Wot I Think: Dinner Date

By Quintin Smith on November 17th, 2010 at 4:55 pm.

Is that Men's Fitness or Men's Health? The true measure of a man.

A few weeks ago I got dangerously excited upon hearing about being-stood-up-on-a-date simulator Dinner Date, from Dutch indie dev Jeroen D. Stout. As of 5:15pm today, Dinner Date will be available from the official site. I’ve finished it a couple of times now, and am proud to present Wot I Think.

I’m about to lay a very weird criticism at the feet of Dinner Date, a game which lets you play as the subconscious psyche of a man who’s alone in his apartment, having been stood up by his date. See, my problem with Dinner Date is that it’s not high-concept enough.

First, let me explain what the player does in Dinner Date. As the subconscious of protagonist Julian Luxemburg, you have very limited control over what you can get the poor man to do. Floating bubbles appear in your view, and by tapping the letters displayed inside them you can get Julian to fiddle with a particular hand, or to eat, or to stare at either the clock, the candle or his sad bachelor’s kitchen.

The game is strictly linear, which isn’t to say this interactivity is purposeless. Something about being able to tell Julian what to do draws your into his situation.

But the lovingly prepared meat of this experience is in being able to eavesdrop on Julian’s thoughts, which you hear one after another for the entire duration of Dinner Date (some 18 minutes, a point I’ll grudgingly arrive at further down). The evening you’re experiencing thus becomes a kind of bumpy emotional travelogue through a world of disappointment and insecurity, that also provides you with a portrait of Julian himself. In the words of the developer, “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.”

Now, as proof of concept, I’d call Dinner Date a dirty great success. When this game hits its high points you really do feel like you’ve rubbed the condensation off a grubby window leading into another human being. Hearing thoughts relating to hatred or sex flicker across Julian’s mind or seeing his drunken hands failing in their first attempt to pick up a cigarette packet is gorgeous voyeurism, and for reasons known only to the Gods of videogame design, having the most inconsequential control over Julian’s actions draws you into his world utterly.

Once you drape the game’s evocative soundtrack over all of this, you’ve got yourself the outline of a hugely enjoyable product.

The problem- well, actually there are two problems. The first is that Julian’s inner monologue rarely hits those high points I was talking about. For the most part- and this is a truly bizarre thing to have to try and judge- Julian’s conscious mind is fairly sluggish and uninteresting.

Obviously I can only speak for my own mind here, but to be somewhat blunt, the nonsense it comes out with that I don’t say out loud frequently staggers me. Quarter-finished jokes and witticisms, brutal self-flagellation, stuff so offensive that if I ever started saying it out loud the government would probably send over a man with a cricket bat to chase me out of the country.

If you watch Dinner Date’s announcement trailer you can hear four or five inner voices all speaking over one another. That’s what I thought playing the game would be like. I also thought that the bubbles in the screenshots represented individual thoughts, and that by selecting them you’d be able to draw out one of Julian’s rambling tracts of internal dialogue so you could hear it above the rest.

Not so. Instead, Julian’s thoughts come one after another, almost always with a pause in between. It’s less frenetic than I was expecting, and sounds more like a man talking to himself, and for the most part not talking to himself about particularly interesting stuff. Without wanting to spoil anything, darker ramblings are far outweighed by Julian being grumpy about his job and co-workers. It’s perfectly plausible that his character would deliberately think about something other than his current situation to spare himself the pain, but it’s also not massively interesting.

Dinner Date’s other problem is inarguably it’s length. As I mentioned, from start to finish the game is about 18 minutes long. I wish I could gloss over this, but I can’t, firstly because even if you complete Dinner Date twice it’s shorter than any other game I can think of with the same asking price ($12.50), and secondly because I don’t think this should be an 18 minute game. I didn’t finish Dinner Date feeling satisfied with my knowledge of Julian, or the amount of time I’d spent in his world, not to mention the fact that the game’s ending cries out for a second act.

This is where my thinking that Dinner Date isn’t high concept enough comes from. I think Jeroen Stout was wonderfully, commendably mad to make this game, and I also don’t think he was quite mad enough.

