Dinner Date

Posted by Steve Irvin.
First posted on 28 September 2012. Last updated on 28 September 2012.
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Dinner Date
Stretching keeps Julian's blood flowing.
Dinner Date
Julian is about to enjoy some bread.
Dinner Date
Julian tries to relax by smoking a cigarette.
Dinner Date
The view outside the house is equally gloomy.
Dinner Date
Julian decides that it is time to salvage the evening.

Dinner Date is a very short "simulation" experience created by Jeroem D. Stout of Stout Games. It is available via download from the developer's website. Dinner Date is an example of a growing number of "art games" that boldly explore alternate gameplay and present more of an interactive experience than a game with traditional puzzle elements and goals. Other such examples include The Graveyard and The Path from Tale of Tales. Not surprisingly, these projects mostly come from "indie" developers who, as a rule, do not have the large development budgets of mainstream commercial game companies. Yet, these developers are often much freer to innovate and deliver thought provoking mood pieces, even at the expense of major commercial success. Dinner Date seeks to engage an audience who appreciate this approach and to open up new avenues and paradigms within the traditional confines of a computer game.

The story of Dinner Date chronicles an evening in the life of Julian Luxemborg, a 27-year old bachelor who awaits in his apartment the arrival of the young and pretty Meiko, a Japanese woman who has met Julian previously and has agreed to a dinner date setup by a mutual acquaintance named Jerry. It begins with Julian sitting at a table in his humble kitchen, waiting for Meiko, who is already late to dinner. Plates are set at the candlelit table, and wine, soup, and bread are eventually served in anticipation of Meiko's arrival. As time wanes on, however, Meiko never shows up. Julian, weary of the wait, grudgingly starts to dine alone. He also helps himself to the wine, repeatedly.

The story plays itself out as a series of monologues by Julian that provide only minutes' worth of scripted storyline in 5 different acts. The acts neatly split up the performance, much as in a stage play. Throughout each act, you will have opportunity to serve as Julian's "subconscious", interacting with his immediate surroundings by performing preset actions (as dictated by the current situation) using his arms, hands, and head. The entire tale is experienced from a first-person perspective—you see the world through Julian's eyes.

Julian's evolving monologue depicts his changing emotions as he slowly starts to realize that Meiko will not be his guest for the evening. Your part throughout is to perform Julian's mostly innocuous actions from beginning to end. Tapping keys invokes the actions available at the given point in the story. You can wipe your face, look at the clock, pick up a spoon, stir and eat soup, dip and eat bread, crack your knuckles, drink wine, and more. However, none of your interactions change Julian's overt behaviors or alter the storyline at all. The story winds up as it is fated to, regardless of your level of participation and no matter how many times you play through the experience. In this manner, you are merely "interpreting" Julian, much as an actor interprets his character on a stage. The lines do not change—only his body language can be controlled as a means of creative expression.

Dinner Date depicts a social scenario that is all too familiar. If you have ever been stood up or even kept waiting for a date, Julian's musings and experience will effectively evoke the nervousness, awkwardness, and doubt that come naturally from the uncertainty of the situation. If you have not, it is still easy to feel for Julian, imagining what it must be like to watch the clock slowly tick and the meal growing steadily colder as you worry about making that all-important first impression and trying not to take it all too personally. In this sense, Dinner Date effectively conveys a mood of loneliness and even pity for poor Julian as the evening wears on. However, his character, as portrayed in the scripted monologue, is not entirely sympathetic. His vulgar language, vanity, and insincere intentions are character flaws that have soured me against him. He is honest with himself and what he wants, but he still comes across as insecure and shallow. I can imagine the fair Meiko, perhaps with some knowledge of Julian's character defects, having second thoughts, reluctant to find herself alone with him. She gets cold feet.

Despite being developed on a budget, Dinner Date has significant production value. The piano music that frames each act is at times forlorn, haunting, and melancholy but also supports the tense and lonely environment well. Unfortunately, the sound track tends to be a little loud, so that it is a bit difficult to hear all of Julian's ruminations. Turning on subtitles is recommended in any event, so you can best follow Julian's inner dialog and gain insight into his life. Supporting sounds, such as munching food and clinking of dinnerware, are clear and appropriate to the actions being taken.

