Dinner Date Pre-Order Available, Interview

By Quintin Smith on November 4th, 2010 at 9:19 am.

Is that Men's Health, at the back there?

Being-stood-up-on-a-date simulator Dinner Date is now available for pre-order, which chops the asking price from $12.45 to $9.95. If you buy two copies of the game you get a further discount, and there’s the option to have the second copy digitally gift-wrapped and sent to a friend, or partner. If you woke up this morning with a creeping sense of loneliness and self-loathing, that’d be because the full game’s released in two weeks.

If you missed my excitable first look at Dinner Date, you can read it and watch the trailer here. Excited by my excitement, Dutch developer of Dinner Date Jeroen D. Stout got in touch, and we ended up having a bit of a chat about the game, his influences, Hamlet (!) and which videogame character he’d like to have dinner with.

RPS: First, and most obviously… I think a lot of people are a little unsettled at the concept of paying to sit still for however many minutes. Could you talk a little about what the player does as Julian’s subconscious, and how they do it?

Jeroen Stout: I would object against saying Dinner Date is just about sitting still! The interactions are designed to be very natural because what the game is truly about is a character portrait of Julian. His thoughts and character are somewhat of a little puzzle. Julian has a big character flaw that he seems to be unaware of and listening in on his thoughts you get a better insight in him than he has himself – you hear the thoughts you would not tell anybody you had.

The player does small actions – looking at the clock, tapping the table, eating bread and other such things. It is all to create a sense of cohesion with Julian: you are sitting as him at his table, hearing his thoughts.

RPS: Is that why you recommend the player drinks a bottle of wine while playing Dinner Date?

JS: Indeed! I am a great proponent of playing games which go well with some wine. Drinking the same wine as Julian is of course the pinnacle.

RPS: What were the various stages of design you went through to arrive at the finished game?

JS: I started a little rebellious – having played Dear Esther and The Graveyard I had a large interest in making a game in which you break conventions and play a man who can do only ordinary things. But the challenge was to make such a thing without staying in that rebellious mindset. A lot of innovation-driven games do something interesting and then five minutes later proceed by leaving without ever saying goodbye. It is far more gratifying to have a product which is made from a mindset through-and-through.

The idea of a man sitting at his table waiting had come to me but it took me a while to think of a story around it because I kept thinking of game plots. I felt it was not at all beneficial to think in that way because while there are a lot of genuine exceptions a lot of the game world is quite philistine and often outrageously daft plots, settings and characters are celebrated. To completely get away from that I looked at literature, at what I liked in the novels I had read and at THE types of stories you find in there. That stopped being a form of inspiration and rather became something I want to be judged by. So the story is written in the mode of romantic realism; the situation and character are both physically realistic, but the manner in which he behaves is exemplary of my philosophy. I feel exhilarated doing that in game form.

Once I had the story I made various versions of the game. It was a lengthy process that thankfully is now is mostly invisible. Part of the process was truly Sisyphean in that I redesigned the kitchen numerous times, each time improving on realism, lighting, texturing, photo-realistic lighting… There were some big shifts in terms of what Julian physically does and I did re-animate the game quite a lot.

Things which did not change much were the story and the actions. Making the other aspects more realistic and working together with the capital Than van Nispen tot Pannerden, who made the music, also improved the gameplay because it began being part of a whole. Working on graphics extensively still was interesting because it is confronting to not be able to find any interesting kitchens in games and to solve this by looking around a scruffy British kitchen yourself.

RPS: What other games have you taken your inspirations from?

JS: I still remember, and quite vividly, when I first played The Graveyard. It suddenly hit me that you can break with gaming language in that way, that I cared about an old lady stumbling a lot more if I did not get points. Equally, The Path had girls holding hands and doing things somewhat outside of your involvement. It still feels quite wondrous to me, like accompanying these poor girls to their demise. It was strangely enlightening because it did something different and on a substantial budget.

I made games from a reasonably young age but looking back on it I was locked in these formats which were not at all beneficial to my ideas. There were more games which did new things suddenly – Today I Die, I Wish I were the Moon, Small Worlds… small puzzles or experiences. You can just play with what you see without constantly winning or loosing. I do like competition, you get a brilliant game like Braid or Portal and the gameplay is staggering and genuinely witty. But running with a girl through a forest in The Path was very gratifying in a more mimetic way.

During my final project at the Utrecht School of Arts (NL) I did shyly experiment and the result, Arrival by Train, was about two characters having a conversation, seen 1st-person from the male, and you can intervene if you so wish. If you do not, they are programmed to have a dreadfully uninspired conversation and they become unhappy. It was a lot of work to get to the point where such a game feels normal and a valid path to take, so I was happy when I stumbled upon Dear Esther and saw a game that showed a certain pride in being about walking and listening. I went to Portsmouth University (UK) and studied under Dr Pinchbeck. Academically it was very enlightening and I developed theories about playing together with characters and that set me on the path of going ahead and ‘build it to understand it’ – making Dinner Date and seeing what would happen.

