Don't Take it Personally, Babe,
It Just Ain't Your Story
The year is 2027, and you are John Rook, the new teacher of an 11th grade English Literature class trying to earn the trust and respect of your students. This might be difficult enough even without the fact that you know everything about them... largely because you're eavesdropping on their private lives. Is it a gross invasion of their privacy? Or do you consider it fine as long as you save them from themselves in the process... even if they might not need your help at all? Don't Take it Personally, Babe, It just Ain't Your Story is a visual novel from the creator of Digital: A Love Story that deals with guilt, sex, sexuality, trust, and acceptance throughout the course of its remarkably potent narrative.
For the most part, you play the part of John, a teacher who has essentially suffered a midlife crisis and has doubts about his own successes, but must put that on the backburner to handle his new job. At this school, as an experiment, all the students have been given personal computers, and to keep tabs on them (ostensibly to keep an eye out for bullying and the like) you have access to everything they say between one another... whether it's public posting on Facebook-like profiles, or private conversations. Naturally, the students aren't supposed to know this, and keeping this secret might prove difficult. As time progresses, you'll come to learn the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of the teenagers you're working with, and have to decide for yourself when and how to step in when they have problems... even if those problems are less related to school and more to their complicated personal lives.
Interactivity is fairly limited in the game. You can (and have to) read messages whenever you get a notification by clicking on the little mail icon in the upper right corner of the screen. This grants you access to John's computer, through which he can watch student interactions, receive mail himself, take a peek at the seemingly innocuous conversations going on on message boards, and, of course, save the game and change the settings. Reading messages winds up being the bulk of the actual gameplay, but throughout the narrative you'll be given chances to choose what John says to his students and how he deals with them. The game comprises seven chapters, each focusing on someone different with their own issues, from Charlotte, who seems to be the perfect student but remains clueless about how to deal with her own feelings, to Taylor, who can't seem to keep her mouth shut but remains locked in her own internal struggles, and even to John himself. There are three different endings depending on the choices you make, and the game features a text skip option so you can speed through dialogue you've seen before on different playthroughs to reach choices faster. (Please be aware that one of those endings results in an implied intimate relationship with a teenage girl, but it isn't explicit, and you can simply avoid the dialogue choices that would take you there.)
Analysis: Despite its popularity and ambitious scope, I failed to really warm to or become invested in Christine Love's earlier title, Digital: A Love Story, which was too much like listening to one half of a stranger's telephone conversation. By contrast, Christine here has managed to create a very large cast of characters I found myself caring about in a very short time. She has a knack for writing believable, natural dialogue and manages to craft some surprisingly engrossing drama into what is essentially just what we see from the sidelines. In a lot of ways, it winds up feeling like an experimental visual novel; all the typical love triangles and problems and rivalries are going on, but we only get to see the edges of them from our perspective as what is basically a voyeur.
It's especially surprising when you consider that it really isn't our story, just like the title bluntly informs us. John has very limited interaction with them, and despite the fact that each student comes to see him for advice once throughout the course of the story, to them you're little more than an authority figure. It's jarring to realise that the connection you feel to the students isn't reciprocated because any "relationship" you perceive is entirely one-sided; you might think Kendall is awesome or Taylor is a jerk, but to them you're just a teacher and you barely register as a blip in their own personal lives. Because of this, some players might not get as easily invested in the story.
It's easy to forget while watching the social lives of your students change, but you really are only tenuously connected to all of the drama and personality conflicts going on, an outsider looking in. Don't Take it Personally is, at its heart, trying to say something about privacy, and how the concept of the word is already changing. It's a little disappointing that the game won't let you proceed due to story constraints until you've read any backlogs of communication between your students. The game does imply that this is basically part of John's job, keeping tab on his students' activities for bullying and such, but there are more than a few exchanges I might have been more comfortable not witnessing, purely because they were such intimate moments. Even from John's perspective, I didn't feel like I was doing my "job", I felt like a voyeur, and I sort of resented the game a little for forcing me into it.
For all that, however, Don't Take it Personally, Babe, it Just Ain't Your Story is still a tremendously smart and creatively told piece of narration. Everything is peppered with meaning, and it's easy to see something of ourselves in almost all of the students, both good qualities and bad. The cast here feel like people rather than stereotypes, and that's what makes the story such a success and the game worth playing despite its limited choice and interactivity. I grew more than a little attached to the students and celebrated their personal successes as much as I desperately wanted to warn them when John's unique position let me see trouble headed their way. While not perfect, with so much chatspeak infiltrating even the students' everyday lives you might want to cringe, and a moral that feels heavy-handed and a little unsatisfying in its execution, it's intelligent and heartfelt and definitely worth a play.
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Download the free full version
Download the free full version