March 20, 2015

Review: Coffee Date by Lamont Sanford

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.

20 comments:

  1. Honestly, as soon as I heard the text-to-speech voice of the girl who was supposed to be the object of my desires, I checked out. I hate to be critical of something an author has put a lot of work into, but that was not a good design decision IMO.

    I also wasn't crazy about Heather's model. I don't know whether the author crafted her in Daz Studio or Poser or whatever, but she's not one of the more appealing CG girls I've ever seen.

    In terms of gameplay, it felt like throwing darts in the dark. I think the author has to provide some sort of cues for the player to pick up on. Brute forcing through arbitrary choices isn't much fun.

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    1. "I think the author has to provide some sort of cues for the player to pick up on."

      There are actually cues in the game, as I noticed when I was preparing the walkthrough. The problem is that you only notice them when you laboriously go through each option and compare it to all of the others.

      "I also wasn't crazy about Heather's model."

      To me she's one of Lamont Sanford's better models, at least compared to the ones in Return to Pleasantville.

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  2. I had similar issues as both of you. Smoking is always a huge turn-off for me, but it isn't immediately game breaking. Since I don't have to deal with it in reality, I can mostly ignore it, though it was a pretty persistent and repeated thing in the game (which, I guess, mirrors most folks in real life who always are needing to step out for a smoke).

    Also hate text-to-speech. It seems like a nice optional thing - if you can't get any (or anyone not awful) to do speech, it can work. But I would much rather have had the text displayed on screen so I could just mute and ignore it altogether.

    I think the model herself was fine. Maybe not my dream woman, but looked nice enough and work with 3d is certainly difficult for me, so I appreciate his work. But the guessing at somewhat random choices was rough. The cues she gave AFTER selecting a choice weren't too bad - though if you don't go back through and pick another it is sometimes hard to decide (that response she gave was good - but is there better?).

    In some ways it tries to force replays I suppose. Probably my desire to often be the 'good guy' when possible, but I found it funny lying can snag you the threesome (though it may not be the only way?).

    Not a bad game and I see he put a lot of work into it, just not my cup of tea.

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  3. What I thought was kind of weird was that, here's a girl whose stated goal is to find a fuckbuddy, but she's also so damn prudish. I suppose there are people who are like that, but I can't help but find her character inconsistent.

    I've always wanted to pry open a Lamont Sanford game and find out why there are so many bugs. It's not difficult to do CYOA on Inform 7 (after all, I've done it) so I really have to scratch my head and wonder how he managed to break things.

    That being said: it's a fun game, just kinda weird and frustrating.

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    1. I didn't read her as prudish so much as just not very interested in the PC, or at least very aware that she's out of his league. After all, she sandwiches their meeting into the spare hour she has before another date (well she says hour, but it's actually about forty minutes), which doesn't exactly scream high expectations. And of course, if they do have sex, she kicks him out of the house immediately afterwards because she has another date (if there's another ending, I haven't been able to find it). And the PC accepts this because he's just grateful to be having sex with an attractive woman.

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  4. I think that probably the difficult to understand what were the better moves it's balanced by the fact that there isn't only a perfect way to seduce heather, but different roads (and maybe you can even do something a bit wrong and succeed the same).
    Smoking probably served to see if one bored immediately Heather for her vice (in the end she said that she wanted to quit, but for now she hadn't succeed).
    The prudish part, for me, is a semi facade (she choose to not fuck you the first day but when she fuck you she says that it's all the day that she wanted this and you needs much less effort in the second date) and she do this because she seems to have much possibility to choose (it seems that at the beginning she does more dates in a day), so she has decided that her fuckbuddy needs to be the better that she can find (when and at the end she is deceiving herself, because what she seeks is more a boyfriend).
    I preferred Heather with long hair and I have appreciated the fact that the porno sequence had several movies, maybe was an avoidable part once that you have decided to put this reference and do the player the possibility to search for that (right decision) it's a good move to put more sequences, it's more realistic (even if I have the doubt that all of this was only put more sex scenes in a game that cannot have so much for how was structured).
    Having read his post on shark forum I think that one of the worst problem for Lamont is that inform has problems with the huge quantity of images he uses (or so he writes) and the activity of debugging became long and complex, but I don't know Inform enough to confirm this (or he is doing something wrong).

    XXX

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    1. I know older versions of Inform 7 had problems with more than 500 images or something. I think they fixed that bug, so I don't think that's the issue anymore. Or maybe it is. That's why I want to look at the source code to find out. I especially want to see the source code for PiP2, because I'm curious to see how you can break game saves and undo.

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    2. I was one of the testers for PiP (possibly the only tester), and that problem was why it had to be split into two parts (which broke a lot of other things). Coffee Date has about 650 images, so presumably that's no longer a problem, although it still runs very slowly with Glulxe (Win Git and Gargoyle are fine though).

      I find Lamont Sanford very frustrating as an author. He's very ambitious and puts a lot of effort into some areas (eg. graphics). But there are other areas (eg. squashing bugs) where he just seems to say "eh, that'll do."

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    3. On the shark forum explain a bit his problems if you are interested to read.
      I'm wrong or at the end your liason with heather it's not a single fuck, but you "meet" her other times.

      XXX

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    4. He says that people saving when the game bugs out is what is causing problems, although personally I haven't had any problems. However, that doesn't change the fact that he released the game knowing that it bugged out.

