From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. To celebrate Valentine's Day he went looking for the next best thing to an evening with that special someone.
We say goodbye to Aching Solitude Awareness Day for another year. Oh, what fun it is. If you're single, and especially when 99.9% of your friends aren't, it's only fair to start wondering where you're going wrong. Does that whole 'loves a sense of humour' still count when the joke that sent her into a cavalcade of laughter was 'Uh, so, can I buy you a drink?'. Is it a lie to create an internet profile that says you're in good shape if you think spheroids have a certain class? Bathing. Worth bothering? Honestly, it's a minefield. There has to be an easier way to learn the ropes without ending up wanting to make a noose.
Maybe games can help! Let's see, what do we have on the obscure crap pile? Ah, yes! "Man Enough: The Ultimate Social Adventure". Well, if a truly terrible dating simulator from 1994 can't teach even loveless geeks everything there is to know about romance, I don't know what can! Pour yourself a half-empty glass of your favourite beverage, turn down the lights, and let's get ready to bumble!
Okay, so that might be overselling things a bit. Man Enough is a dating game, but it's really closer to interactive shock treatment—something so bad, the mere thought of romance will make you want to vomit after playing it. It's mean-spirited, more than a little misogynistic, and if there's one thing it has more contempt for than women, it's you, the player. Possibly with cause, admittedly.
The romance kicks off in a cafe, where you're sitting—as usual—alone. Your friend Nick, sporting a jumper apparently knitted out of testosterone and Rohypnol for all the female attention he's getting, takes pity on you. "So, what's new? I'm sorry to hear that," he jabbers, not waiting for an answer, just handing you a card for the Man Enough dating agency which gave him his power. One quick drive later, pausing only to note that the game's photographer is called 'John Breedlove', you're on its doorstep, raring to go.
"Welcome to Man Enough Dating Service," says Jeri. "I'm Jeri," she adds, pointlessly.
You reply... well, you get the following choices:
OK. Now, I'm no 'love doctor', but I think I know why our main character is still single. Leisure Suit Larry has better chat-up lines than these. Hell, Buffalo Bill is probably more romantic, and he's a serial killer whose goal is to make a woman suit out of his victims. Luckily, Jeri takes this in stride.
"I'm not buying that story," she pouts. "Now state your business or leave."
Handing over Nick's card, it quickly becomes clear that you're meant to try chatting Jeri up, mostly because she was on the box, and she's the only one of the women in the game who appears in FMV form instead of just still images. Amused by this, she suggests that you should try stepping up to her league by first dating all five of her female clients. All of whom hang out at the same gym. Together.
So, no crippling social pressure there or anything.
These are now officially the only other five women who exist in the world: Blair, Erin, Quinn, Fawn, and Kellie. Being a gentleman, you immediately make your introduction by walking right up to the group and staring at their breasts in turn. Click on their bodies and you take a longer look while they stare back, showing off, blowing kisses, or in one case, licking her finger and rubbing it down her cleavage like she's trying to stick down a loose flap of skin. Eew. Still, time to dive in and get seductive!
THINGS WE LEARNED: Women won't mind you chatting up four others you prefer in front of them before eventually returning to dignify them with your attention and penis.
Man Enough is an entirely dialogue-driven game. You choose the woman you want to seduce, and work through long, long conversation trees. If she likes you enough by the end, you move on—in the case of the gym, giving you her number. If not, you get to try again as many times as you like without being slapped with a restraining order/an actual physical slap. How do you know if you've said the right thing? In an ideal world, you'd sense the vibes. This being Man Enough, that takes some sensitivity.
As for exactly what you say, you'd think you react to the conversations, trying to be funny/witty/clever/sympathetic, responding to her desires and trying to put your best foot forward. But no. This being a dating game, the take-home message is that only sociopaths and liars should even try. All of their personal profiles are provided in a dedicated manual, and even slightly deviating from what the specifics therein means almost instant disaster. No! Don't question it! Don't you dare express an honest opinion or try to tell an unapproved joke! No matter how well the date's going, even consider falling for that whole 'be yourself' Sesame Street crap, and you're in for this face instead:
Got all that? Then let's get out there and woo some lonely hearts! Or head home now, because it's pointless, and nobody could ever... no. No, be strong! Be confident! Just don't make the mistake of being yourself, because that never works! Deep breath! Another deep breath! And here we go!
