Today my thoughts were captured by two fantastic games. I shouldn’t really call them games, though: they’re stories, and whilst you could class them as “indie games”, it’s more that the stories require interactivity to work.

Certainly, it’s hard to imagine Digital: A Love Story being so profoundly affecting were it in any other medium. Digital is set in 1988, in the early days of the internet. You play yourself, essentially, set up with a brand new computer and a connection to the fledgling internet. You use your computer to connect to the local message boards and correspond with their denizens, and slowly a love story unfolds, and then a mystery.

What I found so powerful about Digital is how entirely engrossing it is. Rather smartly, you never see the messages you send, only the replies; this both allows the game to make the whole “send a message to anybody you meet online” premise workable, but also allows you to project yourself into the game world entirely. I can’t remember ever feeling so completely immersed in the fictional world of a computer game. Digital just oozes authenticity, and that’s what makes it work. It’s as much a love story as it is about how you feel as you play through the game. Everything your character says is a blank slate, and the same goes for their feelings. At no point are you given any indication about how you should feel about any particular development, even the love story. This game gives you a lot of room to think about how you feel what’s going on. It works extremely well.

(For me, it was a game about isolation and loneliness. Maybe this is a 2.0 reaction to a pre-1.0 setting, but the various bulletin boards that the game takes place on feel so remote and inaccessible. There are entire communities hidden away behind unknown dialing codes and passwords, and it’s a stark contrast to the culture of openness things like Facebook and Twitter have fostered. Even the love story is a lonely one, or at least, it was lonely to me.)

* * *

Digital is a story about social networking in the early days of the web, and its “spiritual sequel” don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story is one about web 2.0 social networking. Set in an American high school in 2037, it looks and plays like a Japanese dating game, but rather subverts this somewhat by putting you in control of the Literature professor, John Rook, under whose nose spins a convoluted web of teen drama and angst. You’re afforded a unique perspective into all this, since it’s school policy to allow teachers to (secretly) check their students Facebook posts – even their private messages.

Ultimately, don’t take it personally is a story about privacy. Late on in the game, Rook comments that checking his students messages has become banal to him. And it’s become banal to the player, too, and you realise this is not a comment on Rook the character, but on you the player, who has been devouring these messages throughout the game. Presumably. I was.

The theme of privacy and what Web 2.0 has done to it runs through the game, with a conclusion that is both satisfying and rather unsettling. Meanwhile, there’s lots going on in the classroom, much of it dictated by you. Your class begins coming to you with their issues and problems – which you know about already, having read all about it on their Facebook earlier – and you have to struggle with giving them advice that you’re in no way qualified to give. Rook is entirely unable to communicate any decent advice to his students, and his meetings with them are defined by awkward silences and his complete and continued failure to use his seniority – and inside knowledge of the student’s issue – to take control of the situation. I took this as a comment – a prediction? – about how Generation Z – shaped by social media and constant access to the internet – will adapt to real life and be able to tackle real issues: poorly. But then again, I’m a Generation Y’er and every day I’m amazed that I’ve , so it’s only natural for me to be worried about Z’ers.

There’s plenty more to chew on in don’t take it personally, and I think I could ramble for hours about it, but the beauty of both it and its predecessor is that they are games that give you the space and the intellectual respect to come up with your own responses to them, and obviously these responses will be far more valid for you than mine are for you. So go play them! Digital is about an hour long, don’t take it personally about two, and they are both excellent uses of your time. Writing a pseudo-pretentious blog afterward? Probably not the best use of time, no.

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