March 14, 2014

Review: Study Date by Karrek

[I wasn't planning on reviewing Study Date here since I'd already commented on it over at AIF Central. However, someone expressed an interest in hearing my opinions at greater length and that was all the encouragement I needed.]

Study Date is both the first AIF game of 2014 and the first game to be released by its author, Karrek. Overall, I thought it was an excellent way to kick off the new year. It has a few niggling problems to counter-balance its obvious strengths, but the end result is a very enjoyable game that already has audiences calling for more (more work is the standard reward for success in AIF).

In terms of size, Study Date is comparatively small, which I think is the right choice for a first game. It avoids the trap of attempting something over-ambitious (cf. Pleasantville) but still gives the game the space it needs, rather than squeezing it into the restrictions of the Minicomp.

I'm unclear if Study Date was playtested before release. I initially thought it wasn't because there are no playtesters credited, but comments the author has since made suggest that it was. Either way, I agree with the author that it needed more testing. It certainly wasn't unplayable on release, but it lacked that final layer of polish that would have lifted it up a notch. The number of bugfix releases, while admirable in one respect, were also a bit inconvenient for players.

The set-up for the game is that the PC has decided to take advantage of his parents' absence by inviting his long-term crush (Jenny) to his house for a 'study date'. That bears more than a passing resemblance to the scene with Charlotte in SD3, especially the mechanics of the study session itself. There's also an echo of Meteor in both Jenny's name and the fact that the PC can offer her a spiked coke as part of his efforts to separate her from her clothes. Unlike in other games, where I've found these kinds of references to be distracting, Study Date gets away with it due to the way it subverts the tropes it's invoking. For example, if the PC has made an effort to set a romantic mood for Jenny's visit (candles, music, etc.), instead of being won over, Jenny will recognise what he is trying to do. Likewise, unlike her more naïve namesake, Jenny will actually notice if her drink has been spiked and doesn't actually mind (to the extent that she will ask the PC to add some vodka if he hasn't).

In a genre where female characters have a tendency to be either passive virgins or willing sex objects (and sometimes both in quick succession), an NPC who acts like the PC's equal makes for a refreshing change. That's backed up by the quality of Jenny's dialogue, which does an excellent job of bringing her to life, and it's unsurprising that a lot of people have cited Jenny as their favourite part of the game. My own favourite moment is her reaction to the PC's disappointment that she's had other boyfriends, as she angrily confronts the double standard that it's fine for guys to be sexually experienced but not girls. However, while that scene is a good character moment for Jenny, the PC comes off looking ignorant. It's not an isolated incident either, as over the course of the game Jenny repeatedly demonstrates that she's more confident, more experienced, and more mature than the PC. In my opinion, what the PC really needed was a moment in the spotlight to cement him as the protagonist, preferably doing something that was decisive to the outcome of the game. As it is, once Jenny has arrived (and dismissed his efforts at setting the mood), the player spends the rest of the game simply following her (or the narrator's) prompts, which is somewhat unsatisfying.

That lack of agency is partly a result of the gameplay being too obviously linear, especially in the second half of the game. The player is typically told exactly what they're supposed to do next, whether it's rubbing Jenny's feet or finding a graphing calculator. Additionally, nearly all of the game's interactive objects are single-function, meaning that the player can only use them at particular points in the story. Although I generally see lack of player agency as a flaw, it does actually have a couple of benefits. Firstly, it makes it easier for the author to impose a specific narrative on the game, reducing their workload. Letting the player see the tracks they're supposed to travel along also has the mixed blessing of making the game easier. I say mixed blessing because although I've seen a number of comments praising Study Date for not having any frustrating puzzles or guess the verb moments, I personally found it too easy. The only problem I had was with an object that wasn't mention in the room description, and Jenny's reaction quickly clued me into what I'd missed (which is good design). So while the gameplay didn't have any frustrating lows, it also lacked any of the exciting highs that come from solving a good puzzle or just feeling like you've achieved something.

In fact, it's hard to say what the player achieves in this game. Yes, the PC succeeds in his goal of having sex with Jenny and making her his girlfriend. But it's clear that Jenny had decided she was willing to have sex with the PC even before she had arrived at his house. I'm not even certain that the player can screw things up enough that she changes her mind. Without the thrill of achievement to distract me, I found myself wondering exactly why Jenny had chosen the PC. The idea that she's in love with the PC because of who he is (ie. his appearance, personality, etc.) doesn’t work for me because he's as anonymous as possible. The fact that the PC doesn't care what's going through Jenny's mind as long as he's having sex with her is certainly consistent with the rest of his characterisation. However, as I'm not a fifteen year old boy, this question bugged me for a couple of reasons. The first is that not knowing Jenny's motivation breaks the causal chain of the plot and makes the story less satisfying. With the reason for her behaviour concealed, the game becomes a bunch of things that happened rather than a complete story. The second is that the hole in the plot encourages speculation and, being more experienced (and cynical) than the PC, my speculations weren't particularly complimentary to Jenny. Specifically, the most plausible explanation I could come up with is that Jenny picked the PC because he's 'safe'. He's shown that he's willing to let her call the tune in the relationship, and the fact that he's infatuated with her means that he's unlikely to make any demands for fear of losing her. I'm probably overthinking things (as usual), but it is something that decreased my enjoyment of the game.

