Kindness Coins is a dating sim, released on itch.io in 2013, that asks the question: What is it like to be on the receiving end of the protagonist’s flirting in a dating game?
On the surface, it would seem like dating sims are not like other video games. In a sea of experiences that prioritize shooting, stabbing, pillaging, and plundering, dating sims offer a soft cushion of emotional connection and tenderness. But look closely, and you’ll see the ways in which dating sims are exactly like other games.
Power fantasies reign in games, and the narrative is often one of colonization and ownership: You, the player, the all-powerful one, the only character with agency, can change the course of history by your actions alone. Everything in the game is yours to own, from the native wildlife (to make your potions) to the people themselves (to marry, to fight for you, and sometimes to function as a second inventory).
It’s no different in dating games. You can choose any of the characters within, since the only purpose of their existence is to wait for you to pick them.
But game developer Arden, writer and designer of Kindness Coins and also the upcoming visual novel Date or Die, wants to know what it’s like for those characters. In his game, the objects of the “protagonist’s” affection are not wallflowers waiting on a bench at prom for someone to ask them to dance; they are people with their own lives and personalities.
The player character is Florence, a young, horned demon-woman who is incredibly apprehensive about going to a party, because she knows John will be there. John, the man who makes her feel uncomfortable, who joins the music club because Florence is in it and not because he has any interest in it, who is trying to chip away at her defenses by virtue of being near her and not actually trying to hang out at all. Florence is not interested. In fact, she’s much more interested in Daisy, a cute girl with a fluffy neck ruff and one big, sparkly eye.
“He’s a good guy,” says Ivy, your well-intentioned friend who resembles a small shrub. With that, John sidles over to you, unaware that you’d rather drown in the punchbowl than listen to him talk. Yet, he does anyway, with all of the self-awareness that a dating sim protagonist would have—that is, absolutely zero.
This game is short (about 5 to 10 minutes), and one user on a forum notes that it could easily just be an ebook, because the choices don’t actually alter the ending. At one point, John tries to tell you that you owe him your attention after all he’s done for you, and the choices are “dude”, “you just”, “fucked up”, causing Florence to launch into an angry response: “I don’t owe you anything, and you’re not entitled to my love or time.” You, the player, have no control over her at that point.
The phrase “kindness coins” is used in real life as a metaphor for the way certain people behave—the kind of people who believe that the “friend zone” is a thing. Many dating games treat “kindness coins” as a real way of making people love you, with gifts and attention, as if women are vending machines of love. But women are not vending machines, and acts of kindness and friendship are not small payments which will eventually have the desired outcome of sex, or a relationship.
The point of Kindness Coins is not that it’s a story with no choices, but that it’s a story where the lack of choice is the choice. In a dating sim, the player would control John, and Florence would be wooed by all the clumsy flirting and his use of the titular, metaphorical “kindness coins.” In this game, Florence is not interested. As the player, you expect to have control, just like John does, but Florence is not to be controlled. You cannot force her into dating this guy. She has agency, and this is her choice.
Kindness Coins is, however, a fantasy, like any other game. It is a dream in which a woman can turn a man down, and correct his behavior, and he won’t respond with violence or anger. As Kindness Coins comes to its close, John is quick to apologize and realize his mistake, and he even makes a genuine offer to be friends. It’s sad to realize that a world where a woman can be angry, and honest, without fear of repercussion, is the most unrealistic thing in a game about demon girls and shrub friends.