Date #1: Fawn
"Life is full of negotiations. Buy and sell, give and take... everybody does it. Personally I prefer to buy... or be given. But then, who doesn't like presents? Especially surprises. It's amazing how a bit of lace and a few strips of ribbon can provide an evening's entertainment."
Despite being a game about conversation, Man Enough doesn't actually bother with regular dialogue trees. It's more like Monkey Island's dueling insult minigame, only with supposedly sexy non-sequiturs. Fawn is a saleswoman and romance fan, so the 'correct' answers are usually things like 'Sorry, but do you know you look like a romance novel heroine?'. Because transcribing the whole thing would be both boring and hazardous to diabetics, here's a conversation with the responses picked purely at random.
"You look a little lost."
"Would you believe I'm casting for an American Express commercial?"
"You're almost out of credit. Someone may cut up your card."
"So I try 1,000 women and get lucky on 1%. That's still ten babes."
"You're not even close with me. And you're about out of luck."
"I'm not one of those crude guys, who pressures women constantly."
"Some women would say that crude guys is redundant, don't you know?"
"As pretty as you are, guys must give you a lot of sales pitches."
"I really wonder about the ones who tell me I'm so pretty."
"Sales is tough work, but you probably have a great product line."
"You weren't a real serious prospect before. But maybe now..."
"If you don't mind me asking, what sort of products do you sell?"
"I like all this interest in me again. But I can't tell you."
"That's all right. I like mysterious women, heroines with a past."
"I often fantasise about that. With a heroic guy like you."
At this point, the face of Jeri appears on the screen, randomly interjecting "Play to win!", like a facehugger suddenly attacking in Aliens vs. Predator. She does this a lot. It is very creepy.
"I don't need to know everything about you. I'm intrigued already."
"There's so much more to know. But I think you'll get there."
"Lifting weights is just one way that the two of us will perspire."
"You weren't breaking a sweat with me. But you're soaking now."
"I like porch swings, picnics, candlelight. I'm a real romantic."
"You're real (something) for me. And you just stay... about... that... deep."
"This is a real bodice-ripper for me, but I can't speak for you."
"It was kinda exciting. But now you're playing a bad novelist."
"When we meet up in our next fantasy adventure, I'll be a prince."
"Not quite a prince. But no frog either. Try me again, okay?"
Talk to her again and the conversation starts from the beginning. Get to the end with her liking you enough and she gives you her number. You head home and phone her, and of course, being a woman and all, she's already there, idly posing for invisible cameras in her bra and pants.
THINGS WE LEARNED: All those 80s teen movies were true!
Navigate the maze, not picking options like "Women are like those food bins at stores. I try a little first", and you arrange a cycling date. Get through this without trying such romantic one-liners as "I still wouldn't want to pressure you, but I'm ready for love now," and it ends at a log in the middle of the forest. Fawn stretches out, but, before anything can happen, her pager dings. Yes, pager. 90s game. Deal. She checks it, and then admits the truth, that she really works for the developers, and is only out with you to test it. But hey, she tells you, maybe one day they'll make Woman Enough, and if they do, they'll need some male dates for it! (They didn't. They made Silent Steel instead.) Well, no matter. Next!
Date #2: Kellie
"My work is my life, but I realize it's not healthy to fixate. That's why I came to Man Enough. Relationships are an investment. They require nurture and care... a significant investment of time and energy."
Kellie is a therapist. Her turn-ons, according to the profile, are country and western movies and picking up the check. Her goal is 'finding the right man to analyze'. Her turn-offs, 'tough guys' and 'breast jokes'. Well, with someone as smooth as Man Enough's leading man, what could possibly go wrong?
