Queer dating is hard: it’s messy, depressing, and confusing. And pretty much none of that changes when you take things online. We’re seeing a new golden age of queer dating sims right now, but ValiDate is on a different level entirely. In the course of a game, players can come into contact with 13 characters, all with their own queer identities, pronouns, red flags, and green flags. INTO spoke to ValiDate’s creator, Dani Lalonders, about making the dating sim they’ve always wanted to play.
INTO: So what has your relationship to dating sims been typically?
So basically, I guess for a formal dating sim, it’s usually a mobile game where you can choose your own adventure, and you can see these characters from these pre-written stories and everything. And I just really liked that, I’ve always loved the appeal of that. I just kept playing more games with that. Usually like, “Dream Daddy,” “Boyfriend,” more Western dating sims. But I really loved “Ace Attorney,” which is not a dating sim, but I liked the progression of a character from one game to the next. I really just liked how they wrote that, and I wanted to bring that into my own writing. So that’s why in ValiDate we see the character from the beginning to the end of the arc. Because over the course of two years, we change as people and I wanted the characters to do the same.
That seems very complex and cool!
One of the most important things about ValiDate is that it was born through the pandemic. And as the game went on, we changed as people and we wanted to show that reflection in our characters, because two years later, you’re a completely different person than you were two years ago.
Absolutely. Is the pandemic addressed in the game at all?
No. I don’t believe in pandemic media, because we’re still in a pandemic.
I mean yeah, exactly.
If I wanted to see what the pandemic is like, I can just go offline.
So how long did it take you to write each character?
I initially wrote Malik in 2019. That was kind of the blueprint of Validate. And from there, I like I kind of looked at it and I was just like, “Okay, I like this format. Here’s how we can tweak it a little here’s how we can we get a little better.” Because initially, every time you made a bad choice it instantly ended your game. And that was like fun at first but like, for players, that can be really frustrating, because if it’s constantly like “game over” it removes the initiative to play. So we adjusted it slightly where you can make a number of bad choices or good choices. And as we got later into development I got my writers team together and everything, we kind of just sat down and we were just like, “Okay, here’s what we want to do. This character will have an intro, five romantic or friend dates, and an epilogue, you will show their entire progression through those seven rounds.” We have 13 characters, and that’s a lot. That’s a lot of content. Yeah. So we sat down as a writing team and we basically were just like, “who are the five characters that will have the most impact on your character? How will they meet? How will they already know each other?” Because we’ve all met a lot of people in our lives, but not every person has had an impact. Like for example, Malik’s routes are Yolanda, Arihi, Alonzo, Isabelle, and Rocky. In the Yolanda route, he learns that it’s not okay to be a bad person. And also, maybe I’m not super into women as much as I thought, maybe I’m also into men. With the Alonzo route, it kind of like certifies that, like “I’ve had all these experiences with different men different people who are not women, and I’m learning that I might not be straight, I might be bisexual might be paying I might be queer.” He’s learning that like his life is his to live. And with the Rocky route, that’s the first time he’s like “okay, I’m actually not straight. I’m bisexual. I like men, and that’s okay. I shouldn’t feel shamed by it.” So we really wanted to show that different characters and different people in your life have impacted you over the course of two years.
Yeah and that sexuality changes over time, as well. It’s a spectrum. And other things too, like career goals.
Yes, and all of our characters have a different arc. Malik’s arc is him coming to terms with his sexuality, and discovering his career. Inaya’s is coming to terms with her body image and realizing that being online makes it worse, and also how her career as food influencer makes it 10 times worse. And she’s learning that IRL people don’t see her as the people online see her, because that’s a very real thing for a lot of people who are extremely online and who have to unlearn all of that. Isabelle’s arc is her realizing that her family depends on her and that she should go forth in the world because she’s about to be 30 and her family shouldn’t rely on her as much. Emhari’s arc is that she’s coming to terms with her divorce. So in volumes two and three, we’ll have some characters who are going through a gender crisis. And others who are learning that sex is like not something that really interested and that they’re leaning more towards an ace identity. We’re gonna be touching on mommy issues, daddy issues, mental health crises, living your life as a trans person, et cetera, et cetera, because we want to hit those harsh themes that are typically not hitting in games, especially when it comes to queer people.
Were there others things missing from traditional dating sims that you wanted to address with ValiDate?
I feel like oftentimes when it comes to dating sims, it’s very black and white. Like when you mess up, there’s not really any repercussions. But when you make a mistake in life, the consequences are real. I really wanted to emphasize in our game that if you make bad choices, you will face consequences. And sometimes the consequences are dire: you will not get that date, this person will stop talking to you. It’s that serious.
Is there a redemption arc?
Yes, but not everyone needs a redeption arc. Sometimes you do something so egregious you won’t be forgiven!
I feel like Keaton has that look of like, I’m just gonna crush your heart. can be such a jerk. Like we’ve all met a Keaton.
Oh, absolutely. He’s realistic. He gets on my nerves, but he’s realistic.
Is there a chance for people to form polycules?
People keep asking us and we’ve been thinking about it. But the whole thing about validate is that none of these characters end up together because it’s just too complicated to write in one day. These 13 characters are so intertwined and like you will see them dating multiple people throughout the game, but we’re thinking about creating a poly option.
It’s nice to see a game that’s real about messy queer dating.
I know, God, it’s so complicated. It’s just like, my whole thing was writing queer stories. And that online bullshit really just irritates the hell out of me, where it has to be written in such a way so it doesn’t get ripped to shreds because queer people are really judgmental. And we’re so quick to call things queerbaiting. And to be like “Oh, this is not authentic,” even though it’s written by a queer person, because I just feel like people online don’t realize that we are not a monolith. We don’t all have same experiences.
Yeah that’s that’s why there are all these different outcomes that are taken from real experience.
Yes like, Inaya is a she/they, nonbinary. One of the biggest complaints that we got is that in their route, Keaton constantly refers to them as a woman, but she never corrects it. Because she’s still learning to, like, stand up for herself and be like, “actually I’m not a woman. I’m nonbinary, and these are my pronouns.” But they never corrected him and people got really mad at us.
I mean in real life, it is hard to correct people, especially if you’ve just come out. That’s real.
Yeah, like no one’s giving speeches about pronouns in real life.
Is there anything else we should know about ValiDate?
Our whole team is queer people of color. We take from our own experiences, and we make this game with a lot of love. Because this is a game that we all wanted to play growing up and not only exists other people can play it and it can inspire other people. I want I always say that I want to ValiDate to inspire people to make the work that they’ve always been afraid of making but and they never like thought they could do. I never thought I could make a game like ValiDate until I started making it. It’s very heartwarming, and you might cry a little, but it’s okay. You should make media that you want to see.♦