Analogue: A Hate Story

Somehow I get the impression that there are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer-thin layers that fill her complex.Christine Love’s hate story is of course a follow-up to her BBS novella Digital: A Love Story, although set centuries later, in what is only minimally implied to be the same world. My first reaction to it is that it is Portal (Activision, 1986) done right. Seriously, the parallels between the two works run far, if not deep. Both are primarily text-based works with multi-leveled narratives concerning a mysteriously vanished population and the player character’s attempts to recover its history from computer records, aided by an AI guide who unearths more records in response to your reading what’s already been presented. And both are only hesitantly identified by their creators as games. As Love put it in a recent interview: “I always thought that I’d just end up being a novelist. Then everyone told me that Digital: A Love Story was a game, just because it had interactive elements…”

So, what does Analog get right that Portal didn’t? Nonlinearity, for one thing. Like the long novels of old, it contains digressions that illuminate the main plot, but aren’t essential to it, and thus can be encountered at whatever point in the storyline you become curious enough to pursue them, if at all. (Actually unlocking 100% of the text items in this game grants an Achievement on Steam, and it’s an Achievement I haven’t gotten yet despite reaching three different endings.) These take the form of diaries or letter exchanges between various long-dead persons that the AI thinks will interest you, or which will illustrate a point. Like Digital, this is mainly an epistolary novella, and that’s another point that’s an improvement over Portal. Instead of using the AI guide as an interpreter of data with a purportedly neutral point of view, you get the raw source material plus the AI’s interpretation, and get to decide for yourself how much you agree with it.

For your guide doesn’t just have a point of view, she has outright biases. Mind you, they’re biases that no reasonable modern person would disagree with. (You get opportunities to act as if you do, but that’s bound to be role-playing.) The basic idea — and I’m delving deep into spoilers here — is that society on the generation ship you’re investigating had regressed to a monstrously oppressive set of antiquated traditions, specifically those of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, in which women in particular are as a whole no better off than slaves, barely regarded as human and valued only as instruments for producing male heirs. The first AI you meet, *Hyun-ae 1As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI., is actually the digitized personality of a more modern person, a teenage girl brought out of cryo-stasis during this period, repeatedly punished for not being submissive enough, and expected to immediately marry against her will. When she pleaded for her independence, the whole notion was so alien to her family-cum-captors that they could only interpret it as a rebellious and unfilial declaration that she wanted to become a prostitute and bring shame on the family name.

Still, as much as you might feel sorry for Hyun-ae, it’s clear that *Hyun-ae 2The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization. is providing you information selectively, even hiding things from you, in the hope of maintaining your goodwill. There’s a particular technique used in the dialogue 3Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions: sometimes *Hyun-ae will start to say something and then instantly erase part of it. (You have to let the text scroll in, rather than click to make it appear all at once, to notice this.) Also, one of the first text items you uncover is a message from the ship’s previous controlling AI, named *Mute. If you show this to *Hyun-ae, she immediately deletes it. This is all to the good of the work. Secret agendas just make seemingly-friendly NPCs more interesting, as anyone who’s played Planescape: Torment can tell you. But it’s easy to excuse her, because it’s clear that her experiences have made her cagey. She doesn’t fully trust you, doesn’t know if you share the neo-Joseons’ world-view or not.

In the second act, you get to reactivate *Mute, who immediately presents the devil’s advocate position. *Mute is unapologetically in favor of the status quo, dismal subjugation of half the population and all, and furthermore is kind of catty and sleazy about it: when she shares her digressive epistolary tales of tragically unhappy marriages, it’s for the sake of the pleasure of being aghast at how scandalous they are. So you’ve basically got a good girl and a bad girl at this point, except that this is also the chapter where you learn that it was Hyun-ae who killed everyone on the ship.

And most of the rest of the work is spent exploring that in one way or another. You’ve presumably already come to sympathize with *Hyun-ae by this point, but does that extend to forgiving genocide? Admittedly, she was sorely provoked. But slaughtering oppressors and oppressed alike? Ah, but the story points out that the oppressed had internalized their oppression, and were just as culpable as anyone of perpetuating it. Perhaps when a dystopia gets bad enough, blowing the airlocks is the only way out. True, the historical precedent in the Joseon dynasty — which, according to the endnotes, was even worse than what’s seen in the story here — didn’t last forever. But it did last a long time, and Korea at least was part of a world that was generally advancing, while the generation ship is portrayed as stagnant and degenerating in knowledge.

But frankly, I don’t think such considerations are all that relevant to what decisions most players will make. The fact is, *Hyun-ae is a love interest — as the author puts it in the interview cited above, “Analogue is a game where a survivor of horrific trauma falls in love with the first person she meets”. This is very clear from her behavior, and becomes increasingly clear as the story goes on. In the majority of the occasions where she deletes what she’s said, it’s because she’s stated her feelings too directly. And everyone loves a love story, or at least cooperates with one. This is a lesson I think was most clearly taught by Andrew Plotkin’s So Far (which I will now spoil). So Far is a mysterious and surreal text adventure dominated by a repeated motif of things that have to be kept apart, because things will go disastrously wrong if they’re allowed contact. It ends with a question — “Can you forgive me?” — that, in context, signifies an opportunity to reconcile estranged lovers. Despite everything that the player has learned about how the game works, nearly everyone says “yes” to this the first time they encounter it. If we unthinkingly respond this way in a game that’s doing so much to allow us to realize that it’s the wrong choice, what are the odds we’ll choose any differently in one that’s trying to convince us that the computer has a crush on us?

