Imagine a video game that practically begs me to write about it on this blog. What does it look like? Probably some kind of fantasy or science fiction lore that makes clever game mechanics seem like they belong in play. It is probably ripe for social commentary, has an interesting economic system, and allows a vast array of different play styles for any kind of player. It would most likely involve many players and include choices about what kind of character a player wants to be. Good or evil? Violent or pacifist? Nice or jerk? Any/all combinations would be possible.
Now imagine the absolute opposite of that game. You are probably imagining something closer to Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator than to the games I usually write about. But today, I am going to be writing about playing Dream Daddy precisely because it’s so different than anything I would normally pick up. I received it as a gift in late 2017, and now figure that it’s a good time (around Valentine’s Day) to do something related to romance.
First, I am going to admit to some not entirely justified assumptions I had going in. Dating simulator, I thought, am I some kind of angry basement troll looking to dull his loneliness by playing a game where I can pretend to practice basic decency and be duly rewarded with my very own anime waifu? There are probably many counter-examples, but that’s what I assumed about the genre. When I saw the gift in my Steam inventory I had to look at the store page, and it immediately struck me: this looks way too gay to appeal to that stereotype. I wasn’t going to be embarrassed to have my wife catching me playing this in the same way that I might if I was playing Sakura Spirit or something with an aesthetic like that. So I decided to give it a shot.
The first thing I noticed is that while “gay” and “dating sim” aren’t usually keywords that tag me as the target demographic, there is still an awful lot of fan service for me in there. Corny puns, clever meta-jokes, and pop culture references relevant to the late 1990s had me laughing several times in my first play session. It plays out like an interactive novel but unlike Dear Esther or Gone Home there isn’t much opportunity to linger on some things and skip others even as I progress through a linear plot. Most of my first session was spent clicking through endless dialogue and exposition. It was charming, but kind of odd that not a day after moving into my new neighbourhood it starts raining men.
The first encounter I chose after the long introduction made it seem like I could not possibly mess this up, that I was just being offered the chance to say three different nice things. However, upon exploring more of the different options from the main “dadbook” screen, I found that there are some things the player-dad can do that will upset one of his new friends. I didn’t do too badly at that, though I was miserable at most of the minigames and the trivia contest. Things got a bit heavy when pursuing the Joeseph storyline and I had to quit for the day. I appreciated the effective use of the fade-to-black to avoid being too explicit on the intimacy, but the game did not pull any punches when it came to getting real about depression and societal expectations of men. It’s not all cheery colour palettes and cheesy jokes.
From what I can conclude so far, not having played through every possible ending, I would say that it was one of the strangest games I have played but it was rather entertaining. I had many laughs. But no matter how much xennial bait and silly puns that a person could cram into an interactive narrative, I don’t think I will be returning to this genre any time soon. I can, however, say that I should be better about making assumptions because this was far more fun than I would have assumed it could be.
If you’ve read my author profile on this blog, you’re aware that I’m a fan of games of all sorts. In board games, I’ve noticed an increased popularity of hidden-role games. Games like Love Letter, Two Rooms and a Boom, and Spyfall all involve keeping your identity and intentions secret from the other players in the room or at the table. These games often have very easy-to-learn rules, and most of the games mechanical weight is carried by the players’ abilities to bluff, act, and occasionally straight up lie to their friends.
One hidden role game that goes a long way back is known, at least to me, as Assassins. This game, often played over the course of days or even weeks, sees all the players assigned a hitlist of other players they need to “kill”. In the version I was familiar with, the “kills” were done with plastic spoons; contact with another player’s spoon meant “death”. However, if you were caught, you were penalized in some way, usually being forced into a makeshift “jail”, or being forced to forfeit your spoon.
What if the game was played on a luxury cruise ship in the 1920s? What if the game was organized by a multi-millionaire megalomaniac? What if, instead of “killing” other players with spoons, you actually killed with a bevy of ludicrously dangerous weapons?
If the preceding question pique your interest even slightly, The Ship might be of interest to you.
Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 4 hours and 63 minutes, respectively.
Telltale Games are a game developer which primarily makes adventure, or story, games. They’ve become well-known and respected within the industry for their skillful additions to the genre. Because their talents range from comedic to tragic, they create lots of licensed games, including Back to the Future, The Walking Dead, Batman, and many others. For my part, Telltale games has two titles in my Steam library’s favourites folder: Tales From the Borderlands and Fables: The Wolf Among Us. Indeed, their skill at crafting games and stories has led to some of the funniest moments I’ve encountered in gaming as well as some of the saddest.
Poker Night at the Inventory is very unlike Telltale’s other games. Unlike the story-rich sagas of their other titles, Poker Night at the Inventory and its sequel, Poker Night at the Inventory 2 take characters from various video game and pop culture series and sit them down for a game of Texas Hold ’em Poker, with the player as the fifth at the table.
