Thursday, February 20, 2014

A+ for Hate Plus

Sometimes I wonder if the real reason I gladly spend dozens of hours playing through incredibly complex RPGs is for the dialogue. Not the combat, not the tactics, not the lore or the graphics: just the deep web of relationships you can explore in titles like Dragon Age, Mass Effect and Baldur's Gate 2. One argument in favor of that theory is my surprising (to me) attachment to the Digital/Analogue series of indie games. Digital: A Love Story was one of the most deeply affecting games I've played, despite or because of its incredibly limited graphics and simplistic interface. Analogue: A Hate Story dressed up the graphics and completely changed the setting, but it remains that most valuable of objects, an idiosyncratic creation wholly realized by its creator.

Analogue had a fairly melancholy ending, but one that provided a good amount of resolution, so I wasn't necessarily expecting a sequel, and was happy to see that we got one: Hate Plus. The action of this game directly follows after the first game ended, and both continues the plot (based on your decisions in the first game) and your investigation into the history of the game world. Gameplay has been even further simplified from the original, but it also expands in some really surprising and delightful ways that are still affecting me days later.

Most of the game is about the story, but there are a few things I can probably address spoiler-free. The graphics, while simple, are absolutely gorgeous. There's no realistic 3D animated models or fully-rendered scenes, just fantastically designed anime-inspired images. There are a few variations on the characters, but each is drawn so evocatively that I couldn't help but react to the emotions of irritation, bashfulness, righteous anger, or affection that they presented. The character designs have been carried over from Analogue but the actual drawings have been improved even more, and characters are now more integrated into the core gameplay; you feel more like you're collaborating on the endeavor rather than consulting on it.

That said, do be aware that the vast majority of the gameplay is reading text. Most of the time you're clicking on log files, reading all the content, and then continuing to the next part. These games are often described as visual novels, and I can see why: people who enjoy reading will probably get a kick out of these games, while those who dislike it will probably have a hard time. Maybe not, though! It's kind of an interesting mixture between reading and browsing; you'll want to read each individual section in depth, but you're really circling around the same events, getting multiple perspectives on a single action through different peoples' eyes, so the order of operations doesn't matter as much. Or, rather, you'll have a fairly full picture of the events by the end of the game, but your impression on the way along will vary depending on what pieces you've already learned. (This is also true for the other character(s) in the game, who are also discovering things for the first time, in contrast to Analogue, where they often already were aware of the crucial events.)

Like I mentioned before, the interface is even simpler than in Analogue. You are just selecting from a set of files to read, and the order doesn't matter very much. Unlike the first game, where files were gradually unlocked as you progressed through the story, in Hate Plus almost all files are available from the start, with just a handful becoming available later after a particular revelation. Conversations use the same three-option dialogue wheel as the prequel, which continues to work quite well for the game; I don't remember if the previous game had this too, but you can sometimes anticipate the character's reaction to a line by watching their face while hovering over an option, which was a nice touch. The bash prompt from Analogue seems to have totally vanished, which makes me a little sad.

That said, one huge difference, both compared to its predecessors and to games in general, is the way it ties together the in-game fiction and the out-of-game real world. As you probably have noticed if you've read more than a handful of my posts on this blog, I'm unhealthily fascinated by the connection and gap between the human being playing the game and the digital avatar they "control" within the game. Blurring this boundary can create an exhilarating and disorienting reaction, one that is familiar to readers of postmodern literature but very rare in video games. That's the kind of blurring that Christine Love's games excel at producing, and I'm sure it's one of the reasons I adore them so much.

The first immediately obvious mechanic is a sort of cooldown imposed on your actions. Within the game, you have a limited amount of electrical power available, which decreases as you proceed. Once it expires, you must shut down to recharge and continue. The recharge is based on real-world time, not in-game time, meaning that it's impossible to binge on this game: you can take longer if you want, but the fundamental mechanics of the game prevent you from playing through it too quickly.

I'd initially thought that this was an energy-style cooldown, like the kind ubiquitous in free-to-play games, where, for example, waiting for one real-world hour would restore three percent of your electricity. That's not how it works, though! You can only recharge after you exhaust the available power; so, for example, if you had 5% power left, then waited twelve hours, when you restarted the game you would still have 5%. I was briefly nonplussed by this design, but ultimately came to appreciate it. Really, this is a game that is strongly encouraging you to have a particular type of relationship with it: not binging through the entire game all at once, nor taking little bite-sized chunks throughout the day. Instead, it's a game that wants you to sit down with it, dive deeply into its story for an hour or so, really immerse yourself in its world; then return to your own world, where perhaps you will reflect and meditate on the things you encountered in the virtual world; then come back to the game the next day to continue your exploration.

