If we wanted to kill aliens, we had Halo, Gears of War, and Half Life.* If we wanted to kill Nazis we had Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Wolfenstein. And if we wanted to get stood up on a date, we had Dinner Date...and nothing else. I talked with Jeroen Stout—founder of Stout Games and creator of first-person puzzle game, Dinner Date—to explain his creation. When I got him on the phone, I asked him the same thing Paige asked me, "What is the appeal of recreating one of the worst social experiences of anyone's life?"
Jeroen replies in a soft, amicable accent: It's about exploring the mindset of someone who's being stood up. Playing through the eyes of Julian Luxemburg (Dinner Date's main character), "you can go through the experience without the complete emotional damage."
This doesn't mean that Dinner Date was made to be a type of emotional boot camp that prepares people for that moment when they are actually stood up:
"I meant the game as a character portrait...you are sort of [the main character's] subconscious." From this position, Jeroen says, the player is able to sympathize with someone who is slowly consumed by a sense of inadequacy.
In its approach, Dinner Date counteracts a self-centeredness present in many mainstream games (see above). The player is placed in the first-person perspective of an unquestioned hero who blasts through waves of villains and hurtles over dead bodies—mostly unfazed by the great horrors that surround him. But not in Dinner Date. Jeroen wants his game—and its players—to marinate in the emotions one ought to feel when playing a game. Games like Dinner Date (see also: The Graveyard) achieve this by placing themselves in something the player can relate to, as opposed to D-Day Normandy.
Breaking these gaming conventions is what makes Dinner Date a truly indie title. "Complex story [conveyed through] simple action," says Jeroen, "I want the player to break the rules." There's almost always an objective, an unlockable, a goal in first person games. Furthermore, these games are all about machismo: the über-badass, strutting his achievements for all to see. Dinner Date, on the other hand, doesn't confine the player to a designated "to-do" list. The game is, rather, a space to explore the "things you can't tell your friends." And it's hard to disagree with Jeroen: guys don't often turn on their friends' 360s to work out their feelings.
That's another interesting thing about Dinner Date: the only playable character in the game is a male. I ask if this is because the game has a target audience—or if he thinks most gamers are men. Jeroen explains with heartwarming modesty that his main character was Julian—and not Julie—because he was avoiding the trap of being presumptuous. "I can barely write on the subject of dating, let alone dating from the opposite sex."
Within his answer lies the idea that the game's creator is writing from personal experience. The truth is, Dinner Date doesn't come from someone trying to reinforce the stigma of being stood up; it comes from someone who's been there before. Towards the end of our conversation, Jeroen shyly admits, "I did the voice acting for Julian."
Perhaps the premise of Dinner Date is a bit misleading. The player is told that Julian is being stood up—but that doesn't mean that he's alone. Someone has sat with the Julian and learned about his family, his job, and his feelings. You could have killed aliens and Nazis, but instead, you were there for a friend who was getting stood up. You felt for him. Few other games can convince their players to feel something—and only Dinner Date can guarantee it.
Dinner Date is available for preorder beginning November 4th.
*Bonus: You also get to save all of humanity!