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Starter: Pixel Polenta
Video game history is littered with illustrious examples of titles based around eating things. In Pacman you conquer the googley eyed ghosts of your past through compulsive gluttony and non prescription medication. In Super Mario Bros. you finally become a big man by chowing down on mushrooms that could be described as magical; and of course in Kirby, you work your way to success by sticking any old thing in your mouth.
Finally, Dinner Date allows those of us forced to put up signage to stop the opposite sex just wandering in for a romantic meal (this is a serious problem) what it's like to be driven to lonesome introspection, as Dinner Date places you in the role of a man's subconcious as the wait for his date turns into a bread and soup feulled existential crisis.
You might be wondering where the “game” part comes in. Good question.
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Dinner Date occupies the diametric opposite of familiar ground for computer games. In a way, the concept behind it is alien, because it’s so mundane. It’s a situation that anyone could find themselves in; the looming spectre of rejection jolting them into taking a look at themselves and examining their life choices. The concept is intriguing in that it treats the medium as a blend of interactive fiction and pseudo performance art, where the player performs the piece as they see fit. Sadly, it doesn't cover what I initially thought Dinner Date would be, which is the digital version of 'My Dinner With Andre'.
As the subconscious of our intrepid diner, you do not affect events directly, but control his various behavioural tics and urges; how often the clock is looked at as he await his guest’s arrival, whether to lean back or not, whether to help himself to some bread and so on.
And that’s all. Despite being the subconscious you only have any control over minor physical choices, and even then the subconscious is railroaded into certain actions to advance the story when the the chapter is up. This typically involves wine, so presumably Julian Luxemburg has a sub-subconscious who may or may not be a drunk.
Dinner Date goes on for roughly 25 minutes, and after a while it becomes evident that nothing the player does actually changes events at all. Essentially, as the subconscious, you are a prisoner in the diner’s body, only able to respond to his whiny laments by hurling yourself out of the window. No, wait, you can’t do that. In the game, anyway.
On the one hand, this was a deliberate creative choice, as it is Julian's story, that we cannot affect because it is about him, not us. But on the other clenched fist of fury, it’s galling that such a high minded concept ignores key elements of the medium itself. It's a virtual statement of high mindedness in spite of being a 'video game' not because of it. Being more of a game (i.e. at all), doesn’t mean it would necessarily be less artistically worthy. As artistically worthy as this Dinner Date PC game review is turning out, for example.
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Digital Garnish - Graphics
Dinner Date is well presented, slick, even, but visually lacking where it counts. The scene of the kitchen itself is composed with a veneer of authenticity; with the various articles of interest like the stereo piled on top of the microwave and the general clutter of a lived in area. The lighting in the background also helps to anchor the outer edges of the scene in a believable and familiar realm.
The main problem that this Dinner Date PC game review has with the visuals, is that all the items that are in the foreground that can be interacted with have a lack of detail, and at their worst spoil immersion. The completely flat, monochrome soup for example. The biggest offender is Mr. Luxemburg’s crude, blocky hands which are ever present in the frame and consistently distract since so much focus is on them. There are clipping issues with wrists phasing ever so slightly through sleeves and bread pieces miraculously regenerate after being picked from the dish. J. Luxemborg has discovered the secret of the bottomless bread platter but instead of curing world hunger he obsesses over his women problems. Maybe if he was less self centred he’d have better luck.
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Commanding Cuisine - Controls/Interface
All the interactions in the Dinner Date game are handled through the keyboard with small unobtrusive icons depicting the action littering the screen around the points of interaction. The visual element of the interface is well designed, fitting in snugly with the ‘physical’ component of the scene, almost suggesting that the subconscious views things in terms of drives and impulse. Perhaps I’m projecting.
The controls themselves are intuitive, if a little simplistic. Press a button to make a thing happen. Sometimes multiple button presses are required as an action is hesitantly initiated and mulled over, which represents the isolated case of synergy between narrative and interaction, other than the times an icon will angrily materialise repeatedly to indicate it’s time to get drunk (mostly).
The font Dinner Date uses is quite nice too, as are the menus.
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Symphony of Sorrowful Sorbe - Sound
Sound design is a technical element that Dinner Date does well. The score is intimate and contemplative and is an excellent fit for the intended atmosphere. The sound effects are good enough that they blend in to the background as ambient details, as everything takes a back seat to Julian’s monologue which is voice acted to the point of being mostly believable. Several times it comes across as cringe inducing and stilted, but this is a reflection of more what is being said and less how it is delivered.
When is listening to someone’s self absorption typically anything but agitating?
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Food for Thought: Will Muse for Meal - Gameplay & Conclusion
Using the term ‘gameplay’ is misleading, since Dinner Date has none. It is not a game in the traditional sense, it cannot be won or lost. Events cannot be changed, everything the player does, is essentially futile, the only contribution to the story that can ever be made is to facilitate immutable events. It’s almost as if the piece is a meditation on the futility of life in general.
Crushing despair aside, Dinner Date’s focus on the intimacy of someone picking over the state of their life in the process of melodramatic self pity is relatively convincing, and is its greatest weakness as well as strength. How valuable the experience of Dinner Date will be depends on how much Julian’s plight resonates with you. It definitely resonated with my violent desire to burst into flame.
Dinner Date is a conflicting experience in lots of ways; the story it tells deals with things that are almost universally relatable (despite how awkwardly it's expressed) but that doesn’t make it enjoyable or particularly thought provoking. I wanted to know what happened next in Julian's personal story once it had ended, but not more than I had grown to loathe him and living inside his head.
As a concept, Dinner Date is fresh ground, even if it doesn't particularly fit into the category of "computer game" and its execution falls far short of its potential. That a gamble was taken on such an unusual concept should be praised and its offbeat spirit encouraged; Dinner Date parallels the power fantasy of most computer games with its aura of helplessness and recrimination, but this also extends to the experiencing of the Dinner Date game itself.
If you are hungry for a bold new flavour of challenge to your perception about interactive mediums, then Dinner Date may be pleasing to your palate, but it's more a morsel than a meal. If you want to have fun, go kayaking.