The hands of two different people are clasped in the game 'ValiDate'
(Veritable Joy Studios)

Not Diverse, But ‘Realistic’: How ‘ValiDate’ Rewrites the Dating Sim Script For Femmes of Color

Recently, I got a chance to talk about ValiDate and its development with its creator, Dani Lalonders. Talking to them was just such a fun and engaging time, and while that in and of itself is delightful, it’s also indicative of the game that they made. ValiDate, while not without its technical flaws, is one of the comfiest games I’ve played in a long time—not because it’s a “cozy game,” but because it creates a safe space for femmes of color, such as Dani and myself. But I suppose that makes sense, since Dani created this game out of a need for more games like this. Sometimes, you just gotta do it yourself, and hope it gets the ball rolling.

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It was evident to me, while talking to Dani, that ValiDate was a project of passion and came from the heart, and that it continues to be their flagship project. Lalonders even said that, while they’re going to keep working on new games, they’re proud that ValiDate was their heart-project, so to speak. And so are we, as players! ValiDate started as a small project between friends, but it grew into what it became out of a desire from the community to see more of it. It was a bit of a daunting prospect, especially for a first-time producer, but ultimately, the entire development process was a success: the team was incredibly supportive of one another and really championed their individual strengths, regardless of whether they were writers, artists, etc. Dani was particularly proud of Alexis, the game’s Art Director, who’d never even worked on video game art before—a fact that shocked me, since the art in ValiDate is absolutely gorgeous, and some of the most emotive art I’ve ever seen in an indie game.

Of course, it wasn’t an entirely smooth process, at no fault of the devs. Gamers be gamers, unfortunately, and while we didn’t get into it too much, it was clear to me that all the backlash against the “anti-white racism” of the game (which, to be clear, is not a thing) was incredibly taxing to deal with. As femmes of color, Dani and I related heavily to the struggles of being creators with marginalized voices, who aren’t even trying to be “political” yet end up having to weather such BS critiques just by doing what we do. To quote Dani, calling ValiDate a “diverse” game is reductive, because it’s a game that reflects reality. It’s therefore more appropriate to call it “realistic,” which I love and wholeheartedly agree with.

Yet the fact that so many people are willing to fight against this can be draining on creators, and it’s why so many femmes of color drop out of the gamemaking rat race so early. We’re not made of steel, nobody is. It can be very easy to feel demoralized and give up. But ultimately, as Dani pointed out, the takeaway should be that you’re creating a product that people need, and in the world we live in, the wrong kind of people will always be keen to take that away from us. But they don’t have that much power, and the real power lies in the creation itself.

Oddly enough, though, there was backlash from the other side as well: the sorts of people who are typically gung-ho about games like this. And it was because they wanted more romance than the game provided. Dani spoke at length about their frustrations with fandom shipping-culture, and how so many pieces of media are reduced to ships when there’s so much more to them. More to the point, it’s very rare for video games to reflect the realities of dating and romance—things that the two of us are quite familiar with. Similarly to how Dani felt the need to create ValiDate to provide the kinds of content femmes of color deserve, they also wanted to create a game that explored the full gamut of human relationships and dating in your twenties. This is something we both agreed on, and something they hope will inspire other creators to make more of.

Dani’s pretty cool, if that isn’t already apparent. I’m looking forward to seeing what new projects they’ll release in the future, including a “marriage counselor” sim that’s going to highlight different types of relationships, and a game that will be very music-heavy. As far as ValiDate itself though, we talked a bit about the future routes and our favorite characters, and Dani’s joy for their own game was infectious. I had to ask about Malik first, because it’s so rare to see games that highlight realistic Black male narratives, and, well, Malik is kind of a fuckboy, so I found it curious that Dani wrote about him at all. Apparently, Malik started as a friend’s OC (co-creator Haven Vintage Foods), and grew into the Coochie Man we all know and love after many years of nurturing his absurdities. I was already a fan of the guy, but this just made me love him even more, and I love that they wanted to focus on him finding himself instead of falling into the trap of immigrant-parent expectations.

On the flip side, we had a laugh about Keaton, the Italian Sub who Inaya has a brief and awkward hookup with during their route. I found it funny that we approached this scenario from entirely different angles: on my end, I resonated with Inaya’s total certainty that Keaton would only sleep with them as a joke, while Dani laughed the encounter off as “one of those times when you sleep with someone you shouldn’t have.” It’s a testament to the game’s writing that it could capture both aspects of those kinds of hookups in one single route. Damn you, Keaton Nervetti!

However, I was happiest to talk about Yolanda, my personal favorite character who also happens to be Dani’s. I felt very attached to Yolanda because we’re both half-Asian, and we both perform self-sacrificing standards of femininity without even realizing it. Dani and I talked about how painful these standards can be, yet how common they are in Black and Asian femmes: we’re expected to take care of others while reducing ourselves to fit a mold. It was something I recognized in Yolanda almost immediately, and in each of her interactions with other characters, I saw quite a bit of my own experiences being represented. Everything, from being a car-seat therapist, to accepting a kiss because you don’t know how to deny it, reminded me of my own life. Again, this isn’t “diversity,” this is reality, and I’m so grateful that Dani wrote Yolanda with such empathy and wisdom.

Apparently though, many came after the game for not having more Asian characters, and when pressed, it became apparent that they only meant light-skinned East-Asians. There’s actually more Asian characters in this game than most others, they’re just not the usual narratives we’re presented in games. And that’s, again, just reality—inter-Asian racism is real, and I like that ValiDate is confronting that and bringing these stories to the table. Although there’s a good chance that those detractors were just white “Koreaboos,” in which case…lol.

I’m very excited to announce that the next chapter in ValiDate will feature Yolanda, Bigs, Rocky, and Arihi, and boy, am I ready for the drama. Dani’s ready, too: they were howling at how chaotic and nasty this next volume is gonna be. But I’m so ready. For one thing, I’m excited to see the world through my girl Yolanda’s eyes (and also through the eyes of her very expressive fish bandana). For another, Bigs is a treasure and I was waiting to see more of him. And for the most of the most, Rocky and Arihi are such complete bitches, and I love them for it. Realism means that people can be nasty at times, and I applaud ValiDate for exploring that with neither judgment nor blind acceptance. Rocky’s a bratty nepotism baby (also half-Asian, we out here), and Arihi is that stuck-up academic you tried to chat up at a party once then gave up on. I’m particularly interested to see their sides of their dates with Malik, the aforementioned Coochie Man. And to wrap things up, speaking of Coochie Man: it’ll be released on Spotify very soon, and I’m so, so ready for it.

But for real, this game is something wonderful, and Dani is such a bright, vibrant person, who I can tell is going to do great things with their work. I’m definitely keeping an eye on ValiDate as it continues to release volumes, and regardless, I’m rooting for Dani and everyone else who’s putting in the work to finally create games for us. I see you, and I guarantee you, your work is wanted and needed!

(Featured Image: Veritable Joy Studio)


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Author
Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).