Catching Up With Christine Love
“It’s Not Ero!”, protests the theme song for Hate Plus, Christine Love’s sequel to her 2012 visual novel Analogue: A Hate Story. As the visual novel is most (in)famously known for its 18+ content, the attempt to resolve confusion is not unwarranted—Hate Plus and its prequel share some of the conventions of romance and relationship building that are typical of visual novels (if not the consummation of those feelings), but their premise couldn’t be more different. In Analogue, the player is a spacefaring investigator sent to recover the log files of a Korean generation ship, the Mugunghwa, sent from Earth thousands of years ago and long since abandoned after slipping into an oppressive patriarchal society modeled after Korea’s historical Joseon Dynasty. With the help of one of two of ship’s surviving AIs (or even, via cheating, both) the player sifts through logs from the ship’s past.
While Analogue tells the story of a girl frozen when the ship first launched and reawakened in a dystopian future, Hate Plus focuses on the ship’s security AI, *Mute, and how the society depicted in the first game came to pass, from the legislation that slowly solidified nobility rule and curtailed women’s rights, to the individual struggles of queer couples trying to survive as the pressures of an increasingly conservative society chipped away at them bit by bit. The AIs *Mute and *Hyun-ae, each damaged by this culture in their own way, offer their own perspectives on the events of the past throughout.
The games aren’t as unrelentingly dark as that paragraph might make them sound. Quite often they’re whimsical, funny and adorable, frequently willing to poke fun at the conventions of visual novels and even themselves. Hate Plus is a game that includes an achievement for baking an actual real life cake to prove your love for the game’s AI girlfriend (such as the one my friend and I created).
We sent a transmission to Christine Love to ask about pushing the boundaries of the visual novel, the difficulties of depicting relationships in games, and exactly how many people have baked a cake for one of her fictional characters.
Paste: In another interview you said we don’t even have enough construction of the visual novel to even try deconstructing it, which I thought was interesting since despite the formula being around for a while, I think visual novels have stayed pretty formulaic, if not stagnant?
Christine Love: Well I don’t think that’s completely true. There’s all kinds of interesting experimentation, considering that this is a medium that somehow encompasses Ace Attorney, Steins;Gate, as well as the more conventional stuff. So it’s not as if there aren’t some people doing interesting stuff. But, I mean, that’s really it. I don’t think we’re in a place for deconstruction, because there’s just not enough actually there to deconstruct.
Paste: Hate Plus is played over the course of three real time days—the game makes you wait 12 hours between sessions before you can play again. Why did you add that feature into Hate Plus?
Christine Love: Well, it’s from the game’s namesake.
Paste: Oh, from [DS dating sim] Love Plus?
Christine Love: Since a major part of the game’s premise is continuing from Analogue, where the ending is getting the girl to continue that, obviously the game has to be about the relationship. And I especially felt like it had to be, because I don’t think Analogue was really clear enough about what it was doing with the romance VN tropes it was evoking. So the insane, impossible, ridiculous relationship aspect was what I really wanted to play up. And, you know, I think when everyone thinks “visual novel about an ongoing relationship,” they think Love Plus. So it’s really just me trying to get as close to Love Plus’s Real-Time Mode as possible, within the narrative confines of how Analogue plays out.
Paste: Oh, that’s really neat—so then, the timer mechanic itself, it’s there in Love Plus to create that sense of an ongoing relationship?
Christine Love: Well, in Love Plus, it’s not a timer. It’s just okay, so the “main” game in Love Plus is a pretty standard dating sim, and ends with the usual thing, of you asking out your love interest, and that’s where it ends. And, um let me just add the disclaimer that Love Plus is kind of an absolute piece of shit, and doesn’t really do anything right, and everything about it feels really insincere and hollow, in execution. Please do not play Love Plus just because I mentioned it. But the thing is that after you finish that “main” game, you can actually continue from where it left off, just continuing the relationship with the person who is now your steady girlfriend, and the more interesting option is Real-Time Mode, where in-game days just straight correspond to real days. So if you have a date with your girlfriend in Real-Time Mode, you have to actually open up your DS at the time you scheduled the date for. It’s a pretty cool idea, actually. It’s like the Animal Crossing of dating sims. And I mean, it might be awful, but I like the idea of simulating real time when you’re trying to show a relationship. A relationship isn’t really a steady narrative arc (although even Hate Plus definitely falls into this trap), you know?
Paste: That’s helpful to people who probably know Love Plus best as “that DS game people got married to a few years back.” So then was the similar system in Hate Plus meant to convey a similar experience of simulating a relationship in real time?
Christine Love: Exactly! It was the closest I could get to it. ‘Cause I feel like, in a short visual novel like Hate Plus you know, you can go through that in like 7 hours, normally. A lot of people can do that in a single day, then move onto another character. And I think if you do that, it’s going to take you right out of it, you never really get a chance for anything to sink in too much.