Again, time for some random conversation choices!
"This place is like the swimsuit issue, and you're on the cover."
"Maybe you want to subscribe. Some day."
"I was supposed to meet a friend here. But I'd rather meet you instead."
"Mmmm. I couldn't agree more!"
"That's a great set of weights you have."
"Cute. Really. Cute."
"I need to stay in shape for those back country fishing trips."
"You've hiked out of that small hole you dug for yourself."
"Know any motivational psychology you'd like to share?"
"Just keep going. You're motivating me just fine."
"You're quite pretty when you're straining, you know."
"I never really thought about it."
"I'm sure you're a committed career woman with no time for me."
"I don't know. I'd have to check my calendar."
"Have I scared you away with all my quirkiness?"
"I love quirkiness. It really attracts me to a man."
"I'm looking for a deep, intellectual-psychological exchange."
"That's EXACTLY what I'm looking for. This is going to be great."
"I'd have better luck roping the wind than a blue-eyed twister."
"You look pretty good right now, I'd say."
"Aren't you just the least bit curious, in a clinical sort of way?"
"Yeah, the clinical approach is just what's needed here."
"Listen, I feel like a little like a laboratory rat."
"It wasn't THAT bad. Give it another shot."
This time around, the conversation gimmick is pretending that you're only going out on a date for research purposes, and avoiding lines like "Ah, yes, a table for two... and what a pair" that would have Barney from How I Met Your Mother going "Dude. Seriously?" Calling her up while she's obviously busy hanging around in a sexy red teddy for the benefit of a camera that loves to fill the whole screen with random cleavage, the random conversation generator came up with this romantic dialogue:
"Is it healthy to dream about what you're wearing right now?"
"That's the kind of thing I want to hear, so keep on dreaming."
"I think I'm just strange enough to fascinate you."
"I think you've really got something there."
"So, about that research? When can we start?"
"Not just yet, but I just love your enthusiasm."
"If you win the Nobel Prize, will you take me to Stockholm?"
"Oh, I don't know. I hear Swedish men are very helpful."
"Would you consider oiling me up for my bodybuilding tournament?"
"That comment makes me wonder if you've even been listening!"
"Our professional relationship should come first, I think."
"Very professional. But work on that bedside manner a little."
Anyway, the actual date takes place at the world's cheapest restaurant. She admires it anyway, which gives you the following incredible responses to once again prove your desirability.
Pop-quiz time! Guess which one is correct!
If you picked the third... congratulations. You may have what it takes to be Man Enough. Or, you might just be a deeply creepy bastard. I'm not sure. It doesn't matter, because either the evening ends with her storming off in a huff, or pulling a dictaphone out of her bra and telling you that really, it was all a science project—that she's just researching sexually frustrated males, and has no interest whatsoever in providing any therapy, alternative or otherwise. Strike two. Still, there's plenty more fish in the sea, right?
No. Haven't you been paying attention? There are precisely three fish left.
Date #3: Quinn
"The whole dating thing can be such a hassle. The inane lines and corny come-ons get so old. Jeri has simplified the process, and I like that. No more hanging in a singles bar or getting cornered into a blind date set up by a well-meaning friend. I'm my own person."
Quinn is a TV anchorwoman. Turn-ons are classical music and bad news. Other interests include conspiracy theories. Turn-offs are comittment and sensitive men. She also apparently likes making love to cameras. I have quite a nice Nikon D90. She is not allowed near it, especially the 70-200 lens.
Random conversation choices, work your sexy magic!
"Is there something I can do for you?"
"Ah, if I've died and gone to heaven, are you a naughty angel?"
"I don't know about that, but this isn't my idea of heaven."
"I'm here to find a woman who can keep up with me, and I just did."
"I might want you to back that up, so don't disappoint me."
"That's it! I've seen you in the Victoria's Secret workout video!"
"No, not it. See if you can do as well as you were doing."
"(sings) I coulda been an actress, but I wound up here!"
