Behind me was an actual carnival-style ring toss game, except instead of throwing rings onto deceptively placed bottles as you would at a carnival or fair, people were aiming for large, colorful dildos. In front of me at a booth on the back wall was an iPad that showed two bearded men vigorously twisting their tongues together as two girls giggled and laughed while sliding their fingers around the screen. I was at GaymerX, a game convention and self-described “queer space” focused on diversity and representation in the video game industry.
The game that sat before me was none other than Smooth Operator, a silly little iOS game about kissing.
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously,” said Kate, producer at Beardo Games, the developers of this quirky and loveable affair. “We typically like things that have a lighter touch and a bit of humor behind them.” And that’s a sentiment that shows through quite strongly in Smooth Operator. I’d wager it’s borderline impossible to play the game for more than 5 seconds without at least cracking a smile.
Smooth Operator is a two-player kissing game. Each player (or hand, if you choose to go solo) takes control of one of 22 different characters. It consists of not only following onscreen prompts for swiping directions, but also following icons as they move around the screen at increasing speeds. It’s incredibly simple and won’t require you to spend dozens of hours to see all that the game has to offer, but it’s that very simplicity that makes it such a unique experience. Instead of worrying too much about the accuracy of your finger movements, you can spend more time enjoying the delightfully graphic make out sessions.
Beardo is made up of Kate, an artist named Miles, and a programmer named Chris. All three go by their first names only. They started doing “game jams”—game development challenges that often task small teams with creating games in a limited amount of time—together a few years ago. In 2013, they participated in a Ludum Dare game jam event with the theme of “10 seconds” that eventually resulted in the game we now know as Smooth Operator. “We always try to subvert whatever the theme of the game jam is to make it a bit more unique and fun,” Kate said. “The constraints really force you to be a lot more creative.”
Each character was painstakingly crafted by Miles and they’re all just as unique as they are evocative. “We decided to fall on the side of player agency and letting players choose who they wanted to be,” said Kate. “There really aren’t any words in the game about gender, sexual orientation, or anything like that, so people can just scroll through and see what they see in it. And choose who they want to make out with.”
One of my favorite stories that Kate told me was about the first time they showed the game at a convention publicly at SXSW. “Since SXSW is in Texas, the people in attendance were noticeably more conservative than they are at, let’s say, here in San Francisco Bay Area,” said Kate. “I distinctly remember the look on one father’s face when he realized his son was about to make out with another man in a kissing game. Luckily it ended in laughter and lots of smiles, but it just goes to show you how varied reactions are to things like this.”
Since Smooth Operator heavily relies on the need for two people to be physically present at the exact same time, it can be a little difficult to really have the perfect moment to play the game outside of a convention setting. That being said, the design choice was intentional. You’re more than welcome to “play with yourself” as Kate puts it, using a single index finger to control each character, but it’s not really the same type of experience.
One reason is the game’s algorithm-based Compatibility Score. “We found it’s pretty funny when people play with themselves,” said Kate. “Especially because often times they find out that their left and right hands aren’t necessarily compatible romantically.”
“We wanted to make sure that it was not only fun, but we also wanted to enhance that meta experience,” Kate continued. “For example, there are points in every match where the two players’ fingers inevitably touch. That creates this sort of faux-intimacy that actually matches well with the super awkward and weird kissing on the screen.”
It sounds like a meaningless gimmick, but it actually makes for a pretty powerful impact in the moment. While observing convention attendees playing, even if they appeared to be in a relationship with one another, the moment their fingers collided or they accidentally brushed body parts, you could feel their connection grow. In that way, Smooth Operator is just as much about having silly fun and making out with each other as it is breaking down barriers we put up between ourselves and other people.
Part of that barrier we put up is our belief system and comfort level that we attribute to our self-identification. Roleplaying is a powerful tool for relearning how we view one another. “Lots of typical hetero man-and-woman couples, often married, will come up to play the game,” said Kate. “Sometimes women choose bearded men, sometimes the men choose ladies. Other times people like to find someone that most closely resembles them so that they can more closely identify with them. How you play and what you take from your makeout session is entirely up to you.”
Smooth Operator is scheduled for a February 11th, 2016 release on iOS with an Android version to eventually follow afterwards.
David Jagneaux is a freelance writer and full-time nerd who has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.
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