Visiting a swingers club in the very 1980s Romantic Encounters at the Dome

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, it’s that time of the year again—time to celebrate love, life, overpriced chocolate and all that other happy shit. Bah, teddy-bear-with-heart-on.

Ah, Aching Solitude Awareness Day once again—our yearly dive into the romantic side of PC gaming. We’ve had one for the guys and one for the girls. This year, it’s time for one where everybody can supposedly find love and companionship: as long as they’re straight, not too choosy, and prepared for the worst at every turn. This is a game with a section for “PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES” in its credits. The only question is whether they were hired for the designer himself, or his game.

You’ve got to give Romantic Encounters points for moxie, at least. It’s a text-based game, mostly parser-driven, which claims “I am flexible enough to respond to anything.” Technically, this is true. As long as you include responses like “Huh?” and “I don’t understand…” It also really wants to be seen as deep, with instructions like “Your life inside the Dome will be controlled by random factors of TIME, FATE, your INPUT and TEMPERAMENT,” it also adds, before puncturing all of that by adding “To avoid FATE and TIME and assume really false GOD-LIKE powers over your destiny, select G.”

Personally, I’m a big fan of having god-like powers over destiny. It’s the kind of thing I crave while working out how I’d defeat Superman and catch the Road Runner. Still, to begin with it seems a little unnecessary. After all, my terrible romantic track record is obviously just a series of flukes. I can quote Monkey Island. Chicks dig that, even if the chicks who claim chicks dig that are usually laughing when they say so, before walking off with a cry of “And stop calling us chicks, bitch!”

Before setting foot in the Dome, you have to tell it who you are: Male, Female, Guest or Other. The first two are obvious. Saying Guest produces easily the slickest explanation of the game one of these things has ever had, explaining that this isn’t simply about sex, but “a chance to experiment with different relationships, to take dramatic risks in matters of the heart, to TRY-ON LOVE in a variety of situations and settings. It is sincerely hoped, by management, that your experiences at the DOME carry over into your daily life, broaden it, and make it a richer place for you to be.”

This is a game with some serious aspirations, and a hilarious sense of class… especially if you know what’s coming up. To navigate for instance, it insists you type things like “approach bar”. If you try to treat it like a standard text adventure, typing “go north” for instance, you get this.

And also, you’re probably not even wearing a tie, you philistine.

It’s often sarcastic like that. Go into the elevator and fail to find the right command to bring up the control panel, and a couple of turns later “an elderly couple” wanders in and does it for you. Or if you just stand around not accomplishing anything, a guard will decide you’re being suspicious and kick you out of the club. Better to avoid the word ‘fuck’ entirely too. It’s a sensitive game. And also odd.

But anyway, enough standing outside the bar, waiting until exactly the turn of the hour to step inside, then pretending to read a text message that hasn’t actually arrived and deciding to hang on until quarter-past for good measure—it’s time to jump into the dating pool and ‘rock’ this ‘joint’.

The evening’s seduction starts in the Reception, with promises of ENCOUNTERS (honestly, it’s like having Beneath A Steel Sky as a wingman) at the Mezzanine Bar, on Floor 3, the Penthouse, and… the parking garage? That does sound like a sexy, happening kind of place. Or indeed, not.

Since this is supposedly a fantasy, the squalid Mezzanine Bar can screw itself. I head to the Penthouse, and am immediately faced with a key dilemma—approach the bar and try to get lucky, or go to the bathroom and pee. I immediately start feeling a little curious about the writer’s priorities.

That’s probably the longest description of a toilet I’ve ever seen. In contrast, leaving it sums up a nearby event as simply “On the distant dance floor a frantic young dancer loses her halter, exposing her huge breasts. This causes a near riot of pleasurable excitement for everyone.” Groovy. But how about that Armitage Shanks porcelain, eh? Freshly fitted, I hear. They even made three animes about it!

A man in a tux approaches and offers the help of a nice lady, Maxime, willing to make introductions with available damsels. I accept, and am immediately less than impressed by her idea of a hook-up.

“If it looks like a girl digs you, she’s literally ill.” Thanks, Maxime.

Of the set, only one hangs around afterwards: the Dome’s secretary, Cathy. She asks to talk, and that seems fine, so we head outside to a balcony to enjoy the scenery. Which she almost falls off, necessitating what would be a fast catch if not for the game doing it automatically. Afterwards, she asks if it was scary. I reply not, because she doesn’t actually exist and thus caring would have been silly.

Well, that’s not potentially worrying at all. To celebrate, Cathy steals a bottle of champagne from her employers and invites me to her room. It’s essentially empty, and she’s silent until she offers a toast “To us.” Huh. Then she comes in for a big squeezy hug to show her attraction to this apparently handsome stranger, and the game sternly warns “There is nothing particularly sexy about this.”

“Yeah, well you’d know about things not being sexy,” I reply.

Who the hell talks or thinks like this? And it gets worse if you actually take her up on her offer of sex. Never has a game about going to a bar and having a one-night stand been so… whatever this is:

“Necessary lubrication.” Eeew. When Ikea Erotica is just a little too hot. Anyway, it’s clear the game really disapproves of this, and that Cathy is a crazy person who’s already decided we’re soul-mates destined to be together forever. I take the hint, and politely excuse myself from her presence. It seems like the gentlemanly thing to do, and she takes it pretty well. 

The night ending in a bust, but not the good kind, I head down to the garage, collect my car, and head back home, content that—

Goddamn. This is why I don’t date. Also, the lack of charisma, social confidence, and good looks. And refusing to bathe on the grounds that the government controls our brains via the rust in the pipes.

Well, let’s try again! Once more into a breach, or at least, to attempt to…

This is Jeri, and once again, I query whether the narrator of this game is supposed to be a human male or some kind of broken sociology robot from the future. This is a first impression here:

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