Christine Love is one of the few active Western-based visual novel developers at the moment, chiefly known for her 2010 BBS-trawling indie work Digital: A Love Story. Analogue, her newest work, places you in the shoes of an investigator trawling through a derelict spaceship’s computer system, trying to piece together a history of the society onboard and of a single girl in particular.
Doing so involves text terminals, sordid Korean melodrama, unreliable AI and… uh… cosplay. It’s easy to forget that the game takes place on a giant colony spaceship hurtling through the void in some sci-fi future, because it quickly becomes largely irrelevant. The primary emotional core of the game gains very little from its fantastical setting, because it is at heart a story about a staid, regressive society and the characters within it.
Like most visual novels, then, gameplay is not the primary focus of the work. There’s some of it here, certainly, concentrated into two primary forms: occasionally navigating the ship’s command-line interface, and presenting certain files to the shipboard AIs to reveal further information. Mucking around with text commands is reminiscent of the high-tech thrills of Uplink, though far more limited in scope, and unfortunately not all that substantial.
Investigation is where the majority of the gameplay lies, and could be favourably compared to pressing witnesses and revealing the story in a Phoenix Wright game. Everybody on board Korean Colony Ships in the far-distant future writes diaries and letters, apparently, which the ship’s AIs dole out piecemeal. These digital girls aren’t just automated systems; they’re personalities with opinions and agendas, and choose exactly which files to present for your consumption. Unravelling the whole of the narrative, then, becomes a matter of presenting chosen logs to the two primary AI and discussing the story with them, hopefully resulting in the revelation of further information.
As such, Analogue is not entirely linear; instead, it’s structured similarly to a police investigation or, perhaps more fittingly, like an archaeological dig. You’ll end up following multiple micro-storylines at once, a tough task made tougher by family politics, various marriages, and similar-sounding Korean names that will confuse the hell out of you. Though the game provides some assistance by way of family trees and your companions attempting to simplify and explain bits of the plot, it can still prove overwhelming at times.
This marks the point where the review dives headfirst into overtly subjective territory. I tend to judge visual novels by two primary metrics: how compelled I am to keep reading, and on any raw emotional impact that the story has. Analogue is an intriguing tale, but not a very impactful one.
One major problem is that the writing often feels inappropriate for the society in which the game is based. It’s no spoiler to reveal that some (disappointingly) unspecified event has caused the inhabitants of the colony ship to regress into a medieval, patriarchal Korean dynasty. However, diary entries and data logs retain a free-spirited, modern aspect unsuited to such an oppressive setting; it feels as if written by someone unsuccessfully attempting to place themselves in a completely foreign mindset.
It’s the difference between simply stating “I live in a repressive society” and conveying, through the tone and tenor of a piece of writing, the state and situation of the world in which a character lives. It’s unsubtle. It lacks craft. And this constant, nagging reminder does a lot to interfere with any sense of emotional engagement that threatens to develop over the course of your investigation. Characters often don’t feel fleshed out or relatable; this is somewhat excusable for minor characters that you only read about, but less so for the AI girls themselves, who occasionally feel as if they have been reduced to mouthpieces for one viewpoint or the other.
Without that connection to the characters, then, the game’s various twists and turns have little in the way of impact, aside perhaps from some minor satisfaction at correctly predicting plot-points. Furthermore, the game’s overarching conflict is difficult to truly engage with simply because it’s so anachronistic and clearly one-sided. It doesn’t seem so much a vision of the future as it does a largely unengaging morality play about another culture’s past that doesn’t have anything all that interesting to say about it.
Further attempts at delivering the game’s primary narrative are undermined by the game’s insistent adherence to certain visual novel tropes. Not to imply that Analogue is a dating sim of some kind – it isn’t – but elements such as cosplay maid outfits seem misdirected and distracting, even as tongue-in-cheek jokes. Even the relationship development between the player and the AI girls feels out of place with regards to the game’s primary story, unlike as in Digital.
Aesthetically, Analogue is impressive. The sci-fi theme lends itself to a slick UI and some great animations, alongside clean character art (anime-styled, because why not) and some sobering, minimalistic music. The contrast when you dive into the ship’s ancient UNIX-style text parser is likewise fitting, making it – much like Digital – a pleasure to use. It’s a shame then that the story lacks resonance and force, that you’ll never forget that you’re simply interacting with a pair of AI robots. I applaud Christine for daring to explore new spaces in interactive fiction, but this effort is a bust.