Dating is awful. It increases the likelihood of substance abuse problems and emotional issues, it costs a lot of money for potentially no payoff, and, even when it works, most relationships crumble to dust given a long enough time scale.
A 2014 study by Hall, Xing and Brooks found that only 36% of men and a ridiculous 18% of women could actually tell when someone was flirting with them. People of mixed racial heritage are perceived as more attractive across the board for mystical and largely unconfirmed reasons. Thousands of self-help books offer millions of reasons to do conflicting things for opposite reasons and pretty much every form of media is primarily concerned with playing out imaginary permutations of the dating experience, presumably because we’re all equally confused and need a lie down.
There’s a perverse, masochistic sort of challenge and excitement tied up in the process, however, as we continue to fling ourselves against the electrified security fence of potential partnership in the vain hope that we locate a weak point. The goal is noble, yes, but the pursuit of that goal is its own kind of reward.
Despite how perfectly this seems to fit the hamster wheel mentality of gaming, most virtual attempts at the complexities of human relationships have been pretty lackluster. The teen soldier infatuations of Final Fantasy VIII‘s Squall and Rinoa, the tender and fragile tragedy of Jenny and Jackie in The Darkness and the playful sweetness of will-they won’t-they from Half-Life‘s Alyx Vance handily show that games are perfectly capable of telling a romantic tale; but these are all linear narratives, with little to no player interaction needed for love to bloom, grow or die.
Mass Effect, Persona and countless other choose-your-role titles let players take time out from doing more heroic tasks to woo the comely non-player character of their choosing by saying the right things at the right time; sweet nothings plucked from a multiple choice grid. Visual novels strip out the part about being important and just give you the relationships, sitting the player down through thousands of lines of story before presenting them a few right or wrong dialogue options. Both boil down to a fairly rudimentary game of pressing the button that makes the person like you. A simulation; something made to look and act like a relationship between two people, but lacking the underlying machinery to make it feel truly real.
This perfunctory method of transplanting relationship jigsaw pieces—adding romantic comments, awkward silences, impossibly-witty compliments or blatant sexual innuendo—in the hope that they will coalesce into a feasible facsimile can feel a little cheap. Bedding another of The Witcher’s sorceresses yields a certain sense of satisfaction, but in the end you’re still following a script, even if that script is written across many branches. If simulation ultimately rings hollow, then, what’s the alternative?
Consider a more guts-first approach. An emulator.
Where simulation seeks to imitate or pretend so as to capture the appearance, emulation aims to reproduce the function of a target. A simulation is a child building a beautiful cardboard car, covered with details and colour but incapable of actually driving without a driver inside to simulate that as well. Emulation is a blocky LEGO Mindstorms robot car, carrying out the actions that a car really should be able to carry out, even if it appears rudimentary. And emulation is why HuniePop, a game about polyamorous nerd sex, may be the most accurate virtual dating experience to date.
On paper this is an absurdity, the idea that this parade of appropriately diverse attractive women existing in situ for your fumbling pleasures. HuniePop wears its visual novel and anime influences very much on its sleeve, right down to the impossibly social ineptitude and terminal virginity of the protagonist, and the furthest it delves into adult conversation (in the normal sense, not adult in italics) is letting you answer pre-programmed personality questions like “What’s your opinion on people who smoke?” between bouts of feverish icon matching. The title screen is a controlled storm of prominent breasts and women’s underwear, and the plot involves a slightly racist love fairy appearing to give you points for bedding as many women as possible.
It’s farce, a parody of the genre. But, like any good parody, it skewers well because it understands the foundations on which it dances.
Each interaction with a likely lass proceeds like this: you are given the option to speak to her, the chance to buy gifts, shift around your inventory or check the statuses of various beauties, and you can initiate a date. The date requires no talking, no keen exchange of witty banter, no well-timed loving touches or quicktime kissy faces. It’s a match-three game, where coloured icons must be lined up until you either reach the desired score (successful date, very well done you, have a heart) or run out of moves (failure, depression, passive aggressive comments from your lady friend). When you successfully negotiate enough dates to get a girl up to five hearts, she’s ready to be yours forever.
By which I mean she wants to go back to your place and have sex.
The surprisingly simple genius of all this lies in the specifics of the puzzle mechanics. Different colours on the board represent different preferences; orange for romance, blue for talent, red for sexuality and green for everyone’s favourite: flirtation. Every girl has a preference—one approach she likes, and one she doesn’t—which manifests mechanically as more or less of that precious score you need to, uh, score.
While you can fumble your way through early dates with naught but your ability to count to three, soon enough it will be impossible to effectively impress a lady unless you keep her preferences in mind. This creates a synergy between player, narrative and theme. The mechanical nature of matching colours invests the player in the fictional needs of the women they seek to woo; the prospect of failure in the game mirrors the stress and tension of a real-stakes social situation, while the relative ease or difficulty of a puzzle correlates to how well you can match the preferred tokens.
Is it better to stick with a safe and boring conversation about your academic prowess and match a few lines of talent tokens? Or should you waste a few precious turns to steer the date towards a saucy innuendo, heating up the date with a four token combo? Each choice carries risks and rewards–tangible ones that benefit from both player agency and an appreciable distance from any concrete scripting. Simply put, it’s a lot easier to identify with yourself lining up coloured jewels than some chatty protagonist with a professional writer penning his or her words.
Deeper into the system, the emulation splinters and gains complexity. As well as the preference-driven options, there are passion, sentiment and broken heart tokens which scatter themselves across the board. Passion tokens raise your score multiplier, so they become necessary for getting to the required date score in the minimum number of moves; on the other hand, they add nothing to the score itself, so poor planning can leave you with a multiple of nothing. Their role metaphorically, then, is also to represent passion, enthusiasm; get too excited by showing your energy, and the date lacks substance, fostering more failure.
Broken hearts, as one might imagine, lower your score considerably, and the fact that you generally only match them accidentally helps to sell the idea that they stand-in for those moments when, despite care and good judgement, manage to say something monumentally stupid. Many a board has been completely ruined by one stray line of evil hearts, but it feels right, somehow.
Even when the action switches to the bedroom, there’s still a strong connection between player and avatar intent.
Dates, as mentioned, end after a certain number of moves—a representation of the effort required to participate in the whole dating scene, and the fact that the relationship in question is still a fragile thing—but at five stars you’ve already reached the point where the woman likes you. Amassing affection is no longer an issue, so moves are unlimited. Matching three is still the order of the night, but now the points you receive slowly drain away; keeping up the momentum by constantly matching more and more reflects the intensity of emotion between the characters, the electricity required to spark an intimate encounter, while the lack of a fail state makes the process energetic and enjoyable, rather than stressful. The boudoir minigame is a little exhausting, requiring you to shake your brain and body into a frenzy at least broadly comparable to the carnal results of the evening.
This dance between the perfunctory dialogues, where the girls expertly tease their cookie-cut anime personas, and the mathematical precision and random generation algorithms of the dating games creates a believable experience. The fiction itself is paper thin, even if you do believe in sex fairies, but that experience feels unique and authentic, because it is.
Your skills won the hearts of those ladies, your mistakes made them walk away in disgust. You pressed their buttons in a very literal sense, with no additional level of narrative abstraction required. Perhaps the future of realism in games is less of the usual meticulous recreation of humanity and more the breaking down of the components required to participate in humanity. If this is what you can do with a power-trip sex game, imagine the larger possibilities.