Visually, Julian's apartment is well drawn and detailed mostly in sepia tones, which is a very effective choice for presenting a tired, sad setting for the story. The lack of vibrant colors gives a sense of dreariness, and it works well as you glean more about Julian's professional and personal life through his inner monologues. The only shortcoming is Julian's hands, which mimic real life movements well but are not modeled with the same level of detail as the rest of the game. This is slightly distracting, as they are your primary tools for interacting with the surrounding world.

Dinner Date is not a game in the contemporary sense. It does not have a goal or objective against which to measure progress. It does not reward you in any tangible way for pulling Julian's invisible marionette strings as he sits (and later stands) while waiting for Meiko. Indeed, the rewards here are mostly intangible and emotional. Dinner Date is sort of a psychological sandbox, allowing you control of some of Julian's subconscious actions and really nothing more. However, while a true sandbox provides wide-open parameters and experimentation with cause-and-effect relationships in a given environment, interactions in Dinner Date neither give nearly this level of freedom nor alter the plot or Julian's thoughts in any way. The simulation is totally linear. There are no puzzles to solve. All interactions are limited to the choices offered in the moment.

There is a flaw in the notion that controlling Julian's subconscious actions has no impact on his actual thoughts. Rather, it is highly likely that evoking an action such as having Julian look at the clock (which he is able to do frequently) may indeed interrupt his current train of thought, causing the inner dialog to shift gears by replacing it with anxious thoughts regarding the lateness of the hour and forking the monologue into a new series of thoughts to reveal even more of the back story and of Julian's personality. This capability can add an aspect of discovery that truly feels more interactive and genuine. It can extend the experience and make you feel as if your involvement in the story as Julian's subconscious really made a difference.

In keeping with its unique paradigms, Dinner Date provides a minimalistic interface for the limited interactions that you can make. A swarm of stylized icons that map to keyboard letters float on screen, overlaying the scene, and depict the available options in real time. These icons hover in place for awhile and diminish in size according to their immediate importance. I have found the icons a little difficult to see as they dance subtly before me on the screen, mostly owing to the icons' brownish color palette. I confess I have occasionally resorted to random button mashing just to see which keys corresponded to which specific actions.

Your enjoyment of Dinner Date is going to depend very much on both your expectations and appreciation of an "experience" in lieu of more traditional gaming. Many players will not see the value in a very brief excursion that provides limited replay value, regardless of the novelty. Dinner Date may be worth a second play, if only to catch details missed the first time around, but it really is not very compelling beyond this point, except as a concept demo.

The premise and playing paradigms in Dinner Date are simply not be viable for exploration by mainstream game developers, whose commercial success is dependent on broad market appeal. Such innovation is seen as too economically risky. Only an independent developer has the wherewithal to carry out such an effort, much as the artist paints for the love of it and hopes to connect with a likeminded audience. Certainly, a measure of commercial success is necessary—an artist needs to make a living to create another day. However, the overarching goal in Dinner Date seems to be in evoking a memorable experience, full of mood, by creating an experience that is uniquely different. Here, this goal has been largely achieved.

Experiencing Dinner Date is much akin to visiting an art museum. If you enjoy interpreting artists' interpretations and messages, you will appreciate its "out of the box" experience and will likely find it an emotional experience worth the cost of admission. Enjoying Dinner Date is a matter of appreciating not only what it is but what it attempts. Some players will undoubtedly see and relate to the nuances of Dinner Date quickly, while other players will likely grow weary and wonder about the whole point of the experience. Players who are also gaming fans and appreciate innovation in a genre that is very much trying to reinvigorate itself will see Dinner Date as a worthy experiment—an approach that offers potential synergies when melded with traditional storytelling and gameplay mechanics of contemporary adventure games. On that basis, playing Dinner Date is an intriguing experience, if only for a short while.

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