Dating is supposed to be fun -- in theory. In practice, it can alternate between being frustrating and boring, punctuated with moments of pure distilled anxiety.
This is never more true than when you don't feel like you know what you're doing. Suddenly, every option feels like it leads to the option where you change your name, get plastic surgery, and move to another town to escape the shame of it all.
Many people have attempted to help others get over their fear of learning social skills and dating by getting them to think about it like a video game, like Neil Strauss, who (in)famously wrote The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists.
Pick-up artists attempt to turn basic human interaction into an if-then process: Find the correct inputs, and you can critical path your way to sex. Even the jargon sounds like someone trying to describe the final rounds of The International. "Yeah, she had her bitch shields up, so I had my wing raise her buying temp with a DHV story, then I negged her and moved to isolate while my other friend occupied the obstacle and I tried to move us into Comfort 3".
So it shouldn't be surprising that someone attempted to bridge the gap between metaphor and literal by making learning how to spit game into an actual game.
Richard LaRuina, a dating coach and author, has released a video game on Steam this week called Super Seducer , a sort of choose-your-own adventure that feels somewhere between Hatoful Boyfriend and the FMV games of the 90s. It started life on Kickstarter before being removed for violating the "no seduction manuals" rule.
I'm also a dating coach and author - I write the Dr. Nerdlove column here at Kotaku, for instance - although my attitudes towards when and where it's appropriate to meet and approach women is markedly different from LaRuina's. So keep that in mind as you read my thoughts on Super Seducer.
Launching with a video explaining the concept, Richard invites the player to experience 10 different dating scenarios, walking them through meeting women randomly during the day (twice), as well as at bars and coffee shops, while also purporting how to navigate complicated issues like first dates, being a good wingman, and getting out of the so-called Friend Zone.
Let's get this out of the way now: As a game, Super Seducer is not good. Without even going into the quality of the advice, the actual gameplay is just not very well put together. The game introduces us to Richard LaRuina as two separate individuals: Richard as the player's stand-in, going around and meeting women, and Richard the Pick-Up Artist dating coach, who critiques your choices and tells you where you went wrong.
In each FMV segment, Richard-The-Player-Stand-In encounters a woman and tries to manoeuvre his way to a specific goal, whether it's get her number, get a kiss, or convince her to come back to his place. At various intervals, the player is presented with a series of choices in a Choose Your Own Adventure mechanic. Will you approach a woman from an angle, park yourself in front of her and force her to stop, or pretend to be blind and fumble around? Will you talk about Kafka, or Fifty Shades of Grey? Will you agree with your co-worker that your supervisor's a dick, or offer to go take a shit in his office? (This is a real scenario.)
Occasionally, the game will throw a curveball at you. Read and interpret this body language. Handle this awkward silence. Find the right way to go for the kiss. Were you actually paying attention, or were you staring at the hot girl in the micro-mini who walked by?
With each choice, Coach-Richard will appear to let you know whether you made the right choice, the wrong choice, or the enh-I-guess choice, and why it should or shouldn't work. Get the right choice, and you'll see Player-Richard lounging around on a bed with models who resolutely ignore him and stare into the middle-distance. Make a "meh" choice and the models are busy doing their nails instead of draping themselves over the bed like throw pillows. Get the wrong choice and it's just Richard on the bed, staring at you with stern disapproval.
The effect is actually jarring. Having each scene play out immediately followed by Coach-Richard's critique, lends itself to feeling somewhere between Dragon's Lair for arseholes and playing a game sitting next to someone sitting on the couch who keeps telling you you're doing it wrong and trying to take the controller.
Then again, now that I'm thinking of Dragon's Lair, it would be more interesting if each bad decision lead to a horrible cartoon death with Player-Richard glaring at you before turning into a skeleton and falling to pieces.
Super Seducer could have actually have become marginally more entertaining by stealing a page from Telltale games and let each scene play through. Live with your consequences, while Coach-Richard analyses choices at the end of it all, explaining, why doing X got Y results. Instead, each scene ends with your rating -- will you be a chump? A Casanova? The titular Super Seducer? -- and a replay of Coach-Richard's advice before moving on to the next scenario. There's no real motivation to get the Super Seducer ranking, as each chapter only varies slightly on replay. Get enough right answers to be a Super Seducer and you see a marginally better ending than you would have gotten as a Casanova or worse. Branching storytelling it ain't.
Complete the game and you get… outtakes. No, seriously, that's it. You get outtakes, alternate versions of the same scenes and an invitation to play through more times. Explore the entire game enough and you can get tutored in the art of seduction by Richard… or you could just go to his YouTube page and watch many of the same videos.
