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A more polite Leisure Suit Larry, July 9, 2021
If you are a gamer of a certain age, you will look at Danny Dipstick’s title and blurb (“You need to find a girlfriend, but all the girls think you’re a dork. Try to overcome your dorkiness to pick up a girl”) and feel a cold pit of dread form in your stomach, suffused by a terror far beyond what your quotidian Amnesia-clones could ever hope to induce: yes, in space-year 2021, we’re looking at a Leisure Suit Larry parody (though apparently this is a reimplementation of a 1999 original, which is still late in the day for such a thing but is a bit more understandable).
I never really played any of the LSL games (one friend had a copy of the third one but we couldn’t get very far, so my only memories were of answering dry trivia questions to defeat the copy protection, and then making a beeline for a set of binoculars that allowed you to see an at-the-time-exciting pair of pixelated boobs), but my understanding is that to the extent they worked, it was because most of the jokes were at the protagonist’s expense and the games weren’t nearly as lecherous as they seemed to be. This is a delicate balance to strike at the best of times, and given the way parody heightens and deforms its inspirations, my hopes were not high.
The good news is that Danny Dipstick isn’t going for parody or exaggerated laughs, so it mostly avoids the kinds of gratuitous offensiveness I’d feared. The bad news is that I can’t tell what it actually is going for. Neither the puzzles, the plot, nor the writing seem to be trying to stand out in any way – the game is perfectly functional and moves the player from point A to point B, but I’m couldn’t tell you why the author wrote this game in this way at this time. There’s perhaps a clue in the ABOUT text, which reveals that this was originally an assignment in a computer science class, and while Danny Dipstick is polished far above the level that implies, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game was written to build and demonstrate familiarity with programming, with the player experience coming second, not because it’s actively bad, but because it’s frustratingly flat.
The gameplay provides a good example of what I mean. You’re told from the jump that there are three things you need to do to get a girlfriend: fix your bad breath, get some better clothes, and develop social skills (one of these seems harder than the others…) These objectives are available at any time via the STATUS command, and each can be met in a single, clearly-signposted step. The game plays out over a small map of maybe a dozen locations, most of which offer up two or three possibilities for interaction. There are a number of characters, all of whom are looking for one and exactly one item, and who as far as I can tell respond only to TALK TO, with ASKing about other topics not leading to anything interesting. The author provides frequent prompting, if not hand-holding, to make sure you’re able to progress (my transcript is littered with a lot of “You should…”s), which keeps things on track but drains the sense of agency.
The puzzles are of a piece with this general approach. There are two main puzzle chains, both of which require a little bit of poking around to start, but which run quite similarly: once you find the initial object, it’s very clear who you should give it to, which then leads to you acquiring a second object with a likewise obvious use, and then there’s an even more obvious final step to take to wrap up the game. Everything works fine, but there’s nothing distinctive or interesting about any of it.
As for the writing and plot, they’re certainly there? Again, this is largely a positive, because when I went onto the dance floor and saw two women described primarily via the colors of their dresses and hair, I cringed. But it turns out once you solve the relevant puzzles and talk to them they’re reasonable people, partnered up but happy to chat with Danny and help him out after he does them a good turn – and while his opening lines are awfully smarmy, they’re not too bad in grand scheme of things, and once it’s clear they’re not interested in a date, he’s basically respectful. This is much much better than gratuitous offensiveness, of course, but it’s also kind of boring! There aren’t many real jokes, or at least few that landed for me (there’s a bit about a guy taking up collections for the Society for Retired Adventurers…), but it feels like the game isn’t even trying for laughs.
(I should point out that the exception to this overall inoffensiveness is the character of the convenience store clerk. He’s described as ethnically Indian, with a thick, hard to understand accent, and his main personality trait is extreme indolence. And after you complete a transaction, he says “thank you, come again.” So this is Apu from the Simpsons, again presented not so much as a parody or the opportunity for a joke, but just as Apu from the Simpsons, plus calling him lazy. Not great!)
Danny Dipstick at least doesn’t wear out its welcome – it takes maybe ten minute to go from utter loser to having a beautiful girlfriend – and it’s cleanly implemented in Inform 6, with no parser awkwardness to speak of. But I found it a quintessentially inessential game, and there’s not much I’m taking away from it beyond the mild relief that it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.