It was the Friday night after my first week in a new high school and already I was a dateless loser. While all my new classmates were out living it up at house parties or hitting on each other at the local mall, I was stuck at home …alone…studying French.
Oh sure, I'd tried to convince a guy to go out on a date with me on this, my first weekend in my new home of Brooktown. But he shot me down…muttered something about thinking of me as nothing more than a "friend."
Sigh. Somehow I thought things would be different this time around.
And that's when I first realized that "Brooktown High" — the new dating simulator for the PSP ($39.99 from Konami) — might be, in some ways, a wee bit too realistic for its own good.
The promotion material for this teen-rated game reads: "Were you a nerd or a jock in high school? Either way, Brooktown High gives you the opportunity to do it all over again."
Do high school all over again? I shudder at the thought.
Still though, social/dating sim games like these are big in Japan and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Also, late last year Rockstar Games did a truly stellar job transforming some of the most painful years of a young adult's life into a really excellent game, "Bully." That game put players in the sneakers of a teenage boy trying to navigate the social fabric of a new school, and in doing so they created an action game that managed to be thought-provoking, funny and a whole lot of fun to play all at the same time.
Like "Bully," "Brooktown High" drops players into a school ruled by stereotypical cliques: nerds, jocks, preps and rebels. And so at the start of the game, you take a personality quiz that determines where you fit in, answering questions like: "What's the best thing about high school life: Raging parties? Fabulous formals? Knowledge?" Or , "It's your second date. He asked you to rent a movie and come over to his place. You pick up: An action flick? An anime movie? A foreign film?"
According to my answers, I was 50 percent rebel, 12 percent jock, 38 percent nerd (ouch) and zero percent prep. This categorization determines your initial personal statistics in four categories: originality, athletics, smarts and charm. And these stats are important down the line.
The game goes on to have you create an avatar for yourself — selecting eye color, hair style, height and so on. (Though the character creation system is quite limited.) And after that, you're tossed into your new school where you must sink or swim in the social pool…and ultimately land yourself a date to the prom.
At Brooktown High that means you spend your time running around chatting up your fellow students, trying to win their approval and get dates with them. This is accomplished by saying the right things to them based on which clique they seem to belong to as well as by giving them gifts and doing favors for them. (Yes, being a sycophant really pays off here.)
And remember how in high school it seemed so painfully important to make yourself fit in? Yes, even here at Brooktown High you're not rewarded for being who you want to be…but for being who they want you to be. Here you must manipulate your personal stats to make yourself appealing to those students you want to befriend or date. Increase your athletics rating, for instance, to appeal to a jock. Work on your originality rating to woo a rebel. You can change your stats by studying different subjects in school (French, art, P.E. or physics) or by doing well in the various mini-games you unlock along the way.
After all this effort, if you win your fellow students' approval then you get a boost to your popularity and confidence meters. And if all goes well, you'll even get to go out on a date.
But again, the risk of social rejection lurks at every turn. Out for a night on the town? Be sure you say the things your date wants to hear. Say the right thing and you'll get a smooch. Say the wrong thing and he'll drop you faster than you can quote your favorite line from "Sixteen Candles." In my case, once I'd finally managed to land a date with a guy named Hilton — even made sure to massage his ego by asking him to talk about himself — I suddenly found myself dumped mid-evening when I suggested we go out for sushi. Who knew raw fish was such a raw topic?
While all of this is actually reasonably amusing for a little while (it's a twisted bit fun to watch the stereotypical high school dramas and social anxieties play out from a digital distance) it's safe to say that "Brooktown High" is no "Bully."
When I was in high school, I remember feeling like there just wasn't enough for a teenager like me to do. Talk on the phone. Hang out at the mall. Booooring. The problem with "Brooktown High" is, you get the same feeling playing the game. There's just not enough to do here.
The week progresses like this: Monday morning you go to school and, in the very short period of time before classes start, you've got to run around as quickly as you can making friends and trying to set up dates. Once the bell rings, you better get to class before the robotic hall monitor (huh?) shocks you with his zap gun. But once you're in class, you don't actually do anything — there's no mini-games here, there's no nothing. Instead, you see your avatar in class as the rest of the week days fly by.
And then, suddenly, it's Friday. If you've selected an extracurricular activity — a club to join or a job — you'll see your avatar rock out in a band or go to work at her modeling job. But again, you the player don't actually do anything.
Now that it's the weekend, if you haven't managed to set up a date then you have no choice but to spend your time in your bedroom where you can study (snooze), purchase new clothes online (not a particularly large variety to choose from), call friends on the phone (if you've managed to get their numbers), or play a couple of mini-games.
You'll spend a lot of time in your room at first and though the mini games — a fairly innocent version of strip blackjack and a "Dance Dance Revolution"-like title among them — are amusing enough, pretty soon you'll be totally bored (imagine that time you got grounded for a month after crashing Dad's car.)
Additionally, while it feels like there's nowhere near enough time allowed at school to socialize with your fellow students, at the same time your conversations with these students — there are only 20 of them — quickly begin to grow repetitive. Nobody ever said the teen years offered up life's most meaningful conversations…but still, how many times can you talk to Elektra about how she feels about voodoo?
All in all, I've always felt more than a little relieved that high school is a thing now firmly in my past. Though "Brooktown High" is good for a peek back and a laugh (or perhaps a wince), it hasn't convinced me that I should spend much time reliving those awkward years.