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.