ATTEMPTS’ foray into the digital sphere subverts dating sims to explore how women are viewed and objectified.
If you’ve ever played a dating simulator game, then you’d know that the way to ‘win’ is to be strategic in your interactions with your intended ‘waifu’/’best girl’, and make sure you pick the best possible option to ensure a romantic match and good ending for your player character. Real life however, is rarely as simple as games make them seem, and often, there are no ‘best’ options or replays to ‘get’ the girl of your dreams.
In ATTEMPTS’ Dating Sim (beta ver. Zoom), audience members imagine themselves as part of a group of beta-testers participating in a dating simulation organised by global conglomerate ARC, in an attempt to figure out the algorithm for determining each person’s perfect match. Over the course of the experience, ARC employees Kelly (Vanessa Toh) and James (Jit Dastidar) narrate the scenario, presenting diverging options along the way, which audiences will collectively decide on. Think of it like a choose-your-own adventure game, except instead of fighting monsters, the end goal is to ask a girl out successfully.
Directed by Cheryl Tan Yun Xin, over the 60-minute experience, audiences ‘play’ as a nondescript, cisgender heterosexual man who is to choose between his pursuit of two women. While the narrative and most of the options don’t really matter, one appreciates how the script (co-written by Zee Wong and Rei Poh) needs only to rely on simple descriptions to effectively evoke a strong sense of place and emotion in us. The writing is crisp and direct, precise in its character and environmental descriptions, as we imagine ourselves as the player character interacting with his romantic interests, hearing them out, or wandering a club to find them. By participating and playing the sim, we ourselves become complicit and invested in this man’s story, intent on getting to the final outcome to ‘get the girl’.
But this is by no means a simple, straightforward game with a single, narrow goal we’re reaching towards. While there are several false leads (some creepy CCTV footage unfortunately does not lead to any supernatural happenings), Dating Sim eventually turns the tables on audience’s heads, and ends up subverting its form to make us realise how bad women have it in the dating scene. While it seems we have control over the player character, it becomes apparent that we do little more than affect his decisions, but how he views his romantic pursuits end up little more than a new achievement to unlock, something that leaves us deeply uncomfortable as we ponder over the most strategic way of ‘winning’ them. ATTEMPTS is also unafraid to address some of the more difficult, topical issues that have plagued the world of late, including referencing the stream of male sexual offenders at university preying on female students, or a deeply uncomfortable scene where a ‘nice guy’ metamorphoses into a possessive monster when he’s been friend zoned.
All of this comes together to show how women are objectified and viewed as possessions by all kinds of men in society, and the inherent sexism and danger that lurks all around, perceived as almost two-dimensional characters that can be won over if only one chooses the right ‘options’. If one thinks about it, the women featured in the game are honestly ordinary women, but viewed through the lens of romantic pursuit, opportunities to comfort them corrupted into yet another step towards winning their hearts. No spoilers, but towards the end, Vanessa Toh gives a great performance, a montage of film clips projected on the wall behind her as she shows off her frustration in both her face and voice, wishing that things do get better for women, eventually, helped by the surreal, and surprisingly moving scenario she narrates.
Dating Sim’s ending leaves space for interpretation, literally, as ARC computer system Joan (voiced by Julie Wee) opens the floor to audience members to imagine their own perceived ending. The results are varied (one troll on our night was quickly dealt with after a particularly inappropriate comment), but for the most part, the beauty of Dating Sim is encapsulated here with how the experience leaves most audience members hopeful in being able to craft their own ideal future, and that it gets better. For many, the ending is just the beginning, and Dating Sim marks a successful experiment in form, using a familiar game format as an unexpectedly powerful portrayal of how men view women, and the urgent need to change that.
Dating Sim (beta ver. Zoom) by ATTEMPTS plays on 13th and 20th December 2020 on Zoom. Tickets available from Eventbrite