[Writer and designer Emily Short looks at the Windows, Mac and Linux indie visual novel Date/Warp by Hanako Games -- what works and what doesn't in its unique narrative approach, and why did she have to play it twenty times?]
I have played Date/Warp something like twenty times today. This was about ten times too many. There's a lot to like about the game, assuming you like visual novels at all -- it's very polished, well-drawn, and frequently funny, with distinctive characters and a coherent concept. There is much to be said for its content. But in terms of narrative structure, it had some issues.
We'll do the bad news -- about structure -- first, and save the good news for the second half.
Date/Warp is a game you have to play to two different endings with each of five possible romantic leads, and then one final time to see the Real True Final Ending that ties it all together. Each lead has a "bad" ending, where you sort of fall for each other but things don't work out, and a "good" ending, where you are together in some fashion.
This partly works, in fictive terms. Each romantic interest has his own angle on the mystery of what's going on. Each one has to be approached and understood, and the replaying means that by the time you do get to the final end, you will know the cast of characters quite intimately.
Structurally, Date/Warp is choose your own adventure with puzzles. At each decision point, you're presented with a pipe-style puzzle (though actually in this case they're wires). Solve the puzzle to wire up the choice you want to make, then click that choice. It adds a small element of challenge to the execution of a decision, and gives you a little longer to think over what you're doing. Moreover, the game lets you reselect any previously-solved choice without resolving the puzzle, so that in later playthroughs the puzzle becomes partly a record of which paths you've tried and which you haven't.
At one point I did wonder whether some choices were actually impossible to reach: that would have been a bold and interesting (if somewhat irritating) artistic decision, to place some story choices in sight but lock them behind an impossible challenge.
But no, Date/Warp isn't that kind of game, or that kind of story.
The game also makes use of a fancy visual novel feature I've seen in a few other games: once you've played through part of the story, you can replay in "fast forward" mode, moving rapidly from one choice point to another in order to explore those branches that you haven't seen yet.
Here is a highly scientific chart to illustrate what happened to me as I played this game:
Two serious problems arise here. First, the first ending I got -- the "bad" ending with the Bradley romantic lead -- is perhaps the most cryptic and confusing ending that the story has to offer. It's the equivalent of having Dorothy wake up back in Kansas before she ever meets the wizard or finds out what the ruby slippers do. It only makes sense in the context of other endings. So my first playthrough, which was largely enjoyable up to that point, ends with a nosedive.
Okay. I pick up, play again, realize I need to woo each boy in turn in order to get the full story. I do this. I enjoy reading about the boys' lives -- they do have very distinct personalities and some of them are rather charming, though I admit that I had more fun with Linds, the brilliant scientist with a side of lechy kinkster, than with the uber-perfect rich boy Nathaniel.
I reach the end of this process, and still the endgame section isn't unlocking for me. (See "hideous realization" on the chart.) This is the point where I realize I have gotten the "good" ending with some boys and the "bad" ending with others. And in order to unlock the endgame I'm going to have to play on through at least another five times and collect every good/bad pair before I get the opportunity to unlock the final win.
Moreover, most of the content isn't new at all at this point; the decision that leads to a different ending for each boy comes near the end and entails only a very little unique prose.
And, what's more, while it's relatively clear how to start pursuing each boy, there are some quirky nuances to reaching the "good" endings with some of them. So some of my attempted replayings don't even work out as they're supposed to.
Long slog ensues, where I fast forward through the game, make choices, fast forward more, solve the occasional unsolved pipe puzzle. See "Period of intensifying despair." At this point, the fictive qualities of the story have faded away almost entirely and I'm left with just the mechanism. And I've long since figured out what there is to understand about the core plot and themes. To the extent I'm experiencing gameplay at all at this point, it's all pipe puzzle. That puzzle, while harmless -- I enjoy these things in a bland way -- doesn't exactly have the depth to carry the whole game experience.
So here's what I think. Date/Warp is trying to do some cool things through its interactivity, but it could have stood to be a good deal more procedural.
Let's look at it this way. The game (I think) wants to deliver to the player each of the following realizations:
1. No one character has a complete view of the situation. We have to know all of them. There's also a bit of procedurally-reinforced content to learn -- by discovering which choices will attract the affection of which boys, we discover something about each of their personalities which is reinforced by later revelations.
2. Choosing the most sacrificial route at the ending doesn't actually lead to the best outcomes.
3. Everyone has to work together in order to solve the problem.
But getting those realizations does not necessarily have to take the form of playing through every possible variation! (Or even most variations, perhaps. I discovered after playing, by reading the Hanako forums, that it's possible to unlock the endgame when you have "almost" all the other paths unlocked, rather than literally all of them. But there was no real indication when this became possible.)
I think this is a case for using something like achievements. Note when the player has a key set of plot discoveries: played through once. Played through all the boys. Played through twice with the same boy, to different outcomes. When she's done all those things, she has understood the game's interactive structure and seen pretty much all of the interesting content. The rest would be grind -- so signal that she's done, and let her go ahead to the end.
Likewise, don't let the first ending the player reaches be a disappointment. A gate at the beginning, to make sure the first ending reached is worthwhile and sets up the rest, would have been no bad thing.
Now, all this said -- I mentioned the content earlier. Date/Warp has a fair amount going for it here.
One is that it dares to touch on moderately surprising things: religious belief and institutions; the value of self-sacrifice and whether it's really actually right to give oneself up for someone else; the justice of state sponsored health care.
That goes with the slightly surprising tone. The format of the dating game is one that pitches itself to the teenage girl. Janet, the protagonist of Date/Warp, is a 19-year-old that a 14-year-old could identify with: nervous, virginal, never been kissed. All of the possible boyfriends, in proper anime style, are youthful and pointy-chinned and mostly indistinguishable from women themselves. Justin Bieber could model. They have big wide eyes and flowing hair and heart-shaped faces. And moods. Oh, god, so many moods.
But a maturer voice comes through their thoughts and discoveries and experiences, if not through their speech. There is, maybe, an implied judgement in the fact that you can't really get to know the sexually adventurous Linds well if you sleep with him at the first opportunity. But mostly the game gently discourages too priggish an approach to other people's lifestyles.
The cumulative experience of playing many times is seeing Janet surprised, repeatedly, by the forms love takes in her friends' lives; by their beliefs and courage; by their misconceptions about each other. There were one or two points, too, where I made a frivolous or playful choice that turned out to hurt someone's feelings, and I felt a bit chastened on her behalf. This is what makes its substance (if not its structure) the best I've yet seen in a Ren'Py game or its ilk.
Admittedly, there's story and there's story. The story of Date/Warp is about Janet growing up and learning to be a more complete human being, more thoughtful, more open, more conscious. Or, alternatively, it is about a complicated time travel/parallel universe mystery adventure with worm holes and glowing sparkle-souls and precognitive dreams. The mystery adventure is what gets you to stick around for the deeper portion. I'm not totally sure that the adventure plot makes absolute sense, in the end, but it makes enough sense that I can accept it. It is mainly a vehicle for the other thing, anyhow.
(Disclosure: I played a free review copy of this work.)