The way in which you listen to Julian but have all these things to do is very much a combination of those experiences – playing with a game not because it challenges you but because the actions you take are fulfilling. I do see this giant area of possible forms of interaction with games about mimesis, where you play to find closer connection with a character, narrative, event or setting. To me modern technology combined with the astounding amounts of art and literature that has been made in the classical era is quite overwhelming when just thinking about what is possible in the near future.

RPS: I’ve always considered one of the higher points that any videogame can reach is a kind of accidental mimesis- by which I mean, the player adopting elements of the character’s personality without noticing it, and starting to make decisions using the same thought processes as the character they’re controlling. It happened to me playing Pathologic, when my character’s pragmatism led me to do terrible acts, and I didn’t even notice.

JS: It is wonderful when a character grows on you like that. It brings you much closer to what it is like to be that person. I know the old example of a Hamlet game has been cited as to why games can never tell an interesting story – what if you force Hamlet to stab the King before Act I has even properly started? But a Hamlet game would be about doing what Hamlet does, about feeling what it is like to do his actions, think his way. How to accomplish this is a technical as well as social challenge, but experiences like you had with Pathologic show so much promise exactly because you find yourself accidentally doing those things. The ideal Hamlet game would not have you realize you are acting like Hamlet – the game suggesting your initiatives and reinterpreting your actions until you get that incredibly rich experience which is the core of the tragedy.

My favourite ‘goal’ is the hypothetical 1984 game where the player at the end cannot help but to feel he loves Big Brother. I long thought any person would resist this, but you could make someone play with the set of actions which makes him play as-if brainwashed. Or , in a more positive manner, to play and find yourself to have the boundless energy, integrity and dedication of Hank Rearden would be quite an epitome. There are quite a lot amazing things yet to be made when it comes to games.

RPS: I can’t imagine someone would embark on designing a highly emotive game like this without some experience of the emotion in question- have you ever been stood up?

JS: Only by publishers! I have never been stood up on a date. The emotion in the game and Julian’s mannerisms do of course borrow from how I think things are like for a person such as him. I believe some of the things he expresses are quite universal in that they are thoughts you think but never express in polite society. I would be apprehensive about saying it is autobiographical. He did come from that romantic-realism idea and was written to enlarge a type of person I found interesting to show.

But unfortunately I must continue to say I was stood up by an otherwise charming girl when reaching the end of production and it was unpleasant. I remember catching myself thinking some of the thoughts from the game and having done the voice myself I had quite a surreal evening sitting at my table, waiting for this girl to show up, accidentally saying lines from my own game. I will send her a copy of the game, of course. I learned that night that clocks do not tick as loud in reality but I did not make Julian’s mistake in opening the wine and thinking just a glass would not hurt in calming myself.

RPS: You can have dinner with one videogame character of your choice, but at the end of the night they burst in a shower of pixels, never to be seen again. Who do you choose?

JS: Good grace, what a philosophical death-trap this question is! I am tempted to invite over this woman who is a freelance photographer, lives in a lighthouse, has ample wit and charm, exhibits strong morals, drives a hovercraft, has a good sense of style and is terribly good with children. I am still considering whether the inevitable horror of seeing her explode in pixels makes for a fair trade with my dining with a female character archetype for whom we cannot thank Michel Ancel enough. But few other characters in games are appealing to cook for at all, so I will settle: Jade it is.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Dinner Date is available for pre-order from the official site.

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42 Comments »

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  1. Andreas says:

    Do people still do dinner dates? Actually cooking and stuff?

    • Rinox says:

      It’s a tricky balance for me. On the one hand I’m a lousy cook, on the other I’m also a very poor/cheap man who cringes at the thought of spending 20-40 € on a restaurant date in possible vain.

      Because I al also lazy restaurant usually wins, though.

    • Giant, fussy whingebag says:

      If people don’t do dinner dates any more, they are doing things wrong!

      If you can cook a tasty meal, it has the potential to be an excellent date. You can impress your date with your culinary skills (even if it is the only thing you can make well!). You can have a private and intimate, romantic atmosphere and/or be much more casual than at a restaurant. It’s cheap, without seeming like it. Finally, they are already in your home!

      If you really think you can’t cook even a simple meal well, pick one and practice it. In the meantime, order a takeaway and present it well – job done.

      Of course, all this only holds if your date actually shows up…

    • Tom OBedlam says:

      I’m a big believer in weaponised Cottage pie

    • Premium User Badge

      Rinox says:

      @ Giant fussy whingebag (haha! still love it that you’re sticking with it)

      All true, of course, and I should perhaps try and perfect the few dishes I know how to make. One thing though, home dinner dates are (in my head) less casual than others since you’re at home, there’s no other people around and your bedroom is only a few feet away. I’m not saying all those things are inevitable highlights of the evening, but I suppose it can create a ‘what does he expect to happen here’ idea in your date’s mind.

    • luphisto says:

      I cooked “pan fried chicken breast in a pizzaiola sauce on a bed of fettuccine” for a girl a couple of days ago. Seeing her tomorrow.

