Tuesday, April 16, 2024

ValiDate is the most authentic dating game we’ve ever played

There aren’t many things that are as soul-crushing and time-consuming as dating. There’s the getting ready, smoothing back your hair, making sure your breath doesn’t smell, and the mantra of ‘you’ve got this, you’ve got this’ in your head when in reality you don’t have it at all. You’re a mess, your pits and hands are sweaty, and you’re this close to hightailing it home to watch Netflix by yourself. ValiDate (full name ValiDate: Struggling Singles in your Area) not only understands these aspects of dating, but embraces it.

Set in Jercy City, ValiDate follows a cast of 13 characters (featuring 30+ different endings, depending on your choices) and how they navigate through the dredges of capitalism, all while trying to find someone to love. During our time with the demo of ValiDate, we got the choice to pick between three characters: Malik Paterson, Inaya Saifi, and Isabelle Morrigan. During the character selection, we get to know a little more about them, such as their age, 2-4 facts, their nationality, job occupation, pronouns and, most importantly, their star sign. As far as I’m concerned, you’re not really taking this whole dating malarkey seriously if you don’t put down your star sign.

What I really liked about the presentation of ValiDate’s character selection is that it feels exactly like what you would put on a dating app, right down to the naked honesty of listing the traits and characteristics that you think will make you stand out from the crowd. And all in a bid to make your future date swipe right, not left.

While not exactly like a dating app, Validate catches the experience of it with ease

But much like real life, there is more to ValiDate’s characters than a mock-up of what makes them appealing. Currently each protagonist only has one dating segment, with Isabelle having a segment with Malik, Malik with Arihi, and Inaya with Yolanda. I played through all three, diving first into Isabelle’s route and her seafood date with Malik. While she is confident (as expected of a theatre teacher) she’s also a bit of a people pleaser, presenting herself in a way that may not be her true, authentic self. She’s not one thing or another, and even when you get the option to have your own input on Isabelle’s actions, your choices reflect that part of her in a way that’s enjoyable to witness.

One of the things that I enjoyed the most, particularly with Inaya’s route with Yolanda, is how emotionally mature some of these characters are and how they interact with one another. Inaya is able to process how she thinks and feels in an interaction with Yolanda, but her understanding of her emotions is so hard to get across that when she expresses it to Yolanda, it’s with fear and shame. Yet, much like the title of the game, Yolanda validates Inaya’s feelings, even if she doesn’t fully understand them by reminding Inaya she’s not alone. It’s such a small moment, but also one that brought me joy.

A couple that perhaps isn’t as emotionally mature is Malik and Arihi, two men who are very different from one another but are pulled together through Malik’s inability to not f*ck around and find out. In this scene between the two of them we’re treated to Malik, as the manager of a fast-food restaurant, using his job status as a way to prove to Arihi that he isn’t just some chump with dreams of being a musical hit one day… Or maybe he is, but that doesn’t mean Arihi can treat him badly. It’s a scene that is charged with tension of two guys trying to one-up one another, but the underlying tone of understanding (depending on your choices) and desire for intimate connection in a world where it’s often expected for men to view each other as competition.

Hah. Friends

My only real complaint about ValiDate is that there’s not enough of it. Considering I only played a demo build this doesn’t seem like too fair of a criticism, but it often felt that just when I was getting somewhere with these dates between characters, the scene would end. I can only assume that these segments will be broken up into scenes that I’ll be able to progress through more of in the full game. I sure hope so anyway, because I truly need Malik and Arihi to hold hands.

Even with my single criticism though, it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – escape mine or anyone else’s notice that ValiDate is also just one of the most inclusive dating visual novels around right now. There’s a range of different nationalities, body types, genders and sexualities, and because of that it’s easy to see different experiences that aren’t just centered in being white, cis and skinny. I personally have never felt seen as a fat person in dating games, but ValiDate might just be looking to change that for good. I can’t wait.

You can play the ValiDate’s demo over on itch.io and Steam.

Aimee Hart

[She/They] Aimee Hart specializes in queer fandom, video games and tabletop, having started her career writing for numerous websites like The Verge, Polygon, Input Magazine and more. Her goal now is to boost LGBTQ+ voices in the video games industry.