Is This Love? Jacob plays a dating sim.

I’m working through the next bit of FFXI at the moment, but as I was doing it, the tweedy voice of a certain animated character was reprimanding me…

“Play lots of different kinds of games…” it moaned, ghost-like and spectral.

“fiiiiiiiiiiine” I moaned back.

So I tried a gamejam dating sim, because that’s new to me.

Beach Island is the game, and the International Love Ultimatum was the jam, whose stated purpose is to “explore different ways to convey love in video games.” It’s a neat little 5-10 minutes if you want to go play – I’ve absolutely played more horrible games that more money and time was spent to develop, and I’m reasonably confident you have, too.

There’s a lot to talk about here, actually.

Though I’ve never played a dating sim before, my cultural osmosis has lead me to believe that Beach Island falls fairly in line with how they convey love – the approval of the cartoon ladies you are woo-ing. They smile, or blush, or compliment you – that means they love you! Congrats, you win at being attractive to others! When they do that, you’ve scored points with that particular lady, and thus get closer to getting to know their secrets and hold their hand and hug and stuff.

The game mechanic is pretty much “pick an ending you’d like to try to achieve, and dump as many points into it as you can, and if you win, you get a simulacrum of human intimacy!”

I don’t know that this mechanic does a great job of conveying love. Someone having affection for you isn’t at all like picking the right option on a multiple-choice quiz, and presenting it as such gives the player agency where the real human being has none. You don’t determine if other people like you – it’s not up to you. There’s no “right thing” or “wrong thing.” There’s no formula. It’s circumstance and hapenstance and chronology and communication and much more about two people who just sort of fit together. Love is much more about unalterable personality traits and first impressions than it is about being correct.

That said, I think it’s a mechanic that gets used a lot – even BioWare RPGs and other advanced relationship systems are basically this, when stripped bare. When we talk about what we love in those relationship systems, it’s never the process. It’s the result. It’s fun to date Barrett in the Gold Saucer, but it’s not necessarily fun to answer all the questions right to build your romance with him up. It’s kind of wish-fulfillment shipping – you get to pick whoever you want to end up with!

I think this dovetails with how bland and non-dimensional (and kind of creepy) dating sim player-avatars are. In Beach Island, Taylor (which is a delightfully gender-neutral name) gets all faint at the prospect of holding hands with a girl, and confuses confession with intimacy and is self-effacing and timid (despite having perhaps the most useful skill on the island, it’s not something we know about Taylor going into the affair). They don’t have character or opinion aside from what the player gives them, which is all specifically given in the interest of maybe touching a bewb. Essentially, your character is always a conniving manipulator with a heart of pure pornographic lust – that’s the role you always play. There’s little about your character aside from that. Again, this is even true in RPGs with bigger budgets – in a romance, you’re always a calculating predator.

One of the big examples in Beach Island for me was when I had “lost the game” by leaving the island without uncovering any secrets for the umpteenth time. I realized that the options I chose were actually leading me to this narratively abrupt departure – in order to see more, I had to specifically choose the right options, which meant basically manipulating at least one of these three girls into telling me all about herself by acting, in a lot of ways, as a mirror of her. I rather arbitrarily decided on a girl, and then couldn’t get the game to give me her ending. I went through the other two, and then, slowly, by process of elimination, realized that some option very early in the game in a conversation that wasn’t about her was basically ruling her out, no matter how right I was in all of her questions.

And then I was like: “Is this love? Or…is this what the designer thinks love is like? Is this what we’re training players of videogames to imagine that love is like?”

Why are our development dollars going to more realistic graphics and not more realistic emotions?

My idea: it’s a dating sim, only of the romantic options, only one is actually viable, one is someone that pursues you that you can’t choose to be interested in, another is something that will never be more than a platonic friendship, and the viable one depends on you giving your protagonist interesting human depth to actually achieve. You can choose your actions, but never your words, and if all you do is parrot the options’ broadly defined personality traits, you will die alone and unloved.

But maybe I miss the point of these things?

Also: does Evelyn wear pants?!

Lessons Learned

  • Protagonists with Character. In any story-focused game, especially one involving human relationships, you’d do well to have a main character who ISN’T a blank slate – for games with a player-generated PC, that might mean giving them depth before the relationship stuff via their actions.
  • COMMUNICATE. It’s a recurring theme around here, but I got stuck because the consequences of my actions weren’t clear. Make them clear.
  • Be Simple. This game was whipped up for a gamejam. I need to get to the point where I could turn my idea into a game in two weeks (less!). I’m not really there – though I think I’m close.