S.EXE: Romantic Encounters At The Dome
Not That Kind Of Dome
"You have made a career of playing stupid shit," my friend tells me, as she stares at me playing a 2D MS-DOS platformer that sees a naked man with a semi erect cock jump around collecting beer and pissing on doors to open them. "It may be true," I say, grazing the man's knob-end off the side of a floating platform that is strangely reminiscent of Sonic The Hedgehog levels. I leave the naked man to idle for a moment, and his John Thomas drips. This is the eternal metaphor for video games, I think, looking at my character fire urine at things and try to locate a woman to bone, both using a thing that is just more flesh-coloured than usual. It's time to go back to the old school of MS-DOS, friends! Come and visit Romantic Encounters At The Dome with me via Dan Dolme and Sex Vixens In Space. I promise one of them will be good.
I started my journey through these old sex-based games with some optimism, since the MS-DOS era was an era in which I could get everything working with a little Soundblaster toggling. But you forget that now getting your computer to run a game from 1988 is like trying to get a toddler to ask her grandfather to download an app on an iPad; it probably isn't going to happen. And you're probably going to wreck some stuff in the process. Probably some stuff you really like.
First up was Sex Vixens In Space, a 1988 adventure game with parser elements that excellent internet resource Moby Games describes thusly:
'Dashing hero-heartthrob of the future Brad Stallion is assigned by the Federated Government to locate and neutralize "The Tribe" -- a band of space-Amazon raiders spreading interstellar terror with their emasculating Sex-ray guns. With the assistance of Sandie, a shipboard computer, the player must guide Brad through two planetary environments, a space station, and his own streamlined vessel -- the Big Thruster. As for the various women he will encounter in his journeys? We'll put it this way: when you only have one tool at your disposal, every problem you encounter looks like a toolbox.
Sadly what time has forgotten is how to get mouse input to work with your penis-and-balls-shaped space ship, something that I spent hours on but could not get to work. This meant I could not fly my dong-shaped space ship. Sad face. However I could use text commands to get Brad to wander about a bit. I died on my ship in two interesting ways. I went into the cargo hold and tried to open up the vats of 'Orgasium'. I opened them, ingested it and died. I then reloaded and tried to go out of the airlock. Well. I died.
My spaceship seemed sad.
However! All was not lost.
I moved on to Dan Dolme from 1994, the aforementioned naked man platformer with the guy with the clothes and erection problem. It's pretty straight forward: you collect beer and piss on stuff to get to your prize, a brief hump with a willing woman. I did feel a bit sorry for him: he might be cold, and also his dick does look a tad vulnerable. I'm not really acquainted with how the internal peeing function with dicks work, but various manfriends tell me it is actually quite difficult to pee with an erection, which suggests that Dan might have to stop peeing with his erection unless his body gets mixed up and he starts accidentally peeing at inopportune moments.
Dan Dolme was okay. Nothing special. In fact it was pretty boring, if you discount the fact that he is knobbing platforms by accident.
But by far my favourite old school sex game is the unashamedly adult Romantic Encounters At The Dome from 1988, a quite sophisticated erotic parser text game which has many moments of hilarity, whether intended or unintended. (Probably unintended.)
You can choose to be male, female, 'other' or guest. Other is not a gender-neutral role opportunity but rather an invitation to be profiled, given several probing questions about your personality and romantic preferences before being kicked out with a 'we'll call you' message (It asked me to describe myself in one word, I typed 'hot' and it flashed the word 'ORIGINAL' which I laughed out loud at). 'Guest' is quite an elegant way to get a small introduction to Romantic Encounters' rather lofty ambitions, which is to help you to 'stretch the boundaries in your relationships with the opposite sex' by allowing you to roleplay in the fantasy of the DOME. To 'TRY-ON LOVE' in a variety of situations, it says.
BUT ON TO THE SEX. I chose to roleplay as myself, as we all know that I'm only here to get my jollies and then leave. You can type in your name, which will be disconcertingly reproduced in capitals, as if everyone in the room is SHOUTING YOUR NAME (which is sometimes apt).
According to the introduction, your experience will be determined by 'random factors of TIME, FATE, your INPUT and TEMPERAMENT'. The 'time' aspect is interesting - in some screens text will randomly flash through different pieces of dialogue from a crowd around you, and when you press enter determines your character's mood or feelings towards the situation.
There's a few different suitors to choose from as a 'female', three significantly branching ones (and that's just their storylines). The first one I encountered was the penthouse dwelling 'Jeffrey' who sees me in the bar with another woman and I am given the opportunity to flirt with him. I type something suave like 'can I buy you a drink?' and he seems to respond with a lingering look whilst the woman obviously wants to punch me in the boobs. The game asks you what you want to do. I'm like 'FOLLOW TO THE PENTHOUSE' obviously.
I get up there and he's kissing this woman goodbye. 'Jeffrey' (god what a weird name to choose for this) sees me and invites me in and I'm pretty much typing 'make love make love make love' a lot into the parser (I'm very impatient) (and in the game) and eventually we DO IT in giant paragraphs of text. The text is pretty detailed about what the man wants from you as a 'woman' role player and is very focused on the man's emotional needs, which is a little bizarre for a game that is ostensibly about fantasy fucks. It's even getting to be that Jeffrey is needy, almost, until after he's climaxed the first time (where notably, I DO NOT GET MINE) he keeps complaining about this lady he's dating, and how she doesn't care about him and how in bed they aren't compatible and how he's switching off etc etc.
