[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.