Hate Plus is an incredibly well-designed, engrossing, pretty visual novel: this is not all surprising given the high bar set by Christine Love’s previous work. For Hate Plus, however, the standard video game review fluff around mechanics is completely and utterly superfluous: as with the previous games, one could strip away all of the wonderful polish that is offered to the player and one would still be left with wonderfully insightful stories that are told through the medium of various text sources and through interactions with key non-player characters, themselves actors in or providing insight into the wider narrative arcs of the games as a whole. This multiplicity of story arcs that together constitute the wider story leads to a phenomenon that is, to my mind, unmatched in elsewhere in the video game medium: the author is very much dead, and it becomes up to the player to determine which themes, among the many presented are key.
If you think that’s a flimsy pretext for me to talk about myself for a while now, you’d probably be right.
This isn’t by design though: the way in which you start the game will set you up for a fair deal of path dependency as you go through the game. Speaking authoritatively about this or that will be do a disservice to any reader, with the true beauty of the game lying in the poring over of its diary entries, logs and the conversations that you’ll have with your AI companion: there is no “true” experience other than the one that you yourself have. The player should take away what they feel to be valuable; what they feel to be of emotional importance from the story, and they will probably learn a lot both about the game’s world and themselves from doing that. It’s a terrible experience to cheat someone out of.
I’m keen not to give too much of the story away, but positioned as it is as a half-sequel, half-add-on to Analogue: A Hate Story, I’m not too cautious of going a little way into some of the story beats, if only because their concrete situation within the holistic narrative adds for more weight to them than quick discussion here will. Of particular interest to me was the nature of the society found upon the Mugunghwa, the generation ship that served as the setting for Analogue. Society on the ship exists in two highly stratified forms: a pseudo-“modern”, fairly liberal society and a more “traditional”, socially conservative variety. Love’s narrative in Hate Plus takes place, for the most part, within the legislative branch of the modern iteration of the society of the ship and shows great insight into a ruling class fundamentally concerned with the retention of a nobility and peasantry, seeking to maintain their elite status in the name of stability: an intergalactic rendition of Plato’s conception of ideal political society, being driven to decay by the clamouring of the mob for democracy. A relationship between a peasant woman and a noble woman documented in texts in the game serves to provide a concrete situation of what this noble bickering actually meant real people on this ship.
Another theme that runs through the narrative is the intersection between love, romance, play and power. The above mentioned relationship between pauper and posh actress (Jin-a and Ae-Jong respectively) should serve as an example in video game canon as how to represent manipulative elements in how people approach the play-as-performance elements of romance only to realise that what they had thought to be a game to themselves at the expense of the genuine feelings of others was actually reflective of true, latest emotions. The transformation of Ae-Jong from borderline sociopath to devotee of a poor girl who has to deal with a conflict between her own feelings, her family and economic necessity touched me deeply, and I say this as someone who is rarely emotionally affected by media, especially games. Perhaps it’s Love’s approach to writing relationships, the majority of which have this sort of unclear dynamic as to what love actually is, how people demonstrate it and who actually has power in these relationships when opposed to who actually does have this power, that is able to affect me, or perhaps it is my own views on how relationships tend to work out that makes me particularly observant of such a dynamic, but Hate Plus moved me more than anything that I have played since Metal Gear Solid 3‘s execution of the Boss.
Less subtly expressed through the game is the narrative’s concerns with transhumanism: the question that seems to be asked – in all of *Hyun-ae’s dialogue at least – by the AIs is “what is it to have the human experience, specifically human consciousness as a unique example of consciousness, without mortality?” Of course, Love isn’t adventurous enough to proffer an authoritative answer within the game, but the exploration of this theme is a fairly thorough one. My core takeaway from this discussion however is a far more human experience: *Hyun-ae is particularly concerned with things that she has memories of experiencing but cannot recall the sensory elements associated with them. She knows what it is to eat, but not to taste; she understands the mechanics of sex and affectionate touch, but cannot recall the “warmth” of these activities. While situated in the AI context within the game, I think it speaks far wider to the transience of human experience in general, and the time-dependent utility associated with hedonistic activity: pleasure needs to be topped up before we forget the true nature of the experience. Maybe this stems from my own inability to recall pleasure, but it is truly in praise of Love’s writing that so many different takes can be taken on discussions that out of context could appear to be fairly superficial. The whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts.
As dismissive as I was at the start of this, praise should also be heaped upon how pleasant the game is to look at and listen to: the music sits in an odd place between reminding me of the Deus Ex soundtrack (an impression that isn’t helped by the nature of the plotting going on at some points) and IDM, which is no bad thing. Always complementary to the intended atmosphere for the reading matter at hand, it provides a welcome level of immersion to proceedings. The game’s interface is simply stunning: clean, functional and in incredibly pleasing colour palettes that never clash. That said, however, the true star here is the writing, and is more than worth the price of entry just for that.