Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dating Sims

No, I am not going to write about dating someone who talks in gibberish and has a diamond floating over his head, but I reckon you already expected that ;). In my gaming 'career' I have played some Japanese dating-sims and I had the luck to be able to understand the Japanese language. I didn't have fun, though. I did it all for science! No, really. I was writing my bachelor thesis about narratology and character relations in Japanese videogames and dating-sims do have a distinct aspect in this. If people ask me if I enjoy dating-sims, I always tell them that if I have to choose between playing dating-sims or poking my eyes out with a blunt screwdriver, I'll choose the dating-sims, because they don't inflict physical damage. There's no other reason, it's just because of the physical damage.

Good day to you, madam. And yes, holding your
arms like that shows off your female-ness.
Dating-sims are games, mostly from Japan, in which you meet a couple of people and your goal is to end up in a relationship with one of them. The interface is usually ordered with a picture on top with text accompanying the picture at the bottom and an optional background. There are dating-sims in all different kinds, but mostly it's about a boy trying to get a girl or sometimes vice versa. Not that I have tried, but I haven't registered any homosexual equivalent of the standard dating-sim lay-out. If you, dear reader, do know a homosexual oriented dating-sim, please let me know in the comments. Science will be pleased. I, however, will not.

Although it has been 4 years ago, I still feel a bit awkward about playing dating-sims for my bachelor thesis. When I started, I wanted to know the full scope of Japanese game genres and when I was in Japan I found dating-sims were almost everywhere. At first I was amused by how it all seemed to be designed for pussies. While we in the west see conquering women as a very muscle-masculine task, the Japanese dating-sim player has to find his feminine side. The graphics are usually drawn in pastel colours and the music is all high pitched, happy bouncy as if a horde of clown bunnies are going to declare world peace. I am NOT exaggerating. If you were to show a dating-sim to a unknowing western person and ask what s/he thinks is the gender of the target audience, s/he'd probably estimate it would be for girls.

Just like a dating-sim, initially this picture looks innocent
After the initial phase of laughter came the phase where I wondered if really all dating-sims were like this. Then came the phase of the horrible realisation that, yes, all dating-sims are like this. This phase was followed by the phase where I didn't want to be beaten by a stupid, pussy game like this. Thank goodness I never got to the moment where I'd actually conquer a girl. No, before that moment comes the phase where the aforementioned screwdriver suddenly seems VERY appealing.

The problem with dating-sims is that they are psychologically downright stupid in the way that characters are portrayed and how the developer imagines what the player thinks. Most of the time you do nothing but reading what is happening. Maybe you walk around a bit in the world, but I was mostly translating the text while in the mean time being ear-raped by the music that had long lost its comical aspect. If you are to strike up a conversation with one of the characters, the conversation will just roll out and you are mostly left with just 3 choices: engaging, neutral or repelling. When I interviewed Japanese people about their opinion on dating-sims, the lack of choice was one of the main complaints.

Taking a (sort of) girl to a flowergarden
Worst of all: there is no such thing as reverse psychology or anything. This was most apparent when I was playing Tokimeki memorial (your mental health forbids you to click that link) and I took the sporty/flower girl to a tropical flower garden. The conversation rolled out and I got my three choices:
1) Flowers are beautiful, aren't they?
2) You're not the flower type, are you?
3) Are those edible?

And, yes, the only right answer was number 1, the most soulless, easy-going, slime-ball answer of all. The other two just made the girl angry. I got curious and polled my female friends on their opinion on these lines. They unanimously told me their reaction would be the exact opposite, as number 2 would just be teasing and number 3 is plain hilarious at such a moment.

I admit I don't dislike all dating-sims, some are even fun to play, like the Sakura Taisen series. Sakura Taisen has quite well developed characters and besides dating girls, you fight monsters in a giant, steam-punk battle mecha. The good part is that Sakura Taisen isn't the only dating-sim with variance and depth. The bad part is that Sakura Taisen isn't the only dating-sim featuring the very under-age girl. The very under-age girl seems to be one of those standard characters that just HAVE to be in the girl line-up. Anime fans might also know such characters from Tenchi Muyo and Love Hina.

The kid from Sakura Taisen 3. To you she might
look cute. To me she's fuel for nightmares.
For me, the presence of these minor characters can get very disturbing, because my Japanese isn't that good and to suave the toddler you have to go with the choice that is incidentally the easiest to read. I just can't break the heart of a little girl and thus in Sakura Taisen 3 the top-rated girl was suddenly the kid, because she wanted to rescue a person with giant mecha and I agreed by saying "Let's go save Mr With-the-beard!". I got my mecha battle and she thanked me by creeping me out with the words "your voice gives me strength" every time she sliced a monster. If anyone wants to say Japan is wrong in tightening the rules for sexual images of minors, THINK AGAIN! Thank goodness again that I have never been able to finish a dating-sim with any of the characters by my side. I can't imagine how I am going to explain anyone why I might look like a pedophile in the game. It was all accidental? Yeah, right.

Although they might be horrible, I do understand the presence of dating-sims in the Japanese culture. It's not there because the Japanese would be a bit loopy, it is there for the same reason we have candlelight/harlequin pockets and girly magazines. The target audience, in our case 15 year old boys, has an insecurity or need for 'warmth' and dating-sims can provide it. It's not weird for boys to want to try girls in a controlled environment, practically every boy has been there. It does become weird, however, if one goes about taking these games seriously. I've only given a few examples, but the cheesiness and effed-up-ness that is portrayed as normal can get much worse than I described. If you ever find yourself playing a dating-sim, realise that most Japanese find these games revolting too. Furthermore, make sure there are no pointy objects lying close by, especially blunt screwdrivers.

1 comment:

  1. haha, great article. It's great to get a different perspective on dating games!