Dinner Date and the perils of experimentation
A year ago, I stumbled across an interesting little title known as Dinner Date. It was a mere three dollars and promised to cast players as the subconscious of Julian Luxemburg. I was jazzed at the idea of a game exploring character growth and development from a psychological perspective, and looked forward to seeing Julian’s story play out. Fast forward to now, and Dinner Date stands out in my memory as one of the worst games I’ve ever played.
At the time, I excused the underwhelming performance of the game, thinking I had simply missed the point. I moved on. But every time I saw the game in my Steam list I was torn between thoughts of vile hatred and the nagging feeling that some wonderful experiment had eluded me. As such, I decided to finally put the conflicted feelings at rest, playing the game one last time to see whether I did indeed miss its genius, or am vindicated in my vitriol. It wasn’t pretty.
Before you start the game, you’re introduced to what one would assume was its core mechanic: independently controlling the fingers of a hand with qwerty controls. It gives the impression that as Julian’s subconscious, you’ll be acting as some sort of puppet master along the lines of Octodad. You’re even given the option to carefully practice your finger manipulation, and then anything resembling this interaction is promptly thrown out the window. Once the game itself starts you simply press a button to change between idle animations. No complicated and subtle string-pulling to carry out complex actions. Button pushing. It’s still technically the same control scheme that we were introduced to, but used in a drastically different and ultimately uninteresting context.
From here on you must perform actions such as twiddling your thumbs, or dipping some bread in soup, and these do absolutely nothing to change or advance the plot. They’re not even quick-time events, just animations that run on a loop. Dinner Datepresents itself as an experiment in interactive narrative, but the game is too preoccupied with its own story to give the player any meaningful interaction or choice, and could be finished by only performing the actions at the end of each chapter.
It’s possible to find some sort of connection between the animation and the dialogue that’s being relayed, providing at least something to think about. Perhaps Julian nervously watches the clock as he talks about his date being late, or plays with his food while worrying about work. These connections will then make sense when it comes to the visualization of Julian’s worries, but only if the player is trying to actively do so.
The problem here is that unless you have a system in place to reinforce behavior fitting of his subconscious, players have no incentive to do it. If making Julian smoke a cigarette has no effect on him or the game, and is simply a shallow attempt at role-playing, then what motivation do I have to do so?
The experiment might have some value were the story any good. The premise is sound: a young man coming to a turning point in his life as he contemplates his ideals of love and how it fits into modern society. More simply, it’s a guy waiting for a date to arrive. It’s a nice, simple, relatable idea. Yet all it amounts to is about fifteen minutes worth of self-pity delivered by a voice actor who either has a hilarious speech impediment or is badly faking an English accent. While Julian fancies himself a Byron-quoting intellectual, he comes off as horribly self-centered and pompous. He’s a whiny bitch. No doubt something interesting could have come from it, but the game fails to provide any character development or resolution. The most important part of an internal conflict – the protagonist’s growth and change in thinking – is just skipped, resulting in Julian being the same passive aggressive grump at the end of the game as he is at the start.
You could excuse the game by pointing out that it’s abstract and open to interpretation, after all, it is something of an experiment. But even things that are highly open to interpretation should have at least some sort of recognizable base. I could go analyzing things in something like Silent Hill or FLCL all day, but those stories can still be followed even if you ignore all the allusions and symbols present. Even analyzing how Dinner Date‘s mechanics intertwine with the story, the only things I’ve been able to find are lessons on game design. You often learn far more about making games from the bad ones rather then the good ones, and this one shows us exactly what happens if you remove all meaningful interaction.
What we have is a idea with potential which is squandered by the developers own pretension, ambition and lack of foresight. Another indie game lacking the subconscious conceit, Ruins, manages to pull off the most of the ideas of Dinner Date without even trying. Ruins also provides the player with limited game interaction, yet how these limited choices are addressed is what makes Ruins more successful in its follow through than Dinner Date. With a grounded, unique and compelling mechanics, you get great minimalistic games that push boundaries. By failing to offer any of this and handling its story as well as a drunk man trying to strangle an eel, Dinner Date does the opposite. It’s fifteen short minutes of grating monologues set to a bunch of- well, nothing. I think I’ve finally made up my mind. Fuck this game.