Okay, so I bought Nicole a while back-- I generally buy all WW games as soon as I can, even if I don't have time to play them right away. I finally got the chance to play a bit of Nicole a few weeks ago, and started writing a review. I wanted to finish every route before I posted it, and wanted to polish it up a bit, but I've been pretty busy and am not sure when I'll get the chance. I feel the items I wanted to discuss in this review are important, so I feel I should post what I have now, and then I can come back and update it when I have time to go over the other routes.
In general, I feel this was a well made game-- the art was gorgeous, and the premise was interesting. I found a few inconsistencies (Nicole likes mystery novels, but claims to be uninterested in real life mysteries, a popular Rollr blogger would probably know not to delete messages, and not really a good explanation for why Nicole didn't go to the police) however, the more pressing issue I wanted to discuss was the subtle, but consistent, negative remarks towards women, as well as the normalization of violence used by the male characters against Nicole.
As previously stated, I have not had a chance to finish all the game routes-- I completed Jeff's routes, and got most of the way through Kurt's. I got a decent amount of Ted and Darren wile working on the other two, but have not finished them. I also want to acknowledge that this is a mystery game, and that some of the violent actions on the part of the male love interests was probably inserted to generate suspicion about them. However, as these are love interests, and the player is supposed to like, love them, and want Nicole to love them and be in a relationship with them, I didn't think that the way it was handled was very appropriate. At the place I left off in my game, every boy except for Darren had in some way used violence against Nicole, and exhibited common tactics used by abusers.
This deeply disturbed me, because as a player I am supposed to see these men as potential romantic partners, and in order to be in a relationship with them Nicole normalizes the violence used against her, and doesn't ever address it as not okay. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I was unable to enjoy the romances because I kept seeing behavior that reminded me of my abuser-- and it is not just a coincidence, and that these things happened to match up with my unique circumstance. These behaviors are well documented, they are patterns that many, if not most, abusers fall into-- the Nicole's response in making excuses for these abusers, or ignoring the ways she is being disrespected or degraded, is disheartening. As a player, I want to play a character who has self respect, who does not stand for men using violence against her, and who has relationships with people who treat her with respect and dignity.
At this point, some people may be thinking "whoa, I don't remember seeing that kind of behavior in game"-- not everyone has had the intimate experience with abusers and sexual predators that I have. Even those who have may have had a similar experience under different circumstances. I have saved quotes that stood out to me in game, so that I can show exactly what I mean when I point out these issues. I absolutely love Winter Wolves games, and will continue to support them in the future-- but I hope that you guys will take a look at the quotes here and decide not to have this kind of content in future games. As a player, I want to have fun and enjoy my games, but it is hard for me to do that when I am being placed into the role of the victim of abuse, and I am not even allowed to call out that abuse and enforce Nicole's boundaries.
To make this easier, I will separate the quotes by route (since that's how I took notes on it.) Warning for people who have not yet played, thar be spoilers ahead!
I ended up picking Jeff out as my first route because he seemed like a pretty chill dude—I was most into Jeff and Ted, but I was always fighting with Ted so I went with Jeff first. His weird sense of humor threw me off during his first meeting, but I figured he was just more of a mischievous character. While I don’t mind the whole “perfect guy has a secret personality” thing, I did have a problem with how it was treated. Specifically, Jeff came off as extremely predatory, which makes sense given that he was the kidnapper.
What did *not* make sense was Nicole’s reaction to him. To explain this, I need to go a bit more in depth with regards to the situations which made me uncomfortable.
One of the first tip offs with Jeff came early on— when Nicole is watching Jeff in the lab he tells her she couldn’t possibly have phrased something in a stupider way. (Paraphrased.) Next, Nicole finds Jeff in the lab, and he physically grabs Nicole’s hand to keep her from leaving, and “jokingly” says he’ll have to kill her. The text describes Jeff as “like a cat toying with prey.” During this interaction, he tells Nicole “you’re sharp!”