      And if sex with Heather happens, it happens after the second date.

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    5. I don't think that he knew of the save bug, in the readme he speaks only of the one that cause the message "The scene machinery is stuck" to appear (and that don't crash the game) and that he hadn't found what caused it.
      If we, instead, speak that he could do more tests is another thing.

      For the sex I wanted to say that the protagonist became a regular fuckbuddy for Heather after the first fuck, even if she kick outs him from the house immediately (but she calls him immediately the next night).
      I don't want to try to understand if she has (and needs) a list of several adequate fuckbuddies that needs to revise now and then or if she is attracted from the protagonist more than she want to admit and so this attitude or if she is simply a bit mad, everyone can imagine what he wants.

      XXX

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    6. The save issue comes around due to his previous 'scene machine stuck' error. Or more specifically, you shouldn't be able to save at all - it is only his error that lets you save.

      In that way the saving isn't particularly his fault as he didn't mean for it to be available at all in the first place. A bad idea IMO, but that was his choice. However I agree that it would be nice if he could polish all of his games some more, especially with all the time and work he sinks in them.

      I guess though graphics may be where he finds the most fun? On the shark forum he had thrown out a failed/dropped project for download which he already had done many images for but tossed it all out.

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    7. If he wants to make graphical CYOA games, thats's 100% fine, but I don't understand why he's trying to jam that square peg into Inform 7's round hole. There are far better tools for what he's trying to do.

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    8. The analogy I'd employ is using a sledge hammer on a thumb tack. Inform 7 can do the job, but it's way more powerful than you actually need (so there's more to go wrong).

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    9. "For the sex I wanted to say that the protagonist became a regular fuckbuddy for Heather"

      Sorry, I misunderstood you.

      The thing is, that ending happens even if the PC states that he wants something more serious. You can certainly invent whatever explanation you want for Heather's behaviour and the PC's acceptance of it, but the fact that you have to do so isn't exactly a hallmark of good writing.

      Also, if Heather only wants the PC as a booty call option, why do they go through the whole rigmarole of dating?

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    10. "The thing is, that ending happens even if the PC states that he wants something more serious. You can certainly invent whatever explanation you want for Heather's behaviour and the PC's acceptance of it, but the fact that you have to do so isn't exactly a hallmark of good writing.

      Also, if Heather only wants the PC as a booty call option, why do they go through the whole rigmarole of dating?"

      One can say that, seen that the end is the same even if he say to want a true girlfriend, this means that she likes the pc more than she wants to admit, and the whole rigmarole of date is for choosing between too much choices, buy, like you said, those are only possibilities (and I doubt Lamont thought something so complicated).
      Frankly I think this is a fuck date not a romance date, the pc simply wants to fuck the girl and try to do the best moves (at the end we speak for him, but nothing, aside one or two cases, assure that he is saying what he truly wants or only what he thinks she wants to listen (like if he really search something more than a girl to fuck).
      The only thing that I'm sure is that Lamont ends to do games perfectible but enjoyable, I would want to express the strange impression that they give me, but I know that I haven't the necessary writing skills.

      XXX

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  5. I normally don't play Lamont Sandford games. I haven't gotten past the first day of this game, and I don't plan on playing the game again because I don't have the patience to play a game without undos and saved games. From what I've seen though, Coffee Date is a huge improvement on anything Lamont Sandford has done before. In the past, I've found his characters to be pretty shallow, but Heather seems more fully realized than most other AIF games. Her characterization seems to be deeper than anything offered in the first chapter of BEW for example. Heather actually has a backstory. She seems to have an actual personality. I get the feeling that she would continue to exist after I stop playing the game. She doesn't exist solely for the benefit of the player. She's a "normal" person, not a single personality trait with a secret that I can use to get into her pants. Lamont Sandford is improving a lot as a writer.

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  6. What other Lamont games are there the only ones I know of are the pleasentvill games and this one

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  7. Late to the party playing this one, but I just couldn't take it seriously with the hilarious text-to-speech. It's a good thing Lamont's games aren't meant to be taken all that seriously. It's also telling that he admitted having to write (or maybe even re-write) Heather to come from Manchester because the best sounding accent he had available was English (and doesn't even sound Mancunian).

    "I'm English, of course I drink!" had me in stitches. Aside from the smoking issue, she's one of the better characters he's written, partly because sex only occupies half of her thoughts and not all of them like every horny teenager in Pleasantville.

    After half a dozen aborted attempts to reach the second date I gave up and used your walkthrough. No surprise Sci Fi ending!

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    1. Pretty much every teenager in AIF is obsessed with sex, so I'm not inclined to judge the characters of the Pleasantville series too harshly. But Heather's in her twenties so I would expect her to be a little more mature. I guess it is restrained of her to wait until the second date, but since she apparently has two dates a day she's not exactly missing out.

      I actually preferred Emily, Maggie and Katie as characters, mainly because I found them more likeable. Heather gets more characterisation (even if one of her most memorable traits is accidental), but since the entire game is the PC's interactions with her that's not a surprise.

      "It's also telling that he admitted having to write (or maybe even re-write) Heather to come from Manchester because the best sounding accent he had available was English (and doesn't even sound Mancunian)."

      Perhaps her father worked for the BBC as a newsreader and she wanted to follow in his footsteps?

      In the interest of being completely anal, it's actually a bit implausible that she would have retained any sort of English accent given that according to her backstory she moved to the US in her early teens.

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