Dating Sims

Recently, during the Steam Summer Sale, I came across the game “Magical Diary” a game I’d never heard of from a developer I’d never heard of (Hanako Games), I read the synopsis, took a look at its page on TV Tropes, and decided “What the Hel, it’s only $10. I’ll give it a try.”

I’m glad I took the risk.

Sure, it is a blatant knock off of Harry Potter, the gameplay is simplistic (part dating sim/school sim, part adventure game), it’s very text heavy, and the cutesy anime graphics may turn a lot of people off, but this game is amazing, seriously. Name another game that can not only address themes like colonialism and abusive relationships, but gives you same-sex relationships (between your character and someone else or between other characters) and even a sex ed class where your professor mentions species and entities that are non-binary gender? (Sadly, no such characters appear in this game.)

Seriously, go pick this game up, it’s $15 on Steam right now, or, if you’re not sure you’ll like it, try the demo:  http://store.steampowered.com/app/211340/?snr=1_7_suggest__13

Here’s Hanako Games’ website: http://www.hanakogames.com/

This brief plug for “Magical Diary” is meant to be a segue into discussing a kind of game that doesn’t get a lot of exposure outside of Japan: dating sims. The goal of a dating sim is for your main character (usually a girl) to form romantic relationships with one of several possible love interests (usually all boys, but not always). At this point I feel I should point out that the type of dating sim I’m talking about is usually labelled “otome” and marketed to a female audience (otome games usually don’t contain explicit sexual content the way ecchi games do).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But Gef, how can you criticize romance novels–a genre that is all about landing a man–but like dating sims–which are all about landing a man?” And my answer to that is: “Romance novels don’t actually let me PLAY as the heroine!” 🙂 Okay, you got me, you know that post on guilty pleasures I just wrote today, dating sims are my gaming equivalent of a guilty pleasure.

Now, before my fellow feminists gang up on me to take away my feminist card, I should say that “true” dating sims don’t get a lot of exposure outside of Japan (because of the perception that games that are marketed to girls won’t sell. In recent years, XSEED published Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom for the PSP, which is pretty much the closest thing the North American market has to a dating sim in recent years, though a few recent games have a dating sim component (the recent Harvest Moon games, Persona 3 & 4, and Princess Debut  are examples). Personally, I think dating sims are at least a step above all those vapid fashion/makeover and parenting sims, not to mention the “Zelda for girls” game from 2005. What’s wrong with the *real* Zelda games? Sometimes it’s like developers think that girls are too dumb to understand games like Zelda, so they need their own knock-offs. Yeah, right.

Now that I’ve done a horrible disservice to feminism by attempting to defend what is possibly one of the most anti-feminist genres ever, here’s a personal anecdote:

The first true dating sim I ever played was the first game in the Angelique series, which I played using an emulator with no English patch (even though there was one available). The game is simple enough to figure out once you learn to pick out character names and the option to say “Yes” when given a choice.

The plot, in a nutshell, is that you have a Queen who rules the cosmos with the help of nine men who represent the elemental forces of Light, Darkness, Water, Wind, Earth, Fire, Steel, Green (plant life), and Dream. You play as Angelique Limoges, a young woman who is one of the two candidates with a chance at becoming the next queen (fun fact: the current queen is also named Angelique, see where this is going?). Your fellow candidate is Rosalia de Catargena. In order to determine who will make the best queen, you and your rival are each given charge of a continent, whoever succeeds in fully populating their continent first becomes the next queen. This is where the nine Guardians come in, as you need them to “bless” your continent with their particular affinity in order for it to grow (or, alternatively, to hinder your rival).

The Guardians themselves are what you might expect from a group of potential love interests: Julious is the workaholic, Clavis is the aloof, mysterious one, Lumiale is the sensitive artist, Luva is the bookworm, Randy is hyper very active and sociable, the “jock” of the group, Zephel is angry the “tough guy”, Oscar is a shameless womanizer, Marcel is jailbait sweet and innocent and the youngest of the group, and Olivie is the eccentric cross-dresser. Each of the Guardians has their best friend and the one person they just can’t stand (Julious and Clavis dislike each other, their best friends being Oscar and Lumiale respectively) so start going to one to help with your continent, and don’t be surprised if the people they don’t get along with show up to help your rival! (Usually the Guardians would end up being pretty evenly split between myself and my rival, with Randy and Zephel hating on me in almost every game.) It’s important to cultivate relationships with as many Guardians as possible, as when you are periodically evaluated by the queen, their “votes” determine if you get enough “hearts” which you can then spend to get the Guardians to help with your continent.

There are a bunch of possible endings in the game, ranging from you becoming queen (with or without Rosalia as the Queen’s Aide) to falling in love with and living happily ever after with one of the Guardians. Here’s the kicker, though: you can’t choose both–yes, it’s the old “career or love” chestnut, and is, I would argue, probably one of the most problematic elements of the game, besides all the man-chasing, but, in spite of the fact that I now see that, yeah, the game (and the genre) is problematic (at least from the perspective of a white Western feminist) I enjoyed this game, and I would still support any effort to bring at least one game in the series to North America, because even though it has its flaws, I had fun playing it.

I liked calling Zephel “a little bastard” for promising to help me and then turning around and helping my rival instead. I lost count of the times I exclaimed “Why do you keep showing up at my door!?” when a Guardian I wasn’t trying to snag showed up on my doorstep–for the fifth time. I liked comparing notes with my best friend “So, which ending did you get? How many times did so-and-so show up at your door?” She liked Randy and Oscar, I liked Lumiale and Luva.

It probably doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, but in this day and age, it’s a nice break from all the gore-fests that currently dominate gaming. It’s a lot like cotton candy, sweet, maybe not very substantial, but a nice treat.

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