Dinner Date: Subverting The Tropes of Mainstream Videogame Interaction

Dinner Date Start

This is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the Game Design course I'm attending at Brunel University.

Dinner Date, developed by Stout Games (the company founded and headed by game designer Jeroen D. Stout), is an IGF nominated short game that tries to approach the video game medium from a different standpoint, with a structure that has more in common with play-writing that with most mainstream games (Stout, 2011a). The game was released in 2010 through digital distribution channels (although it arrived on Steam only in 2011) and received mixed reaction from audience and critics alike (Metacritic, 2013), with most criticism focusing on the extremely uncommon interactive formula used by Stout's work. Quoting from gamezone.com:
“As an intellectual experiment, Dinner Date is interesting and even profound. [...] As a game, it barely qualifies.”(GameZone, 2011)
Naturally we're not here to argue such a line of thought, that seems a constant through most of the "critics" that approached Dinner Date. Instead my goal here is to analyse the game's meticulous subversion of the formal and ludic elements common in mainstream video games that caused such a reaction.

Starting from its very first moments Dinner Date shatters every preconception embedded in the common gamer's mind, opening with the sentence:
“In Dinner Date you do not play as yourself, nor do you play as the main character [...]”(Stout, 2010)

that makes very clear that the player is not the centre of Dinner Date, that he is but a very close spectator to the events that take place in the apartment and in the mind of Julian Luxemburg (the main character of the game). With this small, but important, design choice we start to see the foundation of an interactive structure that goes in total contraposition with the one perpetuated by the majority of the big budgeted “triple A” games. This approach to narrative is in fact the exact opposite to what the leading trend in player interaction is: presenting video games as power fantasies in which the protagonist is nothing but an extension of the player, if not a representation of the player itself (Ince, 2006).

Naturally the ludic structure fully embraces the narrative choice of making the player a spectator in the “subconscious” of the main character. It renounces the plot-driving type of interaction, common to most video games, for a new form of micro-interaction, or atmospheric interaction, in which the actions that the player can push the main character to do are almost never directly relevant to the flowing of the narrative or to changes in the structure of the game world. The interaction instead focuses on small actions, like checking a clock or nibbling a piece of bread, and uses them to immerse the player in the experience, and to help him empathize with Luxemberg's emotions. The game wants to push the player to abandon himself to the character, to become the character, instead of letting the character be just a reflection of player (Stout, 2011b). In order to do this Dinner< Date needs to maximize the feeling of “Presence” in the player, and it does so by limiting to the minimum the mediation between the player and the environment (McMahan, 2003), with a limited but extremely intuitive interface (every key corresponds to a small action) and by building an interactive structure that free itself of any kind of “game over” and non-diegetic challenge (given the domestic setting this brings to no "challenge" at all).

Dinner Date Soup

So we have an interactive structure that by itself is a subversion of standard video game tropes (although it is also functional to the aforementioned player “Presence”) that usually require the actions of the player to always be “game-changing” and to affect directly either the narrative or the game-world, even if in a linear way (Ince, 2006). Also, while player interaction in mainstream video games is usually broad and stylized, as Atkins wrote in his book More Than a Game, while analysing Tomb Raider:
“Tomb Raider's realism does not cater for many of the eccentricities of human behaviour, not allows Lara Croft to engage in much irrelevant activities.” (Atkins, 2003)
In Dinner Date the scale of the action is deliberately much smaller, quoting Stout himself:
“I wanted to make the smaller actions playable […] most games allow you to do the most gigantic things – and yet very few allow you to hug someone or sit at a kitchen table. The latter is more ‘play, as in theatre’ than occupying yourself with finding a way to solve the game.” (Stout, 2011a)
But this is not where Stout's “reaction” to the mainstream video game industry stops. The plot itself does everything to distance itself from the exotic action-packed journeys of the big budgeted “triple A” games, drawing instead from Stout's passion for theatre (Stout, 2011a). The story of Julian Luxemburg is common and intimistic, the story of a normal person in a normal situation: Julian had invited a girl for dinner, but as times passes it gets more and more evident that she won't show up, causing Julian to reflect on his life and indirectly exposing himself, his fears and his weaknesses to the player, from Stout Games website
“[…] The wait for the beautiful girl he [Julian] invited over becomes longer and she becomes the dominant factor in his thoughts. And yet his true problems may not even begin with the girl: what of his work, of his boss, the headhunter, his fascination of Byron and his friendship with Jerry, who had been pushing Julian to take on this date? In „Dinner Date” you will experience all this: with some drinks, some bread, some soup - and with a clock that slowly mocks the constant wait for when she comes, this elusive girl who will solve everything.” (Stout, 2013)
The story then moves forward not by changes in the environment or by spacial movement, but simply by character growth, by Julian's sinking in his introspection (which is implied to be caused by his increasing gradual alcohol intoxication).

