by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Stuck in the Middle With You
There are two ends of a spectrum that FMV’s (full-motion video, or, in other words, games that use live video instead of computer rendered graphics) can gravitate towards, and I’ve seen both ends done extremely well. On one end are the more passive, cinematic experiences. Other Wales Interactive titles like Late Shift and The Complex fall into this category. More movies than games, they’re linear experiences with branching paths that use player input to tell a more traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end (even if there are multiple versions of each beat). On the other end of the spectrum are more traditional “games” that are supported by live video. The fantastic detective mystery Her Story is a great example, which asks the play to sift through various videos and pieces of evidence to solve a crime. Five Dates suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, existing somewhere in the middle, and not playing to the strength that either style of experience typically excels at.
Five Dates starts out looking like it might lean more towards the player-interaction side, beginning with the formation of a dating profile. I had to pick a profile picture and select interests for protagonist Vinny, then decide which three of the five available women to ask on a video date (that’s quarantine life, baby). From there, things got more linear, and the hour or so that my first playthrough took saw me navigating through three series of dates, eliminating one girl after each step. Now, let’s pause a minute and address what might be the elephant in the room. For reasons that are largely justified (if Steam’s new release charts are to be any indication), “dating sims” have a reputation for being shallow, lewd experiences more akin to softcore pornography than anything else. Five Dates does not fall into that category. While the game is centered on attractive adults dating, and there’s certainly flirtation and sexual tension, I’m happy to report that the overall vibe is more “charming” and “cute” than anything else.
During each video date, which each take a slightly different form, the game keeps track of Vinny’s relationship score with each girl via a percentage in the menu. If his dialogue choices and actions are compatible with the girl, the score goes up. If the two seem at odds, the score goes down. This number impacts whether a given girl will want another date. In theory, this sounds great. It could bring in a bit of “game” into the experience, adding some challenge for the player and presenting some consequences. It really doesn’t, though, which is a symptom of the game’s biggest problem. The problem is that Vinny’s personality and background are complete blank canvases, and they can completely change without repercussion. For example, on my first date with one of the women, she both asked if I worked out and if I was a vegan. It was clear which answer she wanted, and I was free to pick whichever answer I wanted to. I didn’t have to decide between lying or telling the truth. I didn’t have to base my answer on how I made my profile at the beginning. I just picked, and whatever I picked was the truth. There isn’t really any engagement in picking whatever personality you want at any given time. It’s too easy to please absolutely everyone all the time, which removes most sense of tension or consequence.
The opposite is also true, with the game, at times, giving you compatibility questions for which success or failure is completely arbitrary. For example, on a second date with another girl, we took a quiz about each other. It asked things like “What is the other person’s favorite ice cream flavor?” or “what is your political position?” The thing is, there were never any hints or clues as to which answer would be a match and which wouldn’t. It’s certainly more realistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. It’s frustrating because it would have been so easy to make these relationship scores and little games engaging and meaningful. At one point, Vinny looks at the social media pictures of each girl. Why aren’t the questions based on that, challenging the player to remember what they saw earlier? Why don’t I have to do things like, say, eat a meal early on to establish whether I’m a vegetarian or not before being asked about it by a girl? These add drama importance to characterization. Getting carte blanche to reinvent Vinny at each turn to match exactly how I want to with whoever I want to is silly, and made me wonder what the point of the narrative was. I could be a completely different person from one date to the next, and nothing would change because of it. Success and failure with any of the women is a choice that’s completely in the hands of the player, with no decision affecting any future decisions or responsibilities in a particularly meaningful way.
Disappointing Narrative, Heartwarming Moments
Some of this wouldn’t bother me as much if the game was more focused on a traditional narrative. If my choices didn’t really have any anchoring, but the story I was along for was satisfying, I’d get it. That really isn’t the case, though. The 3-2-1 process of choosing a girl to move forward with makes sense, it just sort of... ends. There isn’t any closure. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” endings (the game literally just asks you if you want to keep dating after your third date, and, besides a short final chat with no interaction and little plot, the credits roll). With this being a story taking place during the real-life lockdowns and social distancing that most of us are currently experiencing, I understand that the characters can’t responsibly meet up and ride off into the sunset together, but, choosing a setting means choosing to create an ending (or endings) that make sense in it, and I found myself feeling a swell of “that’s it?” when my stories ended. The narrative, taken as a whole, felt much more like the first act of something longer than a complete story.
It’s a shame, too, because I actually thought that all of the acting was great. The protagonist, Vinny, is funny and often charming, and his friend Callum, who offers advice and an ear in-between dates, is often hilarious. It’s hard to tell if all of the script was actually written or if there was a significant amount of improv, but there were so many moments that seemed genuine that it was easy to buy into the characters and their lives. More importantly, each of the women are well-developed characters that aren’t just there to be eye candy. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all beautiful, but they all have compelling and complicated personalities that I legitimately enjoyed learning more about. It’s just a shame that, as I’ve said before, how Vinny melds with those personalities is a simple matter of player choice instead of any meaningful sequence of cause and effect.
It’s a fun, often heartwarming journey supported by likable characters and good acting, but the way that personality and choices are handled, along with the lack of a well-structured narrative climax, keeps Five Dates from being as good as it almost is. It doesn’t have enough “game” to sell itself on player challenge or interaction, and its lack of meaningful climaxes or endings means that it doesn’t quite work as a more traditional cinematic experience. Where it thrives are in its individual human moments, and, even with my complaints, those are the things I most remember looking back.
Well-rounded female characters, heartwarming individual conversations, high production values.
Lack of subtle consequences, make-it-up-as-you-go character traits, disappointing endings.