I was once taught that there were only four stories in the entire world, and the skill of a writer came down to the manner in which that story was conveyed. Video games, whether Roger Ebert believed they were art or not, have been getting more and more interesting in this means of transmission, using control (or at least the illusion of control) to guide players along all sorts of narrative conventions. To be honest, Gone Home‘s story wasn’t the most unique thing ever written–but within the context of a video game, it was daring, and because it allowed the player to move and explore at their own pace, walking in the protagonist’s virtual shoes, that story took on more and more weight, until it had transformed into something more than the binary value at its core. Analogue: A Hate Story pulls a similar trick, and while I still prefer my games to have a healthier dose of puzzle-solving (as with the adventure games I grew up with, or in something modern like Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward), this “visual novel” manages to make file sorting a compelling mechanic.
The basic premise with A Hate Story is that you’ve been hired to fly out to a recently discovered colony ship, the Mugunghwa, and access its data logs and AI to determine what happened when it basically pulled a Roanoke hundreds of years ago. The interface toggles between two modes, a standard text-parsing command prompt with which you can interact with the ship’s electrical systems (and solve light puzzles), and a visual simulator, in which you can talk with one of two AI programs and have them locate relevant files for you to read and download on behalf of your employers. Which letters you get to read, and how the AI characters react to them depends on a Point of No Return choice midway through the game: it’s the one poor design choice in the game, since there’s no real need to split the path.
That said, Christine Love’s writing is excellent, and she offers two unique yet equally compelling slants on the basic story, which explains how a poor, sick girl was awakened from cryostasis into a culture that no longer understood her (and certainly didn’t value women) and pushed into a cycle of hatred and abuse. The majority of the game revolves around simply reading diary entries or letters, and then requesting additional information on certain subjects you’ve just read about (so that you can read some more), and yet it’s both exciting and depressing (given the content) to slowly piece things together. (There are plenty of rabbit-hole tangents, too, such as a “scandalous” encounter between an independent woman and her husband’s courtesan, or about the feud between two rival families.) But it’s important to stress that you aren’t simply reading this, at least not in any sort of linear order. You choose the blocks of letters you want to focus on, and you are responsible with pressing the AI of your choice for additional information–it’s almost as if you are a detective interrogating the author. Moreover, there are puzzles–including a clever timed sequence–that cut into your investigation, as when the ship’s fission reactor starts to overheat, or when you find yourself locked out of the main system. Neither portion is particularly challenging, but simply by dint of being interactive, they serve to further immerse yourself in this world. They allow you to lose yourself enough in the broader science-fiction scenario such that you can honestly believe and sympathize with the feudal story-within-a-story of the Pale Bride.
I’m not one of those people who needs to be tricked into reading a good story, and if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not, either. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to enjoy our reading as much as possible, and thanks to the crisp interface and branching path of Analogue: A Hate Story, we can have the best of both worlds: a book that plays like a game and a game that reads like a book.