Poker is, in and of itself, an interesting game. The player must use their own pair of cards, secret to the other players, to create a high value hand in conjunction with a set of five community cards, visible to all. In popular culture, poker is a game of secrets and bluffing. A game where one doesn’t play the cards on table nearly as much as they play the other players. A game of figuring out each other’s “tells”, the physical responses that players have to good hands, bad hands, lies, and the like. It’s a cool game, played by spies, gunslingers, and other men and women of dashing and daring complexions. Played in high-stakes casinos, private rooms at exclusive clubs, and in the smoke-filled suites of luxury zeppelins.
In real life, poker is mostly math. Unlike its casino game cousin blackjack, poker forces players to work out probability with very little information. The best poker players in the world can do this without obvious tells; they can do it just by observing a player’s actions, like raising or folding. Far from a secretive game, the best poker players in the world play in televised leagues, playing games where the value of the pot is generally measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a truly well-written and humourous look at the world of professional poker, I highly recommend checking out Why Do I Do This For A Living, a video from the youtube series Pretty Good by Jon Bois.
Speaking for myself, poker is not an especially fun game. I’m bad at math, I don’t like stress or pressure, and I don’t think any of us really enjoy losing money. The only real fun to be had at poker is the company one can share while playing it. In that sense, poker is, in my experience, less a game and more of a social event, played in a comfortable place, with good friends, good food, and good conversation.
If you really adore the game of poker, either as it’s portrayed or as it is in fact, chances are you’ll enjoy Poker Night at the Inventory. However, if like me, you find poker to be a pretty unenjoyable experience, your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you enjoy the company of the players at the table. Telltale Games gambles that you’re going to really enjoy sharing a table with the players they’ve assembled. You play a high stakes, no-limits game of Texas Hold ’em Poker at The Inventory, a fictional speakeasy.
In the first game, Poker Night at the Inventory, you join a table with the Heavy Weapons Guy (from Team Fortress 2), Strong Bad (from Homestar Runner), Max the rabbity-thing (of Sam & Max), and Tycho (the in-comic persona of Penny Arcade creator Jerry Holkins). Each has their own personality and quirks: Heavy Weapons Guy is stoic and aggressive, Max is unpredictable and unstable, Tycho is composed and laid-back, and Strong Bad is a diminutive wrestler with a Napoleon complex. Over the course of the game, you get to see how their attitudes and personalities interact with one another.
In the second, you meet Brock Samson from the show Venture Brothers, Claptrap from Borderlands, Sam from Sam & Max, Ash from the Evil Dead films, and Glados from Portal as a special guest dealer. Again, the character’s personalities and quirks affect how they play with you. In both games, the characters will occasionally find themselves betting with something other than money. Usually, a weapon or item which represents an unlockable item in another game. While it can be thrilling to unlock a special item in this way, it often depends entirely on how well you play poker, which is largely up to random chance anyhow.
For Full Steam Ahead, I decided to try and play as legitimate a game of poker as I possibly could. The buy-in, the money used to purchase entry into the game and as a reward for the winner, for the first game is $10,000. If I win, I walk home with $50,000 dollars, and that money would be great for me and my family. Similarly, a loss of ten grand would be utterly devastating.
In the game, I play carefully. I get into betting wars with Strong Bad and the Heavy Weapons Guy early on, knocking them out. After that, I spend a lot of turns fold garbage hands that won’t win me any money. Over the course of this, Tycho is knocked out after going all in with a flush against Max’s full house. After that point, it’s several turns of Max and I trading chips back and forth. I get two pair and go up $35,000. Max hits me with a straight three hands later to take a dominant lead. I’m able to bluff my way back to parity with Max. Finally, I’m able to get Max to go against me. I’m able to beat him with a flush while his attempt at a straight doesn’t turn out. The game is over. I’ve managed to win the tournament, and walk away with an extra $40,000. While the game was fun, and the characters suitable chatty, eliminated players leave, meaning I spend the majority of the game with a psychotic lagomorph. Not exactly a comforting experience.
The second game goes much as the first. This time, the buy-in is $20,000. Sam bets his trusty banjo instead of cash, which the house accepts as payment. Ash goes all in on the first hand with queen-high, a terrible hand. He loses, and is eliminated. The next round, Sam and Brock Samson each go all in against Claptrap, who manages to best them with two-pair. They’re each eliminated. That leaves me and Claptrap, a cocky robot from a planet where he is frequently used as target practice. After many hands of making terrible, terrible bets, Claptrap finally loses the last of his money to me. I leave the Inventory with $80,000 and a banjo (which unlocks a Max mask in Borderlands 2).
What did I learn from my poker nights at the Inventory? First and foremost, I do not enjoy poker as a game. I didn’t when I bought the games in the first place, but I had hoped the writing would be fun enough to keep me occupied a little longer. Secondly, that I do not want to ever be in a situation where that much money is on the line. In game between me and Max, I frequently was betting tens of thousands of fake dollars, just to stay in the game. It made me super uncomfortable, and it wasn’t even real money. I guess I prefer my social gatherings with friends to not involve the potential loss of significant amounts of money.
Welp, I could certainly use a less stressful game. What have you got for me, random Steam list?