Dating sims are weird.
They’re essentially choose your own adventure stories with art and voice acting that you play on a computer/console/whatever. You make some choices, the outcome of those choices sometimes depend on previous choices, and you keep playing until you reach an ending. Sometimes those endings are good and you “win,” and sometimes a bee comes out of nowhere to murder you when you least expect it. Or you get dumped. Same difference.
It’s all something that I really love. I like interactive fiction– be it these sorts of stories, table top RPGs, or what have you. There’s stuff to discover, a story gets told, and I have some control over the outcome. Yeah, unless it’s a table top RPG where the DM can improvise, you’re heading towards one of a set number of pre-determined endings, so it isn’t really freeform so much as following every potential path in a maze with multiple exists, but that illusion of “this is my story” really means something to me. I crave it.
But the assumptions inherent to dating sims are weird. There are certain characters you can “date,” and they are all predispositioned to like you. It’s up to you to make the right decisions to “allow” them to like you, but if you can interact with a character in this way, they are a potential end game partner. If a character is destined to be a match, there is a possibility built into the game you can reach that makes them your “date.” Everything is in your control. Their tastes don’t matter, only your decisions.
That’s sort of the inherent power fantasy of a CYOA story– it’s your story but this particular context feels a little strange. In a traditional CYOA, the fate your deciding is largely your own. You might be trying to save planets from aliens or a princess from a dungeon, but most of the endings revolve around your ultimate fate. Whether you take a right turn or a left turn decides whether you find the friendly slime aliens or whether you fall into the pit with cannibal plants. But in a dating sim, you’re kind of a static character. Yeah, you’ll get dumped or get a partner, but you’re kinda still you most of the time. The more meta-leaning types excluded, it’s the fate of your potential partners that’s being decided by your actions. The character being shaped isn’t you and your fantasies about yourself, it’s the life path of a different person. You’re you at the end of the game, but this imaginary person is something different.
Yeah. It’s not all that different from the standard CYOA story, but it’s different enough to get me thinking.
So that brings me to Monster Prom itself. It’s a dating sim. It does everything I’ve mentioned above. You pick a monster high schooler avatar– a zombie, a fire woman, a Frankenstein, and a shadow dude– and you play through a few weeks at school leading up to the big MONSTER PROM. You decide what you’re doing each day, interact with the potential dates and a few other NPCs, and then choose who you want to ask out to prom after you’ve played through all of the allotted days. If you’ve played your cards right, they say yes. If you didn’t, they say no. If you pulled off some other requirements, you get a special ending. If you ask no one out, maybe something else happens. In the end, you’re you and the fate of one of the 6 (or 8 with the DLC) targeted students has been sealed by your actions.
The bones of it are pretty much what you’d expect from this sort of thing. I haven’t played too many dating sims, but this one “feels” like the ones I’ve played and isn’t bringing anything drastically different to the formula mechanically-speaking. What makes Monster Prom worthwhile is the writing.
Each of the characters has their own voice. The jock werewolf dude is totally a lovable lunkhead who’s easily manipulated and tricked into doing things (like taking cocaine when told it’s protein powder). The hipster vampire dude straddles the line between insufferable douche and secret softie who actually likes things. The murderous mermaid plays up the bizarro world Disney Princess shtick with a lot of charm. All of the characters have their own little niches and don’t really step on anyone else’s toes, so even without the art and character name prompts, you can tell everyone apart. The vampire and the fangirl elder god from the DLC both have some nerdy fan fiction aspects to their interests (he likes yaoi, she likes oddball ships), and the gorgon and demon are both criminals, but they only overlap in superficial ways that allow for cool character interaction rather than redundancy. Your specific “type” might not be represented perfectly, but each of these characters is decidedly designed with different types and fetishes in mind. The gorgon has her mafiosa angle, but she also has a bit of that tsundere charm and the rich girl/hime bit too. For characters who maybe get 20 lines of dialogue in any given game, they’re incredibly flavorful and unique, and they all play off of one another well.
Even the robot dude who’s trying to find meaning in organic existence has some “life” to him. He’s more than an “am I real” character.
Even the PC avatars have a lot of personality to them. You give them all of their “dialogue,” but the art goes a long ways towards giving them distinct personalities. The fire girl is definitely the “cool girl” type, playing things pretty nonchalantly, while the shadow dude is very much in the generic anime dude mold. My favorite’s the Frankenstein girl, who kinda has a dorky charm to her. Her idea of being a “bad” kid and hanging out with all the cool kids in the bathroom is to get “high” on a car battery.
The game does a pretty good job of making every relationship “work.” No one is bound to any sort of sexual preference. While you get two masculine-leaning and two feminine-leaning PC avatars, you not only get to choose their name, you also get to define their preferred pronoun. And that’s just so the text reflects your preference, since that has no bearing on who you can try to “date.” There are no “oh, two guys/girls are going on” sort of commentary. If you’re aiming for a character, the only hurdle is your personal choices.
That’s an advantage of the whole thing I was getting at in the beginning. The “targets” have no predisposition other than their openness to date you. That coupling’s orientation is totally up to you, the player, and that’s cool.
The game has plenty of encounters and endings to unlock, so many that I doubt I’ll ever actually see them all without making a concentrated effort at it. Each potential date has a “prom” ending and a “dumped” ending. Each character also has at least two secret endings that can be triggered by completing every encounter in a specific chain. The catch is that which chain you get is random each game, so you have to hope you get the right the one you want if you’re going after a specific character. There are also a bunch of other endings you can get depending on special items you can buy in the in-game store, along with other endings. I like that the game keeps track of how many encounters and endings you’ve unlocked, so you can see how far along you are. I’ve put about 7 hours into the game and I’ve maybe seen 20% of the game. That’s a lot of stuff to see.
All in all, I really dig the characters. I wanna see more of them. I’ll totally get more DLC is they go that route. I’d love to see the PC avatars become NPCs. I totally wanna date Frankenstein girl. I doubt I’ll sit here and go through every single possibility, but I’ll definitely pick the game up and play through a scenario every now and then. Even the “long” game is maybe 30 minutes long once you’ve seen a lot of the more common story beats and can start skipping through certain scenes.
That’s maybe a little longer than a readthrough of a CYOA book, but it’s a close enough approximation to get a similar vibe.
And yeah, I doubt I’ll be picking up a lot of more “traditional” dating sims, but I’m totally down for something else along these lines– something oddball and quirky. And with cool monsters and stuff.