March has been an exceptionally busy month for AIF, with one game being released after another. First there was The Lost Hound, then Enticing Ella and a Hail to the King prologue from Minterlint (which I haven't gotten around to playing yet), and now Coffee Date by Lamont Sanford.
When I opened up Coffee Date I was pleasantly surprised by the improvement in Lamont Sanford's writing. However, once I actually started playing the game I realised how that had been achieved. Although it was written with Inform 7, Coffee Date is essentially an HTML dating game. Lamont Sanford's games have never been text heavy, but this decision trims things down even further. Less dialogue, fewer actions, no object descriptions. Reducing the amount of text seems to have been a key design goal, since it's reinforced in several other ways. For example, Coffee Date is heavily graphical (with around 650 images) and in several places images are displayed instead of actually describing what’s occurring. Making all of the NPC dialogue 'voiced' without subtitles means less onscreen text as well. The results of the text-to-speech program used to generate the NPC voices are mixed, to say the last, and the lack of subtitles creates accessibility issues. However, less text means less to check and less to go wrong, hence the improvement.
The plot of Coffee Date will be familiar to anyone who's ever played an HTML dating game. An anonymous PC goes on a blind date with a girl (called Heather in this game). If things go well, the date continues and possibly ends with them getting horizontal. In this case the date isn't completely blind, since Heather and the PC have exchanged messages on a dating website, which is a plausible way to set things up. However, it's unclear what they talked about since they start the date unaware of basic facts about each other. Unlike the other HTML dating games that I've played, where the idea of forming a lasting relationship with the female lead is either left open or is the entire point of the game, Heather explicitly states that she is not looking for anything serious. Despite that, the bulk of the game involves Heather and the PC enjoying typical dating activities as though they were going to embark on some sort of relationship. Any hope of that is averted by the 'good' ending, where Heather and the PC have sex and she kicks him out of her house immediately afterwards. The epilogue states that they have sex on several other occasions, but beyond that their relationship seems to be non-existent. All of which begs the question, if the only thing Heather wanted was sex, why did she and the PC go through the whole rigmarole of dating (twice)?
The gameplay of Coffee Date can best be described as multiple-choice. About a quarter of the options are obviously wrong, but making an informed choice between the others is next to impossible. All of Heather's lines are delivered in a robotic monotone, so it's often difficult for the player to assess how well one particular option was received compared to another. On top of that, UNDO is disabled and there's no way to save a game in progress. Consequently, working out what the 'best' answers are involves a lot of laborious trial and error, not to mention uncertainty. Does Heather react better to a hug or a handshake? Would she respond well to being kissed at this point? Who knows? Coffee Date is crying out for some sort of scoring system that would allow players to make those kinds of distinctions. There are general indications of how well the date is going overall (such as Heather deciding to read the PC's palm at the cafe), but due to the limited amount of description I felt like I was fumbling in the dark most of the time.
Like the HTML dating games it most resembles, Coffee Date has a branching plot. However, the branching is very superficial as it leads to the same destination in the end. Due to the general lack of feedback, it's hard to say if the decisions that cause the branching affect anything at all. For example, does Heather prefer eating at a romantic Italian restaurant or going for burgers? My best guess is that it doesn't matter, making it a cosmetic decision that enables the player to personalise their playthrough. If that's the case, it would be nice if the decision was at least referenced afterwards to give it some sense of significance, but that doesn't happen either.
HTML dating games live and die by their female lead, so what is Heather like? To be honest, I found it hard to think of her as a living, breathing character because she sounds like a robot. That’s a little unfair as she is given a few background details, such as being from Manchester and having three siblings, which make her a more believable character even though they’re irrelevant to the game. The one relevant background element is that she broke up with her last boyfriend two months ago, which explains why she's not looking for anything serious now. However, it doesn't explain why she's dating so many men at once, nor why she and the PC end up having a purely sexual relationship. Otherwise, there's nothing particularly distinctive or memorable about Heather other than the fact that she's a smoker (which is blessedly rare in AIF). Beyond that she's just a stereotypical young person who likes to drink and party, and occasionally take drugs. Oh, and she might be a porn star. I guess that's interesting, but as far as I can tell there's no payoff to it other than providing an excuse to wedge even more graphics into the game.
However, the big problem I had with Heather was how little effort went into making her attractive to the player. Heather is not looking for anything serious, so there is no emotional component to her relationship with the PC. That's fine in the context of the purely physical relationship that Heather and the PC are supposedly having, but there still needs to be *something* to make the player interested in the sex scene. For example, emphasising Heather's sexual attractiveness, or the fact that she's sexually attracted to the PC. A good example of what I mean can be seen in Getting To Know Christine. In the opening scene of that game, the player watches Christine strip down to her underwear, and on their first date she teases the PC by inhaling a banana. From the get go, there's no doubt that Christine is both a very sexy lady and interested in the PC specifically. The closest Coffee Date comes to that is a very contrived spot where the wind blows up Heather's skirt (in defiance of the laws of physics) and the PC (along with anyone else in the cafe) gets to see her flowery underwear. The limited amount of text exacerbates this problem. Heather and the PC do flirt, but the player isn’t told what they actually say to each other so it has no real effect. On the rare occasions when Heather does say something sexual, the fact that she sounds like a robot robs it of any excitement (hearing her declare in a monotone that she wants to have Joseph Gordon Levitt's babies is inadvertently hilarious though).
On the technical side of things, Coffee Date runs reasonably well, although both UNDO and save functionality had to be disabled to achieve that. It still bugs out pretty regularly, producing error messages but not actually breaking the game. There are also numerous typos (including in the voiced parts from the sound of it), and several continuity errors. Given that Coffee Date is a CYOA game (something that wasn't mentioned in the announcement or the readme) I would have preferred it if the text prompt had been removed from the start of the game. As it was, I spent my first few turns trying and failing to examine various objects in the café, which didn't make for a great first impression.
So when all's said and done, did I actually enjoy Coffee Date? Kind of, I guess. There was something about fighting through the opaque gameplay that appealed to my masochistic side, and I got some satisfaction from reaching a sex scene on my fourth playthrough (more than I got from the sex scene in all honesty). However, the repetitiveness of the gameplay (as in having to repeat the game over and over, since there's no save functionality) quickly wore out its welcome. That said, Coffee Date is not a terrible game, and it's certainly more interesting than Return to Pleasantville. But it does encapsulate why I find Lamont Sanford to be such a frustrating author. He's clearly ambitious, and he puts a lot of work into certain aspects of his games. Despite that he's either unwilling or unable to put in the extra effort that's required to produce a bug-free and enjoyable experience for the player. Overall, I'd describe Coffee Date as more of a sideways move for Lamont Sanford, as it minimises his weaknesses as an author rather than overcoming them.
Coffee Date can be downloaded here.