Indie game dev Christine Love is a Trekker. I know this because half our conversations on Twitter seem to revolve around Lt. Worf, but also because part of Digital: A Love Story consists of a snarky retrospective in which a BBS poster named “Tiberius” (strangely not one of the Shakespearean AIs the game revolves around– or is he?) waxes nostalgic for Captain Kirk’s, um… unique brand of diplomacy.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that Love’s latest work, Analogue: A Hate Story (sequel to Digital), bears no small similarity to the TOS episode “For The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”, about a generation ship which has reverted back to a superstitious and hierarchical society. In this episode, Kirk, Spock and McCoy stumble upon the Yonada, whose captive population are controlled by “obedience devices” to prevent them from learning of or discussing the true nature of the ship. Why is never really explained, although the AI in question (“the Oracle”, another name which reappears in Digital) seems to have driven the ship off course as well, so we can probably project a little about its reasons.
Granted, the fashion of the Yonada is a great deal worse, and the culture is nowhere as openly misogynist as we find among Love’s characters (thankfully, TOS as a whole has enough sexism to compensate). But the implicit message of both stories –that left without an imperative to progress, society will stagnate and eventually putrefy– remains quite consistent. In a way, this is what science fiction should be more often: a thoughtful extrapolation on current conditions into a hypothetical future.
Framed as an epistolary novel, Analogue concerns a far-future tragedy amid the isolated patriarchal society of the generation ship Mugunghwa. An ailing girl of thirteen, who has been in cryogenic suspension for centuries with the promise that the science of the future could cure her, is forcibly awakened into a society with no memory of the progressive culture she came from. Instead, the ship’s inhabitants have reorganized themselves into a feudal society with little understanding of the technology which surrounds them, and they have dubbed the reawakened girl “the Pale Bride,” a marriageable chess piece between the royal family and competitive nobles.
I don’t purport to know a great deal about Korean history, nor do I suppose the Joseon dynasty (on which Analogue is modeled) is in any way singular. To give you an idea, the day after I finished playing, Jezebel ran this headline: “Afghan Man Murders His Wife for Giving Birth to a Girl”. It’s just as brutal as you think it is, and it makes an efficient reminder that everything Love is talking about in Analogue is neither exaggerated nor confined to some dark period of remote history. The game’s historical notes, available from the Bonus Content screen, also go a long way to place Analogue in a historical context– in particular, to bring home Love’s remarks that the brutality and subjugation she describes is downplayed from reality.
Consequently I wouldn’t really call Analogue a game, despite all the character interaction and multiple endings. I would call it a feminist essay with an interactive interface, something which despite its cartoon characters and references to cosplay would fit in quite well with some of the projects at Vectors. If, then, you’re the sort of person who wonders why she’s charging US $15 for it, well… shame on you. Go look up the texts she lists in her references and see what that would run you.
It’s really quite a shame that we’ve built up these expectations that interactive media must be a) harmless and b) fun. Analogue is neither. It’s not even a very pleasurable interface, and I suppose I could gripe about that, but I’m not going to. Why would I? If I leveled that criticism at a project like “Public Secrets,” it could rightly be called out as disrespectful and entirely missing the point of scholarship. And that is exactly what Analogue constitutes: scholarship, and a damned good example of it, at that. I wish some academics had even a fraction of her clarity or vision.
On the subject of Analogue as scholarship, it might be pointed to ask whether using a fictional setting diminishes the potential impact. I considered this at first, but decided it’d be similarly alienating to reconstruct real historical documents using a digital database, a system they were not intended for. Even though it might overcome a few critics who wish to believe Love is creating a “strawman” (of all the shamelessly ignorant things to suggest), it would be an unnatural reconfiguration, shoving a bunch of historical artifacts into a database structure. (Not to mention the practical problems since, as Love notes, very few letters from women authors survived this period.) We would spend all our time instead on whether or not the decision was an effective one.
Analogue hits harder by inventing an original scenario in which history viciously repeats itself, this time in the trappings of high technology, like the Star Trek episode. It lets the user reflect that even the electronic paradigm, that of electromagnetic storage and augmented navigation, of space travel and interplanetary colonization, which we hold up as such a symbol of human progress, can be made into yet another structure by which oppression flourishes. All of our technology is just one regime change away from becoming the backbone of a new dark age.
My recommendation would be to think of Analogue as a book, albeit a nonlinear one. It certainly ranks up there with A Handmaid’s Tale in how it extrapolates on contemporary anti-feminist pushback, which is certainly not limited to the Middle East. It uses Korean history as an (ahem) analogue to model the worldwide, persistent, systemic, culturally reinforced issues Love is talking about here. It is not pleasant. Nor should it be. After all, it’s not 60s television, where every problem can be recapitulated and contained within 50 minutes. There are no Kirks here.
(Not that you’d want there to be. I mean, Kirk was kind of a condescending asshole around women.)