Christine Love (creator of Digital: A Love Story) returns with a “spiritual sequel” set in an elite private school with don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. There’s quite a lot to enjoy here: the dialogue of the high school students is wincingly accurate; the overblown emotions and drama vividly recall what its like to be in the throes of adolescent angst and passion; and the structure of the narrative itself is very cleverly deployed in backchannels of IMs, wall posts, private messages, and emails. It’s the modern epistolary novel on speed. In anime style.
The title explains the concept, but it can still be hard to absorb: it’s not exactly clear whose story it is, actually. The main character, John Rook, is a bitter, somewhat angst-ridden man in his late thirties, a veteran of two divorces and full of self-loathing and self-doubt; is it his story? But no: the more vibrant characters are the high school students he teaches, a cast of quirky characters, and while they ask him for advice at times, for the most part they are off living their lives and he, as an adult, is as irrelevant to them as the desktop computer.
The year is 2027 but it feels much nearer than that. The students flirt, agonize, date and break up, hook up, fight and make up — but the bulk of the action takes place off-screen, in a private social network the students participate in. John Rook reads their private messages and wall posts in order to keep track of the constantly evolving social ecosystem and that’s the real gem at the heart of this piece.
There are a couple of really interesting mechanics at work here: John Rook is such a bad teacher and his personality can be off-putting, which I believe is a deliberate tactic. While the piece is interactive, the player doesn’t actually have that much control over the protagonist, creating further distance. I haven’t played through the branches yet but there are a couple of critical moments when you can’t actually make a choice for John, which may be frustrating to some players — I accepted my role as voyeur, sitting on John’s shoulder like some sort of angel of conscience (or devil, depending on your predilection I suppose), trying to nudge him gently in the right direction.
The distributed narration is fascinating and, as in real life, a guiltily pleasurable peek into the private lives of a high school clique. Dissecting the various personae and unearthing the complex relationships between them makes you feel like a social anthropologist (as well as a bit of a creep!) Christine Love’s main theme here is privacy — or the lack thereof; and how our notions of private/public have been radically shaped by technology and behavior. The ending that I got felt a little preachy and canned, but I wonder how differently I’d play through knowing what I know now. I’m curious to try.