I do so love the blend of madness, sincerity, and unbridled subversion game jams often inspire. While genres normally build on themselves – ripping conceits and mechanics from compatriots like oily scrap from a spent machine – jams often operate in reverse: curious developers tear down everything that’s been established and rebuild, in their own image, from the ground up. I say this because – presumably like most of you – I don’t really play dating sims. Outside of obsessively wooing Tali and Garrus in Mass Effect, they’re just not my thing. But when I heard about the Pulse-Pounding, Heart-Stopping Dating Sim Jam, I was actually kind of thrilled. Here was an opportunity for new interpretations, new beginnings, new relationships. It did not disappoint in the slightest. These are some truly beautiful games. And yes, that’s definitely a T-Rex.
Benthic Love is probably my favorite. The others are equally great, but for me personally, this tale of, um, Angler Fish mating habits struck the most resonant chord. In short, you play as a male grappling with the fact that, once he pinpoints a suitable female using his incredible olfactory glands, he’ll fuse with her and cease to be. Yes, that is apparently actually how Angler Fish mating works. It’s kind of powerfully metaphoric when you think about it though (even if its creator didn’t intend it), and the juxtaposition of simply marveling at the alien majesty of deep sea life and the doom that’s literally gnawing a hole in the pit of your scaly stomach creates a beautifully contemplative mood. And then, when you finally meet a female…
Benthic Love made me tear up a little. Such a strange, joyful, tragic thing.
While a lot of the entries I tried out ended up being – at least, to some extent – fairly literal, How To Be Happy dove headfirst into the bracing waters of gleeful abstraction. It is, however, quite excellent for it. Admittedly, it’s not the hardest metaphor to crack (over the course of history, relationships have been equated to puzzles nearly as often as they’ve been tied to teenage vampire drama), but the various stages of this one are what make it. Gentle sound effects, nerve-wracking uncertainty, frantically mashing your mouse to hold it all together. In some ways, How To Be Happy nails the feeling of dating/being in a relationship better than any dating sim. Which, I suppose, is why it’s often unfair.
In essence, Kindness Coins is a game about being the object of a typical dating sim protagonist’s constant, achingly gradual advances. For that reason alone, it’s basically hilarious, but underneath all the winking and nudging is an earnest tale of coming to grips with who you actually are and what you’re attracted to. The end result is charmingly chilled out and even a little mundane. The big moment of conflict fizzles pretty quickly, but – in spite of all the tree demons and bunnyclopses – it makes the whole tale feel grounded. In short, life happens. It’s messy and awkward and desperately in need of alcohol for a bit, but things have a way of working out eventually. Especially when you are maybe some kind of Satan.
Christine Love (of Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story, etc fame) worked her brand of textual magic on this one, and it’s… well. What I mean to say is, you will encounter… hm. Yeah, OK, Magical Maiden Madison is about crazy freaky anime tentacles. If you’ve ever spent any substantial amount of time on the Internet, you can probably hazard a guess as to what they do. You’re a magical girl (think Sailor Moon, but more modern) processing the aftermath of a, er, battle by text messaging a friend. It’s mostly hilarious, but with some intriguingly frank subtext about atypical/kinky sexual experiences, portrayals of female heroes, culture both Western and abroad, and possibly the lasting effects of physical/emotional trauma, depending on how you read it. Also squids.
Date a dinosaur! Help him buy a ukulele! Discover his dark and tragic secret! (Jurassic Heart‘s actually super adorable and heartfelt somehow. Also, it’s the Citizen Kane of games.)
Disclaimer: RPS contributor and hero of the truest justice Porpentine created UOAHBAO, but it’s too interesting of an idea to not include. In short, it’s a multiplayer Twine game about beauty taking on many multi-tendriled, eyeball-ridden, gelatinous forms and communication across the cavernous boundaries of culture, sans spoken language. One player has only basic ideas – for instance, “avalanche,” “cloud,” “mirror,” “volcano,” and “wind” – to work with, and they must use them to express how they’re feeling to the other.
My girlfriend and I played together. I kept trying to touch her with my chitinous spider legs, but she eventually howled to make her pack come and tear me limb from limb (from limb from limb from, etc). So basically, just like in real life.
CUM HIGH IS PURE, UNBRIDLED SCREAMKILL SILLINESS. LOUD AND DUMB AND ABOUT DATING WHILE UNDER CONSTANT ONSLAUGHT FROM THE SKREELAK MENACE. APPARENTLY WRITTEN WHILE THE AUTHOR WAS DRUNK, WHICH SOUNDS ABOUT RIGHT. YOU WILL LAUGH.
Dating Sickness is kind of what Cum High is to silliness, only with tragedy. It is, in other words, far too over-the-top with its subject matter (YOU ARE BEDRIDDEN HE’S THE WORST THIS IS SAD THIS IS SAD THIS IS OH SO DREADFULLY SAD), but it explores a dating scenario I – as an impetuous, mostly healthy youth – had never considered. Worth chewing on. Just maybe don’t expect a particularly filling meal.
Aegis Wing is another utterly beautiful standout, and perhaps the most quietly, comfortably heartfelt of all the ones I played. Sure, Anna Anthropy (yes, the one from Cara’s excellent interview) might be mostly telling her story, but the singular choice you eventually make hits like a megaton missile. Beyond that, it’s a magnificently personal tale of honest, actual love with heels hungrily (but only just so) dug into the back of BDSM culture, Anna’s experiences with hormones, travel, game development, education, distance, dependence, pleasure, and pain. Plenty of pain. Sometimes, it’s excruciating.
But mostly, Aegis Wing is about love. Fearful love. Distant love. Ravenous love. Mundane love. Love like a tidal wave.
Urgh, I can’t actually get Rogue (1980) to work right now, but it’s apparently Rogue – yes, the original – with elements of flirtation, interest, and hugging. D’aaaaaaaaaaaw.