Creatures Such as We is a choice-based romance story. I played it all the way through.
Creatures Such as We is about romance and video games and romance in video games, as well as the nature of art, and life on the moon. Also, depending on which characters you end up talking to most, it can be about the fear of death or the challenge of being female in the games industry or… well, other things, I’m pretty sure, but I haven’t had time yet to spend enough time with the relevant characters. I played it through, and then immediately went back and played about half of it over again, pursuing a different romantic direction. And then I ran out of time, because it’s a pretty substantial piece of work.
I’ve played only a handful of real dating sims, but most of them in my experience focus on allocating your time resources to particular characters. Sometimes it’s really a puzzle to work out how to get close to a particular person. Creatures isn’t like that; if you pick a character to pursue, it’s not hard to indicate that to the game, and not hard to get the character to be interested in you back. The story moves on, instead, to being about what you say to that person once you have an interest, and how you interact with them, and the issues that will determine whether you’re able to maintain a relationship in the long term. (I think it’s also possible to just pick someone to be friends with, and not have a romance at all; but I didn’t play it that way.)
The game also touches on the question of how consent and possible romantic failure can be portrayed in video games. How do you model a relationship that requires the enthusiastic agreement of the other party in a format where NPCs are designed to give the player what they want? Where failure to make a romantic connection might feel like a failure of game design or of player skill, instead of being a valid story path?
This is, in fact, something I’ve thought about a lot; when writing Blood & Laurels, I was concerned about how to portray the main character’s potential relationship with a young woman who has refused him in the past. I wanted to explore the possibility that he might grow closer to her now that both of their circumstances have changed, but I didn’t want to make that outcome automatic, and I also didn’t want to make it a puzzle, per se. I didn’t want it to be a situation where the player’s agency is catered to above all else. This was especially important to me precisely because Roman women had relatively few options in the direction of their own lives; how this woman felt was one of the few areas in which she could have agency.
In order to have a character interesting enough to be worthy of romancing, there needs to be the possibility — perhaps just hypothetical, but present in some way — that that character might say no to the protagonist, not because that character is a puzzle but because they have enough of an inner life to permit a meaningful refusal.
Creatures Such as We uses the game-within-a-game trope to explicitly raise this question. The outer game concerns interacting with a group of game designers to talk about a game they’ve written and that you’ve just recently finished playing. That inner game you’re discussing involves a romance with an ending that is not precisely what the protagonist wants it to be. Several of the designers explain various takes on this; the character of James talks about the consent issue, for instance. (The way the characters explicitly discuss the major themes of the story is occasionally a little heavy-handed, but it mostly works.)
This not only puts the consent/NPC issue on the table; it also gives the player a heads-up that, just as the inner game has not ended quite as they might desire, the outer game might not either. And that means that even when things are going pretty well with your chosen date, that possibility of an eventual flameout remains on the table — a permanent, serious flameout that you can’t undo or get around by playing with enough skill.
Another major (but tightly related) theme is the question of game endings, and how players relate to endings that they don’t like. Conversations in the outer layer of Creatures encourage the player to state whether they think art is more for the artist or more for the recipient or neither. I actually think the answer to this is a bit more complicated than either of those positions would suggest — I partly agree with what Jenni Polodna says in her own review, that stories have their own internal logic that must be respected regardless of what either author or player might want. And sometimes, at least for me, it just doesn’t feel right to hand over a simple victory. But Creatures introduces and plays with some other possible ways of addressing this issue, which I will leave it to people to discover.
In any case, this is a substantial, entertaining, and well-written piece of work. There are perhaps a handful of times when it feels as though the characters are presented more as standard-bearers of particular ideas than as totally rounded individuals, though the narrative slightly lampshades this, and to be honest I think it was the inevitable result of making a playable-in-two-hours-or-less piece with this many individual NPCs who need to be separately characterized. Even with that caveat, there’s just a lot of meaty interaction, together with a plot that keeps moving briskly along, some beautiful moonscape imagery, and a deft handling of inner and outer game plot. The selection of ChoiceScript also seemed appropriate for a game about giving the player a lot of self-definition features and a wide set of romance-able NPCs.
I’ve got a fair number of games yet to play, but I’m pretty certain this will be appearing on my best-of-the-comp list.