Table Manners preview: okay, cupid

Dating is, as we all know, rubbish. Modern dating more so, as your soulmate swipes the wrong way because your main image wasn’t quite well-lit enough, or your first date comes to a crashing halt because their main image was of a different time and place in their life. And a different person.

It’s hard, is what I’m saying, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone – even if it is necessary in many ways. So why not mine this particularly rich vein of game-ore? Why not indeed – and it’s just what Echo Chamber Games has done for Table Manners.

Rather than focusing on the human interactions of a date – that same batch of questions (“What do you do, where are you from, do you know Wacky Baz from round here?”) asked ad infinitum and pretending to know and care what an executive marketing product ninja is – Table Manners puts things firmly in the realms of physics: you need to pour drinks, light candles, romantically feed your date, and more.

And it’s all done in that classic half-controllable hand way, like Surgeon Simulator and its ilk.

Tim Lewis, studio director at Echo Chamber, explains the decision: “We’ve found, and I’m sure most would agree, that dating can be by far the most excruciatingly awkward experience that anyone can go through; and we couldn’t think of many ways to make it worse than to put it through a physics simulation.

“We wanted to double down on the chaos, on the calamity, and hopefully the comedy of what happens when everything on a date goes wrong.”

The game itself was the product of the Ludum Dare game jam, with a smaller-scale idea – as is usually the case – flowering into the finished article, thanks in no small part to enthusiastic coverage from big-name influencers like Jacksepticeye.

But as Lewis explains, a lot has changed since that initial idea: “We basically put the game jam aside and started from scratch. We knew the idea, and we knew the bits that were fun, but we wanted to go way, way, way beyond what we’d imagined for the game jam and introduce some really interesting physics environments that would completely change how players tackle the in-game challenges.”

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See, this isn’t realistic. It needs more sedated tigers and pictures of groups with no identifying information of who an individual is.

Said environments include a yacht – and all the fun of oceanic waves – a private jet, an ice bar, and others, all bringing something different to the experience. “It was incredibly important to us that we only included environments which served a unique gameplay purpose,” he says.

But as Gavin Stewart, design director on the team, says, there’s learning that’s been done in the back while making the game: “Honestly, one of the biggest challenges that hit us early on was the amount of time that’s spent on running a business,” he explains.

“There were days where we had to draw our attention away from developing the game to focus on some of the more laborious parts of running a games company. Sometimes it was difficult to switch off at night and keep work separate from life, but now that we’ve been in our stride for a year we’ve got pretty good at keeping a healthy balance between the two.”

Back in the game proper, there’s also been a drive from Echo Chamber to… well, step outside of the echo chamber, and offer a game that’s backed up with a real nod to inclusivity. Basically, your hand can be customised, and the people you date aren’t limited in any real way. It seems like a small thing, but it’s a nice element to highlight.

But, as art director Hannah Payne points out, you’re always looking at grounded interactions in the game – the core mechanics revolve around the physics. “We generally tried to keep the interactions grounded,” she says. “And then many of the things that can go wrong come about organically, thanks to the clumsy, physics-based nature of the game.

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Your date either doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do, or is grinding their teeth incredibly hard and eyeing up the nearest exit.

“This is something we wanted to tap into right from the start, and is what made the physics genre such an unlikely partner for a dating sim.”

There’s a fine line to walk here – Table Manners focuses most of its attention on the physics aspect of things, and, as such, that really has to have the right feel for the game to succeed. We all remember Surgeon Simulator with an air of fondness, but the fact is as a game – and not as a stage show where everyone’s hooting with laughter – it just wasn’t much fun.

Echo Chamber needs to be sure it nails that balance between control and lack thereof to ensure your physics-based dating disasters are enjoyable failures, rather than frustrating exercises in lovelorn futility.

Genre: Horror
Format: PC
Developer: Echo Chamber Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release: 14 February 2020

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