Mainstream video games are about as interesting as mainstream news. The thought of paying
$60 $70 to get exposed to fugly women and strong, empowered ethnic minorities in a game like the recently released Spiderman 2 is about as appealing to me as lining up for the vaxx. In fact, my typical experience with almost every game released past the year 2010 is that I dismiss it within 15 minutes. Sadly, even supposedly good games, including alleged “hidden gems”, are often a disappointment. The fastest I recently deleted a game from my computer was when the RPG Pillars of Eternity opened with a female warrior named Mary Sue who was supposed to show me, the hero of the story, around and teach me how to fight. Yeah, I did not think so either.
Anyway, looking for anything to play besides my regular diet of classic games, I checked out some adults visual novels that came highly recommended, and both are by a guy named Dr PinkCake. He keeps an air of mystery about himself, but I have a hunch that he is a perfectionist German. This guy works alone, so that he does not need to compromise his vision. His first game is Adult Lessons, which has been completed. The other one, which I also wanted to discuss in this article but that was before I realized that I had written 1,300 words already, is an episodic game named Being a DIK, which is still work-in-progress. Two seasons have been released and there will be two more, based on what I have read. Crazily enough, Being a DIK looks like a ten-year project, so let’s hope this guy manages to finish it.
Adult VNs are often quite crappy. Just like porn, they use some kind of excuse plot that serves as filler between sex scenes. There often is not much variety either. It is not at all uncommon that there is little choice, meaning that replay value is severely limited. Acting Lessons, however, managed to hook me within the first few minutes due to a pretty clever intro sequence. You are a crypto bro in early retirement and fate makes you cross paths with a cute store clerk. The store gets robbed, the (white!) thug knocks you out, and the store clerk feels guilty for what happened to you. After you get released from hospital and you manage to get her number, via a somewhat unlikely sequence of events, you meet up with her in a park. The game gives you several options of greeting her, including going for a make out. I laughed out loud, and obviously clicked on that option, expecting the typical garbage adult VN story telling. The chick then gets very upset and punches you in the face — only to have the MC state that this is “not what happened”, and rewinding. At this point, Dr PinkCake had my attention.
The story of Acting Lessons is pretty unlikely, and I do not want to spoil it. There is also a modicum of shoe-horned diversity such as your best friend being a black dude, bizarrely enough someone who lives a lifestyle diametrically opposite of yours. As you play the game, and get to know the other characters, you uncover a surprising level of narrative depth. Even secondary characters are detailed at an unexpected level of depth. Some women are sexually insecure, others are total sluts. Some of the women get very jealous, others act aloof, in order to protect themselves from getting hurt. I found very few of the interactions implausible. Of course, it is not at all plausible that the MC can basically have sex with any woman he meets, but we are playing an adult VN, so there are certain genre constraints that have to be honored. In any case, I do not think that a virgin could have written any of these characters and their conversations.
I found the various story arcs quite rewarding. There is a sobering overarching theme for you to tease out if you are so inclined. In essence, Acting Lessons is a modern interpretation of the “memento mori” trope. Literally, this means “remember that you are going to die”, but the wider meaning is that joy and happiness are fleeting and that you should grab them while you can because you may not get another chance. Concretely, love is for the young, so sitting idle while horny sluts want to get into your pants is probably not the best move. Once they are gone, they may be gone for good. In this game, the interesting angle is that you are a 40-something guy that gets a second chance at college-level debauchery due to having cashed out crypto currencies. If you accept this premise, then the story of Acting Lessons is not all that far-fetched, but even if you think it is, there are probably still plenty of moments where you may want to take a break and reflect on the story.
In my first playthrough, I played as a dark-triad character who was acting in an extremely egoistical way and tried to fuck every chick. The game lets you do this, quite easily in fact, but it throws you a massive curve ball in the end because you end up in a life-or-death situation as one of the girls you bang on the side turns out to be batshit crazy, and is hell-bent on destroying your life. This gave me some unpleasant flashbacks as I have also met the occasional crazy chick I should not have bothered with, albeit it did not go further than threatening phone calls or messages.
There is a lot of variety in terms of narrative choice. If you decide that sex in adult VNs is not really your thing, you can also play the game as some kind of incel who clumsily avoids every opportunity he gets to have sex. The game, however, presents three main girls, and steers you towards two of them during your first playthrough. The third one is introduced as a secondary character and the game gives no indication that she is one of the main girls until quit late in the game. I won’t spoil it, but I will add that I thought that the third girl was the best written female character in the game. You probably want to play through the game at least two or three times.
Acting Lessons is not a perfect game by any means. As an adult VN, it is probably an easy 10/10 regarless. The biggest issue is that at times I had the impression that you get hit with a large number of serious topics, in an attempt to elicit an emotional response from you. Some of them also get introduced quite clumsily. In particular (SPOILER!) I did not like the story arc of your best friend getting cancer, leading to a complete narrative shift of the entire game. I would have preferred if Acting Lessons had focused more strongly on the philosophical implications of having a dick and banging sluts.
On another narrative choice I am quite divided. This is also a heavy spoiler: the game basically ends with the MC’s house burning down and you having to reevaluate your recent life choices. However, that house burns down no matter what you do. In one story line, person A is the arsonist, but if you avoid person A completely in another playthrough, then person B burns down your house instead. This reminded me of some stories from Greek mythology were the protagonists are not able to escape their fate, no matter what they do. I hope that this is what Dr PinkCake was aiming for. The other interpretation is that he large number of narrative choices would have led to a lot of extra work, compared to burning down the MC’s house and a concluding brief story sequence that ties some loose ends together.
Despite the minor criticism, I strongly recommend Acting Lesson. It is a remarkable achievement. Dr PinkCake set a very high bar with it. With Being a DIK, however, it seems he is setting an even higher bar, but more on that VN in a different article.