Saturday, September 24, 2011

Devil's Advocate - Dating Simulations

(Devil's Advocate is perhaps a new semi-regular feature on the Thunderware Games news feed (I will not call it a blog) that details how I think nothing is truly and purely without merit and that there is a redeeming quality to everything by taking concepts, characters, games, anything at all that people find almost unanimously negative and try to play devil's advocate to it. It's part of a new program my therapist has me on called "The Positive Side of Positivity". I'm not supposed to say anything negative. Along with negative thoughts comes immediate singing of "When Doves Cry", because I simply cannot stand that song.)

I've never played a dating sim, myself. At least, one of the non-X-rated variety. Unless there is something to the relationship in the game that you can't get out of a real relationship (and that usually means it's illegal), then it's hard to find a reason why you'd want to work at it. At least, from your perspective.

But while you're actually playing the game, it makes more sense. You are no longer you, you are your character. The player-named farmer from Harvest Moon, for instance. Oh, I forgot Harvest Moon was half-dating sim, okay, I have played a dating sim, then.

When you are Mr. Farmer, you want to tend a farm and raise a family. From a narrative perspective, the prospect of farms and families sounds interesting. How many games let you have kids? Well, a lot, I guess. The Sims. Oh, The Sims! That's also a dating sim. I've played more than I realize, I guess.

In The Sims, say you start off with a single, male father who is interested in the Automotive Industry. If you court your special lady and get married, you have clear cut benefits for having her around. Because in Video Game World, in place of REAL LOVE, you have VIDEOGAME BENEFITS. She can cook, she can clean, she can raise your kid, and, if she's feeling particularly 21st Century, she can get a job and pursue the Sports Industry, a line of work she's always wanted to go after.

In Harvest Moon, however, there aren't real game benefits to marriage. I mean, hey, maybe I'm just not an experienced enough player and there is actually some kind of upside to having a wife that wakes you up each morning talking about how country living is a new and
exciting life for her ever since you and her got married, except, before that, she worked on her mother's farm. Hold on, lemme check a wiki or something if there is.


As far as I could suss out, amongst the in-depth, lengthy guides written by moon harvesters that are difficult for me, a casual moon harvester (I really only harvest small asteroids at this point) to figure out, there are none-to-barely-any-at-all benefits to marriage and dating-in-general in Harvest Moon.

When you look at dating from Persona's (3 and 4) perspective, relationships are a thing to be used as a leveling up device. And, in the context of a grind-heavy RPG (and a Japanese one, at that), that's perfectly okay. In fact, it's a pretty neat idea. Since numbers are rising up as you fight bad dudes anyway, and those numbers usually represent more abstract things like "health" and "damage", why not put a spin on those same concepts that adds a bit more depth to the game while also mixing a story in with it. To be sure, it's a completely obtuse way of sticking a story in a game, but, right now, games could take obtuse stories that still blend in over dense stories that sit like pudding skin on the game.

Of course, the main problem with all this being that this dating is handled with one thing alone: dialogue boxes. Sure, voice acting, as well, but that's no more interactive, nor no less exhausting. Although dialogue boxes are something to be handled on a later installment of Devil's Advocate. The Sims (and Harvest Moon, to a certain extent) handles it much more eloquently by putting you in charge of everything, right down to remembering to go pee before a date so you don't leak all over her new shoes. Unless she gets stung by a jellyfish, of course. That makes it all the more satisfying when you get married, and all the more upsetting when she dies of old age. In other words: you are attached to the character.

I'll tell you the worst implementation of dating sim-ing I've ever seen applied is the Mass Effect series. Or Knights of the Old Republic, I guess, but, for those games I'm I'm not sure if that's the right word. Does sentimental mean I like the way your character's head bobs up and down as you pick dialogue options? If so, then, yes, sentimental.

Mass Effect's way of interstellar fraternization (or Space Chatting) is by talking to them when you get back to your ship, inbetween missions, which wastes no resource, takes no effort, requires no thinking other then "what does my space-racist love interest want me to say about aliens?", and the options to the dialogue never feel quite clear anyway, so it feels like a guessing game, which I'll grant is generally realistic when it comes to dating. You never feel really attached to the characters, no matter how well they are written, and they are written fairly well.

Personally, though, I like the writing in Harvest Moon better. They tell you exactly what you need to know. Nothing more.

In Harvest Moon:
Girl: I like flowers.
Me: Here are flowers.
Girl: I would totally say "yes" to a proposal from you.
Me: Will you marry me?
Girl: Yes.

Mass Effect:
Ashley: I grew up in a part of Zeta filled with a plant called Milliards. Our town was right next to the largest field of it in the galaxy.
Me: Here are a hand full of Milliards.
Ashley: WHAT!? Milliards!? How dare you! Milliards are what caused the death of a billion people on my planet!
Me: Will you make sweet space love to me?
Ashley: Alright.

Regardless of how the actual "dating" is handled, from the perspective of your character, a little dating can make sense. Dating is, after all, a natural part of human existence, right? Songs focus on it, movies focus on it, literature, art. Hell, even the most artistically void of mediums can't ever take a break from it. Like cable television. And every medium I just listed shows a different aspect of it. Music expresses the moods, movies express the situations that arise during a date or afterwards, literature expresses the thought patterns of someone on a date, can't games express the machinations behind a date? Figuring out where to go on a first date, what to complement- her hair or her clothes-, what do I say when she tells me she was molested as a small child, there are millions of things that can arise from these situations, and even afterwards: balancing a relationship, deciding when to propose, buying a ring, PROPOSING, marriage life, kids, kids growing up, kids moving out, growing old. Why hasn't a game been made about this, yet? Other than The Sims, I guess.

They don't have to be just dialogue boxes. They can be any genre, just twist it a little. Got a platformer? Have your (ex)girlfriend represent the platforms that you jump on. Don't do that, it's too art-house-y, but it's a start. Go from there.

I say the verdict I've reached here is that dating sims aren't all bad. Dating is inherently a game on its own. To put it in simple terms, you can "win" a date, or you can "lose" a date. People might make fun of dating sims, saying they are things lonely people do. I suppose they say that because it deals with something people who play games are stereotypically not familiar with. Dating sims shouldn't be used as substitutes for real human relationships, but you could also say the same thing about socially-withdrawn people who watch romantic comedies and use that as their basis for relationships. It's all relative in the game of life. But everything related to life should be up-for-grabs in art. Your mind, your body, your enviroment, when you are an artist, everything you see is fodder.
I remember a quote from Chris Crawford. Well, I don't actually remember, but I'll paraphrase it, "All the time we see games that are about things, things, things, THINGS! Why aren't there more games about people?" And, maybe this is what he had in mind, maybe it isn't, but it'd be a step in the right direction.

- Nick

P.S. - May I just state for the record, at no point was I ever talking about the "Dating Sim" filth on Newgrounds or what-have-you-Flash-sites. I do believe those are as meritless as QTE's.
P.P.S. - Oh, man. Son of a...
"How can u just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that's so cold? (So cold)
Maybe I'm just too demanding
Maybe I'm just like my father too bold
Maybe you're just like my mother
She's never satisfied (She's never satisfied)
Why do we scream at each other
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry"
P.P.P.S. - Tip of the Day for Dating Sims: Always go Redhead, never go blonde. The blondes are always the crazy ones. And not the good crazy. Drama club-crazy.
P.P.P.P.S. - Next Time: "Devil's Advocate: Escort Missions".


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