Original concepts and planning notes (SPOILERS!)

This week first date/can't relate was nominated for Excellence in Narrative in the Freeplay Independent Games Festival awards. To celebrate, I'd like to share some of my original planning/concepts for the game (+a list of some of my favourite moments).

Warning for big big spoilers. If you've played first date/can't relate and you're wondering what could possibly be considered "big big spoilers" then this warning includes you, too.

Original concepts

I've been planning to write a visual novel with this concept for a few years. The original push behind it was "a visual novel that takes advantage of anime sameface by making every onscreen character the same person". I always wanted to have that "mix and match your own favourite romance dynamic", too. 

As I started to write the game, a whole new level of meta-commentary started to emerge, with interesting questions like:

  • why do "correct" and "incorrect" choices in datesims often feel so arbitrary?
  • how do you make a datesim feel "safe", even when the player does everything wrong?
  • how do you define what is "in-character" for a character you have just started to play as?

By the end of development the game had a brand new central pitch: a cute, sweet, wholesome datesim with a shocking twist⁠—that makes it even more wholesome. Because I love "this changes everything" twists in visual novels, but you get a bit tired of all the "secretly grimdark" reveals. Unfortunately for me this is a bit too spoilery to use in marketing.

The setting

fdcr was always going to be set in my city (Canberra, Australia), but in early development this was meant to be a sort of easter egg. It wasn't until I started posting screencaps on Twitter and people started recognising locations that I decided to really embrace it (having said that, if I wanted to go full Canberra I could have gone much harder). I'm a big advocate for English visual novels to embrace their non-Japanese origins, so leaning into the "this is an Australian game with Australian character voices and set in my city" was a bit scary but very liberating. 

All the assets in the game are Creative Commons (except for the soundtrack and Ell's post-it note portraits). For locations in particular this was a bit tricky - I knew that I wanted Robin and Carey's date to be in a very specific set of buildings that have since been knocked down, so it took a while to hunt down the right photograph. The only backgrounds that aren't from Canberra are Ell + Charlie's bedroom, the fancy restaurant, which in my head is a very specific Canberran restaurant that I couldn't find photos of anywhere, and the stormwater drain rafting (but you can watch a video of that over here for an authentic experience).

Development process

I set myself the challenge of going from go to whoa in fdcr in one month. I think it ended up closer to six weeks. I planned the structure and writing based on this deadline - I wrote one date a night for two weeks, using an identical structure for each date, spent some time playtesting and then did some pretty major revisions on "the reveal" based on feedback.  This structure meant I had to start writing with a very clear idea of exactly how the whole game would fit together, so at the start of the process I sat down and wrote out very detailed notes about each character, the dynamics of each date, and the structure of every scene. Of course as I got further into the dates I got more and more off-the-rails, but having this structure to start was important. Here are those original notes:

Fun endings/moments

I've thought a few times about adding Achievements to fdcr as a way of showing just how goofy and off-the-rails some of these dates can go, but for now I've decided against it. This is for a simple reason: the experience of pursuing this specific goofy events isn't particularly fun. A lot of the game's goofiest moments are just based on me sitting down in a particular state of mind to write. There's no clever bit of player reasoning you can do to get certain scenes, beyond "this ending if you manage to stay in character and this ending if you don't commit to character".

Having said that, I would like to highlight a couple of my favourite moments, so:

  • The vampire ending (Robin/Dian). This ending is fun because it's simultaneously me realising something about this pair of characters and the characters realising the exact same thing. It's also one of the only endings that I created a custom asset for.
  • The I Can't Act, But Goddamn, You Really Can ending (Jamie/Orion). The interesting thing about the Jamie/Orion date is that on a meta level, it's Charlie trying to do Christian Grey and feeling very bad about it, and it succeeds at that, but on a surface level, if the player's not aware of the Charlie/Ell reveal, it's pretty uncomfortable. I up Ell's narration in this date to balance it out. But because the Jamie/Orion dynamic feels a bit off, a completely new style of ending emerged for this one date and I'm very fond of it.
  • The I Set Up An Interesting Plot Point And Then Wrote Myself Into A Corner, Oops ending (Dian/Adi). Charlie's commitment to characterisation gets Charlie and Ell into trouble in some of the dates, and this particular branch of this date makes me laugh.
  • The Let's Get Fake Married And Set Up An Ongoing Subplot ending (Adi/Orion). See previous.
  • Any Time Charlie Monologues (Adi/Orion, Carey/Jamie). The contrast between Charlie and Ell's commitment to characterisation underpins the whole game - one of my favourite examples is the distinction between the Ell character choice screen (rough marker sketches on post-it notes) vs the Charlie character choice screen (delicate pencil portraits on notecards). This really shines whenever Charlie gets free rein to go full Drama Kid.
  • Pwease No Steppy ending (Robin/Orion). It seems like everyone cites this moment when describing their experience with the game so it's not as "secret" as the other ends, but it sparks joy so it's on the list.
  • The Keep Faking ending (Adi/Carey). Bit different from the others in that it's not funny, but it is one of the points where the beating heart of the game shows through. There's two moments in the whole game where Charlie + Ell's safeword shows up (the other moment is very casually in the Jamie/Orion date) but I think they're important. This is also one of two points in the whole game where Charlie calls a timeout because of a choice Ell makes (the other point is in Dian/Robin). fdcr is definitely a "wholesome" game, but part of that is that Charlie and Ell are working very hard to be wholesome, and the player kind of has to make an effort, too. It's not hard to slip and say/do something quite mean completely by accident.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed fdcr I would love to hear from you - in the community, on Twitter, or you can leave a review.

Get first date/can't relate

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