Visual novels fall into my category of Games That Make You Read. They’re interactive stories, originating from Japan. I’ve been introduced to the genre via the work of Christine Love and have read three of her visual novels – Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus.
Digital: A Love Story is set in the world of 1988 bulletin boards. You are a young hacker exploring what this world has to offer. Almost immediately, you meet *Emilia. You don’t realise it, but she is an AI. She tells you she’s running away from home and then she disappears. It turns out her disappearance is connected to a virus that is killing AIs. This story premise is strong, but it’s not built out in any meaningful way.
The majority of the game happens via emails and messages, including ones that your character writes. But a particular limit of the game is that you don’t write these messages and you never see what your character has written. You work out what you’ve said by the replies that you receive. This approach did not make me feel connected to the game. Obviously, to let the user have the ability to type anything they wanted would be very complicated. There would have to be very sophisticated natural language processing running in the background. But a compromise would be to let the user see what their character has written. I didn’t have that ability and I discovered I wasn’t prepared to put the work into figuring it out on a detailed level. Instead, I moved through the game very fast. I focused very little on the story or the writing and was only interested in the information I needed to destroy the virus.
What I did like though was the use of the bulletin boards. I liked logging onto them and reading the mails that gave me clues as to how to log onto other boards. The clues were such things as long-distance telephone codes, password generators and knowledge about how to guess passwords. Love uses these kinds of game mechanics very well.
Analogue: A Hate Story is set aboard a spaceship called the Mugunghwa. The entire population of the ship died hundreds of years before the story and you are a researcher, reading the ship’s logs to find out what happened. There are two AIs on the ship *Hyun-ae and *Mute and they give you access to the files. The two AIs do not get on. And part of what you need to uncover is why *Mute is so angry with *Hyun-ae.
As you read, you discover that this was a society that overtly repressed women. But through *Hyun-ae’s character you also discover that it wasn’t always like that. Something happened that caused this change, though you never find out what that was.
As with Digital: A Love Story, I loved the strong central premise behind the story. But I had some big problems with the writing. The characters are supposed to be Korean and from a couple of thousand years in the future. But they talk like American teenagers from the late 20th Century. This is particularly true of the two AIs and it was a barrier to me ever fully suspending disbelief in the story.
I also found *Hyun-ae to be very annoying. She interrupted my reading to tell me minor things and she used a lot of words to say what she wanted. I found myself asking “What?!” every time she tried to get my attention. And she says the word “sorry” in almost every sentence. This lends her an air of being passive and submissive. But when you read the logs she’s involved in, you see that she was once very mouthy. Perhaps there are reasons for the change in her character. But there is no character development even hinted at within the story.
She also fell in love with my character almost straight away. This was also true of *Emilia in Digital. I didn’t understand why this happened either time. Neither of the AIs had a chance to even get to know my character before they were professing love. Again, this is down to poor character development.
What I liked most about this game, as with Digital, were the game mechanics. The game gives you access to a command line and at one stage in the story you have to use it to save the ship. I also liked, a lot, that different endings are unlocked based on what you do or don’t say to the AIs. I want to underline that. The way you choose to interact with the AIs determines your path through the game. That’s a piece of interactive brilliance that sets this work apart. Whatever problems I may have with the narrative or the writing or the character development, it’s the thinking behind this game that points a way to the future.
Hate Plus is a continuation of Analogue: A Hate Story. It starts where Analogue finished, you’re on your way back to Earth with whichever of the two AIs you decided to take with you (or the circumstances of the game decided you’d end up with). If you found the hidden ending, you may even have both AIs with you.
In the world of the game it takes three days to reach Earth. And it also takes three real-time days to play the game because with the dwindling power supply on your ship there is only so much you can get done before you have to finish for the day and let the power restore. At this point the game enforces your time away by requiring you to wait 12 hours before you can play again.
You spend these three days reading files that your AI has found for you. These are files that go back to an earlier era of the ship and explain the unanswered question in Analogue – what happened to this once open society that made it become so repressive towards women?
The problems I had with Analogue are still there in Hate Plus. These Korean AIs of the far future talk as if they’re teenagers from the late 20th Century. And once you get reading the transcripts in the files, you discover the government officials also had a tendency to lapse into that kind of speak.
What I liked about Analogue, the command line interface, is gone. There is nothing constructive you can do in the world of this game except read the files and click on the relevant answer on the dialogue wheel you’re presented with when the AI wants to talk to you.
But there is something constructive you can do in your world. If *Hyun-ae is your AI, on day three she asks you to bake a cake. And she wants you to bake that cake. If you say you’re going to do it, she expects you to do it and will call you out if she thinks you’re lying to her about whether you’re making it or not. I found it very charming that the game required me to bake a cake. I had the choice of her recipe or mine and I chose hers – in fact she told me it was her mother’s recipe. I slightly adapted it to cut down the amount of sugar and butter it specified and I discovered that I needed to cook the cake for much longer than it said, but it turned out to be one of the nicest cakes I’ve ever made. I’ve since made it a second time.
I’m not sure if it was as a result of her giving me the nicest cake recipe in the world, but I didn’t find *Hyun-ae to be so annoying in this game. I think she was more to the point and less apologetic. I could also see that she was quite sweet, underneath the annoyingness. *Mute is a harsher character, but paradoxically more immediately likeable. Her views are objectionable but her directness can be a blessing after *Hyun-ae.
I also played the option of having both AIs on the ship with me. I liked the interaction between them, it provided a distraction from having so many files to read and so little else to do.
Analogue and Hate Plus are interesting but flawed works. I love the central idea and I haven’t mentioned the aesthetic, but they both look great. And as I’ve said, the gameplay in Analogue has moments of brilliance. But I don’t like the writing. Christine Love can write, but it doesn’t appear to me that she has engaged in a complex way with her characters’ voices or their overall development. Also, I can’t help but notice that from *Hyun-ae in Analogue to Oh Eun-a in Hate Plus, women are the cause of major problems in the society in a way that panders to traditional viewpoints. I won’t spoil *Hyun-ae’s story but I will say that Oh Eun-a is almost like Eve, only she hides the apple instead of offering it. It’s not that I think that women can’t be evildoers, but I’m wondering why Love has chosen such stock villains for her female characters.