One of the latest trends of gaming I’m happy is happening is that more developers are experimenting with how they tell their stories. Blending that drive with what is popular in gaming (mostly First Person Shooters) has created serious achievements that make this moment the best possible time to be a console gamer. As long as this trend continues, we could well see a renaissance of sorts in gaming that will finally make the $59.99 base title for most AAA games worthwhile.
However, this trend leads us to the topic of the day. Save the Date! is a title that has gotten a lot of attention from the independent gaming press and was even recognized by IndieCade. Many have demanded that I take it on and who am I to deny this request?
Save the Date starts out simply enough. You, as the unnamed Protagonist, have a date with your girlfriend Felicia. You have several options but, unfortunately, each date ends with the death of Felicia. More upsetting is that the protagonist remembers each death every time you start at the beginning. So, is fate simply determined to kill this girl or is there more to all of this than meets the eye?
What the game does right is tier the story to give you small details about Felicia’s life for each play through. These are used as breadcrumbs to tie together the fractured narrative and give you a better picture of what exactly the writer’s goals are. And because the story’s characters are very sparse, it is vital to keep us playing somehow. So kudos to them on that one: it was clever.
The writer also knows how to maintain tension and focus. Now, this may seem minor but in stories that are either non-linear or ‘grand and epic’ in scope, it is really easy to lose momentum roughly halfway through. Save the date continually builds momentum with each new clue you find to saving your doomed love interest and for the better part of the game, you never feel bored or anxious for it to get a move on. It is well-paced and perfectly taunt and it is something more writers need to learn in presenting a story that requires more than the audience’s squeals of approval.
You might have noticed that the praise for the game is carefully placed and there is a good reason for it. The game itself is relatively short and the bulk of it is focused on the different ways your girlfriend can bite the dust. Then it happens. What is ‘It’? ‘It’ is the End of Evangelion. ‘It’ is the final choice in Mass Effect 3. ‘It’ is where all of the game’s build-up and questions are confronted head on…and the writer is left in a pool of his own blood from the impact. I am going to try and keep the spoilers as light here as possible for those who want to experience it for themselves. However, I cannot properly describe this one without spoilers, so I hope everyone understands.
As I mentioned earlier, gaming is split between two trends: one is pleasing the mob and the other is daring to be more philosophical and create something unique. The ‘Please the Mob’ crowd can be found at any major publishing house: EA, Activision, Square Enix, etc. Not only do they have worldwide recognition to continue their train-wreck policies, but plenty of cash to boot. The ‘Philosophical’ crowd is growing, but at the same time hampered by lack of recognition as well as an inability to get beyond the label of ‘artsy’: which is often code for ‘pretentious’. Games that do not understand how far their audience will follow them down the rabbit hole don’t advance the cause of the Philosophical camp and, more often than not, just creates another hurdle for those games to jump over in the minds of gamers-at-large.
Guess where Save the Date falls in this discussion?
As you interrogate Felicia to try and understand why exactly you cannot save her, it throws you one Hell of a curveball. Essentially, it decides to ask, ‘Why SHOULD you want to save her?’ This question spirals into a commentary on the nature of story-telling, choice structure and finalizes its downfall by not technically ending. To be clear, what we get isn’t a resolution and this is a conscious choice of the writer. The goal is to question the nature of structured narrative and that isn’t a bad goal as long as you’re not afraid to put your own views on the table to resolve the story and give the audience something to think about.
The LAST thing this writer is interested in is putting their own views on the table. We get a hint at one side of the argument, but not a conclusive statement either way. Like any Socratic argument, the questions keep coming and coming until you finally give in and admit you don’t even remember what started the conversation. This goes into what I was saying earlier about the audience only following you so far into the rabbit hole. We didn’t need every little question the game posed answered, but ONE answer to ONE question instead of just jumping around demanding the audience to ‘ask them what it means’ would have been nice.
By the time the game reaches its conclusion proper, I just didn’t give a damn. Not about what it was trying to say or even why I was interested in playing this title in the first place. This would be a very bad time to piss on my head and tell me that it’s raining, so guess what happens? In the end the game’s resolution, which had to be cobbled together in the final hours after the writer realized they’ve trapped themselves in a maze of their own design, gives you the only possible answer it can think of: the best thing you can do is not play the game.
Thanks Save the Date! I hope you don’t mind if I take you up on that offer.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
The Presentation is very minimalistic and there are no character sprites: just vibrant and blocky backgrounds. Considering the nature of the story I didn’t mind it too much. But it would’ve been nice to see what Felicia looked like; if only to give a face to the narrative. The soundtrack is something out of an old Nintendo game: even with the overly zealous death jingle a la Super Mario Bros. whenever Felicia bit the dust. It was okay but nothing that added to the overall experience.
The same could be said for Gameplay. It’s just a straight-up choice structure that keeps everything moving properly and little else. While it works, it does show that all of this game’s effort went into the Story; which makes my critiques of it that much worse.
It took me just over two and a half hours to complete Save the Date. You’ll find yourself addicted to replaying it in the beginning when you have questions to answer and problems to solve. But once you reached the end, it isn’t something you’ll find yourself picking up again. It’s pretty one-note in that way, unfortunately. That means that while you’ll follow along for a while, unless this is just your thinking or you’re using it as study material, once you’ve invested the time to reach the finale feel free to let it be.
Save the Date is very bold in its ambitions and I applaud them for that. It isn’t easy to step outside of the box and attempt a narrative that deconstructs everything familiar about fiction. But, at the same time, it isn’t enough to just ask questions. While many clearly enjoy what it has done and I congratulate the team for their success in the independent gaming universe, for me much more could’ve been done to keep it from slipping into being pretentious. If the single tent pole your story stands on is that the audience is invested into stopping increasingly ridiculous death scenarios, at the very least explain WHY the increasingly ridiculous death scenarios are necessary. Don’t turn that into another question that doesn’t have an answer. It only trivializes the investment you’re asking people to make in your work.
And for the love of God, NEVER SUGGEST NOT PLAYING YOUR GAME IS A VIABLE ANSWER. It doesn’t make you edgy or make the story unique. It only makes the player wonder why they wasted their time.
For all of this, I would still recommend everyone play Save the Date just to read a very interesting experiment. However, in the grand scope of the world it places itself in, it crash lands at just being okay rather than holding onto the greatness many have given it.