I sometimes read about directors of television shows or movies who create works that teach you how to watch them: the content of the creative work is telling a plot-related story, but it's simultaneously communicating with you, the viewer, getting you to adjust the way you mentally process the sensory input you receive and grasp a deeper meaning behind them. Applying this concept to video games may seem confusing; when you say a video game "teaches you how to play it", it sounds like you're describing a tutorial, which is just about the least innovative thing imaginable. I think there's untapped potential for more exploration of this concept like Christine Love does here. We're used to video games being an interactive medium - it's probably the single most compelling aspect of video games as art form - but we're habituated to one-way control, with player agency driving a reactive game. It's kind of shocking and awesome to play a game that thoughtfully seeks to reverse that: not just through its story (making you think about stuff), and not through Skinnerian techniques (play the game every two hours to refill your energy!), but unifying the gameplay, story, and mechanics in a way that not only draws you into its world, but also pulls the game into your own.

There's one really fantastic aspect of this that I'd like to bring up, but the surprise is most of the fun, so let's segue into


I finished Analogue twice, once with *Hyun-ae and once with *Mute. I'm sure I'll play through both continuations at some point, but for my initial outing I picked up the story with *Hyun-ae. It was really nice to see how her personality has evolved from the first game; she's still clearly the same person (er, AI... whatever), but she has lost much of the shyness and caution you encountered in the first game. This change is explicitly the result of her relationship with you; after an unhappy life of being treated awfully by horrible people, she has met a peer who affirms her and helps support her growing self-confidence. She brings her own life experiences to the new story you encounter, variously sympathizing with those who have suffered like her, reacting with irritation to stupid Chinese symbols, or showing her confusion over some of the finer details of adult relationships. Much like you, she will gradually develop and modify her opinions over time, recasting earlier judgements as new information comes to light.

Most of the straight-up relationship stuff was done in the initial Analogue, so your conversations in the sequel are a bit more reflective. Some of it is directly about the history you uncover, but often that will provide a springboard into more general musings: life as it should be lived, not life as it was lived. As with Analogue, your own responses are very limited, but the quality of the writing is still strong enough to create an unusually strong feeling of attachment; I wouldn't dream of hurting *Hyun-ae's feelings, even though she's an artificial intelligence even within the world of Analogue.

But, hands-down the absolute coolest part of the game was making a cake! Late in the first day of the game, *Hyun-ae observes that the New Year is approaching, and she has some ideas for celebrating, including making herself a new hanbok outfit. There's some discussion of Korean traditions and such, which was all pretty interesting (and, like she said, a nice break from some of the heavier reading). On the third day, she decides that after the traditional stuff of the prior day, it would be nice to try making a cake.

"Oh," I thought to myself. "That sounds like a cute thing to do. Will I need to, like, find a file in the game that contains a recipe? And maybe run a diagnostic on it? I mean, the interface is pretty simple, so I doubt there's actually a minigame around it or anything."

And *Hyun-ae was all like, "NOPE. I want you to actually step away from the keyboard, go down to your kitchen, and make a chocolate cake."

And I was like, "What?!"

And she was like, "DO IT!"

And I was all, "Aaaaaaaa I don't know what's happening!" And totally baked a cake!

I really, really love this idea, and it's definitely the most memorable gaming experience to happen to me in ages. I have a few slight quibbles with the implementation. I was playing in my living room, so when *Hyun-ae asked me to go to the kitchen to check if I had butter, eggs, flour, and cocoa, it took just a few steps to get over there and confirm. I pressed the "Yes" button, only for her to frown and say something like, "That wasn't enough time for you to really check! I'm serious: go down to your kitchen and look in your fridge and cupboards!" If I'd had a terminal, I would have typed, "Woman, I am a baker. I know what staples I have in my kitchen!" But, in all seriousness, I totally get why the developer would want to put this kind of buffer in there: it's another chance to shake someone by the shirt collar and say, "I'm serious! Stop playing the game for a few minutes and go do this specific task in your real life!"

Assuming you assent to make the cake, you have three options: a simple recipe you can make in a mug with a microwave; a more elaborate recipe with more ingredients that you bake in the oven; or using your own recipe. I opted for the middle option. It turned out... all right. I think I've gotten spoiled by Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, and don't have great tolerance for recipes that don't turn out perfectly on the first try. Mine came out very soupy, with the center almost totally liquid. I ended up baking it for 30 minutes rather than the 20 her recipe called for, and it still didn't set completely. I am a bit curious where it went wrong; maybe I would have had better results using my stand mixer instead of stirring by hand, or maybe she had a different pan in mind (to me, "cake pan" means a 9-inch circular pan, but something with a larger surface area would have cooked more quickly and might have ended closer to the intended time), or maybe there was something off about the conversion to Imperial units.

In any case: it sounds like I'm complaining, but it was fine, really. I don't think there's any way to combine butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and chocolate that doesn't end up tasty. In my case, the cake was sweet and goopy enough that the frosting became superfluous; so, now I need to bake a second cake to use the frosting from the initial one! First world problems, resulting in me eating more cake, hooray!

