Welcome to the second installation of An Adventure in Small Games (you can read the first one here), a monthly series focused on games that cost less than $20, ideally less than $10. In this series, Eve Golden Woods will focus on the indie game and what it has to offer the world of gaming.
Name Your Price
Pugs don’t like poetry. At best, I get a bitter brush off of disinterest when I ask them about it. At worst, they tell me that poetry makes them viscerally uncomfortable.
Perhaps this is my fault. With only minutes to get to know someone, isn’t poetry inherently a risky subject? Most people, after all, find it hard to summon up much of an interest in poetics, and although they might pretend to engage politely, I’m probably just going to alienate them. And yet, I can’t help myself. I want these pugs to open up to me, to give me a feeling of connection beyond mundane questions about where they went to school or what’s on their bucket list.
This is the challenge of Hot Date, a game by George Batchelor involving speed-dating and pugs. The game is mechanically straightforward—elegant might be a better term. You have a simple visual interface of a candlelit table with a pug sitting opposite you. On the wall behind you a clock counts down your time together—somewhere between three and five minutes, at a guess, though I haven’t timed it. Your dialogue, in blue, is either at the left or the bottom of the screen, while the pug responds in pink at the top. You have a list of nested dialogue choices, and you use the arrow keys and enter to select between them.
The system makes for a very good dynamic between thought and decision. With the clock ticking away rapidly in the background you feel like you have very little time to think. Your choices must be made quickly, and so you fumblingly throw out questions, trying to be interesting, but not too weird. I always want to know more about my dates, but they are evasive, and the time is never long enough for us to get to know each other properly.
This is the real marvel of Hot Date. It feels like speed-dating. There’s the same sense of awkwardness, of sluggish resistance. Not everyone who sits across from you wants to be there. They’re bored, or reluctant, or they only came because their friend drove them. When you meet one who seems genuinely enthusiastic, it’s a relief, but it’s easy to slip up and have them withdraw, and even if you don’t, there’s no promise of a second meeting. They vanish to another table, and you know you won’t see them again.
There are a few different ways to play the game. You can roleplay immersively by imagining your character and choosing questions that align with what they want from the evening, whether they’re isolated and disinterested or starving for affection and communication. You can follow the dialogue trees, looking for weird questions and their weirder answers, letting yourself laugh at the bizarre preferences of the pugs. You can be deliberately provocative or seek genuine intimacy, though neither strategy is one-hundred percent effective.
The closest I’ve come to explaining my enjoyment of Hot Date is to say that it feels like the emotional equivalent of Threes. Threes, the mobile game on which 2048 is based, holds a zen-like attraction for me. It doesn’t require any real thought, so I tend to play it on public transport or when I’m listening to an audiobook, trancing out while some non-conscious part of my mind plays out patterns, for better or worse. I lose a lot, but I find the rhythm of it deeply enjoyable. Hot Date—though more complex and demanding my actual concentration—has a similar rhythm. The short five minute segments have the same basic structure, inducing the vague half-trance of following patterns, but there’s enough variation to keep me engaged and wanting to explore. Like Threes, it structures a scenario where you might always succeed, but you’re inevitably more likely to fail.
However, while Threes is designed purely with this repetitive play pattern in mind, it emerges in Hot Date as a side effect of other elements of play. It’s impossible to speak about what Hot Date is intended to be, exactly, but the surrealist elements of the game suggest a desire to shift the dynamic of a situation in a way that forces us to reexamine what it actually means. The lolling, panting tongues of the pugs as they watch you are both adorable and vaguely unnerving. Contrasted with the soft candlelight and the gentle swinging soundtrack, the pugs themselves present you with a totally alien experience. It’s not dreamlike, exactly, being far too structured and patterned to echo the fragmentary splintering of a dream. But it feels like something pulled up from the subconscious, like an Alice in Wonderland version of speed dating.
“What are you afraid of?” “Do you have a bucket list?” “Would you ever move to Manchester?” Hot Date is brilliant at highlighting the mind-numbing inanity of the questions we ask people we don’t know. And yet the answers given always skew the question slightly. They’re too direct, too blunt, and too aggressive. Patricia, the pug I asked about fear, told me she was omniphobic, afraid of everything, and then asked me what I feared. “SHADOWS,” I typed, a little impulsively. Patricia sneered at me and told me to grow up. Unable to respond, I asked another question and bottled away my hurt. That’s what I find really fascinating about Hot Date. Even through the many layers of artificiality, I dislike negative comments. I shy away from criticism and feel guilty when I say something that upsets my date (they all seem very upset by the idea of going on dates, oddly enough).
One of the hardest things to talk about with any game is humour, and it is especially difficult with a game like Hot Date, where the humour is sly and twisting. “What annoys you?” I asked Meg, as she pants and shifts her eyes across the table. Her long list of answers includes overly verbose anthropomorphic animals, Eves, Council Tax, and irrelevant protection of ethics in things. The humour in Hot Date comes from a meta-awareness of the structured nature of the game and the limited script available to you. Within that, the language twists and turns, underlining all the social rules that we expect to remain unbroken. If Hot Date has a central thesis, then it is about all of the little rules we never notice, the code of expected behaviour so ingrained that stepping outside it is shocking and outrageous and funny.
It’s also about communication and more importantly about the ways in which communication can breakdown. I think my favourite example of this is a rather minor one. One of the potential questions you can ask is “What is your favourite Bowie album?” On the surface, it’s a fairly innocuous question. But it’s so startlingly specific. It might make sense if you’d been having a conversation with someone about Bowie, or glam rock, or any other more general topic that would lead into it. In the context of speed-dating, where you lob it at your conversation partner without warning, it seems almost aggressive. My pug, however, took it comfortably in stride. “Aladdin Sane” was the pug’s answer. Challenging questions are answered with ease, while seemingly simple questions discomfit them or even upset them. This structure pushes the player to think about how little we really know of other people. We can never be certain how our actions will affect others, and in the end, all we can do is guess at what they’ll like.
As much as I enjoyed Hot Date, and as interesting as I think it is, I ultimately found it very challenging to write about. This has been as a much a collection of fragmentary experiences as it is an analysis, and I think that that reflects a lot about the game itself. It’s a game about language and communication, but its own communication is iterative, rather than linear. What is interesting about Hot Date is how you experience it. Your choices and what you take from them will best help you to understand it, and for that reason, I strongly encourage you to go out and give it a try.