Christine Love Games
After Hate+, Love and her collaborators went to work on another visual novel that would take a different direction from the Analogue series. Titled Ladykiller in a Bind (full title: My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind!!), this new game was going to move away from the sci-fi examination of how electronic devices have impacted how we communicate, and instead focus more on the complexities of human relationships. Just with a lot more sex. Lots of it. LOTS. The game took three years to finish, and the final cost was well above any of her past games at thirty bucks, but Ladykiller managed to prove itself as a massive improvement on Love's game design sensibilities. Ladykiller turned away from the discovery angle of Analogue and returned to Don't Take It Personally's more traditional choice and story branch style, but made it far more complex and engaging through mechanics that require caution and thought.
The premise of Ladykiller is that two twins come made a deal that's caused one of them massive grief. They switched lives for a week, as the brother improves the sister's test scores to get her motorcycle back, while the sister has to go on a cruise with her brother's class of rich socialites. Thing is, the brother's entire class is made up of political power players that constantly try to manipulate each other for their own gain, and the brother was arguably the worst of them all. Now the sister has to pretend to be her horrid brother and survive the cruise without being found out and used as a weapon against her maniacal sibling. She also has to take part in a mysterious game with a five million dollar prize, in where everyone is trying to trade votes and favors to get ahead. All of this is told after the fact, as the brother has the sister tied up in some unknown place and is forcing her to go over every single detail for some unknown reason.
The ridiculous cast (whom can all be given custom names) includes...
The Beast/The Hero
Our main character, a rebellious lesbian and titular ladykiller. She's taking her brother's place to get her motorcycle back, and isn't having a happy time of it. She also moves fast when a cute girl catches her eye.
The Prince/The Brother
Beast's pretentious brother, a master manipulator who clearly has bigger plans than he's telling. He's one of the most notable members of his class, but not exactly popular due to his habit of manipulating people.
The Beauty/The Princess
The most popular girl in the class and one of the few people aware of Beast's secret. She can use her influence to wipe suspicion others have towards you, but she expects compensation in the form of BDSM sessions. Despite her sadistic personality, she does have a good deal of compassion hidden underneath.
The Stalker/The Hacker
A shy girl you meet on the cruise that seems to know more about the Prince's plans. You can spend the night with her and get three extra votes every visit, but you have to act as the dominate party, unlike submitting to Beauty. Doing her route is more challenging.
The President/The Rival
The Prince's arch-nemesis, according to everyone but the Prince. He's an obnoxious bore that is completely obsessed with how much he hates the Prince and is a constant thorn in everyone's side. The only people who like him don't even get the same affection in return.
The Nerd/The Lieutenant
The President's right hand woman. She's just as a stick in the mud as she is, but only wants a peaceful vacation and her emotions to be validated by someone. This is not helped by her poor social skills. She has absolutely no interest in sex, nor likes to be tease by her classmates.
The Photographer/The Flame
Arguably the most dangerous person on the ship, though it doesn't seem like it. She keeps her true personality and thoughts to herself, and is at the center of most going-ons in the class. Also has 50k followers on Instagram.
The Swimmer/The Slut
A loose hedonist that will hit on anything that moves, and the Prince's ex. She's still not over it, and she makes it pretty clear ...though you can still try chasing after her. Apparently she was a very different person before the Prince dumped her.
The Boy/The Flower
A crossdresser with a complicated love life that the Beast unfortunately gets sucked into. Despite his cute appearance, his issues tend to result in bad outcomes for everyone involved, especially for Beast.
The Athlete/The Bro
A cousin to Beast and Prince who figures out your identity with a single glance. He's one of the few friendly faces on the ship and tells you more about the four main women aboard. Also loves making sex jokes. Lots of them. Probably the only friend the Nerd has besides Stalker, who's friendly with most everyone.
The goal of the game is to win, well, the game. It's effectively a glorified popularity contest where the most popular members of the class have already soaked up the most votes, and you have to wheel and deal with them in order to succeed within six days. If you're not careful and get five suspicion points, things will not end well for you. You can choose from different scenarios in the afternoon and evening, along with a night scenario where you either spend time with Beauty or Stalker. Every path has a different number of parts, and you'll have to do many playthroughs to see every story in full, since most every path has five parts and you only have twelve slots per playthrough, not counting the night scenarios. Thus, you need to think carefully of who to go after, which is made slightly easier by the game telling you of potential reward in each scenario, along with risk of suspicion, which is also highlighted in choices. However, the game doesn't go into the intricacies of what other events can occur or how to get to the chance at more votes, requiring some cleverness from the player proper. The Athlete does give some information to avoid surprises, but talking with him eats up a precious time slot, so you can't simply rely on him.
The game also ups the tension by handling choices a bit differently than its contemporaries. To reflect Beast thinking up stuff on the fly, you tend to get a series of choices to pick, but continuing the conversation can sometimes result in more options that may be preferable. Thus, you have to pay attention during talks and during the night scenarios with Beauty and Stalker, so you don't accidentally miss a good option and screw things up. There's also some risk and reward mixed in, as sometimes you can get extra votes by selecting options that raise some suspicion. There's always a sense that you can do things a bit differently for different results, encouraging trying to read between the lines to make the correct decision.
