So, late last night I was prowling columns of interesting writers, and stumbled upon a review for an indie game I hadn’t heard of in the months since its release. The game was Digital: A Love Story, and the concept alone (never mind the praise by Emily Short, the columnist I was reading) was enough to make want to give it a go.
So I did, and then my morning vanished. While I had originally wanted to avoid writing ‘reviews’ here on RRQ, so many good indie games that have cropped up recently that I am unable to review for other sites have made me decide to start doing some individual game coverage here at RRQ – but only for off-beat, unique games that you might otherwise miss if you stick to mainstream sites for your gaming news & reviews.
(Note: There are no spoilers in this review)
Digital: A Love Story has a concept that, in some ways, might seem familiar if you’ve played games like Uplink or the forgettable Hacker games by Activision, at least on the surface. But there’s a major difference – while Digital may involve hacking, that’s just a pretense to tell quite an immersive, fascinating story about… well, a relationship, I suppose. Where Uplink is really just a strategy game, Digital is a story that happens to be in game form – and it’s infinitely more immersive and engrossing in this medium than it would be as a novel or a film.
The game is a sort of sci-fi / hacking story set ‘five minutes in the future’ of 1988. You load the game and promptly find yourself confronted with “Amie Workbench”, which looks suspiciously like the old Amiga Workbench – complete with many of the same quirks. Having been given this shiny, brand-new computer, you are encouraged by the good Mr Wong to dial this fascinating new service called a Bulletin Board System.
The mechanics of the gameplay are simple enough. (And I do mean simple – there are no fancy features like directories for this BBS software, and especially early on you’ll find yourself scrawling phone numbers and passwords on a piece of paper like it really is the late ’80s) But it’s not the gameplay that drives you to keep playing. It’s there to immerse you in the forgotten world of 2400 baud modems, phone numbers and the beautiful (or garish – your mileage may vary) singing of a modems connecting.
Within minutes you’ll be engaged in a number of discussions on this local bulletin board, including the most important one - a strange, text-only relationship with a girl who calls herself Emilia and seems quite lonely.
As this relationship develops, the story kicks into high gear and you’ll find yourself dealing with dictionary-based password brute-forcing, system exploits, C-compilers and angry sysads who don’t like you turning up on their BBS uninvited. As you get better at hacking and find yourself breaking through US Sprint’s calling card services to hack across state lines and even making it out onto an early version of ARPANET, you’ll find yourself in a unique position to help the enigmatic Emilia with one of the most difficult problems she’s ever faced.
The method of communication with other people in the game is unique – you hit ‘reply’ to a message and, rather than typing something or selecting from some sort of discussion tree, your ‘character’ then fires off an email which you never get to read. This is a fascinating thing, because it means you’re generally reading just one side of a conversation, and through the subject-lines and the different characters’ responses, you’re left filling in the blanks to figure out just what your character said to illicit such a reply.
It’s hard to go into detail about much else without spoilers, but suffice to say that Digital is the most unique piece of interactive fiction (yes, I’m going to call it that despite its graphical nature) I’ve played since I first enjoyed Adam Cadre‘s Inform pieces.
There are some anachronisms in the game if you’re an anal ’80s/BBS/old computer snob but they almost seem deliberate – smirking comments, jabs and pop-culture references rather than oversights or mistakes.
I cannot recommend this game highly enough.
If you’ve played the game (it’s free! and available on all three major computing platforms!) and want to read some more eloquent people than I discuss the many merits of the game, here are a few pieces that (unlike mine) do go into spoiler territory: The Missing Protagonist by Emily Short or a review by Kieron Gillen at Rock, Paper Shotgun.