It is kind of reassuring how gaming is slowly going back in time in regards to technology, because sure one could argue that games need fancy graphics, multiplayer components and breakneck action to be considered of interest for the general public at large. But, if the objective is just tugging at one’s heartstrings, then visual novel Speed Dating for Ghosts will definitely do the trick. A short experience that is perfect for both newcomers and veterans of the genre alike.
In Speed Dating for Ghosts, the player is… well, a ghost on a speed date. A pretty clear case of delivering what it is promised on the tin, I guess. Developed by Ben Gelinas, released as a stopgap title while he was still busy writing Remedy’s Control, his intentions were to develop a short narrative experience that focused, positively, on themes of death and regret.
At the start of each playthrough, the floaty Fran shall explain the rules to the player: pick a room, then enjoy a short chat with the ghost that shall appear, as soon as the bell will ring, the next date shall begin. After a couple of rounds of talking with the three different characters, the player gets to choose which one to go on a date with. Of course, depending on the replies given and the chemistry, the partner may agree on the date or could also refuse.
Even though SDFG may sound more like a dating sim than a pure visual novel, at its heart it is not. Behind every ghost lies a personal story, some times funny, other times sad and, perhaps, quite dark. This is not about romance or getting into our date’s heart, instead it is about discovering the stories behind each character. The writing does not shy away from heavy topics such as sickness and death, doing so in such a personal and direct way that ends up being pretty touching. The dates also end up going pretty varied places, which definitely makes sense, since ghosts don’t tend to go to the restaurant. The player may end up in pretty different situations like holding up a bank or playing a football match.
Since everyone in the narrative is not only dead, but also pretty lonely as well, it really is heartwarming to meet such a cast of different souls, all just wanting to be heard. Some will not give up their story pretty easily, needing more time to unbutton, others will gladly share everything as soon as they’re asked. Finishing a date successfully unlocks the gravestone of the related character, along with their bio. A small reward to check out before going in for another round.
While the writing doesn’t manage to always stay engaging, it is most of the time very charming and the narrative never wears out its welcome. To be honest, I felt pretty sad when it ended, taking me something like 90 minutes to see everything. Since writing this article, I also managed to replay the whole game along with the new “Go to Hell” expansion, which naturally sees new characters coming in for speed dating, along with familiar faces. The new rounds take places in the fantastic vacation places that is Hell, naturally. It was great to see some stories continuing, along with peculiar characters like the demon and the witch. Still, the expansion doesn’t really bring all stories to their natural conclusion, some questions are still left hanging, along with mysteries that will – perhaps – never be solved.
The art style is simple but works wonders in immersing the player in the rather peculiar world of afterlife dating. Most of the time, there are no background details at all, especially in the main game: the screen will just display the chosen partner and a couple of details around the character, like a candle or a glass of water (ghosts apparently don’t drink coffee or wine).
Most ghost characters are designed to be a mix between scary and cute, which works wonders and the drawings perfectly define their personality and make them memorable. The sound design also perfectly conveys each ghost’s personality, with Spooky Peter sounding – appropriately – like a wooden floor from an old house creaking under each step or Vera, the smoker, purposefully coming out as smoky and frail. The soundtrack is – in keeping with the rest of the atmosphere – minimal electronica which works as a background, never intruding into the player’s attention.
Speed Dating for Ghosts holds a special place in my heart. It is a perfect mix of discussions on mortality and love coupled with small doses of wit and humour.
The art design works wonders in immersing the player in a different reality and the sparse details leave a lot of work up to the player’s imagination. The different replies offer some branching choices, but it is not about finding the good ending, rather about uncovering the stories and maybe choking up a little. Its only letdown is really the short length which prevents the player from engaging in longer stories or dates with the various ghosts, but then again, that was the creator’s original intention.
Highly recommended for anyone who’s looking for something deep but, at the same time, delightfully charming, the writing manages to strike a perfect balance between personal drama, comedy and reflections on our mortality as human beings. Since Februrary 2020, it is also available on Switch as well as on Steam.