Racy ranked romance: An interview with Jason Wang and Sally Chen on ‘Ranked Choice Dating’
If you think about it, campaigning as a politician is a lot like dating. You have to put on your best fit, you have to make it seem effortless, and you want people to love you and what you believe in. But also like dating, it could just be a front. You could be catfished by big promises or have your needs ghosted. Rat House Games’ Ranked Choice Dating makes these romantic (and frankly sexual) tensions abundantly clear in their political satire dating sim based on the 2021 New York City Mayoral Race.
I caught up with Jason Wang (Lead Designer and Writer) and Sally Chen (Art Director and Illustrator) of Rat House Games and dove into the fraught, hopeful, and hilarious world of Ranked Choice Dating.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did Rat House games get its name?
Jason Wang: We really needed a company name to make this game and I love rats. A year ago, I had something really profound to say about rats. Hear me out. Rats don’t give a fuck. They live two years. They have fun, and then they die.
Sally Chen: It was the subway rat meme!
Wang: Rats live vicariously, they don’t give a fuck. And what if it’s just like a house of rats? And they all have fun. It’s, “Welcome to the rat house! You know, you’re gonna have a good time!”
Chen: One of the subway rat memes. It’s a tweet that says, “subway rat made eye contact with me and said, ‘join us when the train comes, we slide onto the tracks and feel it rumble over us like a warm thunderstorm. We live forever and we love to live.’ I said no, ‘thank you. I am too large.’ He turned away from me. I cried.”
Can you bring us into the conversations and headspace that inspired Ranked Choice Dating?
Wang: So this kind of started as my little mind baby, as I’ll mention later. I was in this fellowship called Emerge NYC, which is largely for queer BIPOC artists and activists.
This was the first time the program was going over Zoom. And so I would pull up to these Zoom meetings, and I would see all these fucking depressed activists. This was like April and May of 2021. The world was going to shit and we were having really sad conversations about feeling burnt out, feeling like we’re not making a difference and feeling like the world is just really bad. I was like, this is my community. We always burn out so hard as activists. What if I was just an artist therapist? I really wanted to make these people in this room a little happy.
This came from a place of asking, “What if we can all just laugh and cry about something that is really bad together?” Around the same time that this was all happening — Emerge NYC is based in New York City — and we were all following the mayoral race really closely.
If you were woke, at the time, you were cheering for Dianne Morales. Underdog, you know, cheering on for all these issues — education, police brutality. She was the fucking GOAT. And then in May, we heard that she is not veryyyy union positive. The fact that she was our last hope and bailed on us was just comedically sad. Every single candidate in this race either had a scandal, or was so mediocre that honestly, someone had to do something. Because you cannot make this shit up.
So that was kind of the headspace that spawned Ranked Choice Dating. Keeping in mind these tired activists as well as the fact that I have always wanted to make a video game, as well as like, the fact that like, the mayoral races, or elections in general, are by nature so sexual. So that’s my answer to that question.
Chen: Jason told me about like, “Oh, politics and stuff and making a dating sim for it.” I mean, I’ve always wanted to make a dating sim, because those are some of my favorite favorites. Visual novels, dating sims, etc. So I said count me in.
Once I heard it was a dating sim about wooing politicians I already knew it was a genius idea. So why was a dating sim the obvious choice to frame the game in?
I was idea starved, but once it clicked, it all came to me. Every single candidate had a red flag, as I mentioned, either mediocre or they have a fucking sexual assault scandal. And it only seems right to say they gave you false campaign promises. They try to woo you and then once they’re elected, they leave you. And then also the immediate cause for why this idea clicked so well was from watching debates.
It’s Andrew Yang and Eric Adams. They’re just going at each other. Here’s what I remember. Eric Adams going “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” And Andrew Yang just going like, *serious expression* “No. I think…!” It’s just those conversations are just a show. They’re so weighted. They’re nodding. They’re trying to go over each other whenever a woman tries to speak. They’ll talk over them. It’s just the most toxic and weighted interactions put together like it’s a game show. You start to think that maybe Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, it would be so fucking funny if they had a crush on each other… or we’re all crushing on them.
In politics right now, especially in New York City, all these candidates are really trying to win your heart because everyone in New York City hates being here. It feels more unsafe than it ever was. I don’t know the statistics on crime, but it always feels like it’s going up. And so all these candidates are trying to be their best self and woo you with their character, rather than make you feel safe. Law and order instead of actually giving us policy. And there’s just something so romantic and datey about that.
The hand drawn style of rank choice dating feels very sentimental. And then also hilarious given the subject matter. How was the art direction decided upon? Was it pretty easy or did it go through a metamorphosis?
