ASCII by Jason Scott

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Digital: A Love Story —

It’s nice to be reminded of how many people are looking out for me and my interests.  A few weeks ago, while travelling, I got mails, instant messages, and pages that there was some sort of “BBS Game” out there, and that it thanked me, and that it was based on calling into BBSes. I thought that all sounded neat, but my game-playing time is limited, so only recently did I sit down and play it through.

The game is called “Digital: A Love Story”, and is available for free for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  And as a few people pointed out, it’s quite an intersection of the subjects of my two documentaries: BBSes and Interactive Fiction.

Through a clicking interface, you find yourself at the desktop of your brand new Amie machine, and the kindly sales guy (and I do remember these sorts of guys) provides you with a dialing program and a phone number of a local BBS. Naturally, you try it out, and you set out on quite a fun little adventure. By the time you’re done, and it took me about two hours to be done, you’ve done an awful lot of stuff, met a wide variety of people, and probably done quite the good deed or two. I’m not a big fan of spoilers or giving away too much, so to the question “is it worth playing”, I’ll just answer “yes, even if you get frustrated at various points, because it all wraps up nicely”. For most folks, that’s probably all they really need to know about the game, but I’ll add one other bit; in the game, like Gordan Freeman in Half Life 2, your character is silent, so when you hit “reply”, that’s it – you simply “reply” and they respond as if you wrote a letter or e-mail to them, usually providing the context of your reply in their responses. That may seem weird to people, and it took me a little while to catch on, but I completely understand why the author did it.

So, here’s the thing. The author, Christine Love, was born in 1989. This takes a while to sink in.

This means she was 8 years old when I decided that BBSes were in danger of not having a place on the web and I created textfiles.com. This means she was 11 when I thought, “gee, someone should make a documentary about BBSes”. By the time she’s in her teens, BBSes are a laughable joke or a fond warm memory for the vast, vast majority of people who used them – and a meaningless term, one to skip over in writing, by many others.

This means Christine isn’t writing a simulator or a documentary or a report on BBSes – she is using them as a source of historical fiction. Within a very short time in the game, stuff happens which does not generally happen on BBSes, and the interface is a ton more easier to use, and a whole other bucket of niceties and shortcuts are in effect in the program, because she wasn’t alive to experience these things. In the credits for the game, Christine thanks “textfiles.com for much valuable research” . In other words, this means she accessed textfiles.com purely as a reference library – one to gain some understanding of writing and styles and possible characters for her game. By any standard, this would mean that the black monolith of textfiles.com just sent a signal from Jupiter. The amount this makes me happy is almost beyond measure.

I’ve read occasional reviews with folks poking at this point or that point (one young scamp said the game was inaccurate because some of the messages seem “slapdash” and that “we always worked to write thoughtful messages”.. an excellent way to show their ignorance to history) and to be sure, this is not a simulator of the BBS era.  It is, as I said, historical fiction, and no historical fiction tends to be a perfect re-telling of the time it’s from, especially when it has characters in it that didn’t exist at the time being referenced. She glosses over some things and focuses a lot on others, and shows her age with “Hacking the Gibson” in a 1988-era work – but what the fuck, people. Look at me, I’m historical and archiving reality boy, and I’m telling you it’s all going to be OK, and if you’re playing the game and getting pissed at how compiling is portrayed, you are boring and I hate you.  Go be boring about something else – Christine did something great here.

I can certainly cite earlier historical fiction with BBS lore and materials – one set that springs to mind are some zine files from the 1990s in which many slavish references to 1980s BBS comings and goings are portrayed as both actual events and as the seed for fictional narratives. However, there’s only been a few games out there that have tried to capture the zeitgeist of being online, and this one took my library for research.

Could this all have been done better? Oh, sure. Everything can be done better in this world.  But the author decided to tell this story using a very fun computer interface, with you doing all sorts of computer activities to find the story, and there is one part in this game that found me dialing up a range of BBSes looking for messages, seeing if anyone had called and left something since I was last there. For a few seconds there, in other words, I was really and actually 15 again. And how much is that worth to me?

Enjoy the game.


Categorised as: computer history | textfiles.com

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13 Comments

  1. Jason Scott says:

    Two other things the 1980s didn’t have with my BBS interaction: Background music (except by the radio nearby) and the ability to turn off scanlines.

  2. Jayson Smith says:

    One other IF about being online, the AGT game CosmoServe, also has you just ‘hit Reply’ if you will, and that’s it. Your reply gets sent immediately. This actually does work, since you don’t have to try to struggle with typing a message into AGT’s parser, and also, because of the fact that, in the context of the game, sometimes when you reply, something about the game changes. You get an alternate ending, a new avenue of exploration is opened up to you, or something not immediately obvious.

  3. Jonno says:

    Thanks Christine for an awesome game and thanks Jason for the pointer – I just spent an excellent 2 hours being 16 again (except the first time round, I didn’t get the girl OR get onto ARPANET).

