“Hi my name is Jared and I play dating sims.”
Even by videogame standards, dating simulators are the black sheep of the family. Arguing the merits of the genre will rarely evoke more than a condescending scoff. Who will argue for the genre’s value and risk their reputation for the sake of “get a life simulators?” Well, I guess that would be me.
There’s a lot of validity to the disdain associated with dating sims. During my recent visit to a gaming convention I saw two booths advertising the sale of Japanese dating sims. Their tactic? Bold font pasted haphazardly over pictures of anime women, with high-brow selling points like “fully uncensored!” and “over twenty women to choose from!” As my friend and I walked past I laughed and joked that I should buy one as “research” for my article on dating sims. He stared at me blankly for a moment before stating flatly “Yeah… sorry, I’m not sure what that is.” But that’s the problem: most people know dating sims by their reputation or not at all.
Still, the people who produce these games have their target demographic pinned in a way most companies would kill for. A lonely gamer (myself excluded of course) can choose an avatar with which to pursue a romantic relationship with a slew of idealistic potentials. The player navigates the avatar through school and work, advancing skills like charm and strength which increase appeal. Dialogue options help the player learn what attracts their partners and can progress or regress the relationship. In essence, they are relationship-oriented role-playing games.
Despite the genre’s potential, it hasn’t managed much progress. If anything, it seems to have largely embraced it’s negative stereotype and resorted to pandering to a niche market in lieu of embracing expansion. By forsaking emotionally-driven narrative experiences to settle for mini-games designed to reward the player with hollow sexual gratification, the genre has given up what makes dating sims worth preserving. Despite this, a few games have forged boldly ahead in pushing the dating sim in a new direction.
Persona combines a deep social system with Pokemon-style combat. As a student investigating a mysterious tower that appears every night at midnight, the activities and relationships you develop in your day to day life are tied to a set of tarot cards which amplify specific traits during combat. Capturing demons to aid you as you ascend the tower is crucial, but doing so requires having a corresponding tarot card of sufficient power. In between trips to the tower, the player must balance club activities, a part-time job, and homework while still finding time to hang out with your friends. This creates a rhythm that connects you with the everyday life of the protagonist and his relationships with the people around him. It’s a gamble to create a game where a majority of your time is spent in conversation or doing the things you generally try to avoid in real life, but Persona manages to transcend the non-stop action of most videogames. Having so many normal conversations with the game’s characters allows you to build genuine relationships with the game’s characters. Persona used concepts borrowed from dating sims in such a way that I actually missed these characters long after I had finished the game.
The Mass Effect series takes concepts from dating sims further by allowing moral choices through dialogue that deeply affect your relationships. More than simply learning about characters through conversation, in Mass Effect, your teammates react to your decisions in combat, making what could normally be a split-second choice into a defining moment. These choices effect the progression of your story which spans three games and five years. Well-written characters coupled with complex relationships that differ with each playthrough serve to provide the emotional attachment necessary for such a commitment. The feeling of joy I had when I first saw Garrus or Liara in Mass Effect 2 was almost startling, and judging by the public outcry at the lack of influence on the final game’s ending, I’m not alone in that fervor.
By and large it seems the dating sim genre has gone the route of pornography, either explicitly so or merely by being vacant and indulgent. The irony is that the core elements of the dating sim are potentially some of videogame’s most powerful narrative tools. Creating rounded characters and developing a sense of personal connection with the player is a key element to the future of storytelling in videogames. Using these mechanics effectively outside of the typical dating sim experience is a fairly recent innovation, but it’s a crucial consideration in the process of taking videogame narratives more seriously. And it’s a small step in taking those narratives to an emotional depth no other medium can go.