From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, it's that time of the year again—time to celebrate love, life, overpriced chocolate and all that other happy shit. Bah, teddy-bear-with-heart-on.
Ah, Aching Solitude Awareness Day once again—our yearly dive into the romantic side of PC gaming. We've had one for the guys and one for the girls. This year, it's time for one where everybody can supposedly find love and companionship: as long as they're straight, not too choosy, and prepared for the worst at every turn. This is a game with a section for "PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES" in its credits. The only question is whether they were hired for the designer himself, or his game.
You've got to give Romantic Encounters points for moxie, at least. It's a text-based game, mostly parser-driven, which claims "I am flexible enough to respond to anything." Technically, this is true. As long as you include responses like "Huh?" and "I don't understand..." It also really wants to be seen as deep, with instructions like "Your life inside the Dome will be controlled by random factors of TIME, FATE, your INPUT and TEMPERAMENT," it also adds, before puncturing all of that by adding "To avoid FATE and TIME and assume really false GOD-LIKE powers over your destiny, select G."
Personally, I'm a big fan of having god-like powers over destiny. It's the kind of thing I crave while working out how I'd defeat Superman and catch the Road Runner. Still, to begin with it seems a little unnecessary. After all, my terrible romantic track record is obviously just a series of flukes. I can quote Monkey Island. Chicks dig that, even if the chicks who claim chicks dig that are usually laughing when they say so, before walking off with a cry of "And stop calling us chicks, bitch!"
Before setting foot in the Dome, you have to tell it who you are: Male, Female, Guest or Other. The first two are obvious. Saying Guest produces easily the slickest explanation of the game one of these things has ever had, explaining that this isn't simply about sex, but "a chance to experiment with different relationships, to take dramatic risks in matters of the heart, to TRY-ON LOVE in a variety of situations and settings. It is sincerely hoped, by management, that your experiences at the DOME carry over into your daily life, broaden it, and make it a richer place for you to be."
This is a game with some serious aspirations, and a hilarious sense of class... especially if you know what's coming up. To navigate for instance, it insists you type things like "approach bar". If you try to treat it like a standard text adventure, typing "go north" for instance, you get this.
And also, you're probably not even wearing a tie, you philistine.
It's often sarcastic like that. Go into the elevator and fail to find the right command to bring up the control panel, and a couple of turns later "an elderly couple" wanders in and does it for you. Or if you just stand around not accomplishing anything, a guard will decide you're being suspicious and kick you out of the club. Better to avoid the word 'fuck' entirely too. It's a sensitive game. And also odd.
But anyway, enough standing outside the bar, waiting until exactly the turn of the hour to step inside, then pretending to read a text message that hasn't actually arrived and deciding to hang on until quarter-past for good measure—it's time to jump into the dating pool and 'rock' this 'joint'.
The evening's seduction starts in the Reception, with promises of ENCOUNTERS (honestly, it's like having Beneath A Steel Sky as a wingman) at the Mezzanine Bar, on Floor 3, the Penthouse, and... the parking garage? That does sound like a sexy, happening kind of place. Or indeed, not.
Since this is supposedly a fantasy, the squalid Mezzanine Bar can screw itself. I head to the Penthouse, and am immediately faced with a key dilemma—approach the bar and try to get lucky, or go to the bathroom and pee. I immediately start feeling a little curious about the writer's priorities.
That's probably the longest description of a toilet I've ever seen. In contrast, leaving it sums up a nearby event as simply "On the distant dance floor a frantic young dancer loses her halter, exposing her huge breasts. This causes a near riot of pleasurable excitement for everyone." Groovy. But how about that Armitage Shanks porcelain, eh? Freshly fitted, I hear. They even made three animes about it!
A man in a tux approaches and offers the help of a nice lady, Maxime, willing to make introductions with available damsels. I accept, and am immediately less than impressed by her idea of a hook-up.
"If it looks like a girl digs you, she's literally ill." Thanks, Maxime.
Of the set, only one hangs around afterwards: the Dome's secretary, Cathy. She asks to talk, and that seems fine, so we head outside to a balcony to enjoy the scenery. Which she almost falls off, necessitating what would be a fast catch if not for the game doing it automatically. Afterwards, she asks if it was scary. I reply not, because she doesn't actually exist and thus caring would have been silly.
Well, that's not potentially worrying at all. To celebrate, Cathy steals a bottle of champagne from her employers and invites me to her room. It's essentially empty, and she's silent until she offers a toast "To us." Huh. Then she comes in for a big squeezy hug to show her attraction to this apparently handsome stranger, and the game sternly warns "There is nothing particularly sexy about this."
"Yeah, well you'd know about things not being sexy," I reply.
Who the hell talks or thinks like this? And it gets worse if you actually take her up on her offer of sex. Never has a game about going to a bar and having a one-night stand been so... whatever this is:
"Necessary lubrication." Eeew. When Ikea Erotica is just a little too hot. Anyway, it's clear the game really disapproves of this, and that Cathy is a crazy person who's already decided we're soul-mates destined to be together forever. I take the hint, and politely excuse myself from her presence. It seems like the gentlemanly thing to do, and she takes it pretty well.
The night ending in a bust, but not the good kind, I head down to the garage, collect my car, and head back home, content that—
Goddamn. This is why I don't date. Also, the lack of charisma, social confidence, and good looks. And refusing to bathe on the grounds that the government controls our brains via the rust in the pipes.
Well, let's try again! Once more into a breach, or at least, to attempt to...
