(Note: This essay contains spoilers for both Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel Hate Plus; in addition it assumes knowledge of the game and its story.)
“I just can’t believe a woman is responsible for all of this!” exclaims *Hyun-ae as you finish reading the most revelatory letter in all of Hate Plus’ archives. Her fury boils over—the regressed patriarchal nightmare that had taken hold on her colony ship, the Mugunghwa, the ninth circle of hell she had awoken into when her stasis pod was shattered by a feckless noble in want of a marriageable daughter, the same man who would steal her voice with steel—all of this was sired by a woman who made of her ideology a terrifying suture to bind the wounds of womanhood.
Oh Eun-a, no less an emancipated woman than the President of Mugunghwa University herself. She was the architect of the neo-Confucian patriarchy that the Mugunghwa degenerated into.
If pressed to name my favourite character in the series, I would—to no one’s greater shock than my own—have to name Oh Eun-a, however. In a game series that is an epistolary tableau of complex and intriguing characters, she manages quite the feat by standing out the most. Oh Eun-a is perhaps most easily described—and effaced—as a mad social scientist. But she is so much more than this sideways twist on a hoary old cliché; indeed, she reveals both the impossibility of womanhood under patriarchy and the terrible burdens of idealistic scholarship.
Society Always Gets You in the End
Social scientists differ on more subjects than there are suns in the universe, but if there is one common denominator, even if some among our number would rather chug castor oil than admit it, it is that we assume there is an underlying order in the world. There is some framework, perhaps messy, contingent, ever-changing, but a framework that guides our inquiries into what makes the whole thing tick.
For Oh Eun-a, what she saw in the midst of the Mugunghwa’s democracy movement and in the modern mores of her ship’s society was the impending threat of chaos. She speaks like a patriarch in some letters, yearning for a time when people “knew their place” in society, but it is the sociologist’s taxonomical thinking that lurks behind that yen. When she rails against “hedonistic and ultra-individualistic thinking” she is expressing no small measure of stress about the growing irregularity and unpredictability of the Mugunghwa’s social system, fearing that the indulgence of “selfish desire” is robbing the ship of its future.
It is a standard conservative argument, naturally, the sort that’s literally a dime a dozen at newsstands right around the world. But there was more to it for Oh, a longing that could only come from someone who was both a woman and a cunning sociological thinker.
What truly burdened her here was that she knew, as all social scientists do, that if society is the multiplicative product of our actions, then societies can be changed. The “myopic social destruction” she sensed, and euphemised in her first meeting with the man who would become her Emperor, was something that she knew, quite rightly, wasn’t inevitable. It could be changed, and challenged—and she knew how to do it.
The letters in Hate Plus, taken in aggregate, reveal the hidden hand of her skilful influence at every stage of the slow decline of the Mugunghwa into medieval patriarchy. At first, one is lead to believe that the erstwhile Councilor of Captaincy, Ryu, who *Mute wrongly assumed would make a pliable blank canvas of a Chief Councillor, is the man pulling all the strings, making bold power plays through a growing clutch of puppets on the Council. Oh Eun-a’s letters, however, confirm something one might have already suspected on the basis of the University’s growing role in legislation—providing mountains of bewildering studies and statistics, for instance, or administering the new language exams that ended up turning over the entire Council—that the real puppetmaster was none other than Oh Eun-a herself. Indeed, the Motherhood Credit was entirely her idea, you discover.
It is rather like the dark perversion of every social scientist’s idle fancies: to use your knowledge of how society works to drive through legislative act upon legislative act to cause it to drift in the “right” direction. Oh knew the cheat codes, after all—the weak points in the Mugunghwa’s social architecture. She managed it all quite successfully, using Ryu to alter education, language, the structure of the government, the disbursal of stipends and the reckoning of lineage, all in seven years that began to turn the vise tightly on women and queer people on the Mugunghwa.
This use of sociological cheat codes even governed her relationship with Ryu. There was nothing that could truly be called love there, save for the love of what Ryu represented in the new nomos she had planned for the Mugunghwa. Ryu was a cipher, and to Oh Eun-a, he was to be the bright sun of stability in an orderly brave new world.
She played the part of a submissive woman, dumbing herself down, refusing the apt title of “mastermind,” cajoling Ryu to enact her writ, all the while pretending virginity to appeal to his baser desires but never giving herself to him sexually for fear of lowering her “sexual value” in his eyes. All was a series of social inputs and outputs, like running SPSS and plugging in the numbers.
But this is all the “how”—the question remains, why?
“I’m Just So Tired of it All, Tired of All the Wrongs.”
For all of Hate Plus’ women, what unites them all is their precarious place on a social tightrope; each of their narrative threads dangles off into the darkness, one by one, as they all fall in the end.
One of the most searching aspects of Christine Love’s writing here is how deftly she captures what Arlie Russell Hochschild aptly termed “the unfinished revolution” of gender in modern society. We as women are caught with one foot in the mores and expectations of older systems that were never designed to accommodate us, even as we must grapple with the urgency of modern demands. To be somehow both submissive and assertive, the perfect mother and the perfect worker, sexy but not provocative, sexual but not “a whore,” on and on with the impossible contradictions.
