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A Dinner Date with Jeroen Stout

My encounter with Jeroen Stout is probably my favorite interview amongst the many I've done recently. Dinner Date's creator talks extensively about the process of creating a completely unorthodox little gem.

Crossposted from TK-Nation. TK-Nation's a South-East Asian gaming site that plays home to news about quality underdogs from the gaming world, indie cosplay and video game collectibles.

As I've mentioned in the blog summary, this interview borders on primordial in age, if you go by the fast-moving trends in the gaming news world. However, I've always had a soft spot for it as it caught me entirely by surprise. 

With a game that does little more than sits you in the subconscious of a man, Dinner Date feels more like a digital narrative than anything else. The actual game itself has a few shortcomings but the interview as well as the mind behind the concepts are absolutely brilliant.

1. All right. Let's start with the most obvious question. Tell us about both yourself and your company. We understand Dinner Date is the debut game for your company but it has been mentioned on your website that as an individual, you've also worked on numerous prototype games. Could you tell us something about them? 

 

My name is Jeroen Stout and I founded Stout Games. The aim of Stout Games is to create games which are quite different from the games we see now by using new forms of interaction and different themes and styles. The games are not about fast action or about seeing major consequences of your actions but about creating an intellectually fulfilling experience - a lot of effort goes into finding the right approach for that in terms of story, style and interaction. Dinner Date is the very first work created with this in mind and it is a character portrait in the form of a game. You get to know Julian Luxemburg and his internal struggle while waiting for his date. You do this in a wonderfully mimetic way by being his subconsciousness for a while.

The prototypes on my personal website were made over a number of years when I studied at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands. The early prototypes I made hardly reflect what Stout Games does now - a lot of my earlier games were normal games with some unique elements to them; a platform game with changing gravity; an adventure game with some emotional punches; a tank game set in a world made of jelly. They are fun ideas and games but there are so many fun games that I found myself looking for something vastly more engaging.

These prototypes are still interesting, but I remember exactly the moment I first played The Graveyard and how it started to influence my work. I finally arrived at the insight I was struggling because I tried to get interesting things inside a rigid and uncultured format. With the final prototype that preceded Dinner Date I was finally so lucid I could design a game about two people having conversation and give the player an optional role; the characters just talk, and the player can overrule one of them if he so wishes. This final prototype, while far from presentable, gave me intense gratification as it finally convinced me I could in time make things I myself would find worth playing.

2. Again, let's have another obvious question! Was Dinner Date based on a personal experience, a friend's experience or a compilation of things? We'd like to know what inspired you to create Dinner Date and the background behind the experience.

When I came to the original idea all I had was a man, a kitchen table and a form of interaction, with no initial idea on where to go with it. The idea of using very mundane actions like eating bread and looking at a ticking clock had come to me and I had to think for a while on how to do something with it -indeed, how to turn it into a piece that can stand by itself, without being a parody or otherwise self-referential part of game culture.

I decided that which-ever way the story was written it would be with a wilful disregard for absolutely everything I had ever played in terms of games. Game writing allows you to use outrageously simplistic and daft characters, settings, events and developments because the culture behind it seems quite forgiving of such things - obviously there are numerous exceptions and there are lovely cultured gamers and journalists out there who enjoy seeing thoughtful games! But the game culture as a whole is quite philistinistic. So I decided that I would not just 'draw inspiration from literature' but wish to be judged by the same standards.



I worked on the plot-theme and the defining moment of the story. It is all approached in the way of romantic realism: set in the real world, but events play out to show a specific perception of reality. Julian has a huge character flaw and the tragedy of not seeing it himself. His thoughts betray to the player his flaws and the defining moment shows what direction the character is evolving in.

After doing this initial set-up things became far more an evolving process where the character grows, keeping the sad parts, the embarrassing parts, the amusing parts... but making them deeper.

3. What was the development process like? Dinner Date doesn't seem to play like any other game out there, short of, perhaps, the other games that fall under the notgames movement. What was designing it? Was it structured or closer to a piece of abstract art? Tell us more about the time you spent making the game. 

