The clock’s ticking ceaselessly onwards towards 2AM, and I planned to go to bed over an hour ago. I didn’t, and now I can’t, because the urge to write something about Digital: A Love Story has completely overtaken any fragment of sensibility that might consider the fact I have to be up to work in the morning. This evening, I’ve spent a genuinely brilliant hour in the company of this genuinely brilliant indie game, which… well.
It needs not to be spoiled. Like, at all. The sensible part of my brain says I should just stop here, throw a link on the table, and let you discover the whole thing for yourself. That’s how I played it, and that’s really how I think you should play it too. Know only that it’s a free PC game set in the late 1980s, and you’re presumably a teenager, and you’ve just got hold of your first computer. And know that from this point onwards, because two paragraphs really doesn’t feel like enough to write about this game, spoilers (which I really will try to keep minor) may lurk.
It’s here! Download it. And then come back. Or, if you’re really not convinced, read on, but in the knowledge that your experience may be slightly sullied, and it’ll be no one’s fault but your own.
It’s not that I’m going to give away huge chunks of its staggeringly effective plot. I’m not. I might give you a vague overview of the set-up, and tell you it’s the early days of bulletin boards, your dad’s friend has supplied you with a modem and cable, and you get talking to an artsy young lady who writes poetry and thinks she might quite like you. There’s more to it than that, though, which is pretty much a spoiler in itself. The first ten minutes of Digital – which lasts for something like an hour – didn’t particularly impress me. The writing is nice, the concept neat, but there’s no sign of it doing anything remarkable. Which is why it is remarkable, and is why spoilers are inevitable through even the tiniest discussion. It goes somewhere I genuinely didn’t expect. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is it? Well, think a stripped-down Uplink, with real shades of the more artful and meandering text adventures, Photopia in particular springing to mind. Using your retro 80s interface, you’ll connect to bulletin boards, read messages, exchange emails and – when the story kicks in – even indulge in the odd spot of auto-hacking. It’s kinda hands-off, your input literally restricted to typing in a series of phone numbers for the majority of the game. It’s more about scanning, and reading, and discovering than it is about playing.
And I think I’d like it to have been more interactive. That sounds like a big U-turn, given that I’ve screamed “Why should games be interactive?” recently. But this is slightly different, in that it simulates that interactivity, leaving you eager to engage with it more. You’re not just reading messages. You’re expected to believe that you’re sending messages too, even though you never actually see what your character has written. Much of the game is a series of extended electronic conversations, and that you never get the chance to actually partake in these – even though I can’t think of a sensible way of making that work – grates a little.
The reason Digital works so well despite this is that it is incredibly good at making you feel resourceful, clever and heroic, without your actually having to do anything. The cogs working the magic are fairly straight-forward: the game waits until you trigger the next sequence, on purpose or by accident, and then sends you into the next thread of the story. Much like an adventure game, then. But it’s rare that it does seem to be by accident, and when it does, it never seems arbitrary. The long, purposeless waits for the game to throw you the next important email become – um – long, purposeless waits for an important email. You know, like all the time in real life.
And when Digital does feel like something you’re properly involved in – when you finally come across that piece of vital information in a message, or use your hacking device to grab the password to a forbidden messageboard – you’re at once a computer whizz, a save-the-world hero and, importantly, that teenager, sitting behind his first computer, watching in awe as all these streams of code combine together to create something magical, and wondrous, and exciting.
It helps that it’s incredibly well-written – by Christine Sarah Love, who also writes lots of online fiction – and tells a story that really strikes a chord. It works on the same sort of pulp sci-fi level as… no, you know what? I’m not going there. Just referencing a game it reminds me of will totally spoil it. And, with that, I think I’m out of things to say.
It isn’t perfect. The interaction feels too limited, and there are occasional moments at which the game doesn’t explain itself well enough. But it really is something. It’s a remarkable, quirky and impressively original piece of work, which you should play immediately.
You should have played it without reading this first, though.