Kim So-yi, for instance, the doomed and brilliant scientist, solves the mystery of the Mugunghwa’s declining birthrates even as she fights everything from pressure to keep the house clean, to being made to do menial chores around the lab, to trauma from being raped by a coworker, to pay cuts; even when she is fired, she still struggles across the tightrope, soldiering on through her research against spiteful in-laws, ongoing PTSD, and a husband who impatiently wants her to bear children. Every woman whose story we read is torn in two by the demands of their transcendent aspirations and the mire of a subtle patriarchy that keeps tying them to an Earth of male demands and entitlements.
Indeed, before the advent of Oh’s neo-Confucian dystopia, the ship was indeed still a male dominated place, but one that wore the cloak of subtleties that prevails in our present world—the world of the stalled revolution.
It is this sense of being torn in two that eventually rent Oh Eun-a as well.
Her letters to her “sister” Oh Mi-seun, her adopted consort in truth, make this abundantly clear. Every woman walked a line of contradiction and she was no exception. But what made her unique was that her aspirations classed her with the most fascinating of villains—those who believe their actions will bring about a better world that they cannot truly inhabit.
Oh Eun-a knew, on a deep level, that the orderly patriarchy she dreamt of was not made for her, a brilliant social scientist and lesbian who, if the implications of her letters are to be believed, was not fettered by vanilla conceptions of sex.
Yet she longed for it and, when she closed her eyes, envisioned herself in it. Why?
Ryu the cipher took the role of the totalitarian father that many theorists like Erich Fromm saw as a creation of 20th Century mass society, a modern day myth with terrible consequences. What Fromm termed “the escape from freedom” was a consequence of isolation, purposelessness, and ennui in the chaos of mass society. One longed not only for a meaningful order, but also for a heroic figure to lose one’s self in. Oh, however, never did anything by half measures. She did not just find such a man, she created him from whole cloth. Perhaps *Mute was right and Ryu was indeed the “Councillor Milquetoast” blank that she had hoped for, but Oh changed all that by her own initiative. He would be the lifeboat to save her from freedom.
In one letter she describes a quiet night with Ryu as “a brief glimpse of what the future has in store.”
The tears and anguish of managing an unfinished revolution’s contradictions as a woman are exhausting, mentally and physically. Most of the women in Hate Plus, including Oh, have breakdowns. Fits of outrage, traumatic relapses, psyches shattering and bleeding everywhere they walked. Oh, in the end, wanted no part of it. By reordering the world, she thought, she could save women from that experience and give them the blessed embrace of thoughtless oblivion.
“I want to make a society that would’ve protected you, I want to make a society that would’ve given you what you deserved. I want to make a society that would’ve given you something better than me.”
~Oh to her deceased sister
With each passing letter, Oh’s sheer exhaustion bleeds out. “For a brief moment,” she says of that night with Ryu, “I felt as though I could actually let go. That none of the other bullshit on the ship, that none of my other responsibilities, that nothing at all that I needed to concern myself with existed, save for him.” She did not love him, she loved the peace that she had authored him to represent.
That tightrope of freedom and fitful, static-ridden powerlessness is so often our lot in life. “I don’t want the weight of running a university on my shoulders,” she says, “I don’t want to have to work to save the ship from the immorality and unsustainability of modern society,” she writes before decrying professionalism itself. It all comes back down to not wanting to “worry” any longer, to dull the pain by giving in. A feminine repose of waking death; for that is what Oh believes will reorder society, after all, a psychic suicide of every woman on the ship.
She had found the sociological solution to the Gordian knot of the unfinished revolution: the obliteration of women’s aspirations. And she yearned for it because she yearned for eternal rest, for an end to that life of tightropes and spider’s webs, of having one hand bound and the other free. “Powerless is a good look on you,” Ryu grins as he regards Oh Eun-a in handcuffs after a failed coup attempt—she does not question it, for having both hands bound is the pose of restful submission.
The Sociologist’s Lament
If our crisis in the world of the stalled revolution is that women are forced to be everything and nothing all at once, Oh Eun-a’s sociological solution was to embrace nothingness.
She would become Queen at Ryu’s side, even penning a somewhat regretful eulogy for Heo Seo-yeong, the brokenhearted, once fiery security chief who died in prison following her abortive coup. One could tell she felt a twinge of pity and even guilt. That, along with the rest of the Mugunghwa’s future, was part of the tragedy yet to unfold. It’s the sociologist’s tragedy, as well: society is not always orderly and predictable and our hacks utilising our knowledge of the social order can backfire, unintended consequences and the fractal diversity of humanity being what they are.
How ever much we may like or desire perfect order and neat categories, they can only ever be a heuristic. To reify them, as Oh sought to do as a means of psychic suicide, leads only to tears. The Philosopher Queen who sought to break herself upon the anvil of her utopia ended up, instead, breaking the society she tried to save.
The order Oh Eun-a had ushered in could never last for the same reason she had never fully given herself over to the eternal dynasty she had sired. How could she? A part of her would always be human, would always be “big sister Eun-a” who could do anything.
Even obliterate the only world where she could exist.