I was traveling around Japan recently and within a day of being there, I started to notice that practically every person on public transport was playing a mobile game. On one occasion, I gazed down the train and found myself watching each individual flicking their thumb or tapping on their screen in almost perfect unison (in silent mode of course, because anything else would be disrespectful to fellow passengers and incredibly rude in Japan).
Japan’s excellent transport etiquette aside, the number of passengers playing games on their phones really shouldn’t have surprised me as I’ve always known they were absolutely huge in Asia, yet I was taken aback by the number of commercials I saw on Japanese television or on billboards.
Wanting to immerse myself in the culture while I was there, I decided to download a mobile game of my own to play. I had been playing Final Fantasy Brave Exvius and Pokémon Go at home but that was really the extent of my mobile gaming experience prior to what happened next.
My phone was advertising a genre of games to me in Japan that I hadn’t ever given a second thought to. These games were, as far as I could make out, visual novel dating simulators, otherwise known as otome games. The word “otome” in Japanese means maiden which displeased me a little, after all, as every girl knows, games aimed at the female of the species must include romance, pretty clothes and lots of pink. LOTS!
In recent years however, the word has taken on a newer connotation and is now the female equivalent of the word “otaku” which is a term for those obsessively interested in pop culture such as anime, games and manga. Well, that certainly sounds like me!
Personally, I’d rather there was one word to describe both sexes but sadly, Japan is still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to perceived gender roles and gender fluidity. Hey, it can’t be as perfect as it’s trains. Despite my initial hesitance and reservations towards these games for their blatant casual sexism, I was still intrigued and in the interest of…science and morbid curiosity, I wanted to see what exactly was being advertised to girls and women in these games.
I downloaded one, however it was set in feudal Japan so it’s attitudes towards women were that of the historical period so I decided that I had to download another more modern title. In doing so, I realised the right thing to do was download a few more examples of each to make my experiment less biased, as well as downloading one meant for male gamers, a sort of control test if you will. It definitely had nothing to do with becoming addicted to them.
After playing them for three weeks in Japan and a continued two weeks afterwards, my (loosely) scientific findings yielded a very interesting result and not one I hypothesised. I, Emma-Jane Corsan, female human being of planet Earth, staunch believer in equality with an intense dislike of gender based stereotypes was addicted to otome games.
I had played one or two dating sims before, most recently Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (published by Game Grumps) which was popular earlier in the year for turning the genre on its head, representing the gay dad community and generally being excellent.
I’d also heard positive things about Christine Love games especially her most recent, Ladykiller In A Bind (full title of which is *takes deep breath* My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind!!).
However, Japanese dating sims are very different. They are unfortunately a lot less progressive and solely focused on heterosexual relationships (at least, the ones I played were). You choose one of around eight characters to experience your story with. So, as someone fond of anime, I found myself picking the most anime looking men to court, paying little attention to their character descriptions.
One I downloaded was called Ikémen Sengoku: Romances Across Time published by Cybird. It begins in modern day Japan and the main character you play is excited to start her new job in the fashion industry and begin her career. A freak accident involving lightning transports her back to feudal Japan, where she is trapped for three months until the ‘accident’ can be replicated again (I appreciated the pseudo sci-fi explanations and usual time travel tropes).
The character I chose, was Nobunaga Oda, mostly because I’d heard of this famous Japanese warlord. I liked the concept of being able to date historical figures too, plus it was way more appealing than dating a vampire (there are so many dating sims about vampires *eye roll*).
The fact the main character in this is from modern times means she is somewhat feistier than other otome game protagonists, she refuses to be quiet when told to, talks back and wants to get back home to start her career. However, the men in this game are awful and Nobunaga finds her more of an amusement, using her for entertainment until he falls for her unusual, future ways.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t eventually enjoy this story, it was more sexually charged than I thought it would be. It was safe for work as it was barely erotic but had a few twists and turns that had me raising more eyebrows than The Rock.
For example, your character has a choice of being locked away (therefore losing the chance to get home) or to engage in games of Go with Nobunaga until she wins and is released. There is one catch however, each game he wins, he claims a part of her…yeah, a choice between being trapped in the past or playing strip Go, it’s not exactly a consensual choice.
Ordinarily, I’d have stopped playing and burst into flames of anger but I hadn’t expected the sexual undertone and found it interesting, I mean, it was no worse than the terrible romance novels my aunt used to read. You know the ones, often with a woman standing in the Scottish highlands embraced in the arms of a topless man wearing a kilt on the front cover.
As the game progressed, so did my enjoyment and I found myself smiling whenever a famous battle happened or one character betrayed another (just like in actual history). I became fond of this fictionalised Nobunaga Oda and was genuinely invested. Don’t get me wrong, this was no Mass Effect romance (my heart still lies with Kaidan Alenko) yet I was eager to see where the story would take me next.
Unfortunately, like all of the other visual novels I had downloaded this one was free, you only got to read a few chapters a day and in-between, in order to progress had to do mindless mini game activities like ‘Princess Lessons’ which were incredibly dull and lacked actual gameplay. Alternatively, you could choose to pay to buy special items to advance. Er, no thanks, I’ll keep my money.
Another title I tried was Shall We Date: Love Tangle, I played a few of the Shall We Date games but this one was definitely one of the more interesting alongside Ninja Shadow (where you play as a ninja impersonating her dead brother to save her village) which was the game that started me on this crazy binge. I chose the ‘love tangle’ between a calligraphy artist and a celebrity chef….yeah, yeah, I know but I needed to play a game vastly different in tone, style and theme to Ikémen Sengoku.
I ended up choosing the calligraphy artist, Naoki, an introverted character with a passion for his art and while I liked the character design, the story in this particular route became unbelievable (and yes, I know the whole thing is) but when the plot revealed he was heir to the Yakuza, forgive me for losing interest.
Additionally, the mini game in this revolved around making food for your man or dressing up in clothes he might like…*vomits*. You might think my experience would turn me off playing any more titles but I persisted, I’ve played multiple feudal Japan otome games (clearly, feudal Japan is my jam), one where I’m a witch dating a vampire, a ninja in the Edo period looking for revenge, a computer programmer and a wizard.
I know these games are not without their faults but they’ve surprised me and I’ve genuinely enjoyed this style of gaming. It’s proven to me that no genre is off-limits to me and I shouldn’t assume I won’t enjoy a game because of its genre…except sports games…and maybe driving simulators. So, um…thanks Japan!
Have you ever been surprised by a game you wouldn’t ordinarily play? Or do you have an otome game recommendation for me? Let me know in the comments below.