Given all my nitpicking, I think it's important to emphasise that none of the problems I've identified stopped me from enjoying Study Date. Yes, I would have enjoyed it more if it had catered more to my idiosyncratic tastes, but that's true of any game. Looked at objectively, Study Date is a good game, perhaps even a very good game given that it's by a first time author. A lot of the flaws that bothered me, such as the lack of player agency, can be put down to simple inexperience. Karrek is actually in good company in this regard, as Camping Trip similarly railroaded the player through its story. On the plus side, we've got an author who's capable of writing good dialogue, and of creating memorable female characters. Now that he's gotten his feet wet, we can hopefully look forward to seeing what he can do with a bigger canvas.

4 comments:

  1. I can't believe I missed this for almost a week!

    The game was "playtested" only by me, which is a mistake I will be avoiding next time around.

    When I'd read your comments on AIF Central I did think you were thinking too hard in dismissing the idea that Jenny might like the player for anything about him (and hence my reply their), but reading your thoughts in more length here I actually really like your interpretation of her (though I won't claim to have intended it). The PC is very passive, which was intentional on my part, and it's entirely possible that Jenny likes him precisely because of that passivity. I don't go into much detail (and haven't thought about it in much detail myself), but I think it's obvious from her actions and comments that her past relationship(s) maybe haven't been the best or healthiest, and she wants a new dynamic. I do have a vague notion in my mind that maybe she's dated a couple of older boys (a year or two older, not like pervert older) who really were just with her because she was young and impressionable and they wanted sex, but had no desire to be with her outside of that context, and now she wants something different. Like I said I hadn't thought it out in much detail, but that was the kind of vague backstory I had in my mind when writing her. If you had asked me before I read this why she likes the PC I would have said because he's someone she can have fun with in a friendly context, not just a sexy context, that he's not just using her. I don't make it explicit in the game, but I'm imagining that she and the PC have hung out before at group type gatherings, and that they've talked some and had a little fun, but never really done much or anything one-on-one.

    Rather than it being as benevolent as I was thinking though, I think it's entirely possible that (without necessarily consciously realizing it) Jenny is doing the same thing to the PC that her previous boyfriend(s) did to her. Not that she only wants him for sex, but that she's going to use sex to control him, to ensure she gets what she wants out of the relationship this time.

    Anyway, as I said on aifarchive I'm a firm believer in death of the author, that my interpretation of the characters is no more valid than anyone else's, and your post here has made me seriously rethink Jenny's motives. I still don't think she's being malicious, I think her playfulness and good spirits are genuine, but I do think she might be being a little more manipulative or predatory than even she's aware.

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    1. "I still don't think she's being malicious"

      Just to clarify, I don't think she is either. You could maybe argue that's she a little bit manipulative, particularly at the end, but I like Jenny (more so than the PC to be honest) so I wouldn't go that far.

      Having reread my comments above I think I may have made Jenny seem more cynical than I intended. While I think there's more calculation than blind passion behind her decision-making, that doesn't rule out her having genuine feelings for the PC. She certainly seems to enjoy his company in their scenes together. Like you say, I think her past relationships have given her a good idea of what she does (and doesn't want) in a boyfriend, and she's picking the PC because he ticks most of those boxes (ie. he's physically attractive, she enjoys his company, and so on).

      "though I won't claim to have intended it"

      I think that one of the distinctive features of good writing is that it's able to support multiple, equally valid interpretations. I can't think of many other AIF characters that achieve that feat (only Becky and Molly off the top of my head), so kudos for that.

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  2. Loved the review: I thought Study date was an excellent game. It's one of the best AIF-games I've seen in the last couple of years. That's incredible for a first time author. I would have liked a little more options for variety. I also like it personally if the player can give a little bit more of his own views in the game: I know it's a staple of the genre to have pc be pre-defined, but I would like to be able to avoid saying things I'd never utter myself.

    (I crinched at the pc's response to the virginity questions: storywise they are great. But gamewise they made it hard to feel in control of the pc and emerge yourself in the game.)

    Just to clarify: I loved this game. But you notice possible improvements more if a game is good, then when it's mediocre or bad.

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  3. One of the best games from a first-time author. I wish I could get my hands on the source code, as I'm a first-time author myself.

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