Individual Work
Digital: A Love Story

“Digital: A Love Story” (DALS) is a mystery/romance visual novel created by Christine Love, an independent Canadian visual novel writer. It is a work of interactive fiction that can be downloaded online and viewed through a web browser for free. Set "five minutes into the future of 1988", the story takes place entirely within the Bulletin Board System (BBS) of an Amine computer using the Workbench operating system. The graphics replicate technology of the period through ASNI art and utilize real-life technological events as inspiration for the story such as the Creeper and Reaper programs. The music also follows this style, using 80’s synth and computerized notes to evoke nostalgia for the technology of that period, with the songs being composed by multiple independent artists. The message boards you visit online and the emails you receive and send make up the entirety of the game’s setting and visuals, with the responses the player gives and the amount of time passing in-universe left up to the player to understand through context cues. The gameplay consists of the player reading emails and sending responses, though the only typing you do is dialing numbers or creating user accounts to access local websites.

The game use’s themes of people creating connections not just through technology, but with that technology, with both the mystery of an online conspiracy and romance with Emilia working into these ideals. Many voices are available to find across the BBS, from the plot-crucial characters to the mundane and humorous bit users who use the boards to argue, forming various connections between them and the player. The player is entirely featureless, and the game wishes you to use your real name when creating your account as the first action in the game, making this engagement central from the start of the game. Little details such as restarting the game to update the in-universe software also take this engagement to the gameplay. While it remains a simple point-and-click style throughout, the player progresses through interacting with the game as if it were a real computer system.

Within the current era, social interaction through the internet has become an exceedingly common event, with there countless forums and platforms to converse and share with other people online. The player can never see anything else besides the computer, so the only means to connect with the work is through the text. The character of Emilia could be seen as a representation of this sentimental connection, being the emotional core of the story and one of the first and last characters you talk to, acting as the key for the player into the greater plot of the game. That she first greets the player through some poetry invokes images of many other e-literacy created around the '80s, such as “First Screening: Computer Poems” by J. B. Hohm, so she can also be seen as a connection to older forms of digital poetics. The game is subtitled "A Love Story." Hence, feelings of romance are integral to the game's image, being a display of love blooming through technological interaction that would have been impossible to occur without the BBS.

Yet, the technology also limits the characters. The bugs and oversights of the programmers behind BBS and other software create the central conflict within the story, while the player and other online users hack their way around the BBS to help. The internet presented in DALS has a dual nature where it creates connections that would have never been possible before but must also be broken beyond the intents of its creators to try and achieve true freedom. This extends to the player, as they have no control over how the story unfolds, being confined both by the limits of the technology and Love’s story, preventing the game from being ergodic. These methods and ideology of connection through technology call towards George P. Landow’s views of the freedom presented using hyperlinks, where such technology would allow the reader more control over the content they have and share (Landow, “Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology”). Yet, much like how a user to still bound by the predetermined information available through the hyperlink, the player is bound by the game’s story, having a manufactured view of online freedom that they cannot make full use of.

Reviews were overall positive, with outlets such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun praising the story and player engagement, and most criticism being pointed towards the sometimes confusing navigation of the computer interface. It won some accolades on lists by multiple publishers, such as earning an honorable mentation in Gamasutra's "Best Indie Games of 2010" list.

DALS's atmosphere calls for a more intimate time of online conversation where people could connect and from long distances away, for petty and personal reasons, but cannot precisely replicate the complexities of human connection. Much like the love story between the protagonist and Emilia, the player can reach for this connection, but never hold onto it.

Author statement: 
A computer mystery/romance set five minutes into the future of 1988. I can guarantee at least ONE of the following is a real feature: discover a vast conspiracy lurking on the internet, save the world by exploiting a buffer overflow, get away with telephone fraud, or hack the Gibson! Which one? You'll just have to dial in and see. Welcome to the 20th Century.