What could be a worse time to relive than middle school? If you were anything like I was from age 11 to 13, you were shy, sweaty, gangly and awkward in your body and mind. It was a time when we were all unloveable, but we couldn’t help but love (and hate) each other anyway. As soon as I moved onto high school — similarly bad, but more bearable — I locked all my middle school memories away, never to look back on them.
A new project from Aaron Freedman and Nina Freeman, a designer at Fullbright (Gone Home) whose other works include Cibele and Kimmy, challenged me to reconsider that. Lost Memories Dot Net is a short, simple game, albeit an unconventional one. Set during a few hours in the life of a teenage Freeman — or “Nina” — it brought back intense feelings of sadness and freedom and insecurity, all with just the occasional mouse click and webpage tab.
Lost Memories Dot Net is set up like an Internet Explorer browser from the mid-2000s, replete with blinking tabs and messy user interfaces. The game cycles between browsing Nina and her friends’ personal blogs, although it doesn’t feel invasive; each one is as much as shrine to a favorite anime and games character as it is an archive of private thoughts.
Those are found in the real meat of the game: an instant messaging client, where several friends (and one stranger) hit up our lead for advice and input. Through slim dialogue options, a narrative is built. Both Nina and her best friend like the same boy. They pretend that there’s nothing more important than fandoms, but they’re in middle school — they devote a lot of time crushing on people, too.
This quiet heartbreak that felt huge, like the most important thing in the world, is a feeling familiar to me. I spent hours in middle school staring inches away from a monitor, switching back and forth between role-playing forums and instant messages from online friends. My entire life was compressed into this 15-inch screen.
Messages from friends often grew into attempts at validation, as we were all insecure and hopeful that someone, some boy, some girl, would tell us that we were better than we thought. But just as Nina’s options hover between guarded and passive-aggressive, so did mine — and neither were good. In my effort to feel wanted by friends and crushes, I pushed everyone away.
These are the regrets I locked away as soon as I was old enough to recognize what I’d done to myself and to others. But that’s just what middle school is: a time of messing up over and over again until you know better. (It’s also the best time to play as many video games as humanly possible, as I also discovered.)
The closed-off choice isn’t the one you have to make in Lost Memories Dot Net, but it’s the one I saw and instantly remembered making. The game encapsulates the specificities of this tortured time while doing so little. It’s painful, and it’s wonderful. The whole thing unfolds over just two hours, and it doesn’t cost a dime. Try it; you’ll find that you’re much better equipped to facing this middle school stuff than you think.
(If you want to hear me talk about Lost Memories Dot Net, listen to episode five of our podcast, The Polygon Show. Check it out below.)