Paste: That’s kind of what I liked most about it—it breaks the game into discrete sections and prevents you from getting burned out. A lot of games flat out encourage playing them to excess, and that was an interesting response to that.
Christine Love: A lot of traditional visual novels try to do this just by making the entire story like half a million words long, so you’re forced to go through it slowly because you can only READ so fast, and like I don’t know, that just seems hella disrespectful of the players’ time.
Paste: That has the opposite effect for me because I want to stop at a good narrative point but I have to skim through thousands of words before it’s over.
Christine Love: Well, right. The ACTUAL effect is that anyone with any taste at all goes “fuck this, I’m going to read something that actually respects me,” then writes off visual novels forever. Which I don’t think is really a great thing to do.
Paste: No kidding. That might possibly be why visual novels aren’t incredibly popular. This may relate to the day to day waiting or it may not, but the pacing for Hate Plus is also controlled in other ways, like the six file at a time extraction, or how the AIs come in to give you breaks from reading the logs.
Christine Love: Well, definitely. Because that’s the only structure the story HAS. There’s like one set of log files you can only unlock on a certain day, but for the most part, it’s just “figure out what order to read this all in yourself.” So I’m imposing a little bit of order into it, but you know, it’s otherwise ridiculously open-ended.
Paste: Ah, so some of those structures are there because you’ve otherwise given the player a lot of freedom and you’ve got to organize the story somehow?
Christine Love: Well, you know. You still have to give the player a framework for getting through your game, otherwise you’ve just made like the visual novel equivalent of a sandbox game. And I’m pretty sure there are a number of terminal diseases I’d rather sooner get before I make a game that plays like Minecraft or whatever.
Paste: The Minecraft of VNs…that’s…certainly an idea.
Christine Love: It’s a terrible idea! It’s mean, it’s terrible in every genre.
Paste: Yeah, which is why that sort of tightly controlled pacing is really interesting to me—it’s crucial to game design but almost invisible.
Christine Love: Right. I mean, that’s the hard thing about videogames in general—it’s very difficult to control pacing, in a way that a lot of mediums don’t need to worry about.
Paste: Right—pacing is super important for everything, but the user usually doesn’t have to figure out on their own how to even begin to get anything out of it.
Christine Love: Well, it’s HARD for the player to figure it out on their own. How would they know? All I know is that it’s hard to do, but also super-important to the way a story unfolds, so I’m definitely interested in experimenting in that area.
Paste: To follow up on an earlier question, you mentioned that you didn’t think Analogue was really clear enough about what it was doing with the romance VN tropes it was evoking. What didn’t come across in Analogue and why do think that was?
Christine Love: Well, I think the real problem was that it expected a familiarity with visual novel tropes, and very few people actually play visual novels. So when Analogue has *Hyun-ae falling in love with the first person she meets, who could have been anyone, they don’t think of it as some sort of clever point on protagonist entitlement in visual novels, it just reads as weird and inexplicable. And I mean, obviously that’s all on me. If the player doesn’t understand something, that’s never their fault, I just didn’t come across clearly. So with Hate Plus, uh well, I tried to turn this up to 11 in all cases, so hopefully the point would come clearer.
Paste: For example?
Christine Love: Well, the game literally asks you to bake a real actual-factual IRL cake for it. For example.
Paste: Haha, so asking players to actually do something in real life for the sake of the game is pretty radical. Why did you ask players to do that? And how many people have actually done it? (…other than me)
Christine Love: Well, it’s evoking this sort of otaku tradition that comes from [Japanese internet forum] 2ch, where you post a picture of you sharing cake with your “waifu” on romantic occasions like Christmas. A lot of outsiders see this and just dismiss it as pathetic, which is frankly, totally missing the point, since it’s very tongue-in-cheek and very self-reflective about the whole absurdity of that. So when I was trying to turn everything up to 11, that seemed like a pretty fun way to go about it. I, uh wasn’t really sure if that many people would do it, but so far, six-hundred have sent me emails about it. It’s something like 12% of all people who have actually finished the game.
Christine Love: This is kind of unbelievable to me.
Paste: Wow that’s in a way that’s really cool. What do you think of that? It seems like a lot of people really took it…well maybe still tongue in cheek, but seriously enough to actually do it. For my part, I had a friend who was a really good cook and we thought it would be an interesting thing to do, and we ended up having a lot of fun with it.
Christine Love: Well, if they cared enough to do it—especially in a tongue-in-cheek way—then that means I must be doing something right.
Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer who maintains a surreal video game terror blog at http://mammonmachine.com and a twitter account, @mammonmachine, which is a popular resource for both anime puns and flirtation advice.