Kitty Powers has not one, but now two dating sims under her pink twinset, thus growing a reputation as the empresaria of games where you match up two characters and try and get them to like one another (I didn't want to say 'dating sims' twice in the same sentence). Gaming's most prominent and quite possibly only drag queen dev is making waves all over the place: Kitty also hosts events, and was on the PlayStation float at the London Pride parade last year.
Kitty's alter ego is Richard Franke, who's worked on projects including Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit before starting Magic Notion and putting out indie games with Kitty's name on them. Franke says he first caught the drag bug at a birthday party for Rex Crowle, the creator of Tearaway, years ago. Franke dressed as Catwoman and says that at the time there weren't enough drag queens around, which he took as a 'personal challenge.' When Franke started making his own games he was looking for a way to make them stand out, as well as a way to take drag somewhere new, so combining the two killed two birds with one stone, as it were. 'It gave Kitty a purpose and the games a figurehead.' Franke doesn't keep his life separate from Kitty's, either: they have separate Twitter accounts, but Kitty's Instagram gets a new #transformationtuesday post every week, showing Franke next to his more feminine alter ego.
Franke says that creating dating games for Magic Notions' first indie outings was, in a way, a reaction to games he'd worked on in the past as well as the industry as a whole. Rather than making a game where your object is to destroy things or kill people to get points, Franke wanted to make something almost the opposite to that. 'I wanted to see if I could make a fun and exciting game where the objective was to enrich people’s lives.' Kitty Powers' Matchmaker, the first of these, came out in 2014, and saw you flicking through your little black book to match up lonely hearts with likely partners based on their shared interests, personality traits, and what they find attractive in one another. In Kitty Powers' Love Life, released just last week, you take it to the next level by shepherding couples through engagement, marriage, and into the happily ever after. The happier they are, the better you do.
'I think the drag fits well into our games because it’s supposed to feel like a throwback British sitcom/game show,' says Franke, 'Which in their heyday were awash with drag queens and camp comedy.' Franke cites Lily Savage as an inspiration, amongst others, and you can certainly imagine Kitty Powers as the late 90s host of Blankety Blank. As the lively compère of a video game she offers innuendo and scandalous oohs and ahs as she helps you through running a dating agency.
One of my favourite things about Kitty Powers' dating games is that it's very difficult to cheat them -- at least long term. If you're good enough at the game you can wing the mini games and force a relationship to go successfully even if the couple is mismatched, but long term this doesn't work out. In Matchmaker you might receive a letter a few days on telling you that the couple has broken up; in Love Life you might get a pair through a rocky engagement and find that they stall for weeks and you can't get them successfully married. Franke says that you can play the game with your gut as long as you're paying attention, and that though it seems like a lot you can just take it one step at a time – just like real life.
Love Life does add a lot to the Kitty Powers formula. You spend a much longer time with the couples than in Matchmaker and can build more of a connection to them, which is something Franke really enjoys. Taking these characters through their ups and downs, helping them with worries, problems and anxieties, bonds you to them, so that you might even be sad to see a couple leave, something that Franke really wanted to achieve this time.
One of the things Franke wants to explore in the future is better avatar creation. As part of making games a better space for LGBTQ+ players, he thinks one of the things games can do better is letting players express themselves more freely without forcing them into boxes. 'Identity and avatar creation are very important to all gamers, so they should be designed as inclusively as possible,' he says. 'Not having to choose ‘male’ or ‘female’ and be forced to wear/use items associated with a binary gender.' Right now the Kitty Powers games allow you to customise your avatar in the game in a number of ways, but you do still choose to be represented as either male or female. 'I’m sure it is possible to do that way better than anyone is right now. I’d like to explore that more in my future games.'
And these may not be dating games. 'We will of course be supporting Love Life for some time,' Franke says, 'But a new project is already taking shape with a slightly different direction. It’s sure to cause a bit of a stir!'