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Thoughts On! don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story

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Gosh, it’s been a long time since I posted on here. Sorry about that. Breaking the silence, then, is a lengthy appraisal of Christine Love’s don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. Onwards!

 


Christine Love’s new visual-novel-slash-indie-game, don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, has a lot of characters in it. But the person who’s really important in this lengthy story is you. Not your protagonist, but you.

While this is hinted at from the start, it wasn’t until somewhere around the two-thirds mark that it fully hit home, when I stumbled upon the opportunity to view pornographic photographs of a teenage girl, a student taught by player character John Rook.

It’s only a game, right? It’s only a story. It looks like a visual novel. The character art is of distinctly manga style. What I was going to see would be far tamer than the stuff you just can’t avoid in this day of the internet.

But still: holy fuck.

I got up, and walked around the room a little. I filled up a bottle of water, then sat back down.

If I wanted to view the photos, I needed a password. In what is the only true nod to don’t take it personally’s spiritual predecessor, Digital: A Love Story, you’re invited to attempt to access a private folder, but how to do so is not immediately apparent. What happened next was quite interesting, for a whole multitude of reasons linked to the surprisingly complex story this game tells. I tabbed out, and googled ‘don’t take it personally christine love password’. And I found it, helpfully provided on Christine’s blog.

I looked at the photo. And at the next one, when it appeared. And, finally, at the third. The revealing one.

Rewind. You, John Rook, are a new teacher drafted in some time into the school year. As you start, like in Digital, you’re directed to your email inbox. There, you find a message from the principal, your boss, explaining that in an experimental move all teaching staff have full access to their students’ Amie accounts.

Amie, you might remember, was the name of the operation system you used in Digital. Since then – as it’s now the year 2027, not 1988 – it’s evolved into something akin to an iPhone crossed with an elaborate version of Facebook. This, these days, is how kids spend their time communicating: they fire off messages and leave each other comments on their walls. Your school is giving you full access to the kids’ accounts – private messages and all – in an attempt to stamp out bullying. But it mustn’t get out, the principle says, or there’ll be a media shitstorm.

When I read this, I was genuinely taken aback. That’s preposterous! I wouldn’t look, I told myself. I did look, almost immediately, which says a lot. But, importantly, the thought crossed my mind that I wouldn’t. Presumably because of the limitations of interactive storytelling, this is the crux of don’t take it personally’s only serious issue.

You have to look. At several points in the game, you are forbidden from moving on until you’ve snooped in on the lives of a bunch of children you teach. It’s horrendously voyeuristic. Of course, don’t take it personally introduces a tangible protagonist where, in Digital, you played as yourself. The shift is jarring for a few reasons, but ultimately it’s that the illusion of free choice was shattered as I was forced into the role of a character whose behaviour I found contemptible.

don’t take it personally takes place over the remainder of the school year, with time skipping forward a little between each of the seven chapters. It is, it’s worth mentioning, a considerably longer experience than Digital, clocking in at between 90 minutes and two hours – just shy of twice the length of its predecessor. There’s a central story arc, but it takes a long time to emerge, with a strand that seems central early on quickly vanishing for much of the game. For the most part, this is a snapshot taken of several young people’s lives. Which is kind of how social networking works, when you think about it.

That you have to spy on these kids throughout the duration of the game is problematic, certainly – especially when Love goes out of her way so often to try to offer some freedom of interaction. I’ve played through precisely once so far, so I can’t comment on how much you can change the course of the story, but my guess would be ‘minimally’, and that isn’t necessarily a criticism. What is certainly a problem is that the necessary linearity and the desire to tell a story about a specific player character (and to make him frequently objectionable) make the moments you do have a choice feel like they have less weight than they quite possibly do.

However, what really surprised me is how quickly I found myself being glad of the fact that I couldn’t take the moral high ground. Some of the characters are a little trite, and the story’s resolution is only partly successful (though it’s worth saying that, in many ways, it absolutely works), but this is a game that really brings out some voyeuristic instincts, it would seem. So, yeah, by the two-thirds mark, I strolled around the room, gave it some thought, before deciding that, yes, I would like to see my seventeen-year-old student with her breasts exposed.

It doesn’t take even this long for these interlinking tales to grow to surprising levels of complexity. This is an incredibly dense piece of storytelling, with multiple threads coexisting and intermingling for much of the narrative. It’s often hard to keep track of everything, though the Facebook-style UI helps somewhat.

But that’s part of it’s appeal, and why it works almost as the anti-Digital. That was a story, ultimately, about two people. Well, two characters. One of them was you, and the other was your love interest. It was a game about being young and love being confusing and complicated and terrifying, and how you have to make some big choices to get the most out of it. And it acknowledged that we all have our hearts broken, but that it’s not always someone’s fault, and that things can get better or they can get worse. It was an incredibly, bravely personal story, which, for me, is why it resonated as much as it did (and, for the record, it was my freebie game of 2010).

The clue’s kind of in the name with don’t take it personally. This is a game that makes it abundantly clear that it isn’t your character’s story. Nor, really, is it the story of any of the other characters you meet along the way. Instead, this is the work of a writer who has a lot to say about the communications revolution, the world in which we live today, and how we – as users of this fabulous new technology – interact with and respond to it.

This is a game which asks a lot of big questions, and arrives at some perhaps controversial conclusions. But it also invites the player to look inward and consider how they feel about this complex, sensitive situation that’s growing in front of them. I really, really wish there were a way for me to have guided my character in what I felt was the morally upright direction. But I also think it’s revealing that I decided not to do so, long before I realised that I couldn’t.

It isn’t Digital. It’s much closer to a traditional visual novel, to the point where I spent some time deciding whether to even use the word ‘game’ here. Ultimately, I played it on my computer and I interacted with it, so I decided it was fine, but whatever. The point is, Digital it is not – in its mechanics of play, its storytelling devices, and its presenation.