It is interesting to notice how even the characterization of the main character fits with the theme of “subverting video game tropes” in the fact that Julian Luxemburg is the total opposite of the common “strong” character that most video games put their player in the shoes of (Miller and Summers, 2007), he is not a Duke Nukem, that chugs beer and then “kicks asses”, he is not even a Mario, that saves his princess and gains her love, he is weak by his own admission, but exactly because of this he is relatable for the player. Again he is not designed to “empower” the player, but to be “normal” in a way that could recall what done in cinema by Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film that has been also analysed more and more times as reaction to the Hollywood blockbusters (Hill, 2000).

Even the ending of Dinner Date sets up to destroy the conventions of mainstream linear narrative, closing on the image of Julian going out for a walk to shake off his inebriation. There is no climax, no end to his “character arc”, no magical resolution to his problems. The player is not left with “questions” though, just with the portrait of this unusually “normal” and interesting character.

The visual style is a pretty simple 3D (aiming at offering the most realism possible within the limits given by the low budget of the game) viewed from a first person perspective. This aspect of the game can be read in two different ways (not necessarily mutually exclusive): one “practical” way and one “symbolic” way.

Dinner Date Interface

The “practical” reason for which such perspective has been adopted can be found in the aforementioned concepts of “Presence” and “Immersion” (McMahan, 2003) that can be more easily achieved from the first person perspective, especially in this case when such type of visual liberates the developer from having to create realistic human models, one of the most difficult graphical assets to depict in a realistic and “immersive” way (Atkins, 2003). On the other side, the “symbolic” way can be found in the fact that such type of representation (realistic visuals, first person perspective) is the one proper to the types of game that Dinner Date tries to be the opposite of, and by making it its own Stout does nothing more that accentuate even more the “trope-subverting” aspects of the game (especially when the absence of a way to control the protagonist's movements changes radically the feel of this type of perspective).

The entire game is also accompanied by an original score written by N.J. Van Nispen tot Pannerden, which soothing (and sometime tense) piano-driven melodies suit perfectly the slow pacing of the game, while still offering that hint of drama that Julian's descent into self-pithy needs. An interesting aspect of the music in Dinner Date is how the tracks seamlessly flow into each other, slowly evolving as the game proceeds but never giving an impression of “dissonance” between one track and the other. This little detail helps the game to never ruin the immersion of the player while still using a non-diegetic element (music).

Dinner Date's focus on methodically destroying any old fixed point in video games can be seen as a cry for freedom and renewal by the hand of one of the first avant-garde movements born within the video game medium, whose birth, to tell the truth, is maybe more exact to retrace to Tale of Tales' Realtime Art Manifesto (Harvey and Samyn, 2006) from which even Stout admitted to have taken inspiration (Stout, 2011a). Although this is not the absolutely first video-game related clear avant-garde movement (even the clarity of it it's arguable, since it is surely not the Harvey and Samyn's manifesto that connects the many non-game, or to be more precise anti-games, that were released in the last four to five years), as we may remember other examples like the demoscene (Scheib et al., 2002), it is surely the first that has bled so fast and directly into the mainstream, with products like Journey (that also tries to put the player in a position of anti-power) or the Telltale Games' adaptation of The Walking Dead (that, together with David Cage's games, makes immediately clear that its protagonist is not an embodiment nor an extension of the player). If this is a true desire for change by an industry tired of the tropes that get reiterated from years and years, or just a temporary fluke, it is not for us to predict. But one thing is sure, and that is that, in its destruction of tropes, Jeroen D. Stout with Dinner Date managed to find a different and intriguing approach to interactive art and story-telling, that is worth to be taken a look at and studied even now, three years after its release.

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