Chen: I think we all collaborated on a mood board, Pinterest sort of thing, to see what kinds of inspiration are we drawing from — from types of games that we liked previously that were dating sims. What was the style that all of the artists on the team could emulate or work on? If there wasn’t a particular style, what could we mix and match?
Personally, for me, since I’m an illustrator and the main illustrator on the project, we kind of split it up in terms of who wants to do characters, backgrounds, and UI/UX design. So since I was in charge of characters, I was thinking hand-drawn quality reminds me a lot of the games and JRPGs I used to play. I thought we could just go down that road. Don’t make it too hard for ourselves. I’ll stick to what I know. But I wanted to condense it so that it’s more workable in the tight time-frame we had.
What are some of the games or other media that you drew upon in developing Ranked Choice Dating?
Wang: Sally, you mentioned JRPGs.
Wang: We did a little scouring also, cast a broad net. Some memorable ones are, like, furry games. Just because those exist and there’s people that craft those so well, for some strange reason. There’s also this one game called My Horse Prince. I just wanted to see, I just wanted to see.
Chen: It’s a guy who’s half — more like three fourths — horse and one fourth human.
Wang: You feed him carrots and you date him and you’re a farmer. The biggest inspiration I want to talk about is the writing style of Monster Prom. And all the Monster Prom games. The narrator hates himself, but they’re also really funny. From the position of just a mediocre person trying to navigate the world, how can we create that kind of — “I’m already defeated? Throw another thing at me. I don’t fucking care.” How can we place that attitude into the shoes and the narrator and make that fun?
I’ve often heard that racist stereotype that Asians and Asian Americans are like not interested or relevant to politics from even politicians and pundits themselves. How do each of you respond to this notion personally and through the game?
Wang: Personally, I understand where that stereotype comes from, in that we were just a minority, and we’re often overlooked at the same time. Nowadays, we’re a growing political force. And we have to be seen. Going into Ranked Choice Dating, I was balancing the two contradictory truths: Asian Americans are fucking exploding in political force. And also our parents will literally just vote for whoever has an age and last name. I think it’s just really ridiculous how those two things work out. I’m holding that belief that we vote for the person with the Asian last name, because our communities always have survived on word of mouth, and word of mouth is Asian person good. And we survive by word of mouth because the government has forsaken us and we have to keep each other close to survive.
So I really, really appreciate that. And I think it’s fucking ridiculous that what that turns into is, our parents are sick of politicians giving us bullshit. And they just take the easy route. So there’s a lot of complicated stuff there. I wish we could have done a deeper dive. But unfortunately, Andrew Yang is the lens to which we are viewing our political-ness through. So I put a little of that in Ranked Choice Dating. The new generation of Asian Americans that care about politics have somehow wound up alongside Andrew Yang. But yeah, that’s a little bit of where this all comes from.
Chen: I feel like a lot of why Asian people aren’t so into politics is because it’s a big accessibility issue. Even with organizations that help you translate your political views like voting booths, it’s so hard to get people who only speak a certain language or even at that, a certain dialect, to go out there and vote. There’s inaccessibility with transportation, inaccessibility with scheduling. There’s only so many days where you can go in for early voting too. And on top of that, all these letters are so small, you can’t even get another interpreter in the room. I found most of this inaccessibility out through working with the Asian American Advocacy Fund in Georgia when I was doing phone banking.
The amount of people that I had to talk to strictly in Chinese or Cantonese was really astounding. They were all like, “Oh, this is happening? I had no idea,” even though you might think that they know. Even at home, trying to talk some sense into family about politics, they’re kind of more apprehensive about it, because politics never particularly worked for them. And so, even with voting, I have to get them every year, every voting semester, to go fill out absentee ballots at home. It’s not like the voting booths. I think that making the dating sim was a way to make politics a little more playful. At least this generation, make it feel a little bit more accessible and to laugh at it, because it’s not shit.
Do you think any candidates played the game? How do you think they would react to it?
Chen: We really tried to get AOC to play this game. Because I think around that time she was playing Among Us for a charity stream. And we’re like “What if we tweet her right now? Do you think she’ll play?” But someone on [Dianne Morales]’s team definitely did see the game and blocked us.
Wang: Yeah, Dianne Morales has blocked us on Instagram. It’s because we tagged her in every post. Feel free to check out the posts we made. It’s pretty demeaning, I guess. But I understand she’s probably sick of people hate-tweeting her.
Wang: In addition to having the impetus to treat the activist community, there’s this one speaker Emerge NYC brought in named Robert Karimi, who does theater games, and video games. They did a workshop where they brought in games we could play over Zoom. And it’s hard to describe the magic of live theater that happens. But they brought in competitive games where there’s a winner and a loser. And they made us make our own games. What ended up happening is we just all made a bunch of really silly shit, and no one wins. And then Karimi went, “Oh, wow, that was really interesting for me. No one’s ever done that before.” I think about how our community interacted with the concept of games, really uniquely. I credited a lot of Ranked Choice Dating‘s original stuff thanks to them.
