Analogue is an anomaly – a glitch in the system. A ‘visual novel’ almost without visuals, or an adventure game without an inventory or an avatar. Putting you in the far-future shoes of a lone researcher sent to the fringes of known space to investigate the circumstances behind a recently-rediscovered Korean colony-ship’s disappearance hundreds of years ago, you’re tasked with interviewing the on-board AI’s and cross-referencing the crew’s logs to unravel the mystery. It’s a fascinating concept, but does it work as well in application as it does on paper?
Following on from the critical success of Digital: A Love Story, Analogue is the latest bit of interactive fiction by Christine Love – writer, blogger and general wordsmith – and her most ambitious project yet. It’s also her first commercial release, as far as I’m aware, retailing for a reasonable $15, although that figure might put off casual browsers not familiar with her past work. Teaming up with an artist and a musician, there’s a solid soundtrack here and some characterful (if a little trad-anime) artwork to help set the scene. But this is primarily a written tale – an interactive novella with a few branches and twists, and the story and writing are what keep Analogue afloat and your attention held.
As mentioned, your goal in the game is simple – find out why the colony ship Mugunghwa went missing, find out how the crew died, and return to Earth with as much information as possible. You achieve this goal by conversing with two resident AI constructs on-board the ship, archivist Hyun-ae and Security head Mute. The problem is that – due to a plot MacGuffin – the direct conversational interface is malfunctioning. The two AI’s can say whatever they want, but you can only present them with the various documents they unearth for you, and answer their questions in digital yes/no format.
This isn’t the full extent of the gameplay, but it’s the bulk of it. You will occasionally be called to access the system terminal operating beneath the AI’s, running diagnostics on the ship and using typed commands to manually manipulate and decrypt files, but it’s simple enough stuff, even if you didn’t grow up through the DOS era of home-computer gaming. There’s one point where a little mental agility and fairly fast typing may be required, too, but this is otherwise a pressure-free environment. A gentle read, even if the subject matter leans towards the dark side for a lot of the time.
For the most part, you’ll just be reading, studying and trying to understand. The crew left extensive logs, diaries and e-mail correspondences between each other, and it becomes rapidly obvious that something had gone terribly wrong aboard the Mugunghwa long before the mysterious event that claimed the lives of all aboard the craft. At the point where currently relevant logs begin (everything before is lost to the ravages of time), it’s apparent that civilization aboard the vessel had devolved into something quite abhorrently patriarchal – and quite accurately historical – and the characters are written with surprising openness and honesty, broaching subjects up-front and clearly. This is fiction with a message.
While I’ll not say too much about the story itself as it unfolds for fear of spoilers, I will say that Analogue is a tragedy second, and a story about women first – written by one, with the only two visible cast members being female themselves, offering their interpretations of the various male-dominated archive documents, unearthing new avenues of investigation. A bibliography is included to provide a full set of references to the particularly regressive era of Korean history that the inhabitants of the ship seem to be re-living, so it’s a well researched and chilling look at how cruel ‘civilized’ cultures can be, if they lose sight of the ideals of equality and understanding.
While the trials, tribulations and tragedies of the two key political families aboard the ship make up the bulk of the reading in Analogue, the dialogues with the two AI’s – Hyun-ae and Mute – will make up the core of the interaction. As events unfold, you find yourself having to lean in support of one or the other, and your chosen partner’s choice of documents uncovered will paint your perspective of the events aboard the ship, and the conclusions you’ll reach in the end. How you react to their own thoughts on the situation will also steer you towards one of four regular endings as your investigation comes to a close, although a fifth and definitive ending is available to those who think outside of the box and abuse their foreknowledge of both paths.
Analogue isn’t a very long experience. It’s maybe three or four hours long for a first completion, assuming that you read everything presented and investigate all avenues. Further playthroughs – aiming to achieve the other four endings and unlock all the remaining crew logs, aiming for a ’100%’ completion rate – might take one or two hours each, depending on how much text you skip through, assuming that you’re not going to re-read everything you’ve seen before. A voracious reader will chew through everything offered here in an afternoon, but I’m still mulling over the lessons learnt and stories told, so there’s some definite lasting impact to be found here.
It’s tricky to recommend Analogue wholeheartedly as a game, or as a novel. While the writing is good, there’s surprisingly little central narrative outside the many diaries and documents you study, and not much subtlety in your interactions with the two AI’s. The endings also come in a little too quickly, perhaps, with some abrupt decisions having to be made, leaving me wishing that I could say or do more. That said, I found it a fascinating read, and an entertaining story. Educational, too – the historical notes provided have led me to a few uncomfortable discoveries. While I can’t tell you to rush out and buy Analogue now, I can highly recommend that everyone play it’s predecessor, Digital. If you enjoy that, then you’ll get a buzz out of Analogue – easily enough to be worth $15 and a few good hours of your time.
Analogue is available now for Windows, Mac OS X and and Linux PCs.