Going back to prototypes, by all means Dinner Date started as a prototype I built for a  research class I took when continuing academic life at the University of Portsmouth (UK). When I got exceptionally positive reactions on the first version I realized handing it out for free would be incredibly feeble - so I grew it to an actual product and with it comes heart-warming responsibility that it has to be worth the money.

My supervisor in Portsmouth was Dr. Pinchbeck, who made Dear Esther, and I did become more involved with the notgames movement. It is all fascinating and such early days. Letting go of goal-driven games allows you to make things which are far more interesting and you need a culture where that can be the norm, so I encourage enthusiasts to contact their local art-game developers. We are all trying to establish new forms of interaction and spend so much time developing this one game which 'proves' something. It is too early to think in movements because we share a desire to innovate games but widely differing views on how to do it - I think it is better to think of it as 'pockets' of interesting individuals.



I work very structured - I draw from classicism and find a whimsical approach very unappealing. But that said, developing something to the point of commercial release had some very unexpected moments. I never changed the story itself and I kept the original voice acting, but the style, animations and the visuals changed in a very Sisyphean manner. I realized a realistic story deserved a realistic kitchen and re-worked it, then re-worked it after looking into how to produce realistic light, then re-worked it after looking into architectural visualization, then after looking into colour grading... I worked together with Than van Nispen tot Pannerden (greencouch.nl), who composed the music, and that went through a large number of iterations as well. Doing that we made some huge changes - starting from constant doleful music to having music which changes pace as you play the game. Than stoically experimented with me through all these iterations and that was very rewarding.

Iteration was a very large part of development - finding the proper way to present gameplay and story like you see in Dinner Date. It is an ambivalent moment when you realize you cannot think of any realistic  kitchens in games because there have been no games set primarily in a scruffy British kitchen and you solve this by looking around a real scruffy kitchen and taking pictures.

4. Few games let you play as the subconscious of a character and given what the word implicates, we're curious as to how players will interact with their environment. What are the controls in the game like? Do you actively select what you wish to manipulate or must you first convince the conscious mind? 

This is a very interesting question in that I have been thinking about doing interplay between the player and the character. I never developed such interaction for Dinner Date, though, the interaction you see was novel to me when I started. But seeing as I have quite a backlog of research into this by now it will feature in one of the future games.

But to answer your question a bit more thoroughly - in Dinner Date you listen in on Julian's thoughts and you do little actions like tapping the table and looking at the clock by pressing keys corresponding to icons on the screen. You can initiate these actions when-ever you wish if they are available but you cannot in any way influence the manner in which Julian thinks. Dinner Date really is not about control or actions - rather about being in the moment and playing 'through' Julian. Eating bread is a huge part of it, it is strangely exciting. It is difficult to convey exactly why sitting down and slowly chewing bread is worthwhile – but when you are engaged with Julian it becomes the right thing to do.

5. The snippets of information we've gleaned from press releases and your website suggests that the game is somewhat linear in design. There's nothing wrong with that, given that Dinner Date appears to be a work of interactive art. However, we'd like to know how much free rein is given to players. There's also this sly mention about it being entirely possible that players might want to replay the game after they're done. Does that mean there are multiple endings?

The game is in fact completely linear. For Dinner Date specifically I did choose to do this because of the McLuhan phenomena - the medium is the message and if you give a player options it quickly becomes about choosing rather than about the actions. On top of that, giving the player free reign quickly turns into improvisational acting and while I like exploration games and making your own story I feel without an author you cannot have that romantic realism and the message cannot not that fine-grained.

Dinner Date is all about being more connected with the story - so you cannot choose to get up and leave the kitchen, nor can you influence what Julian decides. But it is interesting to engage Julian by doing specific actions because the actions are not in themselves engaging, rather the emerging mimetic play is.

With people who played it I often spotted that as soon as they finished Dinner Date they wished to start again - they had through playing become used to the novel approach and they want to experience it all again with that level of involvement.

6. Last question: is the girl Julian is waiting for really that pretty? 

Oh, Julian certainly thinks so. But... he is not much of a reliable narrator and who the girl really is may become more convoluted as you play through the game.

 

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