remind me so much of text adventures in particular, since Digital is also so heavily informed by its setting in the internet landscape of 1988.
It’s a story told almost entirely through e-mails and BBS posts, the latter of which mostly predates me but is nevertheless so darned distinctive that the game’s framing as taking place through an MS-DOS desktop is completely unmistakable. And doubly conveniently, you interface with the game in exactly the same way as you do with a personal computer every single day – there’s absolutely no abstraction in place, no “X to Jump”. The mouse controls the mouse, and keyboard inputs type keyboard inputs. Everything about it is 1:1 with the real world in a way that no other game in memory is.
And that fiction is very well-guarded. Inside the context of the BBS chatrooms and emails that you hop through to progress the narrative (which, again, is a strong aesthetic choice for a 1980s-set game), you interact with every other character in the game’s limited cast through one side of emails and chat room messages. The writing style applied to each message gives you a flavorful feel for each character’s disposition – each informed by pre-AOL internet culture – while maintaining a terse, “quick-hit” style of exposition that casually reference elements true to history (specific computer worms, long-distance calling cards, ARPANET, and the like) and rarely exceed a paragraph or two in order to keep the story’s focus nice and tight in a way that doesn’t reek of scriptwriting.
So Digital, in a way, tears down its own fourth wall – and not in Deadpool’s smarmy way or how a certain recent visual novel blurs that line for shock value. Instead, by choosing a framework that comes across as natural and native to the real world, Digital invites you into its fiction without asking that you uproot yourself from your normal frame of mind, which in turn helps mute the mental nag that the current situation might be a pre-baked story. There’s never even any dialogue made on your behalf, with the text of your emails and messages being implied at most (left deliciously to the imagination) and making the protagonist’s only definitive actions those directly taken by the player.
On top of that, it really helps that Digital doesn’t task you with typical game-y challenges to progress.
It’s not testing for reflexes, reaction time, or tactical ability. It doesn’t ask you to make multiple-choice dialogue selections to traverse a decision tree.
Instead, it’s testing your reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.
In other words, mental abilities that most of us use in our actual, every-day lives.
And, like problem-solving in real life, the path toward a right answer isn’t necessarily clear, with the game being perfectly happy to let you work out complicated sequences and poke around the space available to you for as long as you need, naturally feeling moments of despair whenever a lead goes cold or you hit that ever-important “eureka!” moment. On that same note, you’re never pressured into making any particular move at any particular moment. Of course, some actions are necessary to progress, but the game is perfectly happy to sit back and wait until you do so naturally, either through drive, desperation, or sheer curiosity.
Even if those actions are immoral or flat-out illegal.
Which, again, feels like a seriously heavy thing to do in a game that’s grounded itself in the same history as the real world, with all of its same natural limitations.
So much so that I sat for several minutes looking for various ways to subvert the consequences of the game’s ending before finally resigning myself to its scenario and having to pull a metaphorical trigger with my own hands, an execution-style choice that I haven’t had to face since Snake Eater’s emotionally-harrowing climax.
Speaking of, there’s a parallel between the two in their dual-pronged endings. In both games, you’re tasked with doing something personally devastating that will nonetheless prevent suffering for unseen millions. And in both, I had completely disregarded the wider stakes of the final moments, albeit for slightly different reasons.
Here, I had bought so completely into a world that was presented to me every bit as organically as the interactions I have over the internet day-to-day. I’d known the opposite protagonist of Digital for all of two hours, but I was so involved in how I was directly addressing the judiciously-presented plot that all its elements felt real within just a few brushes up against them.
Ultimately, it invested more in its low stakes, the ones that I could grapple with and internalize in a natural way, which is what made them matter.
Digital is such a unique and poignant take on the visual novel format that its scarcely recognizable by the common image of the genre. And while I don’t know that it’s a perfect choice for every visual novel, let alone every story-focused video game, it makes me wish that more games would be bold with their presentation in the same way.
If nothing else, it’s a massively beneficial role model compared to what we might put in the spotlight.