Playing Dinner Date, you’re immediately impressed by the quality of the interface, the visuals, and even the tutorial. It’s a wonderfully slick game, but I couldn’t care less about that. What would have shouldered Dinner Date right up onto my games of the year list would have been a more grand and ambitious design document. Something that would have made this game feel less like a well-presented experiment and more like the ungodly work of a mad scientist.

Some amount of non-linearity would have been one option. Another would have been to make this game episodic, and also present Julian’s life in his office cubicle, in the bathroom at a club or cleaning up after a poetry recital, making the game a kind of lonely soap opera.

Alternatively, you could have presented five men being stood up for five dinner dates, letting the player observe the differences in five wounded reactions. Obviously it would have been far more work, but it’s what I feels this game needs. I want to love Dinner Date, and I do for the fleeting seconds that it achieves brilliance (largely in its final chapter, “The Cigarette”), but taken as a whole there’s precious little to actually love.

In a way, I suppose I’ve been stood up by the game I’d imagined in my head. Is that a bit much? Probably.

If you’re interested in Dinner Date and you’re reading this before 5:15pm, you still have time to pre-order the game at a $2.50 discount from the official site, and buying two copies of the game will net you a further discount. And I’ll tell you what- after reading through this grumpy article of mine, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

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64 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    Is this a “Wot I think” or an apologia for Quinns’s mentalness?

  2. Premium User Badge Ninja Dodo says:

    I approve of the combination Dinosaur Comics / Rosetti on the wall.

    • Mister Yuck says:

      D. G. Rossetti isn’t half the artist – with words or pictures – that Ryan North is. At least his sister is pretty cool.

    • Premium User Badge Ninja Dodo says:

      T-Rex is undoubtedly more AWESOME, but I don’t know if I agree that makes North the better artist.

  3. lu says:

    I do this ever night, why buy a game :(

  4. Benjamin L. says:

    What is this piffle? I want to shoot people in the face.

    Also nice review.

    • Man Raised By Puffins says:

      This is actually the next chapter in the endless love story ‘twixt men and guns; the protagonist is being stood up by his gun.

    • Premium User Badge Fede says:

      Then, let’s hope the protagonist comes from a modern game, he won’t notice! =D

  5. Ricc says:

    This is the kind of project that usually manifests as a HL2 mod. It’s very interesting to see a commercial game with good production values attempt to do what Dinner Date does.

  6. Berzee says:

    Can someone spoil the first couple seconds of the game by telling me if you start at exactly the point where the lady was supposed to show up? Because 18 minutes is barely even late, all things considered. :) Julian must either be a very impatient jumpy-to-conclusions sort of guy, or else the game starts when he’s already been waiting for a while.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      Considering the wot I think mentions that it’s divided into chapters, I presume some time is supposed to lapse between them.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Yeah, Dances to Podcasts guessed it. The game starts with her being a little late and through a series of fades to black drops you at various points throughout in the night.

  7. terry says:

    So did you drink the wine, or what?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      I did not. The lovely South American RPS reader who was gonna get me a bottle found out the hard way that Argentinian Otra Vida merlot is only sold in Europe.

      (I could have bought a bottle myself, course, but I DIDN’T)

    • Boris Karloff says:

      Funnily enough, I was drinking a bottle of Otra Vida when I read the first article about this game. It’s rubbish.

  8. Zogtee says:

    Perhaps it would have been more interesting to be able to switch between playing in the minds of both the woman and the man, as they interact? And your actions would have an effect on how it turns out?

    Idea for a sequel right there. For free

    • Superbest says:

      You mean a semi-realistic dating simulator where you get to see what the hell the woman is thinking? Sign me up, I’ll pay 60 bucks for the game, 40 for each of 3 expansions, 12 per “plastic chair DLC”, and 18.99 for a spiffy hat.

  9. Jakkar says:

    I feel this way about almost every game I play. I miss the days of being pleasantly surprised. Last I remember encountering that in a recent title was the depth and variety of world simulation and the incredible physics of Red Faction: Guerilla.

    At the moment, I’m obsessively rubbing my face against a variety of modern Roguelikes to get my fix of emergent, unexpected, wonderful and horrible events.

    Is it wrong to let the imagination run away with us and hope for too much? I don’t want to deaden my mind in order to tolerate disappointment.

    • IvanHoeHo says:

      The last thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by was Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie I just walked into randomly. And by pleasantly surprised of course I mean delighted beyond my wildest dreams.

