April 12, 2011 12:00 PM |
['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Dinner Date, a brief introspective piece by Stout Games.]
Dinner Date is a short atmospheric game about being stood up. No, not just about being stood up: about being a particular guy named Julian, living in a small European apartment, disliking his job and waiting for a girl to arrive. She doesn't.
There isn't exactly any challenge to the piece, and no goal to speak of, other than to pass the time as Julian and listen to the thoughts that go through his head.
In many respects Dinner Date resembles work by Tale of Tales, but it is more mundane, less ominous and allusive than any of their games. There are no mystical animals here, no blood. We see Julian's apartment in considerable detail: the food he's cooked, the loaf of bread, the Japanese calendar on the wall; the cigarettes he smokes and his brand of wine; the view from his apartment window, which is the view of other rooftops. The pleasure it offers is largely contemplative.
A few reviewers have remarked that Julian is not a very admirable person. I suppose that's true; he seems frustrated and negative, and he doesn't seem to have very strong or happy relationships with anyone. On the other hand, we all have thoughts inside our own skulls that we know better than to publish. I didn't find Julian intolerable, at least for the short duration of the game. On the contrary, I felt a little kinship for the utterly realistic way his thoughts jump from frustration with work to hunger to a half-remembered bit of poetry.
The game's framework tells us that we are playing as Julian's subconscious. What this means is that we are able to control his small gestures, such as taking a sip of wine or dipping some bread in sauce. We have no control over his inner monologue of conscious thoughts, or over his occasional more serious decisions.
The interface for this is keyboard-based, and feels, often, like a handwritten, indie take on Heavy Rain. Letter-bubbles hover beside the wine glass, the candle, the bowl of soup. Typing a letter activates a gesture, and the options change depending on context. It's QTEs by way of the keyboard.
But the interface aesthetic is refined towards a kind of anti-immersion, an alienation, because each task does such small things.
In the game's tutorial interaction, we are shown a close-up of Julian's hand: a hand rather unattractively modeled and dully pink. We are invited to move each finger individually. Each has its own letter. Laboriously we crack each knuckle. Then we are ready to begin.
For a dizzying moment I thought this was going to be a hand-focused re-envisioning of QWOP.
It's not, and the per-finger manipulation does not continue; but as a general point, the mundane actions we take as Julian's subconscious are broken down to such fine-grained detail that they become strange again. There is one button to stir the soup clockwise, another anti-clockwise. A third to set down the spoon at the side of the plate, a fourth to dip it in the bowl, and a fifth to lift the spoon out laden with soup.
Press the wrong button at that moment and the spoon will come out soup-less instead. It takes a several-key sequence to fill a spoonful and then bring that spoonful to our mouth. Here is a control scheme that belongs in a Borges story.
Because there are no goals, there is no challenge, and so the control system does not become frustrating as such. There's nothing for it to frustrate. Nonetheless, it means that the natural course of player exploration will lead to a lot of dithering, a lot of playing with one's food. Just the sort of thing a person like Julian might do while anxious.
This produced, for me, the sense of a person with a profound mind-body disjunction, a person who was finding his own physical manifestation alien and peculiar. And this aligns with the alienation he feels about everything else in his life at the moment, and his particular ambivalence about sex.
I sometimes had a similar feeling when trying to control the characters in Heavy Rain, especially when I was struggling to do something basic like take a swig of orange juice, but there it felt like an error. In Dinner Date, the effect appears intentional.
Julian drinks, perhaps, a little too much while he's sitting at his own kitchen table waiting for his companion to show up. That increases the mind-body distance as well.
So much I got out of the interaction: a sense of uneasiness that matched the mood of the protagonist.
What I did not get, what I'd sort of hoped for from the game's description, was a piece in which the player got to improvise a meaningful performance to go along with the game's immutable script.
The concept of the player as actor in a pre-written play is an idea that has intrigued me ever since Shelby's conversation scenes in Heavy Rain. There I felt like I was making characterization choices depending on whether I had him sit sympathetically next to his interlocutor, or slouch against a wall opposite instead. Dinner Date seemed like it might be going further in that direction, because it focuses all its interaction on gesture and offers so very little agency over what actually happens.
My brother is an actor, and we've sometimes talked about how he prepared for one role or another: about constructing a whole and integrally motivated person to fit inside the script, and then allowing that construction to inform his movements and voice.
There are a few, but only a very few, games that even occasionally invite the player to similar kinds of engagement with a story.
So here is the game I wanted Dinner Date to be. I wanted the gestures to be organized less around object and environment, and more around emotion. I wanted to be able to splash my spoon in the soup to enact frustration. To sigh, to slouch, to shrug, to pinch the bridge of my nose as if I had a headache. To pace around and try to walk off my bad mood. To drink too fast, or alternatively to try to savor each sip of wine.
I wanted to be able to play Julian angry, Julian bored, Julian lonely, Julian contained and stoic. Whatever physical counterpoint I chose, against the lines and the major actions that were set down for me by the author. And in so doing, I wanted to be allowed to construct the character more thoughtfully and fully.
In practice, though, these little gestures, the soup-stirring and the bread-dipping, are too limiting. We can fidget pointlessly. Indeed, the nature of the controls makes it likely that we will fidget pointlessly. But the range of possibilities is not one that invites the player to make any important choices -- even interpretive choices, even in her own head -- about who the character is or how he feels.
I don't know if it's fair of me to be disappointed about that. As I said, the interactivity here does create a certain texture to the story that would not have been achievable in a static form. I just really wanted there to be more.
(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)
[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]
Categories: Column: Homer In Silicon