I don’t think it’s quite as successful as Digital, overall. It grated a tremendous amount to notice the incongruity between the technology of the story and that of the pre-rendered backgrounds. Wooden desks, huge PCs, metre-deep televisions and blackboards in 2027? Really? I think the 4chan parodies that bookend each chapter, while initially amusing, were a misstep. I think that changing the format to something more traditional, while allowing for more complex storytelling, removes what was quite so remarkable about Digital, and I think that the comparative lack of personal investment in the story means that it loses something. I really liked that you could reply to emails in Digital, for example, even if you never got to read what you actually said.

However, it’s a game that’s made me think more than anything outside of BioWare’s work. It is, once again, a game that, when I finished it, I felt immediately compelled to write a huge bloody piece about it. There are holes in don’t take it personally, babe, and I haven’t come away from it quite as enchanted as I’d hoped, but it made me ask a lot of questions about my own moral and ethical beliefs, and even helped to cement a few of them too.

And that’s got to be saying something, right?

Grab don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story from Christine Love’s website.

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14 responses »

  1. Ah, sounds like just my thing. Grabbing it now.

    Reply
  2. I definitely found your description really interesting!

    The important distinction, I think, about the photos is something I think you’ve nailed head-on (and am really glad that came across); it’s not John looking at them, it’s you. There’s no way he could see them, and if he could, then that truly would be over the line. In that instance, the voyeurism lies entirely in the hands of the player. And I think it is pretty important that the player does understand the difference between what the pair is comfortable with being known, and what’s still a secret.

    Not all the choices make a significant impact on the plot, but how you handle Arianna and Charlotte (and possibly Taylor, depending on your decisions) are fairly significant. Whether or not you’re interested in seeing those, I don’t know.

    Reply
    • Haha, now I feel slightly good for not even having bothered figuring out that password :-)

      Its a really nice read though. I quite enjoyed it.

      Reply
  3. I found the password in an even more metafictiony way: by actually typing the second bit.ly link into my browser. I don’t know if Love did it or someone else did, but it redirects to the blog post you mentioned.

    And maybe I’m just projecting it, but the tone of that blog post makes me feel like she’s totally judging me for wanting to see. Chills.

    I think it’s interesting to think about the pictures bit in light of the penultimate scene with Akira and her mother. SPOILERS: it implies that Charlotte must’ve known that Rook seeing those pictures was a very real possibility, but that she frankly just didn’t give a shit. Which makes sense, because who in their generation would?

    Man, what a game.

    Reply
    • Hmm, did it? I mean, as Christine says, that’s the only point in the game at which Rook acts in a manner that is beyond what’s expected of him by the kids.

      The kids just assume that he can see all of their private messages. This, presumably, is why she password protected those files.

      It’s the only point in the game, as far as I can tell, where A) you don’t *have* to snoop, and B) you actually have to go out of your way, outside the game, to do so.

      Put that back on Rook, and it’s the only time he actually actively invades privacy, rather than just glancing over what is essentially in the public domain.

      Reply
      • Hmm. In light of Christine’s response, it’s a bit tough to say. On the one hand, everything you’re saying about how this would be the first time Rook actively invaded privacy is true, but on the other, I find it a bit hard to believe that Rook wouldn’t have access to his students’ full names on some sort of roster or something. I dunno.

        At any rate, I love your observation that it’s more or less the first point in the game where you aren’t required to snoop. It draws a line between the player and character in a really distinct, interesting way.

        And it had the added bonus of making me as Rook feel like a cowardly voyeur who didn’t have the balls to make a move on Arianna but clearly had no problem peeping at high school girls when I (he?) didn’t think anyone was looking.

      • I don’t want to browbeat you with author intent or anything, but it’s worth noting that there are a couple of places where you can see the full class roster for yourself.

        Also, personal anecdote: When I was in high school, the administration had two different versions of my name that they liked to arbitrarily switch between depending on what it was used for. Even when TRYING I could never convince them to get my name right at all, to say nothing of getting them to learn my middle name.

      • Are you Christine’s evil twin using her email address to leave comments? ;-)

      • Did your comment system suddenly change mid-day? It apparently made the post under some bizarre WordPress account I didn’t even know I had! o_O

  4. See, I took the opposite point of view. I really REALLY wanted to play the game the first time through WITHOUT looking at any of the private, or even public, board messages. I even went through the mental exercise of rage-quitting the game in a form of (futile) protest before going back and trying to play it while getting inside Rook’s head (one sick bastard, depending on the route).

    In a meta (or meta-meta) sense, I think it would have been really fun to ignore half the content and struggle to figure out what’s going on without the benefit of any Amie messages. But of course, not reading any posts would only work the first time around. Once read, they can’t be unread.

    Reply
  5. Interesting ideas about the ‘game’ (I am rather reluctant to call it as such).

    When I finished playing I didn’t really focus on much aside from technology and its all encompassing grasp on man. For some reason I found it extremely easy to brush the whole intrusive teacher thing aside and focus on the pettiness of the characters. My own review goes into details but suffice to say I find it amusing how two different view points can come from creative works.

    Very good review as well by the way.

    Reply
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  7. You mention that you could probably only change the game minimally – and while I agree that you can’t really change the end game hugely (the privacy non-issue is still raised) I did not even get access or mention of these pictures that you are referring to, perhaps because in my game Charlotte is single.

    Maybe I had different moral decisions throughout the game as a result, but I’m not entirely sure – what I know is that it’s the first game in a while that has made me think, and thankfully this time I wasn’t sobbing like a little fucking girl at the end of it like I did in digital.

    Reply
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