Oh, my children; I have some good eating for you today. This is in large part to the subgenre Date or Die it has chosen to work in: the death game scenario. Beyond its current levels of market saturation, the death game scenario can vary in execution, but there are certain…let’s call them ‘structural necessities’ needed to make this scenario work. Outside of those necessities, we also are in satirical territory with this one. From the synopsis:
Date or Die is a visual novel about relationships, love, and the way they’re portrayed in media. In terms of inspiration, think Flavor of Love and The Bachelor meets Danganronpa! It features a diverse and engaging cast of characters, a sharply written branching story, and will hopefully make you cry!
Now, least this audience worry too much, I did not hate the Prologue. For what it’s worth, its biggest saving grace is its cast. Usually in these scenarios there is a specific reason its victims are chosen. The reason may not always be clear to the audience, but no one in their right mind would go through such an elaborate plot for a bunch of nobodies. Well, our sadistic Host is clearly that lunatic as the victims feel chosen at complete random with no clear connections or any larger point to them being involved in this game than just, ‘Because’.
Of course, the full game can prove me wrong; especially with selective memory loss being used here. However, it puts the cast in the incredible position of being legitimate strangers. It’s a different bend that could allow for either a stronger sense of desperation or a stronger comradery as the game moves forward. We have very little to start with here though, so the rest of game will have to build up their characters enough to make the most out of these circumstances.
The same goes for the game’s villain. The current stated rational for our villain’s plot is so fantastically absurd, it’s even lamp shaded during the game proper. It feels a lot like Christopher Nolan’s take on The Joker: someone who clearly has a grand plan, but does so in such a random, chaotic way it can only be compartmentalized as insane. And that is, ironically, something you can’t say for a lot of the villains in death game scenarios. Whether it’s John Kramer (Saw), Monokuma (Danganronpa), Zero (999), or more recently Parca in Fatal Twelve, the mastermind is usually the sanest person in the room. They’d have to be to pull off the planning to make the games happen.
The Host clearly is a long way away from sane and it’s quite refreshing on a strictly villainous take. However, that comes with a caveat: the only way the character can work is if he doesn’t kill anyone. Yeah.
See, the reason why the Joker was such an effective villain in The Dark Knight is that he had multiple routes to achieve his main goal: complete chaos in Gotham. He could accomplish this by destabilizing the strongest organizations in the city (the mob), creating distrust between the people and the government (randomly killing people without anyone able to stop him) and by destroying the heroic image of its latest hero: Batman. These multiple routes allow Joker to be completely random in his actions. One day he can kill a mob boss, then kill a normal citizen, then blow up some random building because Batman didn’t bend to his taunting and it all feeds into the major objective.
The Host doesn’t have that luxury. The death game here is illogical with no final goal stated for us. He’s just going to give them reality show challenges that are somewhat tied to an ill-conceived concept of ‘love’. That means he needs to maintain overall control on his own to keep the game moving forward, because there’s nothing in the rules that say they should do what he says and he simply isn’t threatening enough on his own: hence the robotic henchwoman. This is fine if no one actually dies, because it allows the audience to suspend their disbelief for long enough to get invested in the rest of its cast: an absolute if the story is going to work.
IF The Host starts legitimately killing off cast members who don’t measure up to his arbitrary rules, the world falls apart. This is going to be a slightly controversial statement, but death isn’t funny; even in fiction. It injects reality into the proceedings and forces the audience to start questioning everything. An, as I said earlier, The Host is too batshit crazy to pull this off on his own. Either the rest of the cast would logically team up to figure out a way to beat him OR the person actually pulling the strings on the death game and using The Host as proxy would have to be hinted at incredibly early: turning the time between the start of the game and the reveal of the true mastermind into a slow crawl.
Beyond that, the biggest issue with Date or Die is the premise of the game itself. To go back to the synopsis, this visual novel is supposed to be about, ‘relationships, love, and the way they’re portrayed in media’. The problem is that this setup is how the media USED to represent love and relationship. That television fad has gone the way of The Apprentice and American Idol; as should be expected of something over a decade old. The media’s take on relationship has evolved somewhat over the past fifteen years since reality television was a thing and it feels like this game is ignoring that shift in favor of a nostalgia trip.
That doesn’t mean this is going to be bad: far from it. There’s just a high probability that its jokes and insights will be dated. This is especially true in comparison to the current media portrayal of love and relationship that is due for a good satire. Considering the ‘diverse’ cast we have here, there is an outside shot Date or Die can pull it off: parodying the current media obsession with portraying diverse romances at any given opportunity to woo a progressive, millennial audience into giving them money. Something tells me that last one isn’t an option, though: at least not yet.
Overall Date or Die’s biggest pressing issues are the potential outdated nature of its premise and the machinations of its villains. We can’t do anything about the premise, so whether or not the audience can suspend its disbelief long enough to accept the situation The Host has the rest of the cast in will be pivotal for the full game. We either believe he is fully capable of being an evil mastermind who can maintain control of this game and plotted it all out himself, or that he’s a raving lunatic who isn’t and is therefore under the thumb of someone else. That can be solved with a single word: hope. Not love, hope.
Taking it back to Christopher Nolan, there is an important lesson about villainous plots that can be learned from The Dark Knight Rises. Take it away, Bane;
There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.
Right out of the gate, The Host tries to make the kill one another. That doesn’t raise the stakes or invests us in the characters who we barely know. It instead feels like we’re about to rush through the game. So, instead of forcing in murder so early on, why not give them hope instead? All they have to do is go on a date with whoever the computer tells them they’re compatible with. Just have them go and try to push the reality of their situations out of their minds. The caveat, of course, is if a date starts going badly, THEN someone will die. Because clearly their attraction to one another should overwhelm the potential threat of an untimely demise.
It’s so much more malevolent than what we get and it hits everything the death game structure requires and what the developers are trying to sell to us. It’s not something they have to do, mind you. But, like I often say, there is plenty of time to slow down, smooth out the bumps and weave in the threads of hope that will ultimately lead to despair. And if this game is going to work, that’s what we need to see: hope and despair interweaving with one another.
And at that point, when we’re grabbed by the throat, does anyone here have my permission to die…yes, I just really wanted that Bane quote in here somewhere. Yup.
If you want to check out the Date or Die Prologue yourself, you can find more information on the official website here. JP3: OUT!