The physical restraint is obviously a problem—this made me want to immediately switch to Ted’s route, but I had already stacked up a ton of points in Wit. Another part of this which raises some pretty harsh red flags is how Jeff mixes up complimenting and denigrating Nichole—and complimenting her backhandedly through complimenting himself. “You only prove I have excellent taste when picking subordinates” and “"I thought I had you figured out, and then you go and surprise me like this!" Even at the end of the game he does this “If I did I wouldn’t be here.” (Last quote paraphrased from the warehouse scene.)
Earlier he had also blocked her path, refusing to take no when he wants to talk to her saying “I can wait as long as I need to.” His issue of getting physical with Nicole is consistent as well—at Ted’s store Jeff forcibly grabs Nicole’s had to make her feel the goosebumps on his arm. And during the last romantic scene he throws her against a wall, pins her there, and then *threatens to rape her.* The love interest, who the player is supposed to want to date, threatens to rape Nicole and thus the player. Even *after* he gets over this strange violent phase, his romantic confession to Nicole is super rapey—“If you want me to stop, you better push me away while you have the chance.”
Now, I understand that Jeff turns out to be a kidnapper—ergo, he is supposed to come off as a bad person, someone who does not respect the bodily autonomy of others. The most troubling aspect is not that there is a pseudo-rapist character. (Though, I would say it is a problem to have a pseudo-rapist love interest.) What makes it really harmful, though, is how Nicole reacts to this—she constantly makes excuses for the male cast treating her in these awful ways. She describes Jeff as creepy, but continues to be around him. Even if she wouldn’t report him, because he is so charismatic and could turn people against her, she could at least keep herself at a distance. Instead, she excuses their behavior—or worse blames herself.
After Jeff apologizes, she tells him it was okay that he threatened to rape her, and Nicole’s internal monologue is "Me yelling is what started this whole mess, anyway." She is literally blaming herself, holding herself responsible, for the fact that Jeff threatened to rape her. At the end of the story, she finds out that Jeff kidnapped multiple girls and was planning on kidnapping her as well, but she says he’s a “good guy” and continues to date him in prison. And when visiting prison, something I wasn’t expecting—Nicole makes a prison rape joke. (To Jeff) "As long as you don't end up as someone's wife, I'm happy."
Now, it’s not all bad—I was happy that Nicole refused to drop everything and go on the run with him. But at the same time, someone finding out that the guy they’ve been dating is a serial kidnapper—it doesn’t seem realistic at all. This is a romance game, for sure, but that doesn’t mean the player has to end up with a guy in every ending. I would have been more satisfied with a “normal” ending, where Nicole got with Jeff, he somehow decided to stop kidnapping people, and a “true” ending, where she finds out he is the culprit and locks him away.
Would it be sad? Would he try to guilt her? Possibly. But then I wouldn’t be left wondering why the female character of my game is willingly dating someone who drugs and kidnaps women convinced to help him redeem himself. This is the entire basis for abusive relationships—women know they’re in a bad relationship, they are so desperate for affection that they ignore the signs, and they keep convincing themselves that he is going to change, or that they were the ones who drove him to this behavior. Seeing the character that I am playing fall into this kind of thing, with a completely non-critical story, really hurts me, as a survivor of both abusive relationships and rape.
Showing that Nicole is self-assured, a strong woman, and wants to do what is right—and then saying that what this means is staying in an abusive relationship, ignoring ones own instinctual fear, and creep radar, is just reinforcing a lot of really, really awful messages about women in relationships. I really think that this is extremely harmful, and I really hope that future games will empower female characters by *not* having them choose to remain in relationships that don’t respect them, where their boyfriend physically restrains them (not just the last scene, but using a larger body to block her path, grabbing her arm and dragging her places), where he breaks down her self-esteem and builds it up again—hinged on his approval (calling her stupid, then complimenting her when she does what he wants, “complimenting” her but really complimenting himself) etc.
Kurt and I immediately got off on a bad foot due to his extreme disrespect for women. Early on in his route, he asks Nicole to tutor him and when she refuses he physically blocks her path. And the most frustrating thing is that Nicole starts standing up for herself initially—she says “No means no” and rebukes him. But then he puts on a puppy face—she acknowledges that he must have practiced this to get his way, but instead of not allowing this creeper to manipulate her… She gives him what he wants.
