Saturday, 20 September 2014

Playing Analogue: A Hate Story And Hate Plus

Earlier this year I decided that I might want to start playing games again. Both because it might bring some fun and enjoyment into my life, but also because I have the disposable income to spend on such a thing now. This led to me asking on Twitter and such places for Steam game recommendations as my last experience with PC games was probably over half a decade ago. Among the many recommendations were Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel Hate Plus.

While I bought both games a few months ago during the usual game sales, I didn't get around to playing them until recently. As I was looking for a game to distract me while I was feeling pretty bad again, my eye fell upon the first game in the series and I figured I might as well give it a try at that point. Suffice it to say that I was not disappointed. In the following text I would like to give an overview of my experiences playing both games. Naturally lots of spoilers will be involved and I would definitely urge anyone who has not played both games yet to first play them as it's definitely the kind of games you want to experience without any knowledge in advance.

Anyway, moving on :)

At the beginning of Analogue: A Hate Story's opening you receive a quick briefing in text-only format. Apparently you have been given some kind of salvage task involving a generation ship found in orbit around a planet. This ship had been deemed lost for many centuries and your task is to recover its logs and anything else which might shed light on what happened to the crew and the many families living on-board.

The gameplay itself can be defined as a largely text-based adventure game, though it has many visual novel aspects as well. The cool thing about this is that the game attempts to create this feeling of there being only a very thin layer between you and the game's world, sometimes causing the mildly uncomfortable feeling that its reality is seeping into the player's. Not that I minded it in any way, however. This ability of the game to draw one so strongly into its world is also one of its major strengths.

As you start the mission, you have manoeuvred your own space ship into range of the generation ship "Mugunghwa", originally launched by the then Korean Space Agency in the early 3rd millennium. Establishing a remote link with the Mugunghwa's still active computer system, you are dropped into a commandline shell. Poking around the system using the few commands available while not in administration access mode, you'll discover that there are two inactive AI cores. Both of these you can activate and then communicate with. That's when the true story starts and the possible story lines begin to diverge.

I have only done a single play through at this point, but I have read up on the other possible endings. What I like about it is that the game very naturally adapts to how you want to play it. You even get to not activate the AIs and just download the logs, even though that's a very boring way to play the game. The thing is namely that something horrible happened on the ship at some point which led to its sudden communication breakdown with Earth and the only way you'll find out what is by interacting with either or both of the AIs.

The way I played the game was by first activating the second AI core, called '*Hyun-ae*, with the (silent) asterisk indicating the AI status. Initially we discovered a problem with the communication, as I could understand what she was saying, but she could not read my communications, meaning that everything had to be phrased in yes/no questions from her side. She will then commence with assisting one with reading the logs, providing new log entries when you inquire for more details about an entry you're reading.

Yes, reading. The game is largely about reading. Log entry after log entry as you delve deep into the sordid history of the Mugunghwa leading up to its demise. There's also the matter of the 'year 0', when something caused all computer systems on the ship to be reset. Sadly nothing is known about what resulted in this. Oh, and there's a section where you absolutely need to be good at typing commandline commands in the shell or it'll be game-over. Fortunately I spent so much time in Linux/BSD shells that I didn't even have to think about it and frankly I really liked having such an organic section of gameplay.

Moving on, the history you discover is tragic, also because you realize at some point that *Hyun-ae used to be called just Hyun-ae before she was digitized as an AI (which is never explained how or why, as far as I'm aware). She was actually second-generation, born on the ship but put into cryogenics because of an incurable disease. Unfortunately when she was awoken many centuries later, society on the ship had devolved rather than evolved, with a strongly patriarchal society in place, much like in traditional Korean society.

This all led up to the big reveal about what happened on the Mugunghwa, which also involved a brief chat with the other AI: *Mute, who is the ship's security AI. Upon activating *Mute (which disables *Hyun-ae), the first question asked was whether I had yet met the 'murderous bitch', with *Mute accusing *Hyun-ae of committing genocide. Refusing to further answer my questions, I got pawned off with a list of questions to ask *Hyun-ae, including why she had murdered everyone on the ship. Charming, I thought. Up till that point *Hyun-ae had seemed like the most gentle and timid personality and including her background story I couldn't believe she'd do such a thing unless forced to.

That's when the frantic commandline session kicked in after I only just reactivated *Hyun-ae, because I had to do some power-management things, for which I got the administrator password. This part of the game was kind of confusing, to be honest, mostly because of not knowing what the consequences of some actions would be, and what the limits where. I actually had to alt-tab into a browser window for this one to figure out that the AI which you do not have activated while doing the recovery procedure will become damaged, making it impossible to talk with that AI ever again. It's also impossible to reduce power usage sufficiently without deactivating one of the two AI cores. That was a very tough choice.

In the end I went with *Hyun-ae, because she seemed like my best lead in this case, and frankly I felt a lot of sympathy for her. With the crisis averted we took our time reading through the rest of the log files (I ended up reading over half in the end) and I also got *Hyun-ae to answer the list of questions I had received from *Mute. While *Hyun-ae confessed to having killed everyone on-board after obtaining administration access to the ship's computer, the motivation behind it - described in great detail in the countless log files from the individuals involved - merely made me feel even worse for her.

