Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games.
Following visual novels and other narrative games can give you a distorted sense of what gamer zeitgeist is up to. At E3 this year, a non-sensationalized same-gender kiss in a triple-A game trailer set Twitter on fire, but everyday flirting between people of all genders has been commonplace in visual novels for a long time. Even Stardew Valley, which allows you to romance folks of either of the town’s stark two genders, is stuck in the past with binary thinking on a variety of levels.
Visual novel developer Christine Love embodies this disconnect in some ways. Her beautiful, provocative games challenge players with extreme situations, power dynamics, and questions about gender and identity. In June, the makers of Detroit: Become Human, whose ending pivots on whether or not you liberate an AI who helps you through the game, made news when they caved to fan demand to be able to both liberate and then keep the AI. But five years earlier, Love’s game Hate Plus inspired fans to write mods to keep their “waifu,” as Love put it. And she was disappointed, not a collaborator.
Digital: A Love Story
Love’s 2010 game Digital: A Love Story puts players in the computer chair of a late ‘80s bulletin-board user. I’m older than Christine Love, but her choice of settings and technology context goes a long way to recreate the feeling of early civilian internet in my own life, when people used handles to represent whatever personality they felt like sharing, and very few images or other media changed hands. Local bulletin boards were both personal and anonymous, because just a few people could call in at the same time, and they were probably in the same area, but no one needed to reveal anything else.
By using this specific context, Love sets in motion a story about the history of the internet itself, implicating the government and its early foundation of the modern internet, ARPANET, in creating a shadow society. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have gender or to fall in love? I remember seeing the movie Her in 2013 and reading critical reactions where viewers just didn’t understand how the movie’s plot could even have happened, basically a chorus of “Turn off the computer and go outside.” But plots like this have resonated with viewers for as long as the idea of AI has existed. Remember when Geordi La Forge fell in love with the AI he created of a famous scientist? That was in 1989.
Analogue: A Hate Story & Hate Plus
In 2012, Love released Analogue: A Hate Story. She has said in interviews that she doesn’t like sequels as an idea, but Analogue is only a sequel in the loosest sense of the word, set in a different context and millennia after the events in Digital. The name is kind of a coy double entendre, I think, to the idea of an analogous game or mechanic and to the reversion of the people in the game from their previous progressive reaches to a retrograde demise.
Like the Firefly crew in 2005’s Serenity, the player must try to investigate and recreate events that led to the massive failure of a section of their own civilization. A generation ship, meaning one making a long enough journey for people to need to have children in order to sustain the ship, has deteriorated and eventually become an empty, floating remnant. The game is an investigation into what happened to these people and their ship, in which their entire culture was contained and allowed to change and evolve, or devolve, in isolation.
Hate Plus, the sequel to Analogue, carries over the player’s save from Analogue. In a now-infamous plot device, Love has the AI character ask the player to make a cake, then times out everything that follows. If you rush the scene, the AI knows your cake is a lie.
Ladykiller in a Bind
Love’s 2016 game Ladykiller in a Bind is a departure from Love’s previous games in some large and important ways. You do engage with technology as the player character, but only as a way to receive votes in a popularity contest. In Digital and Analogue, the player character is never asked to say or confirm any gender identity, but in Ladykiller you play a young woman tasked with passing as her twin brother. (I don’t think either character is explicitly defined as cis, though there is some talk of anatomy. Like Questionable Content’s Claire and Clinton, one twin could be trans.)
The total shift from text-focused emotional relationships between ambiguous genders to explicit, kinky sexual relationships between binary-gendered people is fascinating unto itself. And to some extent this makes sense in context, because explicit art depicting naked folks needs to make at least some choices about how those folks look. Writing about sex between two people also involves making choices. But the way Love made those choices was sometimes awkward and sometimes all-the-way offensive to some players.
I did not play the game until after its problematic scene was totally rewritten. But the scene in question involved a non-consensual encounter that Love says was a misguided attempt to convey a fantasy. She responded to fan criticism with an apology and an overhaul of the scene. In a game full of very direct conversation about boundaries and consent, it’s hard to imagine how she made such a big oversight about something that seems obvious, but again, that’s only in hindsight for me.
Love Conquers All
Some players and reviewers have critiqued Love’s choice to have the main character of Ladykiller be, basically, lying about her gender in order to accumulate power. In the context of the game, it’s not clear how much danger she’s really in if people find out who she is, and for me, that idea of ambivalence and even unspoken danger in being one’s true self was moving and powerful. Even beyond the questions of gender or of imitating her socially influential brother, I related strongly to the idea that women and gender nonconforming folks feel much more vulnerable than men in situations that can look the same from the outside. And Ladykiller fits easily into Love’s oeuvre in that way.
Love has made a point of writing characters and games that challenge social norms, gender roles, and the cliches of sexuality often written into triple-A games. She speaks openly about these goals and how, for her, having queer characters and stories goes beyond simply which characters are falling in love and what genders they might be, extending into power dynamics, kink, communication, and choices about identity and presentation. I love that she named her company Love Conquers All, because it embodies her clever writing, powerful stance, and determination to be heard.