That is, of course, assuming you manage to last through all 10 scenarios in the first place. The game itself hits the heady heights of mediocre at best and outright tedium at worst. Outside of the vague promise of learning how to hit on women, there's nothing here to make you grit your teeth and push through to the end. The writing is beyond amateurish. The scenes involving Richard and others feels like watching two summer stock actors attempting to yes-and their way through a scenario that requires they hit specific plot beats. OK, you're going to the park to feed squirrels, he's there to seduce you, you like riding bikes, go. When you get to scenes of Richard using old "psychology tests" on girls in a nightclub, you'll learn what it's like to cringe so hard that your skin tries to separate from your skeleton.
The acting is not even laughably, great-with-a-few-beers bad. It's The Room levels of bad. Hell, one of the actresses all but gives the "but anyway, how's your sex life" line three separate times. Characters who (we are informed) are attracted to Player-Richard give all the warmth and attraction of someone on their third job interview of the day. Richard, in particular, stands out as being singularly awful. His banter and interaction feels awkward and stilted at best, not the work of a smooth operator who's a master of seduction.
Many of the production choices stand out oddly as well; Coach-Richard is sporting several months' worth of beard and hair growth as he lounges with his models-slash-furniture, compared to the tider, more groomed Player-Richard. In several scenes, Richard and his latest target both wear clearly visible lavalier mics, while not in others. There are flubbed takes that were left in, poorly dressed-up rooms meant to stand in for hip night clubs, and scores of unanswered questions. Why do Richard's apartment and bedroom look like hotel rooms? Why are 80 per cent of the women in this game Russian? If we're supposed to assume those models/throw pillows are there because Richard is so suave, why do they never interact with him? Are they even real? Are these just projections from the imagination of Player-Richard, picturing a world where he lives in a glamorous hotel room and doesn't bother to trim his beard anymore?
Of course, as Kotaku's resident dating advice columnist, I would be remiss in not talking about the quality of his advice. It's not as horrible as it could be. LaRuina certainly isn't as bad as toxic personalities like RooshV or Mike Cernovich, but he's not great either. Much of what he advocates is straight from the old Mystery Method/The Game handbook of 2004, including hoary old PUA routines like "Strawberry Fields" and "The Cube."
Some of his advice is fairly common-sense: don't be a suck-up, don't get too sexual too early. Some of his advice is not good. LaRuina's method of approaching women in the street, for example, is to plant yourself in front of them so they have to slow down and stop. This is a great way to annoy someone who really wants to just get to wherever it is they're going instead of talking to a rando who just wants to let them know that a video game told them he should tell them he thinks they're very "elegant."
And then there are the moments of outright psychological manipulation. Get out of the Friend Zone by subtly talking down her boyfriend while showing how similar you are to him, LaRuina says. Never let a woman know you're interested in her. Avoid giving women opportunities to say "no" early on. Ask if her boyfriend would let her talk to you as a way to get her to assert her independence by giving you BJs. Keep women from looking at their friends to keep them from using the lull in conversation as an excuse to leave. Lie about where you should go next, so they end up back at your place.
It's unclear exactly how Super Seducer is supposed to teach players anything. You're tossed into the game with no explanation of what makes one choice inherently better than another. Sure, some of the choices are obviously bad, like any of the ones that involve whipping your dick out. But others seem entirely reasonable until you pick them only to find Richard tut-tutting you from his cold and empty bed. The clips are too short to offer any meaningful advice that might apply to anything other than the very specific scenarios in the game. You don't get any underlying logic to the choices, outside of vague "this will make you more desirable because Reasons" hand-waving.
It's hard to know for whom this advice is intended. Presumably, if you're already familiar with LaRuina's work, then you'll breeze through without much effort. If not, you're more or less asked to pick randomly until you're more or less in tune with LaRuina's specific philosophy. And even then, the scenarios are so awkwardly and narrowly presented that it's hard to picture them occurring in real life, unless your real life is like a bad porn.
Almost none of them translate to real-world situations. The shy, introverted guy that LaRuina supposedly has made this for is almost certainly not going to drop himself in front of a hot woman like Gandalf before a Balrog, never mind approaching two Russian women at a loud and noisy night club. The woman walking to meet her friends at the park isn't going to flake them to go get drinks in the middle of the afternoon with a stranger. The end result of many of these lessons won't be elevation to Super Seducer status, it will be a visit from The Slap Fairy.
Super Seducer isn't worth it. Its value as education is as marginal as its value as entertainment. Frankly, you'd be better off learning how to seduce women by playing Stardew Valley. At least then you'd have a future as a farmer when the whole pick-up artist thing doesn't work out.
Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek's Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.