#oneaday, Day 325: Interactive Fiction

There’s a lot to be said for interactivity (or at least the illusion of interactivity) in storytelling. It allows things to be done that are simply impossible with non-interactive media such as books, TV and film.

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon playing Digital: A Love Story, a wonderful game set on the desktop of an Amiga “five minutes into the future of 1988”. If you haven’t played it yet and are intrigued by the premise, I suggest you play it before reading on, because I’m probably going to spoil some things about it. I’ll try not to be too explicit.

At the outset of the game, the player is the proud recipient of a brand-new “Amie” computer with a built-in modem. Your benefactor also provides you with a phone number of a BBS that you might want to check out. And so the story begins with the player dialing into the BBS, complete with terrifyingly authentic-sounding dial and modem tones screeching from your computer’s speakers. The player quickly gets friendly with a person named Emilia and things develop quickly in a manner that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever had an online relationship.

All is not as it seems, however, and the player, through a bit of investigation, discovers that there are strange things at work. The BBS crashes, and there is no way of getting in contact with Emilia. Just prior to the crash, she said she was “leaving home” and “getting out”. Thus begins a quest across several BBSes, ARPANet and Sprint’s long-distance calling-card system to track down Emilia and discover what happened.

The game is completely linear. Things happen in a set order, right up to the ending, when the player is faced with an inevitable conclusion that there really is no way around. At this point, we reach one of the most powerful things that gaming can do, and ironically one of the least interactive things about narrative games.

Offer the player the opportunity to do two things: do something, or walk away. Walking away is usually not an option, though Heavy Rain managed to convincingly offer this as an alternative at several points throughout its narrative. Digital: A Love Story, however, makes it abundantly clear that there is only one course of action open to you, and it’s an unpleasant one. Given the great pains that the game has taken up until this point to make you “feel” for the characters involved, despite being based around screens of text, it is difficult to make that final mouse click.

This is something you just can’t do with a book. Stopping halfway down the page and printing “Turn the page to see what happens next” is not an established literary convention, nor should it be. Same with TV and film; with those media, we’re just along for the ride. It’s the reason very few books save the Fighting Fantasy and Choose Your Own Adventure series are written in second-person perspective.

But with a game, the player has been driving the story all along, even if there is only really ever one thing they can do at a time to advance the plot to the next “event”. That illusion of interactivity allows the player to be all the more invested in the story, as if they’re part of the game world. This is further aided in titles such as Digital: A Love Story, which don’t break “character” for a moment. As far as the player is concerned, they’re using an Amiga… sorry, “Amie”. They’re not playing a game, they’ve been transported back in time to 1988, a land of 320×200 graphics, questionable multitasking capabilities and scanlines.

The ending of Digital: A Love Story is bittersweet and if you’ve engaged with the game up until that point in the way it is intended to be engaged with, you’ll find it genuinely emotionally affecting. It’s always interesting when a title which looks so unassuming can actually end up being more powerful than self-consciously “epic” CG cutscenes and over-the-top orchestral music with people singing in Latin.

So, if you remember 1988, if you ever had an Amiga or you remember the golden age of the BBS, check out Digital: A Love Story. It’s free, and well worth your time.