Singles: Flirt Up Your Life is a personality simulation game that revolves around the development of a romantic relationship between two everyday characters, who begin as mere acquaintances sharing an apartment. As in Maxis' The Sims, players spend their time managing their character's day-to-day activities (such as going to work, eating regularly, and getting enough sleep), redesigning the apartment to make it more comfortable, and encouraging the two characters to grow closer by prompting them to communicate with one another in different ways.
Unlike in the Sims, players don't design their Singles from scratch, but choose from a selection of pre-made characters with various personality traits. Singles was designed for the European market, where many Americans might find the general attitude toward sexual expression to be more relaxed. Properly wooed singles will eventually undress in front of one another (and the player) as they become more intimate. Because the game features full nudity and portrayals of sexual relationships, it has been rated "AO" ("Adults Only") by the ESRB.
Since the great majority of North American retailers flatly refuse to sell "AO"-rated games (regardless of actual content), initial distribution of Singles in the U.S. was done solely online. Grown-up gamers who are interested in trying this steamier interpretation of Sims-style play can download a free trial of Singles, from the game's official website or a number of other portals. The demo allows players to spend around four hours with their characters, to get a feel for the game's interface and dynamic. An access code may be purchased by those who enjoy Singles, to unlock the full version from the downloaded demo, removing the four hour time limit.
When you were a kid, you took off your G.I. Joe's pants, just to, you know, see. And if you had a sister, you know you swiped her Barbie and took off its clothes. And you probably even posed them in, ahem, compromising positions (just for the record, I'm not saying I ever did this). And then you turned thirteen or so, which is well in advance of the minimum age recommended for the purchase of Singles: Flirt Up Your Life, and you realized how completely stupid that was.
So it feels oddly regressive to play a game built around the concept of seeing what a plastic doll has on under its clothes and how it looks when it's posed in compromising positions with another plastic doll. And by "oddly regressive," I mean "juvenile," "foolish," "embarrassing," and any other adjectives that spring to mind when your girlfriend walks in on you while you're clicking on a computer character and selecting "Do the Wild Thing" from a menu of choices. Because the privilege of clicking on "Do the Wild Thing" is the equivalent of the boss monster in Singles. I hope that's not a spoiler for you.
First, let's admit that there's nothing wrong with the basic premise. The most obvious fact about Singles is that it's so blatant a The Sims clone that you have to wonder what it takes to kick up a lawsuit against clones these days. Singles is an unabashed imitation, right down to the interface, of The Sims. For this most part, this means it'll be familiar to everyone who boots it up (it's hard to imagine someone who didn't play The Sims would bother with Singles).
But the purported difference between the games is that Singles promises to explore the forbidden carnal corners that The Sims only hinted at. Whereas sex in The Sims was implied in the Hot Date expansion, Singles fairly crackles with the promise of explicit sex that's so hot that it earned an "AO" rating from the ESRB. That means no kids allowed -- 18 and over only. In fact, if you go to the game's website, you'll be virtually carded before you can enter. Singles is supposedly so explicit that retailers won't carry it and (publisher) Eidos Interactive seems to have resigned itself to offering it online.
In theory, so far, so good. If you're going to have a game in which characters go to the bathroom, fart, and have babies, you might as well have a game in which they have sex. Equal opportunity for all bodily functions, puritanical dignity be damned. But in practice, Singles is hardly more explicit than The Sims. There are indeed nipples, pubic hair, and penises when people take a bath or change clothes (a toilet paper icon covers people when they go to the bathroom), but the sex takes place under the sort of strategically placed blankets you find in R-rated movies. And long before you reach the actual sex, you'll have to sit through a lot of creepy fondling, Sims-ish moaning, and bad collision detection in which one character's hand passes clean through his partner's arm or someone's neck disappears under a pillow.
In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, aliens put Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in a glass display representing a house in order to observe them having sex. Although the situation is really weird, it only takes them about a week. In Singles, you essentially play these voyeur aliens playing audience to their couple in a bubble, but your subjects are a lot more timid and require your input. Your job is mainly to watch, like the Slaughterhouse-Five aliens, but occasionally you'll have to perform a few rote routines to prime the pump of carnal interaction.
Your characters have conventional needs -- hunger, cleanliness, sleep -- that the A.I. is perfectly capably of satisfying. That's when you'll do most of your watching, witnessing dramatic events like cooking dinner, the morning shower, and repeated hand washing. You'll need to constantly butt in to meet your character's social needs, however, which are divided between fun, sensuality, romance, and friendship. For each need, there are very few actions available, and no one else to meet them beyond your character's single roommate.
As your socio-sexual needs progress in levels from one to ten, you can unlock additional actions. By reaching the tenth level in each area, your characters will marry each other, essentially completing the game by showing you all it has to offer. There are different characters, but they all have the same canned interactions, which consist of sophomoric, lascivious interactions beneath even the most shameless sitcoms: "Wow, you're looking foxy today," the dude tells the chick. "Keep looking, and I'm going to start charging you money," she retorts. "Is there anything else on offer for money?" he leers. This might barely qualify for a mid-season replacement on UPN.
The limited interaction is one of Singles' biggest problems. Other than their hair and outfits, there is very little to distinguish the different characters. What's more, you can't create your own characters. You're stuck playing with someone else's ideas, with absolutely zero opportunities for customization. And since the A.I. takes care of your characters' mundane needs, your job is to wait until they have free time and then run through repeated canned interactions to improve their relationship. You eventually work out a routine that goes like this: hug, snuggle, gossip, repeat until they have to go to sleep.
The minimal challenge comes from making sure you balance who does the busy work of cooking and cleaning. Otherwise, spats might break out and you'll have to sit through more of the hug-snuggle-gossip routines to advance your relationship levels. There's a potentially interesting system of character advancement in which you earn points to spend on skills, but since your goal consists almost solely of advancing to the point where your characters will have sex, everything else is peripheral.
So it's hardly surprising that Singles is missing the rich shopping and house customization options that make The Sims so engaging. In Singles, it's almost as if a few options are begrudgingly thrown in so you'll have something to do while you're waiting for your characters to like each other enough to bump uglies. What color wallpaper do you want? Do you like the green chair or the more expensive purple one? And do you want to spent $400 or $1200 on a vacuum cleaner? Not that it really matters. You're just biding your time until the beast with two backs shows up.
To the technology's credit, the graphics engine isn't bad. It handles different zoom levels adroitly, which makes for great screenshots. And although the character models are nicely detailed, they usually have the sort of vacant zombie look where you can imagine they might suddenly bleat out a request for "BRAAAAINS!" at any moment. This makes the attempts at eroticism extremely creepy. Watching a woman's hands stroke her partner's back while he moves on top of her is pretty disconcerting, mainly because there's no sense of touch or sensuality. It's entirely mechanical and ultimately as erotic as a naked Barbie and GI Joe.
In fact, Singles is a weird uncomfortable reminder that computer games aren't really ready for this sort of explicit sexuality. Until it can be handled with a more nuance, I'll stick with the implied Sims stuff, thank you very much.
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