  4. Scott says:

    I was born in 1983, 6 years before Christine, and I actually used bulletin boards from 1995 until 1998 or ’99, when the last local board closed up shop. In retrospect the technology was obsolete even in 1995, but I am grateful for the experience. I did not have internet access until about 2001….I loved that I could correspond with people all over the country via FidoNet, and download shareware games and applications from the “big boards” that had CD-ROM collections from Simtel, Night Owl, etc. It was an outlet for me to satisfy my curiosity about computers and connect with other nerds.

    The game is awesome although, as you pointed out, it is inaccurate.

    BTW, what became of FidoNet? I have heard that all of the U.S. Fido system are defunct, but it’s still running in some parts of the world that do not have affordable internet access (or any internet access). I’ve found several telnet BBSs, all in the US, that claim to be Fido nodes, but the echoes are either empty or the messages are several years old and the echoes appear to be dead.

  5. Scott says:

    Someone should tell Christine that the modem handshaking WAV file (or whatever format it is) that plays when you connect to Lake Local was recorded from a 14.4k or 28.8k modem. I’m pretty sure that 2400 was about as fast as modems came in 1988, although I am too young to remember that far back.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Not bad, Scott! A combination of pedantic correction and ignorance.

      As mentioned elsewhere, the WAV file is not the right one for a modem made in 1988, BUT NEITHER IS THE LEVEL OF INTERACTIVITY WITH TRANSFERRING FILES AND THE WINDOWING SYSTEM, EITHER. I mean sure, pick the ones you think you know, and be all brave you’re correcting her, and then read up to the part where I said, to your specific outlook, you’re boring and I hate you. You heard wrong about fidonet. But have a great time researching it, because I’m not in the mood tonight to help you get vaguely more accurate.

  6. Scott says:

    Wow, Jason, that was an interesting response.

    I wasn’t correcting her, I just thought that it was ironic. I even said that the game is fantastic. You know, what most people would call, “praise.”

    What’s up with your nasty tone, anyway? I really like your site and would like to purchase the BBS documentary. Trying not to take your message personally but geez….I merely pointed out a few things that are inaccurate (as did YOU) and you are riding me.

    Have fun feeling superior because you “lived it” and some of us did not. What happened to the spirit of sharing information – isn’t that what textfiles.com is all about??

  7. Jason Scott says:

    Oh, I get it.

    “Someone should tell Christine that the modem handshaking WAV file (or whatever format it is) that plays when you connect to Lake Local was recorded from a 14.4k or 28.8k modem. I’m pretty sure that 2400 was about as fast as modems came in 1988, although I am too young to remember that far back.”

    That’s IRONY. You’re IRONICALLY telling her there’s some minor technical issues with the handshaking protocol sound in her fictional game.

    There’s this movie called Wargames. You probably heard of it. Came out the year you were born. In it, we see someone logging onto a bunch of computers. He never logs into a BBS, really, but we’ll set that aside. What he does do is attempt to get into a closed beta of a telecommunications-based game system by dialing every telephone line in a given exchange, which is what causes him to stumble upon a backdoor to a military computer.

    Somewhere in there, he turns on a speech synthesizer. It is, in every way, the world’s best speech synthesizer, pronouncing everything perfectly, adding intonation, and even some hint of emotion over time. And all from an IMSAI!

    Now, one could be wrapped up in the story being told, the drama, and the excitement of the movie. Or one could nerd out and go “hey, you never could get good speech synthesis out of a kit computer like the IMSAI”.

    See, using phrases like “someone should tell Christine”, i.e. “Christine is laboring in ignorance”, is a sign of a true and good asshole. And hey, like any doctor will tell you, when you see that many red flags come up….

    The “spirit of sharing information” does not automatically encompass Christine sharing her game for free and you sharing worthness nerdouts while providing no qualitative contributions.

  8. Chris says:

    “Somewhere in there, he turns on a speech synthesizer. It is, in every way, the world’s best speech synthesizer, pronouncing everything perfectly, adding intonation, and even some hint of emotion over time. And all from an IMSAI!”

    And somehow, NORAD has a voice synthesizer, with the same chipset as David’s, apparently, installed on McKittrick’s terminal, and also tied to the giant displays in the war room, too. Either that, or David is hearing the voice in his head wherever he goes.

    (I’m not nitpicking; I absolutely love that movie, quirks and all)

  9. [...] auf — damit das Szenario plausibel wirkt, hat Love auf der Archivseite textfiles.com recherchiert, wie damals kommuniziert wurde. Das Resultat ist emotional berührend in einer Weise, wie es bisher [...]

  10. Jason Scott says:

    The movie takes on a very interesting tone if all the synthesized speech is only happening in Lightman’s head.

    It would also explain not coming onto Jennifer Mack. Because, you know, HE’S CRAZY.

  11. JayP says:

    I’ve not completed the game but it has enough right to transport me to 1986. I even found myself jotting the phone numbers on scrap paper, just like in high school.

    I’ll use it to show the kid what old school BBS’s were like. It’s just enough to convey the point. Besides, if we wanted a documentary on BBS’s…

  12. [...] the main page for the game, here‘s the post I found on TextFiles.com, and here‘s a direct download link for the Windows [...]