The fact that you're playing as a character pretending to be someone else without really knowing much about them is where the game gets really interesting. The entire story relies on you fooling and manipulating everyone around you, while trying to avoid being put on the spot with personal questions. It can get pretty difficult at times, especially because you need to act in character, and the Prince is looked down upon by nearly every character. The right choice is sometimes the most vile one, but some situations result in some scummy power play options, especially with the Nerd and Boy routes. You can also choose to help others, which sometimes has payoff for you, and sometimes doesn't. Everything is about finding just how low you're willing to sink in order to win, and how many people you're willing to step on. But the interesting part of all of this is that sometimes the best option is to submit to another's will.
And this is where we hit the sex talk. The entire game revolves around sex, both in subtext and in outright text. One of the character's default names is "The Slut." Ladykiller is not subtle about its interests. The Beauty and Stalker routes are also entirely about sexual power dynamics, and they weave into the game in interesting ways. The Beauty route is the best to play through first, as it's the easiest and gives you an idea of how to act around submissive characters. Beauty strikes a bargain that makes the game far easier by giving you away to remove suspicion, and dealings with her come down to submitting and doing as she orders. Playing as her sub is worlds more simple (especially with the suspicion meter reset) and does a great job at highlighting through mechanics the sense of safety that comes with letting someone you trust have power over you. It's also really pushed by how we don't always see her being aggressive, like double checking a step during a complex bondage scene, or reminding Beast that she can use a safe word if she becomes uncomfortable. It's a path that allows Beast to admit her frustrations to someone, and she's taken care of as a result.
The Stalker route, on the other hand, cast you as a dom. Spending time with Stalker isn't about abusing the power you have over her, but helping her feel comfortable and safe. It's more difficult, but the route revolves around helping her gain confidence in herself and doing effectively what Beauty did for you (just without all the more hardcore stuff). Both routes are heavily focused on the importance of communication in relationships, using BDSM as the easiest way to convey it. Sex is treated as a method of connecting that lets people say things they can't with words, and both paths end happiest when you give trust to someone or don't abuse the trust someone places in you. It's all the daytime routes that make this more interesting.
Everyone else in the game you can get with is royally screwed up in one way or another, outside the constantly bullied Nerd. Swimmer is incredibly passive aggressive and can't move on from a bad relationship, Photographer's issues with identity result in her route ending in one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the game, and Boy is a living trainwreck. His route is by far the most difficult because there is almost not a single right answer you can give him due to the self fulfilling prophecy he built for himself. All these characters are unable to properly trust others, or they have little respect the trust of others. This makes the Nerd's route all the more interesting, as she's hinted to be asexual and doesn't really have much common ground with any of the other characters. She really just wants someone to respect her and not hurt her for trying to place trust in them, and ends up becoming one of the most sympathetic characters despite her defensive persona. Just spending time with her makes it pretty clear why she built up those defenses in the first place.
But the game certainly doesn't take itself too seriously. The script is fast and witty, with all sorts of gags and lines to give an inviting atmosphere. It's endlessly quotable, especially the Stalker and Athlete routes. The ending is also so purposefully stupid that it's hard to believe the game takes place in the same universe as Digital. Ladykiller is a comedy first and foremost, with the biggest joke coming in the Ladykiller route (the harem route), where you can only finish it by either having a sex scene with the Boy or the President, where the problems are instantly obvious and highlighted by the game itself.
The initial release of the game included a genuinely uncomfortable scene with the President. While it was optional, eventually Love decided that the scene really didn't fit the game, so it was completely rewritten in a patch. The patch notes includes a link to the original script, for those that are curious.
What ultimately pulls all this together and justifies the steeper price tag is the polish in the presentation. While Love's artist Raide has perspective issues for some more complicated scenes, their art has a lot of polish and proper anatomy, capturing intimacy you normally don't see in smutty games. The rest of the screen is filled well with detailed backgrounds and elegantly designed text and menus. The music by Isaac Schankler also benefits from a smooth transition system that uses multiple versions of the same track, switching mood and style based on what's occurring in the scene. The change between track variants is nearly seamless, and adds a lot to every scene.
Ladykiller manages to be a game about sex that treats the topic maturely, while also indulging in its own debauchery, which is incredibly difficult to pull off. It's both funny and insightful,, and it improves in nearly every department on Love's past work, even without a heavy dramatic focus. It instead channels Don't Take It Personally and its self-aware poking at modern society, refining it without the pretense of something deeper, and what meaningful things it does have to say are said loud and clear.
There's also a scene where Beast and Stalker watch Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, an anime famous for being grotesque torture porn, and Beast is in constant shock that her girlfriend is into this stuff. More games need lesbians in shock that their girlfriends are into horrific gore smut.
Christine Love Games