essay, playing

The performative “gap” in Digital: A Love Story

When she told me she loved me, I was surprised. Not because I felt that wasn’t the reaction I expected or even how I thought the story would go, but because, frankly, we had only known each other for about an hour. It was all a little fast for me.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think, *Emilia’s confession towards the end of Digital: A  Love Story highlighted the game’s greatest strength in storytelling. And also its constant weakness.

The epistolary nature of the game, of reading other’s messages and even responding to some, works on a great thematic level with the remediation of the environment. As the player, you are embedded in the simulation of a 1988 Amiga-like system, and of connecting to various message boards. There is a frequent disjointed, am-I-missing-something nature to the story as situated within the user interface of layered windows, of looking out to different system landscapes partially covering each other. As with the real time period, not being around — think Twitter of today — meant missing threads and messages. Being “disconnected” was much more final.

This same moving between the boards and interacting with different characters produces an initial powerful effect of having a performative identity. The dual personas of screen and “real” names creates an atmosphere of existing within different worlds simultaneously. There is the relationship between *Emilia and the player, and the one facing out to the message boards. The player navigates these through replying to others. And then trying to figure out what was written on the player’s behalf.

This discontinuity of conversation produces a “gap” in the performative identity though. The player chooses to reply and then must infer from the response what the content, and even the tone, of their own message was. The consequence of progression is not a reward of seeing an action taken, but the void the performed action created. It’s a matter of bridging the “gap” into the immediate past from the present context to reverse engineer what exactly was written, and sometimes even why.

This stands in contrast the considerable number of identity affirmations the game contains. Both the screen and “real” name as entered by the player at the beginning are used frequently to confirm responses. Yet, away from the simulated user interface, these same affirmations seem strange. Messages are never “TO” the player or even the character performed, but “FROM” others. The player-character is often not just a cipher, but sometimes indecipherable too, existing in the murky middle between the other characters and the player’s agency.

*Emilia even states at one point “You’re a really good person. I just want you to know that.” Yet, what textual artifacts there are to confirm that exist solely in *Emilia’s responses. The composite image of the character from *Emilia’s messages, or even those of other characters, is highly incomplete, and possibly irreconcilable too.

Still, the “gap” remains. The player sits in the often uncomfortable distance presented by the simulated technology itself. *Emilia, as an artificial intelligence, performed as a human on the boards, yet needs the player to progress. The other characters too are frozen until triggered by events. The player is both all-important and, as trying to send messages outside of the critical path shows, the other characters are indifferent to the player-character’s plight too. The performance was prescribed.

Was there really love between the characters then? Just as *Emilia was programmed, so too were the player’s responses. Never truly replying, nor with a body to call her own, the ghost of the player haunts the systems, causing actions, but immaterial to the plot. Without comments of her own, the player is much more artificial than *Emilia, existing only as the mechanical events and a series of inputs.

Ultimately, the “gap” consumes the player herself. Without sites to perform, the outer identity crumbles and the “real” remains locked in the illusion of sending *Emilia off to her death or not. Yet, this is destroyed as *Emilia too closes off communication.

Without even the darkly mirrored reflection of self from *Emilia’s messages, what is left of the player’s identity finally dies right before *Emilia serves as bait for *Reaper. The declaration of love might be the culmination of the relationship between the player and *Emilia, but it also serves as the symbolic end of agency and total collapse of identity for the player as well. Without other affirmations or messages, all that is left is to end the simulation.