This was extremely frustrating for me as a player, because I was being subjected to an extremely creepy guy, who obviously *does not* respect no, and the female character, just like in Jeff’s route, gets the creepy vibes from him and *continues associating with him.* At this point I absolutely revile Kurt, and yet she’s agreeing to tutor him—even saying that she doesn’t hate him. When he gets his number, Kurt acts like he has dominated Nicole. She’s upset because "he didn’t even trick her"—oh, but he actually did.
What is makes this even more frustrating is that even moments earlier, Nicole is actually afraid that Kurt is going to hit her. The exact inner dialogue was “I only hope he's enough of a gentleman not to hit a girl.” This guy obviously terrifies her, the entire class was fearful of him after his outburst. He has anger management problems—which is the number one thing linked to violent crime. This is not safe at all, and yet she continues being around him anyway. It doesn’t make any sense, and as a player I feel like I came here to play a game, solve a mystery, and have a romance but more than the creepy messages and kidnappings it is the *love interests* who I am terrified of. Kurt struck me as a potential rapist, and it turns out Jeff actually was one.
And again, Nicole only makes excuses for Kurt’s behavior—and Darren, my sweet non-violent, non-rapey Darren, also defends him. I was crestfallen. "He means it in good fun. Truth be told, he treats many girls the same way. I wouldn't take it personally." The way Kurt treats Nicole is somehow okay, because he’s an enormous creep and treats *all women* disrespectfully? Nicole even consciously acknowledges Kurt’s sexist behavior here: "I barely register he offered me a compliment, and one that wasn't based on my looks. I'm just not used to hearing it!"
As his route continued, I think he got less problematic, was less likely to use violence against Nicole, and his not respecting her no turned into consensual banter between friends. (But remember, in the beginning she was a total stranger. His behavior is less creepy as an inside joke between friends, but totally not appropriate when he's physically intimidating a girl he only just met.) Another minor issue I had in this route was Nicole complaining about "girl directions" when her roommate is telling her how to get to the football field. Having a female character say derogatory things about women really brings me out of my immersion. I don't think comments like this are appropriate in any context, but especially not in a game aimed at women. It just doesn't make sense to insult your demographic in that way.
Ted I liked from the beginning—sure he was anal retentive, but having dealt with OCD myself as a young person this doesn’t bother me as much. Ted was great—he was harsh, but he was harsh with everyone. I liked that he was a hard worker, and admired that hard work in other people.
Unfortunately, in what I was realizing was a consistent theme, he also gets violently physical with Nicole during Jeff’s visit to the store—specifically she says "wrap a hand around my forearm and drag me over to the far side of the store." She later cries in pain and describes it as an “iron grip.”
When I have the time, I will go back and finish the routes I haven't completed-- get Kurt's ending, and go through Ted and Darren. I think that one of the reasons the themes of "romantic violence" feel so strong are because I started the game on Jeff's route-- and Jeff is the villain. That said, every love interest except for Darren used physical violence against Nicole, and I feel that it would be super easy to cut those parts out-- and that doing so would greatly improve the quality of the game. Coming from a background of abuse, I am more likely to notice these kinds of things than perhaps other players are-- but that is one of the reasons that this content worries me. I feel that it displays violent behavior as normal, and extreme sexually violent behavior as "just something you need to get over in order to be with Jeff." I would really like it if future games would omit this all together, or even better, have the player character call out poor behavior, realize that abuse is completely unacceptable in a relationship, and, frankly, not have relationships with people who physically restrain them, intimidate them with their size, or threaten sexual violence.
And lastly, I do want to say that while the themes of romantic violence made it really hard for me to enjoy the romances, I do think it was a well made game overall. My favorite feature was the events with two love interests at once-- I feel that showing the guys interact with each other helps develop their characters better, and to humanize them. I also liked that Nicole could increase both of their relationships at once, because it really gave the impression of a friend group instead of immediately becoming a competition for romance. I apologize if this review comes off as overly negative, but I felt it was really important to address this serious issue specifically, and so I have minimized discussion of other parts of the game. (I just really, really feel its important to not have normalized sexual and romantic violence in romance sims.)