Friday, 20 May 2011

Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story

...That's not even one of my silly pop-quoting titles, by the way. That's the genuine title of the game.

Game being a word I have to use advisedly here. There's not much of your traditional videogame about DTIPBIJAYS. There's little player agency, no competition, no moving around and - to stereotype a little - no violence.

So, if you're one of those people who tends not to read my gaming posts, please don't disregard this game. (I'm resisting the term 'visual novel' because it is both silly and possibly even more off-putting.) Equally, most game-orientated types, not much of what I'm about to tell you is going to tickle your usual pleasure zones. Both of you, stick with me.

Because DTI-- let's just call it ...Ain't Your Story, mmkay? -- looks like this:
LIKE THE FILM!
Right, let's get this out of the way:
  • Yes, this is a game where you just read dialogue for a couple of hours.
  • It is illustrated in, not even anime, but manga style. It is not animated, in any sense that matters.
  • It is essentially a soap opera revolving around the romantic life of a bunch of sixteen year old schoolkids.
You're placed as a new teacher who has fallen into the job; a self-doubter, both in his skills as a provider of education and the appropriateness of his dealings with the small group students in his charge. And people who know me personally might be able to see where I climbed onboard here. For those who don't: today is my final day as a trainee teacher, working in the same school I grew up in. Ain't Your Story feels particularly close to real life for me.

It is, however, a sci-fi story: the game is set about ten years in the future, and it's hinted that books are essentially obsolete. Students' ever-increasing devotion to electronic distractions means the school you work at is offering you the power to monitor all of the students' social networking interactions. You're given access through the game's menus to their various wall comments, profile pics and private messages.

You have to spy on these kids' interactions to advance the game, and it gets ...unprofessional very quickly. In some cases, directly involving you. I don't want to ruin what I consider to be the strongest plot-thread, scroll down to the big pastel-coloured blocks to get past the spoilers.
...Not touching kids?
In my many, many discussions on exactly what makes teacher/student relations so inappropriate this year, the point has been raised repeatedly that it's not necessarily the age gap but rather the necessary hierarchy that exists. It's an abuse of power.

Never more so than you when your students' private conversations are yours to read at your leisure.

So, you know seduction is coming, long before it happens. Not through some fuzzy intuition - dread or excitement - but because you've seen the messages where one girl asked another for advice, and declared just how she is going to come onto you.

The game doesn't try to influence you morally, the character can bend both ways, but it is pretty fully horrifying. It ends in an awkward, clumsy attempt at a seduction, that just reminds you of the youthfulness of the character. But there's temptation there too, mixed in with the pity and the shame, and it's echoed in the teacher character's narration.
The union of a hippopotamus and a tyrannosaur.
Well, quite. The writing isn't exactly afraid to cut close to the bone, either. As the inevitable moral choice approaches, as she squeezes your hand and you gear up your rejection, there's a bit of brilliantly uncomfortable honesty. I'm embarassed to say it, so I'll just quote directly:
"She smiles sweetly at me, getting ready to confess to me ... with her short dress, with her surprisingly deep eyes, with her unsubtle flirting, with her delicate grip ... I realise, in spite of myself, I'm becoming just a bit hard."
It's not exactly the kind of thing you'd want to be caught playing this on a park bench.

But it's not explotaitive. It's honest, for the character and the situation (it does help here, death of the author be damned, that the game is penned by a woman). And it helps sell the choice you have to make next: Will you or won't you?

(And me? What do you take me for? Some kind of pervert? But the truth is, saying no made me feel good. It made me feel like a real gentleman, of unwavering moral calibre. I can't help feeling that's kind of worse.)

Copy + Pastel
...So that's Virtue #1: the Realism. The dialogue is convincing, down to the narration of your character's mind, and the characters work. It quickly tangles you up in the small machinations of these peoples' lives, and the plot is deeply compelling. The interactivity might be limited but most decisions had me squeezing my eyes tight and thinking, in a way that all the kill-the-puppy/save-the-orphan 'moral choices' that we've seen in every game for the last ten years have never managed.

What separates it from being a slightly-interactive soap opera is Virtue #2: the Post-Modernisms. The metafiction, once you start to notice it, is everywhere.

Which, given the concept, is probably inevitable. The game is presented as if on your character's iPad-style device: the menu screens are neatly integrated alongside the students' Facebook-esque social network. But there's also 12Channel, a 4Chan riff which plays with and teases the game itself. Its first "lol porn" response (in a self-reflexive discussion about a slightly dodgy-looking visual novel) helps put any worries about the game at ease.
lolporn
It also justifies a little why a game ostensibly set in America is so Japanese-styled. Like the rest of the game, it's just communicating in a way native to the geekier (sorry, otaku-ier) corners of the internet. This is a game, after all, which features at least one Belle Airing. The language of this culture leaks into even the spoken dialogue: expect a lot of lols, omgs, and desperate squinting whilst you backwards-engineer acronyms to their meaning. Just like talking to real teenagers.

Which adds to the realism, but also sets up all sorts of crazy meta stuff. The game cut out at a pivotal moment, and my computer blue-screened and restarted. Ain't Your Story is the kind of game where I spent a good five minutes convinced it was all a clever ploy.

And for anyone who doesn't know what meta-textuality is, your character is conveniently an English teacher (who previously worked as a computer technician, neatly bringing together the two halves of Ain't Your Story). Eventually, the students give a presentation about foreshadowing and spoilers that both foreshadows and spoils (not only this game but referring to the twist of Christina Love's previous, Digital, too).

It all gets a bit too much by the end, without really going anywhere new, but its high moments elevate the game. Even Ain't Your Story's title is a great big wink at the audience, and being such an audacious bit of naming it sticks in the mind. It's the perfect title, capturing most of the game's character in a single sentence (something I have entirely failed to do).
This isn't as bad as it looks...
But, like the title, there's also a bit too much of Ain't Your Story. Each section is centred around one of your students. There are seven of them, and they're a little difficult to tell apart visually, partially down to the androgynous art style and partially down to the inconsistency between their presentation in the classroom and profile pictures. (All of which is perfectly fitting, actually.) Their stories cover the full range of teenage issues that you'd expect, but this means some of them are predictable, and having to do it seven times means some repetition and flat notes.

I'm hesitant to pick any holes in Ain't Your Story. I don't know how much my demographic crosses over with it, really, and I realise we're on a tightrope here. I can't guarantee you'll like it; nor can you. It's not like anything else you'll have played, most likely. And isn't that enough of a justification to give it a go? You might love it. Better still, you might hate it.

You can get the game here, for a princely sum of £0 (≈$0). If you do, please let me know what you think. Even if it's just to tell me I'm a big girl's blouse, or a perv. Especially if.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.