On the most basic level, Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel, the kind normally filled with attractive anime-inspired characters and the promise of romantic entanglements. It’s much more than that, though, which isn’t a surprise, as it’s from the same developer as Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It’s Just Ain’t Your Story, a game that offered a chilling look at how social media could be used to compromise privacy.
If I had to describe Analogue in three words or less, I would tell you it’s an uncomfortably intimate experience. If you asked me how it affected me as a person, I would tell you how awestruck I am by how a white Canadian developer, separated by genetics, geography and upbringing, could so perfectly capture what it can be like to be an Asian female. Set within the half-forgotten logs and personal missives of a ship’s long-dead crew, the same vessel you are charged to investigate at the beginning of the game, Analogue is a story of ghosts, filial loyalty, desperation, anachronistic gender roles and the worst kind of hate possible: self-hate.
There’s a lot of that last one in Analogue. Self-loathing permeates almost everything you read. You see it in the diary of a woman named the Pale Bride, in your exchanges with the ship’s artificial intelligences, in the words of a son looking to redeem his family and how a wife struggles with illicit affections. It’s everywhere. And for someone who was raised in a traditional South-East Asian environment, it’s also disturbingly familiar.
I remember growing up with a constant sense of guilt. I didn’t learn how to cook till I was in my teens. I wasn’t adept at laundry. I spoke too loudly and played too many videogames. I wasn’t feminine enough. I would never be accepted by my hypothetical mother-in-law. One of my earliest memories is of myself as a little girl, sitting frozen in the backseat of a car, afraid that I would be beaten bloody again because I had, at a family gathering, accidentally spilled a glass of tea. I remember whimpering to my father, telling him that I had only made that one mistake, that I would never shame him again if he would only spare me. I think I was five.
For the longest time, I led my life like the characters in Analogue. It is an unsettling reminder of what I left behind.
That said, I doubt Analogue would have made such an impact if creator Christine Love’s writing wasn’t quite so stellar. While a vast majority of the cast exists as nothing but a collection of transcripts, it is easy to put a face to the letters and to picture the events that once transpired on that ill-fated ship. Love’s narrative skills are also why Analogue can feel so uncomfortably intimate. You aren’t reading mere records. You’re intruding on the dead. The things you uncover were often kept secret by these people for their whole lives, secrets they would have killed to protect. However, six hundred years later, they can do nothing. Silent and impotent, they’re incapable of protesting as you cross-examine their transgressions and their vices, their moments of vulnerability. More than once, I felt the urge to power down the game apologetically, unwilling to rob the deceased of even more of their secrets.
Analogue is festooned with such familiar conceits (you see these things a lot in Chinese dramas) as arranged marriages, displaced wives, bickering clans and “that-one-girl-that-changes-everything”. In this case, the subject in question is the Pale Bride, an adolescent ripped from cryo-stasis to serve as an unwilling spouse. While a fair bit of the story revolves around her arrival in this cloistered world, she isn’t really the focal point. No one is. Even your only companions in this otherwise lonely excursion, two A.I.s, are only playing the roles that have been given to them.
Wildly different in both temperament and opinion, Hyun-ae and Mute have little in common outside of their surprising willingness to fetch the private files of the crew for a blatant intruder. The bespectacled Hyun-Ae, in spite of the fetishized schoolgirl wear adorning her virtual frame, is guarded and demure. Like the stereotypical damsel in distress, she only blossoms if you cultivate her affections.
Mute, on the other hand, is anything but quiet. A strong advocate of patriarchal values, the flamboyantly-dressed Mute is openly contemptuous of the fact that I’m an unmarried female above the age of eighteen and more than shocked at the idea of a female traveling alone without male supervision. When asked to disclose the details of an affair between two women aboard the ship, Mute’s disgust is almost palpable. Yet, at the same time, she is not impossible to sympathize with. In one of the game’s more touching encounters, Mute quietly explains why she went into mourning when one of the personnel on the ship passed on.
Unlike the convoluted plot and relationships in Analogue: A Hate Story, the actual gameplay itself is simple. For the most part, you do little outside of peruse the many entries. From time to time, you will summon one of the A.I.s to show them a message in order to procure more material of a similar nature. It’s familiar territory for anyone who has spent any amount of time with visual novels. Love does inject a fun twist somewhere in the middle of the game in the form of a timed sequence. Here, you’ll be called upon to tamper with a console-line terminal in order to abort a crisis. Clever as it is, that’s not what makes the disaster so interesting; it’s the way it also serves as a turning point in the game. Because of certain decisions that you’re forced to make, only one of the A.I.s will follow you to one of Analogue’s multiple endings.
Before you wonder, I honestly don’t think there’s a perfect conclusion (outside of the “harem” ending) that you can choose to work towards. I don’t think that option ever really existed. Ultimately, Analogue: A Hate Story feels like a tale about “what could have been” rather than “what is”. Nothing you do really matters. There is an ending that allows you to leave with both Hyun-ae and her affections. When the credits roll, you’ll see an image of the smiling Hyun-ae pressing her hand against the inside of a screen, your own rested over hers. It’s a bittersweet moment that reminds me a lot of how a Japanese man made headlines when he married a character in a “girlfriend simulation” game. No matter how well you treat the object of romantic interest, she will still be a manufactured personality. At the end of the day, you are the only living person in Analogue. Everyone else are just ghosts in the machine.
Cassandra Khaw spends a lot of time writing about games for places like the Indiegames Blog, TouchArcade, G4TV and Paste Magazine. When she’s not writing about games, she can usually be found tucked away in a dance studio, experimenting in the kitchen, curled up with a good book or tweeting about life.