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?