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.