Latchkey Games is a weekly column that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on its initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This time I’ll be discussing Analogue: A Hate Story, a PC indie game that tackles a lot of issues that most games go out of their way to avoid.
I’ll admit it, I’m usually the last guy to play a game for the story — while I do think there are games out there with interesting narratives, and while I love RPG’s and point and click adventures, I still think the writing in most videogames is still leagues behind the level of sophistication you’ll find in more traditional media. While there are some exceptions to that generalization, such as the wonderful, witty dialogue in Valve’s Portal series or the surprisingly subversive Spec-Ops: The Line, in general video game narratives are about as deep or nuanced as your average prime time TV drama or summer blockbuster. Most of the time the story exists solely to set up the action, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; gameplay should always take precedence over everything else, and while I do appreciate a good story, narrative has always been a secondary concern for me. If a game has great gameplay with a terrible (or possibly even non-existent) story, then that’s completely fine with me. If a game has great gameplay and also happens to have a good story too, well, that’s just icing on the cake. The way I see it, if you play video games solely “for the story,” then you’re missing the whole point of video games being an interactive medium.
Which is why I’m so confused about Analogue: A Hate Story. The game represents the complete antithesis of what I normally like: gameplay definitely takes a back seat to Analogue’s deftly crafted narrative, but despite that, I’m absolutely in love with this game.
Analogue: A Hate Story is technically a visual novel — a style of adventure game where you read through a pre-set story and make choices that effect the outcome of the story during key moments. Basically, a text adventure with illustrations. Gamers in the West are probably most familiar with the genre via handheld titles like 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. While visual novels are niche products in the West, they’re big business in Japan, where the majority of PC games are low-budget visual novels made by small teams. Unfortunately, this has given the genre a bit of a stigma in the West, as a lot of the visual novels to come out of Japan are well… basically interactive pornography involving schoolgirls and tentacles, and as such, it’s hard to talk to about “visual novels” without a lot of people automatically assuming you’re talking about creepy dating sims or porn games.
On the surface, Analogue: A Hate Story looks like one of those games. It’s filled with cute anime girls (one of whom you can dress up in a variety of costumes,) who stereotypically blush beat-red when you complement them and nervously dance around the topic of your affection towards them, but trust me, Analogue: A Hate Story is not a game about wooing 2D facsimiles of women. It is not a game for the “sho’ ronery” anime-pillow collecting crowd. It is a painful, horrifying tale of cruelty, objectification, and selfishness, and it’s also one of my favorite games of the year.
Analogue’s story takes place in the far future, where a long lost colony ship Mungunghwa has suddenly reappeared in deep space. Its crew is missing, and the only living “souls” on board are two computer AI’s, the shy and demure Hyun-Ae and the more abrasive and gossipy Mute. Your job is to figure out what happened to Mungunghwa and its crew. You do this by hacking the ship’s computer and reading through the old personal logs and correspondences of the people who who used to live on the ship, and with the help of your two AI partners, you gradually unlock more and more bits and pieces of the horrific story that unfolded onboard.
As you’d expect from a genre labelled with the name “visual novel,” you’re going to have to do a lot of reading in Analogue: A Hate Story. Similar to Capcom’s Phoenix Wright games, you’ll spend a lot of time reading through the accounts of the people who witnesses the Mungunghwa’s downfall firsthand, and you’ll be able to select specific passages to ask your AI partners about — pick the right topics to press them on and you’ll unlock more of the story. As with most games in the genre, you’re given a few choices during the story that’ll ultimately effect which of the game’s five endings you get, but for the most part, most of Analogue: A Hate Story’s “gameplay” revolves around reading lots and lots of text and picking out which topics merit further research. There is one very challenging and well designed puzzle that pops up midway through Analogue’s main story, but even that is almost entirely text based.
Normally this would bother me, because like I said earlier, gameplay always takes precedence over narrative, at least for me. But despite my usual preferences, I was completely engrossed in Analogue’s story by the time I had completed the game’s first “act,” which requires you to dig through a few text logs in order to discover the password that unlocks the rest of the derelict ship’s records. Analogue’s story is simply one of the best that I’ve ever seen in a game, and while I really wish I could talk about what makes the game’s story so great, doing so would spoil a lot of the surprises and twists in the game. The story tackles issues concerning female objectification and misogyny, topics that a lot of male gamers seem to be uncomfortable with and strangely and vindictively defensive about, and the fact that it tackles these issues in a visual novel – a genre that’s often stereotyped as glorifying female objectification and misogyny – is amazing.
In the end, I’m still having a hard time reconciling my personal philosophy regarding game design with Analogue’s completely narrative focused structure, but I can’t deny that I was just as enthralled reading through the game’s walls of text as I am when I play through a firefight in Halo or explore a dungeon in Zelda. Perhaps I should look at it this way: the story is the gameplay in Analogue: A Hate Story: piecing together what exactly happened on board the Mungunghwa was easily one of the most engaging and well designed puzzles that I’ve ever experienced in a game. Slowly unraveling what happened aboard the ship by reading key tidbits of info in each log is certainly a lot more satisfying and intellectually stimulating than your average block puzzle, anyway.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring Analogue because of the game’s cute look or text-based gameplay: it’s honestly one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had, and anyone who approaches the game with an open mind or who’s looking for another game to use an example in the never ending “games are art” debate should give Analogue: A Hate Story a fair shot.
Analogue: A Hate Story is available for $9.99 on Steam; though as I write this Analogue is currently available as part of Steam’s Autumn 2012 sale for a paltry $2.49.