I’ll be the first to admit that I am in the dark when it comes to dating games. The closest to a dating game I’ve played are things like Persona 5, with companion romancing integrated snugly beside balancing your Clark Kent-esque existence, but it’s not the main course. To me, learning about and growing with the characters was by far the best part of the game. So what happens when we pull only that element out into the open by itself?
What is it?
In steps Monster Prom, a dating game that provided me with more questions about the genre than answers. Having no prior experience, I was unsure of what to expect of a game whose core tenet is providing you with digital companions to seduce. Turns out that it’s pretty much what you think it is.
You and up to three friends can attend this high school full of well groomed humanoid monsters. After a short quiz to determine your initial stats, you’re free to roam about the school to begin “training”. This entails participation in normal high school activities like dodgeball or school plays. Your crush usually show ups afterwards and has a brief, zany encounter with you which consists of passing a stat check to improve your standing with them.
Determining what characteristic each dialogue choice will test is more or less the only real “gameplay” here. This process is not always intuitive as prompts can be deceiving. Failing a check docks your stats and usually sinks your chances of making it with your virtual dreamboat. However, if you survive the gauntlet, you’re rewarded with a short epilogue detailing what happens with you and the other classmates. You’ll also get an unlockable gallery image. It’s about as thin a compensation as it sounds.
What is the Rhone
So when I’ve stacked everything up, I can confidently say that I did not enjoy Monster Prom. I have however, gained a little insight into the nature of these games. Let’s start with the main characters; each is a ridiculous parody of classic high school tropes. From the brainless jock or sulking hipster to vapid party girl, the gangs all here. At every given opportunity they will mercilessly beat you over the head with the few traits they represent. Gaining the favor of a particular character in an encounter is usually a simple affair, given that their personalities are so narrow. However, I don’t really understand the appeal of these characters or why I want to be involved with them.
Without an external story to change them or even pretend to share experiences with, I’m stuck within these short lived vignettes that seem to play out the same way every time. The dialogue is almost entirely devoted to developing the same themes over and over, so there’s a mind bending, Groundhog Day type repetition to every scene. Through thousands of scenes. There are small pieces of personality nuance, but considering that this game revolves around its personalities, it’s strange to me that each character ends up being so one note. Compound this over multiple playthroughs and to me, there isn’t much incentive to play.
Why be Normal?
Speaking of low incentive, the flow of the game makes me feel more like an observer than an protagonist. In order to avoid the gaping loneliness of no prom date, you have to make sure your target is always in awe of your wonderful qualities. I tried playing like a normal kid, going to different activities and talking to different people. However, living normally and trying to befriend more than one person doesn’t help you win. Stat checks later on seem a bit steep as well, so it compels you to stick to the same training location over and over.
Nobody Puts Baby in A Corner
So after you make your mind up over what cookie cutter personality you’ll be pursuing you have to stick to them. Thankfully, the game will reliably deliver them to you every time in whatever location you chose. Personality stat checks seem pretty random regardless of the monster you’re after. The player really doesn’t have a whole lot of agency or consequence. The lunch hours, where you actually choose who to sit with are kind of a forgone conclusion, since missing out of a potential opportunity to flex on your partner could be the difference. When you add these all up, the player’s involvement seems immaterial.
I think this passive player involvement and game mechanics lend itself to the sense of awkward uneasiness I feel playing Monster Prom. My efforts target cardboard cutouts, unchanging and predictable tropes of high schoolers. The school is rife with social satire, but really not much of anything else. Nothing happens and nothing changes so I can’t even pretend I was interacting with real characters. I’m glued to the action rather than a part of it. I felt more like a creepy janitor watching high school drama unfold, playing out different scenarios in my head.
Playing With Myself
Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t scrounge anyone up to play multiplayer with me so much like the deranged janitor, I slapped two sock puppets on my hands and played both roles myself. Unfortunately, not much changes. All the actions are the same, played out one at a time. Except now you’re allowed to sabotage the other player’s chances if you’re vying for the same monster. It’s just a little wrinkle but I can imagine this game is a whole lot less awkward if you manage to find someone to play along with.
I can appreciate some other things about Monster Prom. The quality that went into the artwork is admirable as each monster is well designed and has some notable voice actors. That makes sense, since I suspect much of the value of this game comes from things not explicitly in the game. That is to say, using these characters as a jumping off point for user created content like fan fiction and art. The writing is a little pandering at times, but does a reasonably good job in its satire. Things are pretty politically progressive as well, letting you choose your pronoun and be gay which is nice.
Ultimately, I’ve given a lot of thought to a product that was never meant to be analyzed or even played by someone like me. For what it is, I think it’s an acceptable teenage dating game, with some nice artwork and writing. Through the awkward, empty feelings I had playing this, I think there’s some insight to be had. My experience playing Monster Prom has illuminated some pretty anti-fun conventions, particularly in the lack of moving parts. But the interesting question is if you can make a pure dating game that would be good enough for your average player. I’ve yet to find one, and convincing a more mainstream audience might be more effort than it’s worth. Can relationship elements carry a game by itself or are these kinds of things destined to be empty entertainment for young weebs? I’m no closer to having answers.