- So, I've been trying out Backbone and Konami's Brooktown High for PSP, even though it really hasn't been getting good reviews at all. [GameSpy's 1.5 out of 5 stars is the lowest, but the GameRankings average is a slightly awful 53%. And it's pretty clear, from the small amount of GameFAQs discussions - and the lack of a FAQ - that not too many consumers are picking it up, either.]

But it's an interesting game to be developed in the West, because it's one of only a couple of larger scale Western-developed dating games ever released. Other ones? Gameloft's Sprung for DS immediately comes to mind, and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude sorta counts. Kinda.

And while it's not been that well received, I think Brooktown High: Senior Year is absolutely worth checking out and discussing just because it's a relationship-centric game - you know, like that Facade thing that everyone raves about?

So, the good things about the game, first. You personalize your high school character when you start the game, and the questions they ask (about favorite locations, gadgets, styles) help make your character be like... you. But it's interesting - the game encourages you to play someone like yourself - in my case, a decidedly geeky guy. And this makes your interactions with the girls in the game a little more personal.

- Brooktown High is also well-scripted, in a knowing, slightly trashy Laguna Beach-esque way. And it plays like real life _generally_ is - if you're lead geek of astronomy class, then the head cheerleader is going to require extra convincing to actually dig you. That makes you more self-conscious and careful about who you approach. And you actually care about changing your clothes in-game (so girls notice) and targeting specific people who seem to like you for who you are.

But in the end, the object of the game is to impress girls (or boys, if you choose a girl to start with) and then kiss them - and maybe even sneak a few bases beyond that. [All the 'action' is implied in abstract, comedy stock footage cut-scenes, such as red lights turning green, eventually the typical Austin Powers-esque rocket launches.] It's probably a good idea to cultivate the affections of multiple girls at once, so you actually have something to do except talk to one girl per week and then wait. So... that's a bit creepy.

And at some point, I was having a conversation with one of the girls in the game about how she fell off a bike and had to fix her shoulder, and I was impressing her with a long and detailed story about evading some crazies on my own bike, and... I had an odd moment of mental rebellion. It just felt like such a strange, un-natural thing to be doing in a video game, in an imaginary world. I felt a bit dirty, I think. (My wife said I could play, though. Please check with yours.)

- What does that say about me, or the gaming medium? I'm not sure. And it's unfortunate that the actual mechanics of Brooktown High will prohibit many players from getting much pleasure from it - as GameSpy notes: "You only get a few minutes each school week to fraternize before rushing to class, which limits the amount of time you can dedicate to meeting other students or setting up dates."

So there's a lot of rushing around in the times you should be having fun, and there are issues with characters not remembering previous conversations you've had with them - and situations where the multiple choice conversation tree makes you act like a jackass, no matter what.

And the game's interface is a bit tricky in places, and the resource and friend management not spectacularly sophisticated, despite the good-looking 3D art - the 'Art Assets' 02/2007 .ZIP on the Konami PR assets page has some nicely done renders, like math geek Meena's (above). And yes, there are guy ones in there too.

But there's something there - buried in the simplicity of logic and the complexity of interface. Check out this GameFAQs board thread for a good idea of the (slightly scary, manipulative) tactics to use with girls, and therefore the kind of interesting and odd plot threads Brooktown High uses. And I think game creators should check it out and work out what they feel when the play it. Because there aren't many games out there with... emotions in them.

- Anyhow, there was a question, as you can see from the title of this post, and I'm still going to ask it. I'm aware that Match.com is a dating game, but Brooktown High offers an even greater opportunity to represent somebody who isn't yourself with no repercussions. So - can there ever be a successful Western dating game? Or is it just too niche, too odd, too taboo, and not something people want to be doing on their own, without real people?

[BONUS: Extra reading - there's a geeky GameFAQs conversation on the roots of dating games and how Japanese ones compare to the few American ones - worth reading.]