Games are brilliant at building a setting for a story. The interactivity may make it difficult to actually tell that story, but it also fills in the world in ways no other medium can. The setting is more than just a well designed level, however. The most powerful settings are about a very specific time and place, especially if you’ve been there in real life. Those are the hardest to pull off though, as any little detail can wreck the whole experience.
Fortunately Digital: A Love Story has an inherent advantage as it’s set entirely in the computer world. It’s set “five minutes into the future of 1988” and it starts at an Amiga-like desktop where you have just purchased a new modem. It asks for a username, and your real name. A message from a family friend gives you a number to a BBS and tells you to “try not to run up your Dad’s phone bills.” From there you can encounter the proto-internet world of the BBS system and explore the various messages and users attached to them.
As far as flavor goes, the BBS messages are top notch. At one point you can even get into an argument about Star Trek, if you choose. As a gameplay conceit you can’t actually compose messages, just reply to messages. This means gameplay largely consists of finding new messages and replying to them, which also feels very true to the early days of the internet. Somehow this works in the game’s favor. It’s much more compelling to imagine the message you would’ve sent to cause such a reply—a setup that’s evocative of Gordon Freeman’s famously mute personality. Especially when the budding BBS romance enters into the picture.
This is a fine piece of interactive fiction, which is to say the writing is top notch. It’s one of the best-written gaming romance stories I’ve ever experienced. The game itself exists outside the world of text parsers, however, and it’s actually much closer to a point-and-click adventure game than a text adventure. Yet there are more “gamey” bits, such as finding hacked Sprint long-distance codes to call a distant BBS. This is really a work that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, which, considering the strength of the writing, is to the game’s credit.
Why You Should Check This Out: A wonderfully written story told through a pseudo-Amiga interface that largely plays itself out on BBSes of the late 80s—what’s not to love? The game isn’t very difficult but it can sometimes feel like working out a difficult puzzle, in fact it feels much like using a computer from the pre-internet era. Digital: A Love Story absolutely nails the setting, then uses it to tell you a great cyberpunk love story. For a certain era of gamer, this game will ring very true. For the rest of you, there’s a great story here that’s well worth the time.