"That's not any way to serenade a girl so knock it off."
"We have a lot in common. The camera loves both of us."
"You've been clicking around a lot, but you might get a shot."
"I've done some pretty incredible things in front of a camera."
"I'm more impressed with that than the last thing you said."
"So, when you're off-camera, what do you do for fun?"
"I like it on-camera, and I thought you understood that."
"You may laugh, but don't you think Elvis could still be alive?"
"Elvis will always live in the hearts of his many fans."
"If a woman won't go out with me, I figure it's a conspiracy too."
"I might be your co-conspirator if you keep this up."
"Your talents are quite abundant, so we're a perfect match."
"I'm sure all your talents match up perfectly with mine."
"If you've got the time, I've got the videotape to last all night."
"We could pop your tape in my VCR and hit fast-forward."
"I can't program my VCR, but I think I just programmed you."
"Nothing left to do but hit the power switch. Good-bye!"
THINGS WE LEARNED: All women speak as if written by the same crap writer with no grasp of either naturalistic dialogue or the ability to make individual characters from completely different backgrounds sound even remotely unique. When speaking, they also have precisely two voices: sultry and sexy and ANGRY AS ALL HELL. They also really like the sentence construct "Well, you (insert thing here). But (something else goes here)". It's every other line they say!
Do better than random chance and like the others, Quinn gives you her number. Obviously, when you call, she's relaxing in a sexy bath with carefully positioned bubbles. She challenges you to go paintballing with her, a mini-game in which you walk, Myst style, around the world's smallest paintball arena, with the winner getting 'whatever they want' from the loser. Awesome. Pancakes!
Unfortunately, the game's rigged. You're meant to be playing best-of-five, but after the first couple of rounds, she always wins the third and claims victory. Better still, when she tags you, she shoots you directly in the face, which I'm pretty sure is a paintball no-no. Spot the not-an option afterwards...
1. The battle's won, fair maiden. Shall I remove thy breastplate?
2. Now that your hunt was successful, will you finish by eating your prey?
3. You're such an animal, how will I even keep up back in your den?
4. You CHEATING PATAGH! Have you no HONOUR?! This date is OVER!
For turning a blind eye to this treachery, Quinn invites you back to her place and wastes little time stripping down into something less comfortable. The Cockblock Goblin still strikes though, as despite actually being in bed with her and ready to get started, the TV's the only thing that really gets turned on. Quinn sees that it's her broadcast, decides that she'd rather watch herself read the news than have anything more to do with you, and kicks you back out on the street unsatisfied. What an incredible surprise.
Date #4-5: The Others
"Blah blah blah, stuff that doesn't matter since none of these characters are written with any more depth than a cardboard cut-out of themselves. Blah blah blah, wibble wibble blah.
With Erin, you go on a picnic before deciding to get down to some fun on a car, which promptly gets interrupted when a helicopter shows up. With Blair, you go flying in her personal plane, but the fuel runs out just as things are getting hot and heavy and you have to head back. Spotting a certain pattern developing? If not, look! There's a pattern developing! Even when you're successful, you fail at life.
Final Boss: Jeri
Having either struck out with, or not bothered trying to get a second date with someone who thinks actually likes you, your future is now officially a lonely one. Luckily, just as you're running a warm bath and finding a nice sharp razor blade, you get a call from Jeri, the psychic-terror who's been butting into all of your dates with advice like "Make her smile!" and insulting you if you had the temerity not to follow her precisely written dating guides. Unlike her clients though, she's a real woman—or to be more exact, full-motion video. So exciting does the game consider the prospect of dating her, it needs a whole second CD just to contain her ladylike charms. Speaking of which, yes, of course she's sitting around in her bra and pants.
THINGS WE LEARNED: Women's clothes are made of material that apparently prevents phones from working. This must be very inconvenient, especially when it's just the bank calling.