      Cooking is easy and super effective.

    • Tacroy says:

      Luphisto used dinner date! It was supper effective!

      (I’m so sorry)

  2. Premium User Badge

    Tinus says:

    Jaaade nooooo!

  3. Malawi Frontier Guard says:

    Game of the Year.

  4. JDK says:

    Sure, get my hopes up now. Then, sitting in front of an empty, lonely set of cutlery, as time moves on, leave me more and more depressed and frustrated, until I am forced to reach inside my coat and produce..

  5. MD says:

    Man, this guy’s enthusiasm and playful seriousness is downright charming. He seems sincere without being full of himself, and that’s a winning combination.

  6. Tom OBedlam says:

    Christ… I’m going to have to get this now, despite the fact I can barely afford food for myself. How could I not, the dev seems like such a nice chap and I’m intrigued by the narrative possibilities of a game in a chair.

  7. RagingLion says:

    That was a really great interview. I like the way this guy thinks. It also goes to show that there’s going to be a new breed of developers that got inspired by this recent generation of artistic games and will lead to a lot more interesting and varied games in the future. Excellent!

  8. jeremypeel says:

    I was wondering when Tales of Tales would crop up. Dinner Date seems to draw from the same kind of philosophy as their games.

    I also suspect it will prove to be just as divisive. What do people think about this mode of thinking that places theme, character and empathy above gameplay? It flies in the face of most current thinking about what makes games valuable, that’s for sure.

    Also, I think I need to get around to playing Dear Esther.

  9. adonf says:

    Great interview, again ! I’m seriously impressed by this guy, the way he expresses himself in a non-native language and how he seems fluent in both art and (computer) science. No, ‘jealous’ is more accurate than ‘impressed’…

  10. MrThingy says:

    Curious about what the book on the table is? Looks like an Eastern Orthodox icon on the cover?

    A little sip of wine, a heart-fluttering glance into your date’s eyes… and a deep theological discussion on Byzantine iconoclasm to round off the evening…

    • Tom OBedlam says:

      You’d be strangely surprised at how alluring a man with a passable grasp of the history of Christianity is!

      In the same picture, is it just me or does the box of fags look a lot more real than anything else?

  11. Tonsko says:

    Well if this is anything like my best selling series of Dating Simulation (Fuck Buddy 1-9) games on Game Dev Story, then it will make an absolute killing.

  12. Martin Kingsley says:

    Big tick for charming interview. Big tick for charming presentation. However.

    I suspect the big reveal of this game is going to be that the protagonist, having gotten slightly tippled, eventually reveals himself to be, through a semi-linear progression of narrated thoughts, either a massive misogynist, all-round misanthrope or narcissist who couldn’t possibly comprehend why it is he would be stood up in this fashion. Fin.

    I look forward to being proved entirely wrong. Lord, do I ever.

  13. undead dolphin hacker says:

    Attention Tale of Tales and now this guy:

    Stop trying to charge us money for your crap ‘art’ games. It’s becoming farcical.

    • luphisto says:

      You should write them a strongly worded letter! OR you could return to playing whatever games you like to play and leave these nice people to make games that many people find enjoyable and stimulating.

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      Coren says:

      What luphisto said.

      I think it’s very important that this type of games gets made. Unless people dare to push the boundaries, gaming as a medium will stay stuck a rut indefinitely. These experiments may not always “work”, but they can serve as inspiration for better, more engaging and deeper games in the future.

      So no, it’s definitely not “farcical” to charge for these games. If anything, it’s commendable. It’s brave. It’s awesome. If you don’t like them, don’t buy them, that’s fine. Plenty of other people will keep supporting developers that dare to try to take things to the next level.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      They made something they think is worth the amount ethy’re selling it for (or, at times at a lower price than that). If you disagree, feel free not to buy such games.. it’s not like they’re forcing you to.

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    Chaz says:

    Lambert & Butler and wine from ASDA, classy. I didn’t realise the date was with the one of cleaners from my office.

  15. Ronnie76er says:

    Loosing?

    YAAARG!

  16. Cronstintein says:

    The idea of hearing the characters thoughts as you play them is extremely interesting.

    I’m having trouble picturing a good way to bring that into another game but I’m sure it must be possible. Something like a deus ex maybe where there’s linearity and choices together.

    • Martin Kingsley says:

      Cronstintein: I think you’ll find Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy had something similar during moments of decision making.

    • Dominic White says:

      Heavy Rain (same studio) expanded on that – there was a button you could hold down to have your character stop and think. A cloud of subjects would circle around their head, and if you focused on one of them, you’d hear their internal monologue on the topic.

  17. Eclipse says:

    seems like he used baked lighting on the room but forgot to light the main character somehow, makes the arms downright ugly to see.

    Oh and pretentious art games sucks in my book. The graveyard was nice because it was short an free. Like a sort of demo (in the demoscenic sense) more than a game. The Path was horrible and I regret picking it on day one. This one.. seems even worse