This is Jeri, and once again, I query whether the narrator of this game is supposed to be a human male or some kind of broken sociology robot from the future. This is a first impression here:
O-kay. Talking to her, the game asks for an opening line.
There's clearly only one possibility.
She looks up from this introduction with a half-smile and sounds bored, which is easily the most realistic part of the game so far. Monkey Island hadn't been released by this point after all, so how would she get my reference? I approve of this attention to detail. Not something you often saw in the '80s.
Less realistic is that talking to her more results in her eyes opening and an invitation to the nearest lounge. She orders a Tom Collins. Given a free choice, I order Klingon Coffee. The waiter doesn't even bat an eyelid, and a still-attentive Jeri is clearly primed for more of my suave techniques.
Eh, could have been worse. Could have been the old "Day Of The Tentacle" gambit. Though that one's a bad idea now that everyone knows about those dodgy anime movies and stuff.
One reload later, we get on better, talk about TV for a while, and she squeezes my arm, and end up in her suite. A kiss later...
Darn, so close. But if Leisure Suit Larry told us anything, it's that having sex without protection will lead to your cock exploding, and also you should never flush toilets. Hypothetically though, if you go through with it, Jeri starts to cry, then kicks you out of the apartment on the grounds that she was feeling a little off-balance throughout it all, that it's her, not you, and so on and so forth and never call, thanks.
You know, I'm starting to get a little suspicious of this game. When one date ends in suicide or having to submit to an emotional remora, and the other's sex ending is a hollow experience that finishes with tears, it's time to start asking some serious questions. Or better still, use God Mode to cheat.
This menu lets you skip to any part of the game, simultaneously showing off how little of it there actually is, and how much bullshit all of its claims of being more than a Choose Your Own Adventure that doesn't tell you the options actually are. You type the right thing to progress the story within at most three vague prompts, or get it forcibly severed like John Bobbit's manhood.
There are eight women to have an encounter with: Bobi, Jeri, Tanya, Kitty, Cathy, Julie, Priscilla and Roxy. Roxy is a hooker, which is something everyone except the hero knows, failing to recognise her eyes, her hair, her teeth, her boobs, or her nose. Unsurprisingly, no good comes of that relationship, with her two endings being kicking you out in a rage, and successfully doing the deed but without using protection—leading to this rather unusual bit of introspection on the drive home.
On the plus side, maybe he'll become a vigilante and fight crime. Swings and roundabouts.
Bobi is a manager at the club, who takes the initiative herself—kissing you, dragging you around her office by the penis, making with the sex and then distractedly saying "Oh, you're still here." Possible attempted social commentary there, though I think we can probably assume anyone who bought this game probably isn't the Barney Stinson type. You get laid, but it's hardly a romantic encounter, especially when the narrator follows this up with.... just read it. These are words someone wrote.
Jesus. And this is what he's like after getting laid.
Tanya turns out to be the ex-girlfriend of the club manager, who bursts in on the two of you with a gun. You have two choices: be a man and get shot, or wuss out and have it all turn out to be a practical joke that kills any chance of you ever knowing dignity again. Not the greatest choices.
There's a problem with that somewhere, but I can't put my finger on it.
Kitty has a happy ending, apparently, though I'm not sure what you have to type to get it. By default though, it's as creepy as the rest. She takes you to her room for some sex and drugs and probably no interest in catching an episode of Adventure Time first, promptly gets naked and:
Oh, the raw passion of young love. Not that you have to let this stop you, of course.
Well, still healthier than 50 Shades Of Grey. Moving on. Julie's lover also has a gun, and shoots you dead. As for Priscilla... well, Priscilla just wants to jump your bones to get back at her ex-boyfriend, leading to a seriously sociopathic bit of internal monologuing from our supposed hero.
Goddamn, game, quit with the "lubricating" talk already. And the rest. This is supposedly about fantasies, and my only one right now is that this guy gets his cock caught in a wood chipper.
The other ending is that you get caught having sex in the closet by some onlookers, leading to the options "run", "hide" or, no kidding, "die". Despite this supposedly being a game about living vicariously through this strange little man, there are no "get high-fives" or "say excuse me, can we help you?" options. But if you decide that you'd be mortified... the game takes you literally.
So, what have we learned? Basically, once again, even in a virtual universe where anything can happen, you're screwed... but probably won't be. Anything that suggests romantic success will be a trap, possibly a lethal one, or end up in pain, recrimination, humiliation and shuffling home in shame.
Semi-related, I'm selling these fine Aching Solitude Awareness Day survival packs. £25.
Just out of interest, I also ran the female side of the game to see if it was any different. The answer: nope, not really. The men have different names to the women, obviously, and there are a few differences in the text, but most stories and basic resolutions are the same. One exception is that where the man could see a prostitute, the woman can be tricked into filling in for one. So, yeah.
Another involves falling for a charmer who takes you out, then knocks you out and steals your purse. You can also get kicked out for getting into a fight, resulting in this strange 'take that' to gamers.
Weird. Me thinks the designer doth protest too much.
Overall though, the message of the game is pretty clear—according to Psychology, nobody out there is actually getting any worth having, and any evidence to the contrary is just a lie from the greetings card industry to sell more heart shaped chocolates. Ignore that this year. Buy the regular kind, which are cheaper, easily bought in bulk, and can be shoved into your face-hole until your snot comes out as little brown bubbles and your blood tastes of frosting. It's the true meaning of the season. Right?
Right. Well, close enough, anyway.