Some games, we’re told, are meant to be experienced more than played. If you’re the sort of person who is untroubled by that design aesthetic and is seeking a gaming experience closer to art than entertainment, you may consider breaking bread with Dinner Date, the quirky indie brainchild of designer Jeroen D. Stout (http://thestoutgames.com/:News).
Games in this “genre,” the interactive art piece, often combat the powerful gravity of their pretension, which forever threatens to pull them down into an infinite void where fun is an unwelcome concept. Dinner Date manages to narrowly avoid that pitfall by providing narrative momentum delivered through the main character’s voice. The player serves as the protagonist’s subconscious, encouraging him to drum his fingers or glance nervously at the clock as he awaits the arrival of his dinner date. While he fidgets, smokes, and begins preemptively eating the meal he’s prepared, you’re treated to his internal monologue, a laundry list of concerns about co-workers and relationships and all the detritus that fills an idling, nervous mind. As the game’s main storytelling device, that monologue is of key strength and rings true as an authentic window into the mind of a bachelor struggling with his identity as he approaches that dreaded middle age.
Though the game addresses a specific period in the protagonist’s life, the themes Dinner Date lingers on are familiar to audiences of other ages, as well. Anyone who’s rocketed out of high school or college and then been caught unawares by the odd period that follows can emphasize with the anxieties swarming through Julian Luxemburg’s head. Quality voice acting lends a certain pathos to Julian’s ruminations about his job, social life, and his standing among peers. As the game further immerses you in the details of his life, the subtle differences between the interior monologue in Dinner Date and more traditional dialogue become evident. Because we’re given inside access to the protagonist’s most secret desires and ambitions, a lot of the success of Dinner Date’s storytelling relies on how well the player sympathizes with the protagonist.
The meta-narrative quality of the internal monologue is strengthened by the setting. The entire game takes place in the confines of Julian’s apartment, modestly appointed and claustrophobic in size. The narrow space and spartan furnishings amplify the sense that the real “action” is happening inside Julian’s mind. While this feature highlights the importance of the interior monologue, it also reduces the player’s sense of agency and interactivity. There are a limited number of objects to manipulate and a restricted setting with which to engage. The game ends up feeling like a rail-shooter on a very small track, where shooting is replaced by fumbling with candles and wine bottles.
The controls are not always intuitive. Rolling your fingertips over Q, W, E, and R to drum the table feels natural enough, but many of the other interactions are poorly defined, with icons that are suggestive at best. This failure results in a lot of random, unsatisfying inputs with unclear outcomes. The main issue Dinner Date faces, however, is not the controls but rather the player’s role as a subconscious presence. After a handful of playthroughs, each lasting about a half an hour in length, the narrative differences were so subtle that it was difficult to determine whether they existed at all, regardless of how much the player modified the actions. The loss of agency kills a great deal of Dinner Date’s draw as a video game, hardly its strength to begin with.
As an intellectual experiment, Dinner Date is interesting and even profound. As a meta-narrative about the social constructs that confront the modern man, it fascinates. As a game, it barely qualifies. How much of the game you enjoy will depend heavily on which of these elements you care most about and how you feel about video games that shoot for more than just entertainment.