It’s rare for a dating simulator to let players revel in their sexcapades while dishing out hard truths about the consequences of their actions, but this queer visual novel made by a development team composed entirely by people of color is built different.
ValiDate: Struggling Singles in Your Area by Veritable Joy Studios, is a visual novel where you play as 13 queer POC creatives living in the fictional Jercy City area. Much like in real life, each character has to balance years of emotional baggage against ending the dry spell of their sex lives by throwing a whole new human being into the mix. The result is a romance game with multiple endings that showcase all the lows of a trashy reality TV show and heights of an HBO original show.
While dating is literally in the name of the game, instead of being spicy with no substance, ValiDate goes the extra mile in crafting a compelling story for each character that isn’t afraid to call them out on their bullshit.
I started out playing Inaya, the Pakistani Instaglam foodie and the Ghanian Soundcloud rapper, Malik. Although I was excited to play as these two because of the nonbinary and Black representation they provided me, my first impression wasn’t all that great. Basically, they were respectively the terminally online influencer and a hotep comedy rapper that were too self important to consider anyone else’s feelings.
Normally playing as an asshole in a dating sim is a turn off, but ValiDate manages to come out the other end because it prioritizes its characters as flawed human beings with complex lives outside of dating. Instead of going “full Tyler Perry” in having some tall dark and handsome (or light-skinned) person sweep them off their feet and solve all their problems, ValiDate prioritizes crafting compelling story arcs that establishes characters as people instead of sexual conquests.
Despite Inaya’s huge social media following and Malik’s purportedly unmatched “dick game,” when they’re left to their own devices, they’re insecure people who just want to be okay. Although Inaya puts on a front that they don’t care what internet trolls say about them, in reality, they read every comment and it severely affects their insecurities about their body image. In public, Malik is flirting dangerously close with coming off as a manosphere-esque jackoff that subscribes to the farcical pro-Black sentiments of Dr. Umar Johnson. But privately, he is suffering in silence with a niggling animosity towards his parents for assimilating into America by taking on a White last name. Nuanced writing is doled out in equal measure to each of ValiDate playable characters and honestly overshadows the dating aspect of the game.
While playing, I drew the comparison of the characters’ brutally honest inner monologues to Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet. Real-time status checks aren’t a factor in ValiDate, but its perceptive breakdown of character’s insecurities, coupled with the game’s binary choices, instill the same spirit as Disco Elysium’s all-or-nothing approach to shaping your character. ValiDate’s choices are more about massaging or calling out a character’s ego.
The characters you date show up in another character’s route, allowing their personalities to be fleshed out throughout the game. One repeat date that perfectly encapsulated this for me was Malik and Inaya’s date with the poetry slam host, Yolanda. While I’d initially thought Malik and Yolanda would have terrible chemistry because of a painfully awkward date, I was surprised to discover that Yolanda transformed into a confident character who voiced her intentions with Malik.
This surprise came in part from the very real code switching of Yolanda when she spoke with Malik. Instead of tiptoeing around red flags and platitudes, Yolanda put Malik in his place for his basic bitch dislike of white people and his garbage mixtape by telling him like it is: “Nigga, this shit is awful.” Yolanda’s code switching not only spoke to the dev’s understanding of how language transforms between POCs, but was also refreshing for me as a player having my gripes about the character I was controlling get aired out in spectacular fashion. Typically, romance games aren’t big on giving dateable characters opinions beyond “let’s go out” and “let’s just be friends” so it was refreshing to see ValiDate deviate from the norm.
ValiDate’s biggest strength is in how unafraid it is to have hard conversations about whether your choices are the best thing in the moment or the long term for its characters. Each character, regardless of how well their dates are going on the offset, reach an impasse where their ideologies and self-image come into conflict with Jercy City’s eligible singles.
While the game doesn’t shy away from allowing you to “have some fuk” after successfully choosing the right responses during dates, hooking up with characters doesn’t always lead to a fairy tale ending. Instead, ValiDate rewards players by having them play an active role in characters acknowledging their issues and the parts they play in perpetuating them, and recognizing that physical pleasure ain’t gonna solve that.
As the first game from Veritable Joy Studios, ValiDate not only successfully delivers on living up to the dev team’s goal to enrich the gaming space with racially diverse stories, it has me excited for more games to follow its example.