Jeri is exactly the same as the other dates in the game, with one exception: she wants you dead. After navigating the usual conversation maze (this time without a profile), you find out that her real test to see if you're Man Enough is... skydiving. Unaccompanied skydiving. She just takes you up in a plane after the briefest of safety instructions, the two of you jump out, and then you do your best not to leave a horny splat on the ground. Although after so many failed dates, you've probably had practice there.
Risking life and limb for the tiny possibility of actually getting into her pants—and yes, you can die, complete with her actually mocking you for choosing the wrong option—seems to impress her though, and she invites you back to her place to totally get things started. For real. Honest. Of course, don't think that almost getting you killed will make Jeri any more forgiving of picking the wrong choices.
Let's have one last spin on the Random Dialogue Generator!
"It's a little warm in here. Let me take off my coat."
"Don't stop with your coat. Take it all off, and let me help you."
"Better help YOURSELF first. You're CRUDE now, not CHARMING!"
"I'll take a few risks now, with no parachutes around to save me."
"Keep going like this and you won't have any hard landings..."
"I've waited soooo long to make passionate... conversation with you."
"Oh don't stop talking. You're so good with your mouth."
"Leather looks great on you, but it looks better piled by the bed."
"Maybe we'll start a second pile for your clothes. Veeeery soon."
"I'd drink some tequila from your boots if that would excite you."
"You sure stepped in it there. But you were smooth as scotch."
"I can't think of a better way to show you that I'm man enough."
"I see a guy with lines that are getting weaker and weaker."
"Mmm. Haven't seen this much skin since I was in Quinn's bedroom."
"I guess you can go back there now, if you miss it that much."
"The jump was one thing, but I hope my equipment doesn't fail now."
"Hope you remember your emergency procedures. You're due."
Of course, you wouldn't choose those and get kicked out. No, you'd pick the right ones, literally seduce the pants off her, and go in for the kill. You stud, you. And finally, after what's been a month in game-time, after roughly a million of the worst written conversations you've ever heard, it's time for...
Suddenly, Jeri glances off to the side. And some familiar faces appear.
Your final dialogue choice is three versions of, more or less "What the hell?" And of course, it turns out that the whole game was all just one month-long cockblocking practical joke after all.
"Your buddy and I set this whole thing up," laughs Jeri, newly revealed chessmaster in a chemise. "Kellie played the tape for all us. We had some great laughs. There was never any sale of the century for Fawn. I paged her. We told the helicopter pilot where to find you and Erin that night. We programmed Blair's airplane to print out all those false alarms. Quinn really was on TV, but she set the timer to interrupt you two. So, now you know. We'll just let ourselves out."
So, there we have it. You can try your best. You can do everything right. You will still end up alone and empty, because ultimately, fate is a cruel mistress who—
Wait a damn minute. If the whole thing was reliant on you being dragged around by these women, how come every single one of them were written to get rid of you faster than you'd scrape some dog poo off your shoe? Didn't any of them have anything better to do for a month—a whole month—than sit around in their pants waiting for that sucker from the gym to call and hope a month of frustration and near-manslaughter hasn't uncovered some dark personality twist even his buddy didn't know about? The buddy who, shortly after the game's credits, will probably be discovered swinging from the nearest clocktower by his own bowels, with the words HA HA HA written in blood splatters on the walls? Really?
Nope, this makes no sense. No sense at all! And then, just as it can't make any more sense, Jeri is back—the one who only just sprang this cruel honey-trap with utter glee—to tell you that despite it all, she and her friends really liked you. Not enough to quit helping your apparently only friend humiliate you and completely destroy your confidence in humanity or anything, but, y'know, you're still sweet. "You're living proof that there really is hope for mankind," she adds. "And you really are... Man Enough."
But not, as it turns out, good enough. And you never will be!
THINGS WE LEARNED: There are in fact worse things than not having a date for Valentine's Day. So don't feel too bad. If you don't have plans, grab a drink, put on your favourite game/movie and enjoy what you've got. And if you do, well, may you burn in the fires of Stygian hell!
I kid, I kid. A little light food-poisoning will be more than sufficient.