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1. As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI.
2. The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization.
3. Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions

7 Comments so far

  1. Healy on 15 Aug 2012

    This post actually made me break down and finish So Far, so thanks for mentioning it. I just have something to say re: the motif you mentioned: (rot13) Qvq gung zbgvs ernyyl fubj hc gung zhpu? V erzrzore gur onef va gur cbjre cynag, naq gur punfr orgjrra gur encgbe naq gur bgure perngher (nygubhtu V guvax gur ynggre vf na rknzcyr bs guvatf tbvat qvfnfgebhfyl evtug). Jung ryfr jnf gurer? V thrff gur wne bs jngre va gur sebmra frpgvba pbhyq pbhag, nf jryy nf lbhefrys va gur gevor’f ivyyntr. Gur vafgehzrag va gur cnex jbhyq or nabgure tbbq rknzcyr, rkprcg V qba’g guvax lbh svther bhg vgf shyy vzcyvpngvbaf hagvy lbh svavfu gur tnzr. Gura ntnva V cynlrq guebhtu nyzbfg nyy bs vg guebhtu n jnyxguebhtu; vg’f yvxryl gung V zvffrq n ybg.

    What I really liked about So Far, though, was (rot13 again) gur snpg gung oernxvat hc jvgu lbhe tveysevraq jnf n trahvaryl TBBQ guvat. Va zbfg bs gurfr tnzrf nobhg rfgenatrq ybiref, gurve erpbapvyvngvba (be npghnyyl zrrgvat hc va gur svefg cynpr, be jungrire) vf nyzbfg rkpyhfviryl cbegenlrq nf orvat uvtuyl qrfvenoyr; va gur tnzrf jurer vg’f abg, yvxr Oenvq, vg’f hfhnyyl orpnhfr gur ybir vf hanggnvanoyr va fbzr jnl. Urer, gubhtu, abg bayl ner lbh nyybjrq n punapr gb erpbapvyr jvgu Nrffn, ohg lbh’er nyfb fubja JUL vg jbhyq or fhpu n onq vqrn, juvpu tbrf onpx gb jung lbh jrer fnlvat rneyvre nobhg gur bowrpgf gung pna arire zrrg sbe srne bs qvfnfgebhf pbafrdhraprf. V guvax, qrfcvgr nyy gur vafvahngvbaf nobhg vasvqryvgl, gung gung’f gur pehk bs jul gurl pna’g or gbtrgure, gung gurl’er whfg irel onq svgf sbe rnpu bgure.

    Man I’m sorry I hijacked your blog post to write a novel about So Far.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 16 Aug 2012

    I’ll accept that it’s an exaggeration to say that the don’t-let-them-touch motif dominates the game — it certainly isn’t omnipresent. But it’s repeated a bunch, and I’m pretty sure I could come up with a few more instances than you have listed if I played through it again with an eye towards spotting them.

  3. matt w on 20 Aug 2012

    I finally got around to buying and playing this because your post reminded me of it, and…

    SPOILERS

    Did you get the idea that *Hyun-ae had staged the meltdown? It seemed awfully convenient for her; it basically forced me to murder *Mute if I wanted to keep playing (at least, I couldn’t think of a way to save her), and flushing the atmosphere from the ship also seemed fishy. I mean, I suppose the initial message establishes that there’s nothing left alive there, but it certainly felt as though I was reprising Hyun-ae’s last acts.

    All this said, I was about as nice to *Hyun-ae as I could be short of telling her that I loved her, because I felt really bad for her.

  4. Carl Muckenhoupt on 20 Aug 2012

    Hm. I can’t say that this possibility occurred to me at the time. But surely, it didn’t force you to murder *Mute so much as force you to murder *Mute or *Hyun-ae? I haven’t actually tried the *Mute path yet, but apparently there is one. And anyway, I don’t imagine *Hyun-ae would do something so risky as force a decision at that point in the plot, when she’s still so nervous about your reaction to everything she says.

  5. matt w on 21 Aug 2012

    Ah, that’s a good point. I think I missed a lot of dialogue with *Mute, because one of the first things she showed me was something that I wanted to ask *Hyun-ae about, and then the meltdown happened. Though still, there seemed to be some echoes there — turning off life support and flushing the atmosphere (I think if you try to turn on life support while the bulkheads are open in the terminal window, it tells you you can’t do that, so there’s definitely a sense of gaming the computer there), and also deleting *Mute when *Hyun-ae deletes *Mute’s message. But since *Hyun-ae presumably knows that *Mute just told you she killed everyone, that would be the least likely time for her to force a choice.

    I tried a lot to switch back and forth between the two cores to see if I could stop the degradation, but no luck. I wonder if it’s keyed to the system clock.

  6. Carl Muckenhoupt on 21 Aug 2012

    Well, there is an Achievement for rescuing both AIs, so presumably it’s possible. My best guess is that it has something to do with the command for copying AIs between cores, which otherwise doesn’t have any use.

    And yeah, even if the meltdown isn’t causally related to anything *Hyun-ae did, I agree that there’s an echo there, probably a deliberate one.

  7. matt w on 13 Sep 2012

    Just as a late confirmation, the meltdown can happen when you’re talking to *Mute, so it doesn’t seem as though it can be *Hyun-ae’s doing. (I haven’t yet seen if *Mute has you do the same things as *Hyun-ae.)

    Also, boy howdy did I miss a lot of text on my first playthrough.

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