Singles: Flirt Up Your Life is, in a word, European. For the most part, it's a shameless, stripped-down copy of The Sims. Only, here, the goal isn't merely to keep your characters nourished and gainfully employed but to get them to knock boots, as it were. This is a strange premise, and it's one that might never have made it to these shores were it not for publisher Eidos, which took upon itself the task of releasing a downloadable, Adults Only-rated version of Singles in North America. Anyway... While we desensitized American savages gleefully absorb scenes of graphic violence, we hypocritically express shock and dismay at the sight of an unclothed human body. Apparently, however, it's kind of the other way around in Europe. Indeed, Singles was originally developed in Germany, a country that's notoriously strict about depictions of violence in its video games yet has no qualms about full-frontal nudity, if Singles is any indication. But the truth is, Singles isn't nearly as racy as it sounds. It's also not as bad of a game as you might expect, though this is not to say that it's good.
In Singles, you always have direct control over two different characters. The premise of the game is that two swinging, unattached singles (of course) just so happen to move into an apartment together, and it's up to you, for some reason, to get them to hook up (as if inter-apartment relationships are a good idea). The proverbial dance all starts with playful flirting and teasing and gradually works its way up to hugging and kissing. It culminates in, finally, what the game refers to as "the wild thing." One of the major shortcomings of Singles is that, unlike The Sims, the range of character actions here is actually very limited. There are four categories of actions--romance, sensuality, fun, and friendship--and just a handful of different, possible options within each one, all of which are represented by a single animation that plays out the same exact way each time. The ultimate point of Singles, apparently, is to unlock all the different, possible animations. This will, maybe, take you a weekend's worth of casual playing time, though the process is purposely dragged out so that you can't see everything the game has to offer in a half hour.
Like in The Sims, in Singles you need to manage the mundane aspects of the lives of mundane characters. You can't make your own characters but instead are limited to a fairly small selection of Caucasian men and women, the latter of which are all quite pretty, and the former of which all look like dirtbags. In practice--though you supposedly have characters that range from yuppies to swingers to artistes to girls-next-door to computer nerds--there's really no obvious difference in gameplay terms, regardless of which sort of mismatched pair you select. What's also rather strange is that there's a token gay male and a token gay female character that you can pick for attempted same-sex partnerships...only, you can pick both these characters together. So, Singles purports that any combination of two young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, can eventually be made to hook up. Surely this is not the strangest notion ever presented in a game.
The characters in singles all look to be somewhere in their 20s, and some of them are described as being "always on the scene looking for some action." So it's ironic, then, that the game is actually somewhat conservative in its structure (as if these types of people, in real life, would be averse to a one-night stand). You can't just make your two characters hop into bed together from day one. Instead, it'll take a good couple of weeks of game time to work your way up to that. You'll instead have to make your singles eat together, watch TV together, play board games together, flirt, sweet talk, do chores for each other, and generally be civil to each other (and little else) before their relationship can reach a stage where they're willing to spend the night together. Even after they do, the game's canned, text-based dialogue in story mode doesn't match up with what has already transpired, which suggests that the characters' relationship hasn't blossomed as well as it would appear, based on what has actually happened.
In fact, for a game that's set in the real world and presents fairly realistic-looking characters and situations, Singles comes across as surprisingly, mind-numbingly, bafflingly implausible. Shouldn't hipsters such as these have the desire to leave their apartments at some point for purposes other than work? They can call their friends on the phone, and they can run out to buy gifts for their roommates, but that's the full extent of their interactions with the outside world. The apartment can never be occupied by more than just the two characters.
Furthermore, the sequence of actions that becomes unlocked as your characters' relationship develops doesn't seem to reflect the way in which anyone could plausibly expect such a relationship to blossom. Flirting suddenly gives way to full-on French kissing in just a couple of days of game time...and only days later do the characters find the courage to give each other simple pecks on the cheeks or seemingly innocent hugs. Characters will have long since been sucking on each other's faces for days before they're comfortable with seeing one another in their underwear as well (until that point, they'll automatically run away from one another in embarrassment). Furthermore, characters that are ready to take that all-important step in their relationships literally won't be able to do so unless their apartments are furnished with double beds. So much for raging hormones... Also, the game's distinction between "romance" and "sensuality" is perhaps too subtle for our shallow American minds to fathom. As a result, the characters need to have these two separate criteria independently satisfied at all times, as though the two were completely unrelated. All these types of things conspire to make Singles a truly nonsensical game. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun for a while, and one could probably argue that the nonsensical qualities are to the game's credit.