Anyway the second time we're doing the horizontal tango he pays attention to my 'pleasure points' and whatnot, though I still feel like something's wrong here. And I suddenly realise it's that the whole encounter is not being written from the player character's point of view, even though it's first person. It's a sex scene that is written almost in second person - like the NPC is writing it. The NPC man is writing my sex scene! There's no focus on the man's body parts at all - as a woman player character I can't 'see' him at all - a male part of the body isn't even mentioned in this heterosexual hot mess. This is really a man's fantasy of what a woman wants from a man - and my mind does these strange backflips. It is probably one of the most interesting sex scenes I've played through, apart from Coming Out On Top of course. It's like being in a man's head as he tries to fuck you, in an almost cyberpunk manner. It's slightly neurotic, slightly melancholy. It's just so weird.
In any case his girlfriend Aris comes back and discovers us, because of course she does. We have this hilarious conversation as I try to obtusely feel my way through what the parser wants from me:
I go back to reception and try to pick up a different man. A man who is ready for my excellent (possibly) tits. Instead I end up on a floor of the Dome where they do personality tests, testing my sexual knowledge and my 'personality type'. A woman with a clipboard asks me a number of questions which have increasingly bizarre multiple choice answers.
Is this rapid blinking a thing, because I don't think I have noticed it before? Answers on a postcard about rapid blinking before imminent orgasm.
Lightly scented of what? Spaghetti bolognese? Poison by Christian Dior? Desperation? I'm in luck if it's 'couch leather with a hint of Tesco white wine and whatever Tokyo Milk perfume someone left in my washbag'.
I get fed up of the personality test (I keep getting 30, though I don't really know what that means) and I find a blonde guy, Larry (why are the names so unsexy) who was willing to make out with me, but then I tried it on too early in the evening (I found out later) and he 'wasn't ready for an intimate relationship' and asked me to leave. I'm not saying this mirrors my life perfectly but it did make me cry and call five girlfriends cursing my own inability to read men, and at least one person told me 'look just find a person who likes you for you'.
It's difficult to understand whether the parser is really as 'intelligent' as the game tries to make out, but it's so competently written that at times it doesn't much matter whether it is understanding the nouns you are using in your sentences to the suitors you encounter. You can type things like 'Hello, would you like to dance?' and 'Slowly, I move my hand and caress her thigh' and it will understand in some contexts, but in other contexts it will not and you will be thrown out of the building for your lack of suave. I really like how fast or slow the text appears according to the 'mood' of the scene, and that the use of where text appears on the screen and when predates the very deliberate design you get in Porpentine's Twine text games (Porpentine being our Live Free Play Hard columnist of course).
Most of the 'romances' or brief encounters are actually a little bittersweet, and romantic 'success' is more than merely coveting flesh, which is actually pleasingly more complicated than most bog standard 'sex sims' dare to suggest.
Despite the weird pompous tone, the writing in Romantic Encounters is quite flighty and sleazy, it has a strange, absurd 80s swingers vibe, kind of like you're in David Lynch's lounge and David Duchovny is there trying to cop off with both Farrah Fawcett and James Spader. It's got this odd feeling of really trying too hard - it keeps smarmily name-dropping what I presume were DELUXE BRANDS in the 80s, like Chivas Regal - ooooh come and have a 'Chivas Regal on the rocks, with a twist', it's what this REAL MAN drinks - and when you're asked to select what you'd like to drink in the Dome's bar you are at once presented with only the options of drinking stuff like 'Folle Blanche' and 'Semillion (dry)'. But I sort of applaud this attempt to be 'classy', if only because at least it acknowledges that we might be adults, and there are so few games that bother to directly refer to things that only adults would be prissy and nobby about.
All in all, I'm genuinely enamoured of Romantic Encounters At The Dome, mainly because it is a piece of 80s LA sexual politics perfectly preserved in text game form. It flaunts brands and luxe interiors and on-the-rocks everything and perfectly coiffed everyone in an American Psychoesque manner, and though the gender politics are decidedly bad - the roles feel rigid, awkward, restricting in an odd shoulderpads way, and there's a jarring sexism because of the... bustiness of the whole thing. The game has a shockingly inhuman attitude towards sex workers' lives, however, and it does try on some of the AIDs paranoia that was circulating in the 80s. And yet you can see the writers were attempting to be sex positive, progressive, even healthy about sex in an era when those discussions were not entirely solidified in games yet.
For a better relationship coach, consult Dr Nerdlove, and for the male perspective of Romantic Encounters, consult Richard Cobbett's wonderful Crapshoot of it.
There's also a wonderful new software library of MS-DOS Games, curated by Jason Scott, that hosts these games to play in a browser window, and I can't tell you how enjoyable it is to explore. You can start your journey here. All the games are either out of copyright or orphanware. Good look traveller!
Previous S.EXE columns are here.