As for Brick Interrobang, this game would not have happened if we did not get into that festival. They didn’t give us too much money. I think the Brick is like a really, really great place for like… they have like a history of doing, like, video game theater. And like really, really weird, good shit. Right now they’re hosting workshops and when you come in, there’s like crystals and shit. I’m just like, “What a great place to be!” And so my friend Candice from Emerge, they’re the person who got this all started. They know how to code dating sims using Ren’Py. They literally went up to me like after I did Ranked Choice Dating for Emerge. They said “Hey, I would love to help you turn this into an actual game. I have friends at the Brick who would love to see this.”
I felt really supported in the fact that I was making this for a community that would actually love to see it. And although we did not have any money, I think it’s really important for me that I was in direct contact with the people that love this shit. All to say, not a lot of money, but we got a lot of love. That’s how everyone starts out. Nothing too much there. But thank you Candice. So so much.
I was really curious about Ranked Choice Dating’s other life as a theater piece. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Wang: I’m primarily a writer and also an actor. And so I performed this as a one person show in the Brick. Basically behind me, there’s a projection. And I’m narrating the game before the game. I had to memorize every single piece of dialogue in the entire game and every single route you took. That was my only task but it was a big task. So what would happen is I would just lead the audience along the questions and when we came to a decision point, I would make them go, yes or no, like in the audience.
What we wanted to explore in this as like a live theater game was how depraved can we get? Because we really get to delve into degeneracy. I would say the core of this game is how bad do you want to fuck Andrew Yang? I really wanted to just start through having this be a live theater piece. We ended up in an Andrew Yang gang bang. Are people going to laugh? So lots of risks there. But we developed that first as the theater experience and then we wanted to make it into an actual game.
Spoilers below for Ranked Choice Dating.
I still have not gotten the Scott Stringer ending of the game. Do you want to spoil it for me? Or should I just keep trying to figure it out?
Wang: So to get this Scott Stringer ending, here’s a little easter egg. You have to fail both a date with Andrew Yang and fail a date with Eric Adams. So you failed dates with two mediocre men. Luckily, you have a last one who happens to be a sex offender. Enjoy.
Chen: He’s in a furry suit too!
Wang: You said it, not me.
Chen: Well that was the best part!
End of Spoilers.
Would you continue this series of Ranked Choice Dating? What would it take for Rat House games to do that?
Chen: I think when we first started, we wanted to, but I think as it stands now, there’s not enough funding for it.
Wang: Yeah, not enough funding… it’s a big thing. So if we were to continue this, which I would love to do, I would love for it to be funded. Because Sally truly blew it out of the water and deserves to be paid, like, thousands of dollars. And I would love to do this for a presidential election. Here’s two steps where I think we had a little bit of trouble in making this. It takes a while to make a game. And by the time we made this, it was two months after the election was over. I think we made this in July or June. If we wrapped it around then, we would have the New York Times at their feet. This was a passion project just to see if it could happen and just have fun with it.
I would have loved to pay all my collaborators more. We had a team of seven or eight. So we’re splitting the funds there. Also, we are college students or around college age. I think if we were to bring this back, we would want someone who really knows the ins and outs of how to market this, because I think this was really, really beautiful. It’s kind of gotten so many places, and it would have gotten much bigger if it had the right traction. So in the case of a presidential election, we would need those things.
Chen: And also I think this time around, it was really niche because it was Democratic. It was the New York City mayoral race. It wasn’t particularly too big. We only worked on it for two months, literally. And we already got it to that stage. So I think that if we were to have the funding and the time, it would have done much better.
What’s something you want players to come away with after playing Ranked Choice Dating?
Wang: From the writer’s point of view, not to sound like middle ground, but sometimes every single candidate is so shit and we can all come together to laugh at them.
Chen: I kind of just wanted them to laugh. Enjoy it and not take it super seriously, even though in real life, politics does change a lot. So at least in this space, to not feel that pressure.
Wang: I would say I tried a lot to hate on the candidates equally, but also love them equally. I think it’s really complicated nowadays to hate and love a candidate. I talk a little bit about cancel culture through the Dianne Morales route in this. Elections are very complicated. The fact that your favorite candidate hates unions, but is also trying to champion their community is complicated. I don’t want to say like, don’t cancel Dianne Morales, but this was written for us all to just look at both the good and bad of each candidate, and come to love them as much as we hate them.
Rat House Games is a New York based studio of multidisciplinary queer artists and game designers brought together by humor as a tool for resilience. They aim to tell lighthearted stories through accessible games that empower marginalized communities.
You can find more information on them and support Ranked Choice Dating at https://rathousegames.itch.io/.