The game itself is simple, and its characters, in practice, all seem to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. All you'll really do is make them repeatedly wash their hands, bathe, go to the bathroom, and eat; you'll use any idle time in between to make them flirt and chat and such. For some reason, they gradually gain "experience points" from all this, which occasionally results in your being able to upgrade one of their abilities (like cleaning or flirting, among others), most of which have no discernible effect on gameplay. Again, on weekdays, characters will waste most of their time offscreen, while supposedly at jobs. On weekends, you've got two whole days to repeatedly cycle through the same types of actions in an effort to advance the relationships as quickly as possible. All that, in addition to occasionally cleaning the apartment, repairing appliances that break after a certain number of uses, and buying new stuff from a rather paltry selection of mostly meaningless options, constitutes the gameplay in Singles. There isn't much to it, but it does keep you busy since you have two characters to be thinking about. And the game basically controls well, with its fairly intuitive mouse-driven interface. It's easy to move the camera angle around and switch between the two characters instantly, and though you can always pause the game to queue up additional instructions for your characters, it's manageable to do so without having to resort to stopping time.
Singles is an easy game, which you'd have to go out of your way to fail, though it's theoretically possible to do so if you purposely neglect your relationships over time. Singles isn't nearly as interesting as The Sims in this respect, though. Your characters can't die or anything, so don't expect surprising or interesting events to occur if you completely ignore their needs for days on end. We tried throwing two naked characters into an empty room for several days (purely for the sake of experiment, we assure you) and were disappointed to find the two of them still blushing at each other--paralyzed--after a week's worth of game time without any food or sleep.
As mentioned, the other thing about Singles is that it's surprisingly tame for a game that's unabashedly all about having sex. For what it's worth, there's no alcohol, smoking, or drug use--or references to any of these things--anywhere in the game. Then again, you can order your characters to remove all their clothing at any point just by selecting the "naked" option when you make them use a clothes dresser. And, indeed, the game features full-frontal nudity at this point, which explains the Adults Only rating from the ESRB. However, this nudity is presented in an almost clinical fashion. The interactions between your characters are all very straightforward and are certainly not any more graphic than what you'd find in an R-rated movie.
For what it's worth, the graphics in Singles are actually legitimately impressive. The game is demanding of a fairly fast system and is bogged down by lengthy loading times and awkward pauses in transition from morning, to day, to dusk, to night. But the fully 3D character models and, to a lesser extent, the environments actually look great. Unlike in The Sims, you're free to manipulate the camera angle as you see fit here. The default isometric viewpoint is useful, but you'll naturally want to zoom in for a closer look during interactions between your characters. The characters can be truly expressive, exhibiting genuine-looking emotions on occasion. Still, the closer you zoom in, the more likely you are to notice some graphical problems that mar the presentation. Characters' limbs will clip through each other and the scenery, and, depending on which pairing you chose, sometimes your characters won't even seem to make physical contact when they should, such as when they are kissing. Assuming that the goal of Singles is titillation--not that there's anything wrong with this--these types of graphical issues really get in the way.
As for the audio, like The Sims, Singles incorporates fake speech in conjunction with the characters' interactions. The speech, like the actual animations, is the same each time, and many of the voices are repeated from one character to another. As a result, Singles' gibberish language doesn't succeed at conveying the personalities of the game's characters. Apart from this, some sparse sound effects and an upbeat musical score fit the bill just fine, but they get very repetitive in due time, just like the rest of the game.
If you succeed at Singles' story mode, the ultimate option is to have one character "pop the question" to the other character. At this point, both may teleport from their apartment to a beachside condo, which is a superficial change of scenery that doesn't introduce much of anything in the way of new gameplay options. To be fair, Singles deserves some credit for its great looks, as well as for its straightforward broaching of previously taboo subject matter in gaming. Yet Singles: Flirt Up Your Life has no long-term, lasting appeal, and, more importantly, it doesn't succeed at portraying or simulating an intimate relationship between two characters, which is what it genuinely seems to be trying to do. As it stands, the game definitely could have had a lot more to it, but then again, it certainly could have been a whole lot worse. It's worth a look if you're curious about it and have reached the age of consent.