      I probably read too much about games (well, mainly RPS) to ever feel that about any game, nowadays, though. Also, now that my pirating days are behind me, trying out games without reading up multiple reviews/WITs aren’t really an option anymore. What a shame.

    • Berzee says:

      Such a good, good, movie, that Mr. Fox.

    • Thants says:

      That was a great movie! Animation really seems to suit Wes Anderson.

    • sfury says:

      Mr. Fox was wonderfully fantastic indeed, which came to me as a surprise because I didn’t have any huge expectations after the The Darjeeing Limited.

  10. Clovis says:

    What’s going on with his right hand in picture #3?

  11. apa says:

    This comic has probably the atmosphere that Quitnin was expecting from the game: http://garfieldminusgarfield.net/

  12. scharmers says:

    This sounds like it would have been better off released as I-F; i.e. masturbatory storytelling masquerading as an “art game”. Wonder if the designer spent a lot of time programming in coffee shops.

    • Premium User Badge Stijn says:

      You mean Dutch coffee shops, I assume.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Ah but Dutch Coffee shops are no where near pretentious enough. Anyway, your behind the times, it’s no longer coffee shops people spend their time in. It’s all about the tea rooms now, that’s where you’ll find em, on their Macbooks writing their new screenplay.

    • IvanHoeHo says:

      Aww man, does that mean I can’t go to tea shops anymore? DAMN YOU, HIPSTERS

    • Xercies says:

      Tea Shops? What strange alien thing is this?

  13. Navagon says:

    Seems like a very interesting concept. But yes it would have been fun to root around in the guys mind influencing his thoughts to see how dark and / or bizarre they become.

  14. Dao Jones says:

    Is there a secret ending where the date actually does show up and then the man with gun game comes into play?

    I jest, of course. If it was me, when the date would say, “sorry I was late”, I would mutter something about not knowing she was late, everything is fine and then knock the wine over with my tears. Big, manly tears.

  15. Bhazor says:

    Basically you wanted an interactive Peepshow? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPZw_wFF_y0&feature=related

    • Premium User Badge Lambchops says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was reading the review. Something like an interactive Peep Show could be a brilliant little game although I’m not sure how many people would be taken by the idea of what would amount to a ‘social ineptitude simulator.’ Besides, why have the simulation when you can have alcohol!

    • Jhoosier says:

      Not being British, this was my first exposure to that show. Brilliant!

  16. Pijama says:

    The tragedy of avant-garde: when it fails to “push it” enough.

  17. Premium User Badge Schaulustiger says:

    Darn, that sounds disappointing.

    I was pretty interested in the game, despite the relatively high price for such a short experience. The concept itself promised to be something that I long for in games – the prospect of evoking melancholic and sad emotions. Let me explain (and sorry, as always, for my bad english).

    I consider myself a pretty happy person, especially when it comes to relationships. I had only mild disappointments with girls and they are far in the past, but when it comes to dealing with being stood up or standing someone up (which can be as bad), I remember that the accompanying emotions are strong and – in a certain sense – very intriguing. You can find out a lot about yourself in such a situation and it makes a perfect setting for a game because it allows for interactivity of thoughts, something neither a movie or a book can provide.
    I would have loved for the game to reflect that, maybe to have the possibility to control the direction your thoughts are taking, thus influencing not only what you hear as inner monologue but also to allow for different actions. One route could have been that you concentrate on the positive side of things, your strengths, the joy of life and consequently end the evening drinking the wine alone, listening to music and let your thoughts fade out in a stream of happy thoughts. The negative route would have been you all mopey and negative, moaning endlessly and in the end, I don’t know, harming yourself, but maybe that would be too much cliché. Anyway, with a lot of possible routes in between, a game like that could have a lot of replay value and – more importantly – be a vehicle for all sorts of emotions.

    From your description of Dinner Date, it sounds like it’s just boring blah-blah without really meaningful interaction. A wasted opportunity, but maybe an inspiration for other developers to take the concept and evolve it. I can only repeat myself and say: I want games that induce negative emotions, because they are part of any human being and can make you think a lot more than any happy-happy-joy-joy story does.

  18. sbs says:

    sweet, qwantz comic on the wall in last screenshot!

