Before I'd even read the second paragraph of Richard Eisenbeis's article rejecting criticisms of dating simulation games, I was immediately thinking of the dating simulator I've been playing recently. Millions of you have been playing it, too.
It might surprise you to think that a dating sim would be the latest project from a company famous for its survival horror games. And, no, this is not a project from a massive Japanese company with every type of game under its umbrella. You probably don't think the game I'm talking about is a dating sim. You probably think it's an adventure game, or a detective game.
Well, the presence of one werewolf can't change what it is. The Wolf Among Us is a dating sim.
Sorry, Snow, but I had to write this.
Let's get another well-worn comparison out of the way first. It's impossible to play TWAU and not think of the protagonist, Bigby Wolf, as Werewolf Cole Phelps. It's notable that the reception for TWAU, only at the halfway point in its series, is already much warmer than the post-release discussion about LA Noire. LA Noire's problem, if you recall, was that there was too much weight was placed on the conversational choices, and not enough on "real gameplay" (i.e. running, driving and shooting). However, as other people pointed out, there was actually plenty of GTA-like gameplay to be had in LA Noire — all you had to do was drive around a little while before the police radio would serve you a car chase or a shoot-out. Ultimately, those incidents just felt very limited. Maybe guns, fists and wheels aren't the best means by which to interact with the world of a detective.
I've found the reactions to the design of TWAU really intriguing in their variety. Some people have suspected that it only offers the illusion of story branches, and that none of our choices matter. This appears to be untrue. While I'm sure we're all steered towards the same narrative deltas and ending, it does appear that dramatically different things can happen along the way. There's at least one character that I've never seen, for example. The vast majority of choices affect how the NPCs deal with Bigby. It's most blatantly a flirtation when socialising with Snow White, but even a very unromantic interrogation of a monstrous villain carries elements of seduction and empathy. More games need to do this. If games are to incorporate more of what's real, it can't just be about shaders and ambient occlusion.
Alec Meer's excellent commentary on episode 3 for Rock Paper Shotgun includes the following frustration:
While I found myself annoyed by the long-standing Telltale tic of a summarised dialogue option turning out to be very different when Bigby speaks it aloud (e.g. when he's asked if a part of him enjoys all the chaos and intrigue, picking 'of course not' results in him swearing and shouting in outrage, and the questioner miserably dropping the subject entirely), there's enough character tics, big and small, in there to endorse the idea that he's forever barely keeping a lid on his lupine rage. I think I would prefer a stronger hint that saying something apparently innocuous is going to result in him kicking off, though – there is an element of strategy to these games, in terms of keeping preferred NPCs sweet, and while half the fun is the surprise of various outcomes, more control over my own attitude would be welcome.
Here's where we get back to the business of TWAU as a dating sim. I disagree with Alec here. I've seen very little of this (Phelps-like?) over-reaction, and where it has happened I was never surprised, and I could see how it was my fault. After all, TWAU has two interesting tweaks to the Noire dialogue options: a timer, and the option to allow the timer to run out so that you say nothing. As the game reminds you, silence is a legitimate option, and sometimes it's the best one, just like in real life.
I think the game gives you just enough of a hint to let you know that Bigby's interjection is going to be offensive. Whether it's delivered in the sour reaction to Bigby's calm voice or expressed in the snap of rage from Bigby himself, the point of these moments is to make you feel that error in your gut. Otherwise, what's the point?
Oh, and sometimes silence is bad. What, you don't care enough to even say anything? You monster.
Polygon's Alexa Ray Correia discovered a newfound appreciation for the difficulties her boyfriend experiences in their real-life relationship through the gameplay of TWAU, but she's making the broader point that the game offers choice and then makes choice extremely difficult. It's entirely down to Snow White. The game makes you like Bigby, then it makes you like Snow. Regardless of exactly how much you like either character, you have a feeling about where this might be leading and you don't want to mess this up for them. Once you start feeling that, every choice you make for Bigby comes under the eye of Snow. Even if she's not there, you are painfully aware that news of bad behaviour could get back to her. You'll stand up to her at times, when you realise that disagreeing with Snow on occasions is also vital to their future.
And, my word, does the Internet find that infuriating. Many people just want to be able to kill the guy, to steal the money, to be the wolf, if they want to. But that "bitch" Snow keeps ruining it for them! As much as the hatred for Snow in some quarters could be seen as simple misogyny — and in many cases, I bet it is — I think it's remarkable for revealing both a refusal to integrate with the emotional aspects of the game and also an implicit acknowledgement that they have already engaged with it. Go on, badman. You can still be the Big Bad Wolf. It's only Snow watching, and none of it's real. Be evil. I dare you.
Thank you, Telltale, for messing with all of our heads in such an enjoyable way. And thank you, dating sims, for opening doors to this. Richard Eisenbeis is right; you shouldn't need to defend an interest in playing dating sims,. If I can tip my hat to them in a way that doesn't sound defensive, I'd say they might just have provided us with the roadmap to that "new gen" gameplay we've all been wondering about.