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My arc of feelings about don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story is, I think, similar to that about Digital: A Love Story: I didn’t think about it too much when playing it, but then it stuck in my head, and then we had a VGHVI Symposium about it where I had a reasonable amount to say, but then I put off writing about it for long enough that I’ve forgotten most of that. Sigh.

Comparing it to its predecessor: it’s a lot more polished, a lot more like what I would expect a visual novel to be like. Which is mostly good, but means that it loses a bit of an edge in some ways: the faux-computer interface of its predecessor had real power in its own way. But, ultimately, I got tired in Digital of constantly going through a modem connection dance, and I certainly got tired of having to randomly try stuff until I did whatever would move the story along. Whereas, with don’t take it personally, the story moved along quite nicely at its own place; online messages provided an important aspect of the story, but they were much more of an important alternate point of view instead of a gating requirement. Except for the once-per-chapter scenario where the game forced you to connect to a message board that you never looked at otherwise: that was a gate, and one that seemed both out-of-character and out-of-place, though maybe I’m wrong about both of those: maybe it’s out of character for me but in-character for the protagonist, and I do wonder how many of the people on 12channel are also students in the school, hence providing yet another perspective on their lives?

And that question of what’s in character for me versus the protagonist was an important one: fairly early on, I felt that I was presented with a choice of ways to act where none of the ways felt right to me, and I didn’t like that. Which, thinking back on it, is weird: when do I ever see a game where I can act like I would in real life? But the answer there is perhaps that, in most games, I’m presented with characters who bear no resemblance to me, in settings that are nothing like my life, facing problems that are like nothing I ever see. Whereas, in this game, the protagonist is a teacher; I have been a teacher, which makes it easy for me to see the disconnect. Part of the reason why Dragon Age II had the impact on me that it did was that it at least gestured towards shrinking down some of its scope to a personal level; but don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story takes that much farther, of course. I’m really not sure why games are so drawn to overblown plots: to me, they seem to work against any sort of emotional connection.

In addition to seeing how that concept of disconnection with the protagonist plays out differently in different games, we can compare games to books: I’m used to books presenting protagonists who aren’t much like me, and I don’t generally pull back from that, either? But there’s something different about being forced to make a choice between actions you don’t agree with, in situations where you really would do something different. At any rate, that discomfort didn’t last too long, though; eventually, I mostly just went along with it, stopped taking it personally. (And it’s not like the game is heavy-handed about forcing you to make weighty choices or anything.) Mostly, I was just reading a story, just with more different perspectives on what was going on than I would see in a book.

And then I came to the end: in particular, the shadow play and the infodump. In the Symposium, we spent a while talking about the infodump, and I ended up defending it. My take is this: we have this shadow play, put on by two students whom the protagonist respects and thinks are neat kids but isn’t sure what they’ll come up with. And the shadow play isn’t at all what he expects; so he’s not sure whether it’s pointing at something interesting or just junk. So then the students have to take him by the hand still more patiently and explain to him what’s going on: there are layers everywhere, and what he saw as naive behavior was actually performance. In that context of needing to explain, an infodump makes sense.

Also, the context of the infodump as being done by smart high school students locates it in an interesting place for me. Because these are students who are trying to construct a view of certain aspects of the world; and they’re old enough and smart enough to do a good and interesting job of that. But that doesn’t mean that they’re right: so if we have a warring point of view of the protagonist seeing himself as secretly spying on the students and the students seeing themselves as knowingly performing for the teacher (while being one up on him), they can try to construct a narrative that presents the latter to the exclusion of the former. And, well, the students are probably more correct than the teacher is in this instance, because they’re wiser in the ways of social media, but that doesn’t mean that they’re masters of the situation, either: uncomfortable truths can appear as part of social media self-presentation, acts can get out of hand with real-world consequences. So the infodump, from that point of view, makes sense to me as a rhetorical play by the students that isn’t entirely successful or accurate within the world itself; that, to me, is more interesting than infodumps that I sometimes see that I only manage to interpret as the author sticking information in.

And this rhetorical play, this contest comes out in the title of the story, too. I, the player, shouldn’t take things personally, because this isn’t a story about me. And the protagonist also shouldn’t take things personally, because the students’ interactions and lives are about them, they’re not about him. There is, of course, truth to both of those points of view, but it’s equally true that the power of art comes in how it bears on you, the person reading / experiencing it; and a teacher is part of a classroom, too, and given how many hours students and teachers spend together, he’s part of students’ lives. So, in both of those contexts, the title of the game has some real truth to it but fails as an absolute (no surprise, because after all what artist wouldn’t want us to take her art personally?), which makes it all the more interesting.

I’m glad we played through that game and talked about it, hopefully Analogue will come up fairly soon in the rotation.

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