Friday, April 23, 2010

Creeper Reaper

I really wish I had made "Digital: A Love Story."  Not just because it's a great game - there are a lot of great games out there.  What bugs me about this is that it's a great game that I totally COULD have made on my own.  It doesn't have advanced 3D models, or professional voice acting, or the other features that every game from the past fifteen years boasts.  It's a time warp, in all senses: the game is set in 1988, and other than some great modern music, it doesn't include anything that you wouldn't have seen back then.

That means that this is, almost entirely, a text adventure game.  However, it's very different from the stock text adventure game, especially in terms of interface.  Playing this game was eye-opening to me.  People are still writing text adventures today (though they are now called "Interactive Fiction"), but the interface really hasn't changed at all from the Colossal Cave Adventure.  Stories are still told in the second person, with you typing commands into a box to discover what's in your world and to interact with it correctly in order to solve puzzles.

In Digital, the computer is the interface; rather, the interface is a computer.  When you start the program, it boots up into an old DOS-style 80-character menu mode.  It's a bit more advanced than what you had in 1988, but that's because you had a PC and not an Amiga.  There is a very primitive desktop with a couple of icons, one labeled "Messages" and the other labeled "Dialer."

This game made me feel nostalgic for a time that I never knew.  Almost all of the game takes place on BBS's.  These electronic bulletin boards were ancestors of today's web sites, places where people joined together in community to post messages, share files, and... well, really, that was about it.  In the game, your computer has an 800 baud modem, so you start up the dialer, type in the number you wish to connect to, then hear that great old modem screech as it connects.  You aren't connecting to the Internet, though, but rather to a computer that, most likely, is in somebody's bedroom. 

Like I said, this is a time that I never really knew.  I loved my computer, but my first modem (a blazing 33.6 kbps model) arrived close to a decade after the time of this game, and was used to connect with the Internet.  The Internet technically exists in this game, but it's just one of many networks.  Like I said, most of your time is spent on BBS's, with an occasional hop over to FIDOnetARPANET, the forerunner to the Internet, is the exclusive domain of the military and academics, and doesn't have much to offer you.

Gameplay is really retro and shockingly fun.  Almost all of your interactions consists of connecting to various sites, reading and replying to messages, sending PMs, and occasionally downloading files.  One interesting thing is that you never actually see anything that "you" write - you'll hit "Reply", and later read a reply to your reply without seeing your own words.  It's an interesting technique, but ultimately essential for this game - it maintains the impression that this is YOU in the game, not some other avatar that you happen to be controlling.

Gameplay is retro in style as well as in content.  I found myself eventually grabbing a sheet of paper and taking notes - things like phone numbers, access codes, passwords, and the like.  I can't remember the last time I did that for a game.  Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted that modern games include auto-mapping, auto-journalling and other things like that, but this was a fun blast from the past, and going through those physical motions re-awoke within me memories of those classic gaming experiences: drawing out a map of the submarine in a text adventure, or working through a numeric puzzle in a Sierra game.

Heh - I will offer one slight piece of advice.  Early on in the game, you're given the opportunity to download a program called NOTEPAD.EXE.  When I was playing the game, I was enough into the experience that I didn't download it; I was worried that it might contain a virus.  Only towards the very end of the game did I finally go back and grab it.  It turns out to not have a virus, and to be very useful, since it will keep track of the details that you (or rather, I) would instead write down.  So, go ahead and grab it.  Remember, 1988 wasn't a totally safe time, but people were far more trusting back then, and in general didn't have nearly as much to worry about.

One possible criticism of the game is that it's... I don't want to necessarily say linear, but there's really just one way that the story can ultimately go.  You advance the plot by replying to critical messages, and you can't change the nature of those replies.  That said, this didn't bother me at all while I was playing it; it only has one story to tell, but it's a great story.  My only regret is that it has limited replay value; then again, since it's free, who really cares?  If you'd like to check it out, you can download the game.  Happy dialing!

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