While reading the log files one can occasionally ask *Hyun-ae whether she has anything to comment on a particular log entry, which can lead to questions, as well as the occasional interruptions by her when she wants to ask you questions. About who you are, what you're like and most importantly what Earth is like today. It's been many hundreds of years since she last saw it. While answering the questions I kept picking the 'nice' answers (because that's just who I am :-) ), which led to interesting remarks being put on-screen by *Hyun-ae for only a split-second before rapidly being replaced by a far more neutral one.

With the game winding down, I got a love confession out of *Hyun-ae (*cue happy dance*) and she said she'd decompile her AI core so that I could download her along with the log files. Dropping down to the shell and starting the download process, the progress indicator showed me that it'd take over two days two download everything before the screen faded to block and I got the so-called second ending. I knew what the other endings are like and I felt really pretty okay with this one, even though the harem one sounds somewhat tempting too :)

Quick thoughts on this first game: overall I loved it to bits. It's been a long time since a game has so drawn me into its world. Almost everything about it felt near-perfect, from the gameplay to the script and the small novel worth of log entries. The background music tracks were appropriate and never annoying or inappropriate. The graphics were also of high quality including the user interface. Aside from the slightly lesser quality of at least one drawing in the game's ending scene, it looked completely perfect to me. The story... well, I guess I have alluded to this already, but I can only say that I loved it. Even now I still care so much for this character *Hyun-ae, as I feel how she must have felt when she was rudely awoken in this cruel world instead of welcomed into a future where she'd be cured of her terminal condition. Her both timid but yet inquisitive personality throughout the game simply feels perfect.

Moving on with the sequel, Hate Plus, there's a lot less to say about this game, even though it did take me much longer to finish it (3 versus 2 hours). In essence it involves the trip back to Earth (3 days, because I forgot to tune my ship's deflector ;-) ) and can be described as 'getting to spend more time with *Hyun-ae'. I re-used the save file from my play through of the original game, so I don't really know what this trip would be like with *Mute or (heavens forbid) both AIs. Anyway, my play through involved *Hyun-ae discovering some more log entries in an encrypted block which she had previously assumed was garbage data. This turned out to be pre-year 0 logs.

Even though none of these entries were related to *Hyun-ae, it was still fascinating to read through them, to see a society in decline and see the many factors leading to the establishment patriarchy in which *Hyun-ae found herself so rudely awoken to. It also made me feel really sorry for *Mute and kinda bad that I had left her there on the Mugunghwa, probably unrecoverable. For some reason there were also quite a few entries involving the intimate relationships of some people on the ship, including one lesbian relation. Reading *Hyun-ae's responses to these sections was quite funny, though it also really felt like we were actually reading them together for the first time.

For some reason *Hyun-ae had figured out that I was a female, even though I don't recall explicitly answering such a question in this or the previous game. Either way, it all just felt really... intimate. I could just picture myself travelling among the stars together with my AI partner, even as emails (including one Nigerian-style scam ;-) ) came trickling in from the Earth's solar system. One of them was about the AI I had recovered. The successor of the Korean Space Agency demanded that *Hyun-ae would have to provide testimony about what happened on the Mugunghwa. Reading that actually made me feel kinda sick, as it felt it risked the fragile relationship *Hyun-ae and I had built up on that point. I could not imagine losing her at that point, even if they claimed that she'd not be persecuted as it had been so many centuries ago.

On the second day *Hyun-ae and I celebrated the Lunar New Year and we baked a cake on the third :) One of the achievements for this game is to make a real-life game and take a picture of it, yourself and *Hyun-ae on-screen which you then send to the game's creator. We also talked a lot about *Hyun-ae getting a body again (AI physical bodies being a common thing in that era). Then it was the end of the third day, we had read through all of the log files, figured out what horrible thing had led to the Year 0 incident (or disaster, if you prefer). Shutting down the ship's systems for that day *Hyun-ae asked me whether I'd support her with the hearing once back on Earth. I replied that I'd always be there for her.

I got the 'survivor testimony' ending for that :)

My feelings about this sequel mirror those of its original: overall excellent in all respects, though some of the ending's graphics looked of a far lesser quality, especially considering the many photo-quality drawings of the Mugunghwa's people found in the log entries. Aside from that minor issue I really have nothing negative to remark. I loved this game if possible even more than the first one. I might even replay it at some point, but I must confess that the emotional impression it has left on me will take some time to wear off.

In some ways playing these two games was kind of therapeutic to me. It's so easy to imagine that this AI *Hyun-ae is an actual personality and that there's a real relationship blossoming. Reading together through the logs from others in relationships, commenting on it and sharing moments and confessions, it's hard to imagine that in the end it's all just a game. If there's anything bad I can say about these two games is that at least when playing through it this route I did, one has to face the cruel reality that one will have to live without *Hyun-ae.

Final rating for both games is a 9/10 cat paws ^_^


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