I’m going to have to be honest, while I enjoyed and navigated as much as I can through both Digital: A Love Story and Inanimate Alice, I lost track of the time. I was engrossedly inside the world of the former. So much so that I spent the most time out and, and I really want to talk about my experience with it.
First, a song to fit the mood while reading (not required but I listened to this soundtrack while writing this out so it feels integral to getting my thoughts across):
Digital: A Love Story takes the form of a visual novel, or another form of digital books. These kinds of programs often ask the reader to scroll through pages of texts in an organic manner to feel involved in the world, making decisions and feeling like you are one with the narrative. That is how this story is structured, you are in the role of a ‘faceless’ person (much like online personas) and are tasked of getting used to the new computer you have been given.
Basic interface operates just like the computers of yesterday, complete with blue-and-white menus and dial-ups. In fact, scanlines help create a stronger emphasize for nostalgia by recreating CRT display monitors. The music that boots up alongside the game are even done with sound chips, so you are always accompanied by chiptune that feel like it came from the older days of technology.
Crucial aspects are the Messages and Dialer tabs, in which most of the interaction and the story comes from. Digital also asks for you to create a username to get started, which is also reminiscent of how online interaction works. I say interaction, but it relies on the user to open ’emails’, view its contents, and ‘replying’ (in which there is no direct input) and it follows a cycle of logging in to numerous servers and responding to emails. I’ve done this enough times that I memorized each phone line by memory, never needing the ‘notepad’ feature that I was given a little while in.
At first, I did not expect much from the narrative. Everything worked to create a simulation of old online chat rooms, complete with nonsensical posts, FAQs and direct messages from admins, and basic ‘human’ interaction in the form of a faceless love interest. I thought that was it, and I was close to leaving the story early until I found several messages about hacking and taking down sites. At this moment the love interest (I think her name was Emily?) confessed her love to me, odd considering that we have never met face-to-face, but it was the ‘internet’ so I didn’t think much of it. I replied and awaited her email, but when I logged into the familiar chat board I was immediately greeted with a crashed webpage, and no recurring logins helped to get me back in. I then remembered that I was given a number for another site, as well as important ‘codes’ that I needed to find other hidden ones, and from there I fell down a rabbit hole that took me to a hacker site and a conspiracy of sorts. It was here where I couldn’t put the game down.
It wasn’t just the narrative hooked that got me, it was more like a moment of realization clicked into my head when I realized each moving part of the hypertext worked in tandem to create this illusion that I was really ‘online’ and how I can ‘game’ the system to my favor. I found myself visiting many more sites after, decoding each passwords and working out whatever new programs I was given to make it so. It felt like I wasn’t following a linear path, but that Digital gave me all the tools I needed and a tutorial to teach me before it thrusted me out there alone, trusting my decision making.
It’s kind of funny when I think about it, I’m using a Windows 10 laptop and I didn’t feel like I was in the year 2020, it created this escapism to an older time that I swear I was kind of miffed yet impressed that the game tricked me into thinking so. It’s a hallmark of a great story, when I couldn’t remember where I was after I finished.
The entire aesthetic felt nostalgic of course, especially for anyone who had experienced the infancy of the internet. While I won’t give out my age, I remember distinctively at a young age I was witnessing the transition to technology in everyday life. I grew up with the basics, books and bulky TVs for entertainment and rotary phones in my household. I remember when the computer was first brought into our living room, and how me and my siblings were both terrified and fascinated by what we witnessed. I’m not that old, but I feel like my experience transitioning with technology shaped my feelings and navigation of the piece, like I was whisked away back to my youth and rediscovering the power of the technology before me. As I write this out, I can’t help but appreciate how far life has gotten now and the years that we all have been through to get here. If I can be real for a second, I felt kind of sad reading Digital.
When thinking of how I represented the experience in my head, I came across this Neo Conceptual Art piece and it perfectly represents the image in my head:
It feels retro yet fascinating. Like it’s clear it is a relic now representing outdated ideas, but it cannot be helped to feel amazed at how this one piece of technology paved the way for how everyone lives now.
Going off-tangent really briefly, this piece actually reminded me of another visual novel I played. It is one of my absolute favorite games of all time and I feel it is relevant to my experience going in this (it’s also related to the music I embedded above):
VA-11 Hall-A (or Valhalla) is a modern visual novel where the player is also tasked with experiencing the narrative by engaging proactively and making decisions that alter the story. It aims for an old cyberpunk aesthetic, with an interface imitating old computers and scanlines to feel like older TVs.
The game operates much differently than Digital, but it feels it could be a modern relative of it. In fact, at many points of the game the player is given chances to wind down and engage in online chat rooms and decode a hacking conspiracy:
I couldn’t help but think about this game as I went through that, and it helped create a sense of nostalgia in almost every sense. It makes me want to think about why this message board trope is popular in visual novels, especially when it looks vintage. It’s a topic I want to explore more, and in fact I’m writing a visual novel myself (well, trying anyway) because as evident as it is now, it is a medium that both fascinates and means a lot to me. Maybe this class can help me develop the necessary knowledge and courage to make one, and it will help me feel more complete as an artist for it.
In summation, my experience with Digital was moving, way more than I intended it to. It creates a powerful argument for the strength that digital literature has and what possibilities can be considered. In my case it tickled a lot of nostalgic strings within me and it is connected to one of my favorite games, and even encourages me to tackle a medium that I’ve always wanted to delve into. I think this is my favorite piece so far, and that’s saying a lot.