You and your friends have just graduated high school and in just a few months you’ll be across the world, pursuing your dreams. It’s the time to address your feelings, confront your fears, and find out what love looks like for you— it’s The Last Summer.
I worked as the project manager, narrative designer, and a researcher for the prototype of The Last Summer made by the interns at Game Changer Chicago Design Lab during the summer of 2018. The Last Summer is a dating simulator that is rooted in empirical research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health. It was prototyped to be part of a college’s orientation programming and would be used to introduce incoming students to the complex issues and ideas surrounding consent, sexual health, LGBTQ+ health, and healthy romantic relationships. Through branching dialogue choices and mini-games, students would interact with these concepts both implicitly and explicitly, following the embedded design model first put forth by Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan in 2015. The Last Summer is designed to have a surrounding dialogue moderated by universities such that students can discuss their takeaways, opinions, and experiences with the game among their peers, as peer-to-peer dialogue is one of the most effective ways of disseminating information and opinions regarding sexual consent for adolescents, and thus potentially other related concepts (Shafer, Ortiz 2016).
In playing The Last Summer, students befriend, and possibly woo, a variety of characters with specific and diverse stories and identities. But, rather than rely on the dating simulator mechanics where players charm characters by agreeing with them unilaterally and buying their affection with gifts or money, The Last Summer’s mechanics reflect relationship structures and norms in real life. Characters value honesty, communication, and trust, and it was our goal as designers to encourage players to think how those ideals manifest in their own lives. We also shifted away from the idea in which successfully pursuing a character results in sexual cut scenes as a “reward” for reaching the end of a character’s story. Instead, The Last Summer’s relationships rely on metrics of affection, sexuality, commitment, and romance, with each character having their own preferences and many different story outcomes depending on the kind of relationship the player fosters. It is entirely possible to play The Last Summer with nothing but positive or “good” choices being made but not a single sexual scene occurring, just as how many if not most of our relationships are rewarding without being sexual in nature. The project is currently on hold at Game Changer.