With Valentine’s Day come and gone, it seems appropriate as ever to deep dive into dating sim games. They’ve really been having a moment in the past couple years.
And let me be clear: I dig dating sims. The richer and more nuanced the story, the better. Especially when there’s more emphasis on actual relationship-building that doesn’t feel like this hollow collection of stats. Emily Grace Buck came on the GWYB podcast to discuss relationship-building and how it’s important to show romantic relationships in different stages while most media only focuses on young people just starting a relationship. Showing relationships at older ages and different stages in life is both important and rarely portrayed, such as finding love after divorce or the death of a spouse which was prevalent in Dream Daddy.
It’s also fantastic that we’re starting to see games with more diversity as far as having queer options goes, or entirely queer settings. Ladykiller in a Bind was the subject of controversy regarding its highly sexual content and scenes where characters didn’t consent, but it was also praised because the intended audience clearly wasn’t the straight male demographic that has been the gold standard for video game marketing for decades.
But with the birth of a game genre, there comes the games that work all of the common tropes to a T and either stay formulaic or perhaps blow the player’s expectations with a few mechanic changes here and there. Then comes the inevitable afterbirth: the games that blatantly poke fun at it.
A dating game all about pigeons took the world by storm. Then it was a game about teenage girls serving as an allegory for wanting to fuck military equipment in Japan. There’s also a game where you play as a human girl pursuing an equine eldritch abomination. Now we’ve got one about REFRIGERATORS in the works.
With the numerous ways that game genres have been satirized or just plain experimented with and expanded, what is it about pushing the envelope with dating sims that seems to spark the most conversation?
A Little History on Dating Sims
It’s always a good idea to take a look at history to gain appropriate context for the present. Previously, I got into games with highly sexual content and the reception and distribution problems they’ve had in the past up to present day. To paraphrase, dating sims weren’t initially a thing in the US until the mid-90s or so. Not until JAST USA took on Junai Monogatari (True Love) and localized it for American audiences who’d never seen a game like it before so it wound up becoming a cult classic. The game wasn’t all that out of the ordinary in its native Japan so it didn’t really go over there the way it did here, as dating sim games and eroge visual novels had already been de riguer for Japanese audiences for some time.
Branching visual novels and dating sims are two distinct genres, which may or may not contain erotic content. Both Japanese and Western developers started bringing the two genres together by focusing solely on relationship-building or on a blend of stats and relationship-building instead of solely on stats as many later Western sim games would center (like the numerous offshoots found on Newgrounds in the early aughts.)
What’s officially considered by many to be the first dating sim is Dōkyūsei, Japanese for “classmate”, which came out in 1994.
The game got a sequel and also had a related original anime that ran for a couple seasons. The premise was not that dissimilar to what you see in several modern dating games: you’re off from school in the summer and got a couple girls you can chase after (who might not necessarily be your classmates, despite the title.) Romantically and/or sexually pursuing classmates in high school or college has become a staple for dating sims period, especially in the bishojo genre which is the classic straight male perspective. Otome games for straight women then started to follow suit albeit with little or no erotic content, then “all pairing” games such as Winter Wolves’ Roommates where you can choose a queer pairing.
The Tokimeki Memorial series was another notable series for the genre, but interest outside Japan didn’t really explode until Junai Monogatari/True Love. Where it was a mix of both the gameplay and expanding the concept of sexual pursuit with actual story and relationship-building, combined with the incredibly hyperbolic localization that made the main character out to be a snarkier and more profane and perverted version than the original developers probably intended.
Come the mid-aughts when game distribution was still largely a wild yonder, there were only a handful of developers making visual novel style and dating sim style games and often merged the two together. Hanako Games comes to mind with Fatal Hearts and Summer Session, the former being a visual novel with a low fantasy setting where you have a few romantic options while the latter was a “pure” dating sim that was heavily stat-based in a collegiate setting.
Throw in the utterly wild developments in independent game creation concurrent to the way indie games get distributed and discussed nowadays, and it was only a matter of time before incredible developments in dating sims--and satirical pokes--would arrive.
I think that we have all these out-there dating sims as a response to both avoidance of reinventing the wheel when it comes to game design, and misplaced satiation of a hunger for meaningful romantic and sexual narratives.
Have the “too many games” debate all you want: the rise of totally batshit dating sims runs the gamut of loving parody to social commentary on something deeply personal or that needs to be said. Cold Hearts hits you over the head with this premise where sure, your first reaction is to laugh at a game about dating refrigerators and making sexual puns about putting food inside them but it’s also meant to serve as an allegory for loneliness and how Americans don’t really address or discuss it in our culture.
But the whole “pursue a bunch of people you go to school with” schematic has utterly been done to death. Something that goes unsaid in how those early Japanese bishojo games, you didn’t necessarily always pursue classmates. In Junai Monogatari for instance, your teacher and a few classmates are options but so are women you meet outside of that setting. Speaking from a game design perspective though, the reason why the “try to date a classmate” setting persists is because it often resonates with younger audiences who may not have gotten out in the world to as deep an extent, and it’s just easier to have this closed-in setting and premise for knowing these people. Schools are simply easier game worlds to create and you don’t need additional justification for constantly running into these people.
Even though My Horse Prince made me knock back more boxed wine than the average human being was meant to ingest and I seriously wondered if the Southern Poverty Law Center was keeping tabs on content this disturbing, I’ll give it this: at least the setting wasn’t a school or workplace.
It’s definitely awesome to see these games get made, even if they’re everything from hilarious to disturbing depending on the context. But seeing how a game like Dream Daddy really went over, it’s obvious that players are hungry for more than well-written dialog and relationship-building. Not that most of us are going to object to laughing at a game that treads Catherine the Great territory or playing a meaningful dating sim about refrigerators, but it’s like grabbing a bowl of a fruit and a bag of chips when you really just want a balanced dinner. These things are fantastic on their own or satisfying if you want a bite, but if you need more than that they don’t leave you satisfied.
Out-of-this-world dating sims feel representative of the flux state that indie games are in, along with society itself.
The world is in this whole flux state. Global fascism is ascendant and the US itself is crumbling faster than New York’s subways. People are afraid and hurting, others are hopeful and fighting for them. One way of fighting back is changing the narrative on what kind of media gets the most attention: creating media for the marginalized in mind in the first place, then watching those games get spotlight and discussion.
Games by devs of color, disabled game devs, queer devs, and women and nonbinary devs and how their experiences have shaped the game worlds they’re creating. Because even if it’s a setting that’s used as often as a school, we need more portrayals of how a multiply marginalized person navigates these settings. How would they fit into something semi-realistic or a fantasy setting and how does sex and romance tie in? (See: the absurd amount of people who are incredulous that disabled people get laid, racist encounters on dating apps, and the list goes on.)
That’s the thing that feels just a tad hurtful watching dating games with these totally far out concepts get more attention than visual novel and dating sim type games containing more marginalized perspectives: it’s as if a human-faced horse or dating pigeons feels more realistic to audiences than say, a straight woman who has casual sex without getting punished for it or a queer character who faces the same joy and pain as a straight character would.
In a world where satire feels really, truly dead?
We’ll see what 2020 brings us. The batshittery of 2019 has only just begun and I don’t think it’s that out there to consider that this wave of surrealistic dating sims is just a precursor to how crazy things will get before they better--if they do--and it would behoove us to think more about which games get more attention and why.