Retrospective: Dinner Date

I take a look back on one of the most unique experiences I had last year. Stout Games' Dinner Date isn't a game about having fun or feeling good, but is that a bad thing?

By Tony Walter | Feb 9, 2013

Last summer wasn't quite as exciting as the release schedule would have you believe this summer will be. Often I found myself looking for something new or interesting to play, something that would keep me entertained during the lull, but not something that would break the bank. During that time I filled my nights exploring the independent releases available for download. Indie games can be a dangerous gamble, most of the studios only barely have the budget to make their ideas come to to fruition, and sometimes that shows. However the nimble independent studios are more capable of executing ideas that are far too risky for the big development houses to bother with.

One of the games I discovered during that time was Dinner Date, by Stout Games. Dinner Date takes place entirely within the mind of the player character, Julian Luxemburg, during a night where you are being stood up for a dinner date. The entire experience can easily be completed in a single sitting, and that's probably for the best. The game isn't fun, and you will not feel happy for having played it - but that's precisely the point.

The game takes place almost entirely from this spot.

Movies, music, and the written word have been evoking a wide array of emotions for a very long time. I'm certainly not happy when I listen to an Elliott Smith album, but that doesn't mean it is bad music. I'm not having fun while watching Requiem for a Dream, but that doesn't mean that it is a poor film. Then why is it that the metric for a video game tends to be how much fun we have? Video games are young, and we are an immature audience. We have only just begun to fully grasp what games can do as a medium. We've just stepped out of the era of the Dickson Greeting and we're now exploring emotions outside of simple wonder. Being stood up for a dinner date, especially one that you had so evidently prepared for, is an event that creates a strong emotion: profound disappointment. 

As you listen to the thoughts of Julian, the only interaction available to you is what peripheral decisions he makes as he waits. Do you want to drink your wine before your date arrives? Do you want to begin eating? Do you want to know how long you've been waiting for her? You're as helpless as Julian is. It was instinct to cling to the hope that she would arrive with an excuse for her tardiness. That things would work out in the end and the mishap would be shrugged off happily. That is not the kind of game this is, and that's precisely why this game is still in mind seven months later.

Dinner Date explores a path almost always ignored by video games, negative human emotion. The restrained interaction, the stretches of inactivity, and inevitable disappointment are purposeful and important. This game proves that games are not restrained to simple wonder and excitement, but can summon weakness and humanity in an audience as well.

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