Activision Blizzard’s hero shooter Overwatch probably isn’t the first game that would come to mind when asked what games inspired Veritable Joy’s 2022 debut title ValiDate: Struggling Singles in Your Area — the latter is a realistic dating visual novel about various twenty-somethings of color, after all. But believe it or not, it was. Granted, what developer Dani LaLonders took from the juggernaut was more what it lacked in terms of representation, than what it was doing well.
“I just didn’t like how there wasn’t actual representation in it [Overwatch], it was kind of just surface level or representation,” LaLonders told Gayming. “And at the time, like 2018-2019, there wasn’t a lot of games where you can play as a black woman. So I just kind of wanted to change that.”
They expressed this desire to change things up on a voice call with their friend Haven, and the two started creating characters for what the two planned to be a “little game.” The characters LaLonders was interested in writing were those she was interested in seeing portrayed with more nuance and authenticity in media: Young adults, not teens or adults cosplaying as teens.
“Especially at the time, a lot of media around dating was so centered around teens that I was like ‘it’s kind of counterproductive’ because I’m not a teenager and I can’t relate to almost any of this,” LaLonders said. “And I’m not saying that teenagers don’t deserve to have their their media, because they do, I very much believe that they do. But the same time to an extent is kind of just like how long are we going to keep doing this, especially when it’s not even teen media, it’s just adults cosplaying as teens like your Riverdales. It’s just like, who is this for? And I was just like, ‘why don’t we just make things that are like centered around people my age?'”
By 2020, the game had grown significantly, and they announced the title of ValiDate: Struggling Singles in Your Area. As the game grew in scope and seriousness, so did the team involved. At first, the team was mostly made up of friends and mutuals of LaLonders’ who were interested in the project. But as the game shifted from a casual project to something that was catching online attention and entering serious development, the team had to make changes to accommodate those who weren’t able to make that much of a commitment. The current writing team consists of 7 writers for 13 characters; some writers are doubling up with two characters — including LaLonders — while some only have one.
The writers for each character are drawing on personal experiences as they write, while also factoring in the perspectives they may not have experience with.
“I could write a character, but it wouldn’t be the same perspective as someone who actually has lived experience,” LaLonders said. “Like Inaya is written by Remi and Remi has lived through this experience of being a brown she/they dating and just like, everything that Inaya has gone through is like taking from your own experience.”
“And for Malik,” they continued, “Malik is an African bisexual man. I don’t have kids and I’m not a rapper, but I understand what it’s like to work a job that you just don’t like, and having goals for yourself but you just can’t see yourself going past it.”
The ValiDate team have filled in the gaps in their own experiences by talking with friends and peers that do have them and trying to represent those experiences and stories as authentically as they can.
“I had to ask a lot of my gay and bisexual friends like, ‘Hey, can you tell me about your experiences by coming out and like how it felt to like a man for the first time and stuff like that?’ We just wanted to be real, honestly, because I feel that a lot of games have all these marginalized characters that are not written by marginalized people.”
The ValiDate team’s commitment to this authenticity has clearly made an impact with fans. The game’s Steam reviews are mostly positive, with several noting the POC/LGBTQ+ characters and storylines as some of the most impactful parts of the game. Though LaLonders originally made the game based on what they wanted to see, it’s clear their vision is shared by plenty of gamers and they’re grateful for the support from their community.
“If it wasn’t for the fans, I feel like I would have thrown in the towel by now because we have such supportive fans and such a such a supportive fan base,” LaLonders said.
But it’s not just fans who have been positively impacted by ValiDate. Other developers have also been influenced by the game and have even made changes to their own thanks to it.
“A lot of people have said like, ‘I saw your game and it inspired me to change the direction of my game to be more realistic and not to really have to appeal to so many people,'” LaLonders told Gayming.
“And I just I’m so fortunate that I just kept going because I’ve wanted to quit so many different times. And I didn’t, I just kept going and now I feel like it’s worth that I kept going because ValiDate is inspiring people and it’s going to continue to inspire more people as it keeps going.”