I have written before about how I’m a picky gamer and pretty much only want to play visual novels myself (although I will watch other people play games). I’m glad I found three short games in the giant game bundle for racial justice equality that interested me, but I also found something I didn’t expect—a long game that I enjoyed! (For me, a “long” game is a game that takes more than an hour.) It fit all my requirements: no difficult controls or mechanics, but lots of story and character development. Throw in little tidbits of lore about the ghost world and hell and a motley crew of characters with sweet, scary, complex stories, and you’ve got my perfect game: Speed Dating for Ghosts.
Content warning for light/stylized depictions of mouth and eye trauma, as well as brief discussion of prolonged bleeding, at the end of the piece.
Speed Dating for Ghosts
Mac, PC, Nintendo Switch
First released in 2018, and then updated with a “Go to Hell” expansion in late 2019, Speed Dating for Ghosts delivers exactly what it promises in the title. You are a ghost looking for companionship and are trying out speed dating for the first time. Fran, your humble host with strange antlers and a neck bent at a painful angle, welcomes you to the venue and breaks down the rules. There are three rooms, each with a different theme. In each room, you talk to three ghosts, and after two rounds of chatting, you take one of them on a date.
Each “date,” of course, delves into the backstory of that ghost—some of them are legendary spirits who have been around for a long time, while some are new and don’t even realize they’re dead. Others have a specific purpose they’re interested in fulfilling, or know a still-living person they want to check on. Once you finish a speed-dating room, picking a specific ghost to date doesn’t prevent you from going on any future dates—you only lock a path if you say a hard “no” to someone during a speed-date. Players can therefore explore the ghosts’ stories as fully as they’d like.
For a player like me—one totally uninterested in learning complicated controls or having to loop back and replay dates in order to get a character’s full story—the structure of Speed Dating for Ghosts is perfect. Your decisions don’t carry a ton of weight, which means you don’t have to replay a long stretch of the game in order to reopen the possibility of dating a ghost. It is possible to respond to ghosts negatively and shut down the option of dating them, but it’s pretty clear when you’re doing so.
Players also don’t create a unique ghostsona at the start of the game beyond a few basic decisions that inform your personality, like your reason for coming to speed dating. Because of this vague sense of identity, the nature of the relationships that your ghostsona forms is nebulous in an interesting way. Your gender and sexuality aren’t specified, but queerness exists; Drea is nonbinary and one of the ghosts in the “Go to Hell” expansion has a same-gender ex-lover. However, labels don’t seem to matter much to the dead. Even the hyper-masculine football ghost asks zero questions about your identity, and respects “no” answers.
Speed Dating for Ghosts also walks several genre lines; there is a bit of romance, and some ghosts’ stories feel more like melodrama or even slice of life, as many of your possible partners are just dead people figuring out how they want to spend their afterlife. However, sometimes you truly are playing a horror game. It’s easy to pick a path with the tone that you want because there are clues built into each ghost’s character design, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
The illustration style is minimalistic, with characters drawn in black and white, single color backgrounds, and simple furniture or props, like tables or mirrors. However, the character designs in particular are quite creative, and reflect both how a ghost died and hint at their personality. Vera, a lifelong chain smoker who died in a fire, has little smokestacks that come out of her back. The curved lines around her eyes convey a great deal of emotion, turning up to make her smiles feel vibrant and flattening out to show her sadness and feelings of worthlessness. Kyo, who drowned, is always covered in water droplets, and floats in the air with his knees tucked into his chest and his eyebrows raised in fright, reflecting the anxiety that affected him in life and death. However, when you make him happy, his smiling face peeks out from behind his knees.
With such strong emotional cues in characters like Vera and Kyo, it’s clear that, as a player, we will go on some kind of emotional journey with them. Kyo addresses his anxiety and struggles to connect with others—as you can imagine, being an easily spooked person makes it difficult to make friends when all your options are ghosts. Similarly, Vera is a pretty warm person—er, dead person—but carries a sadness with her that becomes clear the more you talk.
Characters like Gary and, in “Go to Hell,” the vampire witch, have horror elements baked into their design, but it’s in the paths for these characters that the audio and animation aspects of the game really shine. Gary’s eyes and mouth actively bleed; his mouth grows wider and he emits a horrible sound that is a mix of heavy breathing and a strange, low wail. When recalling an awful memory or you ask him a question that hits home, the screen shakes, and these parts of his design intensify. The overall effect is pretty overwhelming and scary—it’s easy to intuit that his story will not be lighthearted. In the “Go to Hell” expansion, the vampire witch has eyes similar to Gary’s, and as a player you immediately know that tragedy awaits.
The visuals, audio, and simple animations all work in concert to make playing Speed Dating for Ghosts an immersive experience. It’s easy to imagine being in a rented convention room or basement during the speed dates, as well as the dry heat of the beach in hell, in the “Go to Hell” expansion. The distress of Gary’s story stayed with me long after I played the game, but so did Hattie’s—the sweet, elderly woman watching over her still-living husband—and Vera’s, and many of the other characters. This is one of the only games I have ever played twice, and I enjoyed it both times! If you’re a picky lover of visual novels like me, treat yourself to some ghost dates.
Alenka Figa is a queer librarian obsessed with D&D podcasts that have solid queer rep. They frequently tweet about them @alenkafiga. Catch their reviews of zines and indie comics over at Women Write About Comics.