  19. MD says:

    Which Dinosaur Comic is it? I’m a big fan, but not to the point that I can pick it from the shape of the text boxes.

    • Node says:

      I also kind of want the answer to the “which Dinosaur Comic is that?” question. I’m not sure why I’m so interested in such minutia, but little things like that make me happy.

  20. Xenovore says:

    That doesn’t even sound fun. And he wants $12.50 for it?! Waste 20 minutes of my life and I get to pay for it??? Yeah… right.

  21. Shadram says:

    So you get more minutes of entertainment in a day reading RPS than you get from this game, and RPS only costs me $2 per month. I know which I prefer.

    Quinns’ idea of multiple voices, with the ability to filter out various streams of consciousness does sound fascinating, though. I’d love to try something like that, kinda like an interactive Ulysses. If you could make the idea bigger, and also jump between characters in a scene while they’re having a conversation you could get to all sorts of levels of social commentary. That really would be an art piece, if it was done well enough.

    • Schmung says:

      Absolutely agreed. As soon as I read what Quinns said about highlighting the speech bubbles to hear the various streams of thought and whatnot I was intrigued. I really think you could do something interesting with that TBH. Perhaps even have what thoughts you choose to listen to have some impact on events as well other decision making stuff.

      Technically and art wise not even that hard to do, instead you’d just need top notch writing and voice acting and..yeah..

  22. Kieron Gillen says:

    Just played it now.

    Were I waiting for the date to turn up, I’d have downed the bottle in the first half an hour.

    And part 3 would be about growling at people on the Internet.

    KG

  23. Malawi Frontier Guard says:

    So it’s an interactive short film. I would never have seen this coming. Never.

    • Will Morris says:

      Devil’s Advocate: Can’t really criticise CODBLOPS for being a film if indie devs are at it too.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      Why can’t you criticize them both?

  24. Dominic White says:

    This sounds like it’s far too professional and polished to work. When I first read the concept, I imagined something akin to Facade (http://www.interactivestory.net/) – something wonky, technically flawed, but original, ambitious and in many ways brilliant.

    Instead, it just sounds like it’s an amiable enough meander through a relatively uninteresting mans mind, rather than a steerable spiral into insecurity, paranoia, anger and all the other emotions that can come with such a romantic failing.

  25. Heliocentric says:

    not going to play it, anyone who has please spoil the ending, thanks.

  26. manintheshack says:

    And you’re saying you made it through the whole game without firing a single shot?

    Seriously though, although I have no intention to play Dinner Date, for some reason this review has made me yearn for a follow up to Masq.

  27. MrEvilGuy says:

    What the hell is wrong with you?!

    You’re clearly supposed to down an entire bottle of wine while playing the game.

    That’s what I’m going to do and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the experience thoroughly.

  28. Hydrogene says:

    I want to play that game. But only with Quintin’s thoughts, not this boring Julian.

  29. p3 says:

    Clearly what this game misses is a more cathartic ending.

    After the 18 minutes it definitely needs to transition into Postal 2.5, Revenge Of the Stoodupinator, where you go mutilating both your coworkers/officehatesetc and the girl that stood you up.

    That would have made the game long enough and possibly less boring.

  30. somgrl8 says:

    All of Quintin’s complaints are incredibly valid, especially when you realize that Dinner Date is eerily similar to Being John Malkovich. Scene: John Malkovich waiting for Catherine Keener’s character Maxine, to arrive for semi-blind date. Cameron Diaz’s character Lodi, already quite enamored with Maxine, was able to influence Malkovich to agree to the date and now Maxine and Lodi were using Malkovich’s subconscious for their own gains. Later John Cusack’s character is quite masterful at controlling Malkovich but perhaps Dinner Date’s author, like me, found the scenes w/Lodi in control far more intriguing. Lodi’s efforts simple but concentrated had so much more of an exhilarating sense of satisfaction.

    The first time I saw that movie I was by myself and when I left I felt as though I was on some kind of mind altering drug. The thousands of times I’ve watched it since that weekday afternoon, still have me relishing the same scenes i did when I first saw it. I loved that movie so much I tried to show it to everyone I encountered, not all watched, and those that did, not many of them enjoyed it with the same depth but those that did…oh they never let it leave their mind. I’d wager someone over at Stout Games would have ventured down Malkovich’s rabbit hole.