Analysis: Examining Digital: A Love Story
I am a great fan of games that tell stories about particular protagonists, or that encourage the player to help define the protagonist into a well-formed character. In general, I think the move away from protagonists who are purely stand-ins for the player is a move towards more specific, compelling stories.
But all such generalizations have exceptions: the freeware 'computer mystery/romance' Digital: A Love Story works entirely because it leaves "you" blank.
The story, set in an alternate version of the late 80s, begins with the protagonist receiving a modem and a dialer from his or her uncle. All game play consists of manipulating the virtual desktop, discovering the world of bulletin boards, sending messages and downloading applications and dialing more and more new numbers.
Almost at once, we find ourselves exchanging messages with Emilia, a would-be poet who reads as an emo teenager, self-dramatizing yet maddeningly vague about her feelings and problems. An awkward semi-romance springs up, with Emilia hinting with annoying coyness at her feelings for the protagonist.
Now, what is brilliant about this is that the game never shows us the protagonist's emails to Emilia, only her responses -- which makes the whole business both more relatable and less saccharine. Indeed, the whole interface of the game removes as much as possible any sense of perceiving the story through a viewpoint character.
A text-based game would have to have some kind of narrative voice; most traditional forms of graphical game would have shot framing, lighting, editing, and art style to communicate subjective moods. Digital: A Love Story gives us only the simulated interface of the computer on which the protagonist is working: an object from within the fictional world, captured as accurately as possible while limiting the affordances of that object to what can be done in the game.
Thanks to this rigorous absence of subjectivity, it's possible to imagine the protagonist any way we like. He or she could be an equally lovestruck teen, or someone a bit older and steadier who tries to offer her some advice and support (which she obviously needs) without exactly reciprocating her naive attachment. It's impossible to tell.
Fortunately, that doesn't matter.
Massive spoilers for the whole game follow after this point, so you should not read on unless you've played. (It won't take too long -- it's a work of a few hours at most.)
The important thing in this love story is not what your protagonist feels about Emilia, but what she feels about the protagonist. This isn't really a story about a relationship; it's a story about Emilia's capacity for caring for people (including the protagonist), and what she chooses to do about it.
Because Emilia is an artificial intelligence, the feelings that might be trite from a human being are surprising in her -- and her self-sacrifice solidifies her claims to being a genuine thinking and feeling being.
The protagonist is more witness than participant in Emilia's emotional evolution, which is why it's effective to leave him (or her) a blank slate. The only point at which we either observe or control the protagonist's feelings toward Emilia is at the very end of the game: we can choose whether (and how many times) to send her messages protesting her decision to destroy herself before we finally decide to carry out her wishes. That protest functions as an acknowledgement of the personhood that she has claimed by demonstrating empathy and altruism.
Besides, the Noble Self-Sacrifice scenario is well-worn, and it's hard to make it work without it feeling a bit manipulative. Creating effective emotional moments in games (as in movies and books) is often more a question of what gets left out than what gets put in: close-up depictions of grief or, worse, self-pity are off-putting and even embarrassing to watch.
So it's helpful at this point in the story that we don't get any kind of "reaction shot" of what the protagonist is supposed to be feeling -- and we don't expect one, because we've never had any access to his/her moods or dialogue.
Emilia herself takes exactly the attitude I would expect from a person of her character -- though no doubt genuinely frightened and determined and meaning to save her family, she shows more than a hint of fascination with her own nobility. She remains the AI version of an angsty teenager up until the end, the kind of character who would enjoy imagining her own funeral.
But here again she's written with considerable restraint. Her messages are always brief, and while that was a little unbelievable during the getting-to-know-you stages of the "relationship", it's a blessing when we come to exploring her self-sacrificial choice.
At the end of the story, I came away imagining the protagonist as someone who was not, and never had been, in love with Emilia in any meaningful sense; who had always regarded her as immature at best; who had no delusions about the possibility of a fulfilling romantic relationship with a computer program; but who nonetheless was surprised, amazed, and saddened by what that computer program was able to do -- who she was able to be.
The fact that, at the end, the other AI poet Desdemona chose to regard us as star-crossed lovers? Just a sign of Desdemona's own subjectivity and imagination.
[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]