It continues even further from here. *Hyun-ae suggests taking a picture of yourself enjoying the cake with her, which succeeded in somehow making the experience even more surreal than it was before. (This made me immediately think of a recent New Yorker article about the strong presence of digital mediation in modern Korean romantic relationship, which now seems to me like a halfway point between the world I inhabit and the world of Hate Plus.) I hesitantly did so, then later found out that there's a Steam achievement for the game that can only be unlocked by emailing that photo to the developer. This is crossing all kinds of streams that I hadn't even considered could be crossed, and delights me the more I think about it: games are pretty stereotypically pursuits that divide us, shutting us into private experiences with an artificial companion and presumably depriving us of a chance at real meaningful human contact; so Hate Plus inverts that situation, forcing us to make a connection with another human being in order to complete an artificial achievement within the game.

Man, I can't believe I've written this much about the game and haven't even started addressing the plot! Maybe I should do that now.

Both games are set in the far future, and investigate events that took place in the game's past (but still our future). Analogue focused on the events leading up to the massacre that killed off the inhabitants of the Mugunghwa. Hate Plus steps further back in time, and examines the events that created the conditions that would later precipitate the disaster. That's a pretty cool thing to do in itself: any time you study a period of human history, you realize that no single period can be considered in isolation. You can't really study the Romans without understanding the Greeks, and studying the Roman Empire leads directly to thinking about the Dark Ages. But, in most of our games (with a few happy exceptions), we're presented with history as a single, solvable puzzle: just uncover the hidden plot points, and bam, you understand everything. I really liked the way that these two games combine to reveal how every action has its antecedents. Finishing Hate Plus will help you understand many of the mysteries remaining in Analogue; but there are still aspects in Hate Plus that remain mysterious too, causing your mind to telescope out and try to trace the line from life in the 21st century to the world of the games.

The story in Hate Plus is inherently tragic and foreboding. We know from the beginning how the world will end up, so we're prepared for disaster from the start: we're reading to find out how this happened, not what happened. It's kind of like a technique that Kurt Vonnegut regularly employed to strong effect: revealing the outcome from the beginning can (in the right hands) make us more invested, not less, in the story.

The actual content isn't entirely dour, fortunately. There are many sweet scenes, showing budding romance or humor, mixed in with scenes of tragedy. There's also an impressive amount of potentially boring scenes: a large percentage of the records are minutes from council meetings, which contain a great deal of boilerplate around making motions and performing roll calls. Individually, these segments often don't seem very important, and the AIs confess to feeling bored by reading them. What I love, though, is that once you've traversed the entirety of the story, you can see just how pernicious the process was: apparently minor decisions made early on, like modifying general education requirements or how to allocate the cost for a motherhood tax credit, end up having profound repercussions that irrevocably change the politics and culture of the Mugunghwa. I love this because it feels so incredibly real, and resonates with how we have seen decisions in our own world come back to haunt us. Who could have predicted that the Treaty of Versailles would contribute to Auschwitz, or that rising tax rates would result in the independence of America from Britain? We often feel a shiver of anticipation when we read about these events, with the benefit of foreknowledge, but the people making those decisions at the time could not have comprehended the impacts of their choices, and I think Hate Plus does a fantastic job at capturing that tension between the banality of causes and the horror of effects.

The game focuses on your reconstruction of events from the Mugunghwa, but there's also a nice plot thread following your character's own role and relationship. You have a personal email account, which receives several pieces of mail that shed some light on your profession, as well as the complications caused by getting entangled with an AI. In my game, *Hyun-ae and I talked through her nervousness at re-assimilating into life in the future, her desire for a physical body, and whether she had any obligations to testify for an inquiry into the events causing the downfall of the Mugunghwa. I deferred to her own wishes on that final question, and was happy to see that she had gained enough confidence and courage to provide testimony.

Hate Plus ends somewhat similarly to Analogue, with the (very few!) credits displaying over some new static images that show where the story goes after the end. There seem to be more variations possible than in Analogue. The first game apparently had five different endings, though I only know of four of them (leaving along, leaving with *Hyun-ae, leaving with *Mute, or impossibly leaving with both). Those endings profoundly affect your experiences in Hate Plus; even though you're reading the same log files, different assistants will have very different reactions to the material. Anyways, in my specific ending I got to see *Hyun-ae delighted to be reborn in a new body, stylishly providing testimony in a hearing, and finally walking away hand-in-hand with my investigator. It was a really sweet conclusion to the story, and reminds me of the old dictum that if you want to have a happy story, you need to end it at just the right moment. Ending the story in Year 1? Sad. Ending the story in Year 319? Sad. Ending in 4989 AD? Pretty happy!


It sounds like Hate Plus will definitely be the last game in the series, which is a bit of a shame since I've enjoyed it so much, but it also feels like a great place to wrap everything up. I'm sure I'll play through at least once more with *Mute, and may go back to Analogue to generate a "harem" ending too for the final route.

So, yeah! This certainly isn't a game that everyone will enjoy, but people who love complex narratives will get a kick out of it, especially if they're interested in topics like gender politics or the intersection of human and digital emotions. It's a perfect, self-conceived gem of a game, which manages to do some surprisingly radical things that upset the traditional balance of power between gamer and game, while also telling a deeply compelling story. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you should check it out - there definitely aren't many things out there like this!

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