A long time ago, back when I thought visual novel was just a fancy way of saying comic book (I was confusing it with graphic novel it seems), I heard of a mysterious thing called a “dating sim”. I have never played one, or even seen one, but from the name alone I immediately started to judge it, and judge it hard, along with anyone enjoying such things. Because I’m a dirty hater!

anime uber fan
because I’m obviously one to judge someone else’s coolness….

If you’ve interacted with me in any way, you may be thinking to yourself “but Irina, you’re both lazy and kinda pervy, seems like the perfect good time for you!” And you would be correct, except I didn’t know that at the time.

First let’s just say that the name fooled me a bit into believing these were exclusively relationship simulators rather than naughty games. You know, rom coms, not the x rated stuff. Had this occured to me at the time, the entire thing would have made much more sense. I pictured something a bit like a tomodachi but in virtual boyfriend/girlfriend mode where you have to get them gifts and talk about your feelings instead of feeding and cleaning them. And that’s kinda what they are, except…

Just to be clear, if today I could download an app where I had to chat with and virtually take out adorable anime characters, I would be all over it. I would probably need to quit this blog to do that instead. Mystic Messenger almost got me fired a few years ago as I was running out of meetings to not miss chat rooms, and I didn’t even like those guys that much… 

But I’m much wiser now. All those years ago, it sounded like something you do instead of going out to a bar and meeting an actual cute someone. I didn’t get it.

mystic messenger nozaki
neverming MM is the best!

Ok present me again has to interject that 8 times out of 10, I would much rather stay home and play an otome than drag myself out to a bar… this is really turning into an Irina judges her past self, post. Sorry about that folks.

Ok last try. I never had anything against the notion of a dating simulator but it sounded like the last thing that would interest me personally. As a rather unromantic individual I just couldn’t see the appeal of simulating those situations. I still don’t get much out of passively watching romantic situations play out in media and I really didn’t see the difference, except that otomes seemed to have the potential of being much more annoying.

There’s still a general misconception about what otomes and dating sims actually are among non players, and what role they fill. I think this is keeping a lot of people from trying them out. I’m not saying you’ll be filled with regret and emptiness if you skip out on the experience but it is a pretty unique form of entertainment.

Curiosity and some odd aversion to dismissing anything without trying it, finally led me to my first otome. There are a few things I’ve chosen to dismiss without trying mind you, like murder. I am all over the place today! What I discovered with that first dating sim (Tokimeki girls side) is that I’m a short sighted individual. Dating sims aren’t for hopeless romantics and lonely hearts. In fact, most of them bear little to no resemblance to actual dating. Just like any genre there are great ones and horrible ones but you should know what you’re in for.

tokimeki 3rd
it’s a super cheesy dating sim and I still love it

I’ve played both traditional harem dating sims (of various levels of naughtiness) as well as otomes (always wholesome), and a few Yuri titles.  Contrary to popular belief I have never played an actual yaoi dating sim. In my experience, Yaoi visual novels are tense action adventure narratives with some random gay sexy times thrown in and very little to no romance. You can take out the Yaoi element all together with very little effect on the story as a whole. Closest I got to a Yaoi dating experience, was Hustle Cat which lets you choose the pronoun of your player character. This is a little weird. I found an underserved market. Make a cute bl otome, you’ll make bank!

But back to the subject at hand. You have no clue what that is? Can’t blame you, I seem to have forgotten as well. Oh yeah, why you should try out dating sims. First, let’s be very clear about this, dating sims do not try to simulate what it’s like to date someone. They simulate what it’s like to Like to be the main character in a ridiculously overblown telenovela exclusively filled with beautiful drawings. The aim is either comedy or comedy through over exaggerated drama. If you’re looking for earnest vicarious feelings, well… No, this really isn’t the right place.

Make no mistake though, characters are designed and written to be perfect fantasy personifications of whatever demographic they happened to be aimed at and you will occasionally find a truly interesting one. For the most part though, they are highly accessorized walking tropes. And that’s great.

yeah – that’s not going to backfire

You know those characters that shamelessly exploit all your weak points but you don’t want to admit you like them cause it’s blantan manipulation aimed at the weak. So you secretly buy merch you keep in your secret merch drawer. Well you can finally embrace your inner fangirl because all the characters are like that. Abandon all pride, ye who enter here! It’s cool…

The games are really just fluffy, pulpy fun, generally uninterested in analyzing your relationship issues or teaching you anything. It’s a new format of soap operas for a next generation. There’s a reason soap operas in one form or another have been consistently popular since the dawn of entertainment. They’re fun, easy to engage with on a superficial level and great low grade escapism for when you don’t want to do too much work.

As for what you can get out of them. Well, in a way, it’s about you. See a well written dating sim isn’t so much about your potential love interests. It’s about the protagonist. Because of the emphasis on slice of life storytelling and conversation, these games demand that you embody the mc in a much more mundane and intimate way. They force role play on you like few other mediums can. Even traditional video games have layers of lore and gameplay mechanics between you and your player character. You really get to know what type of person the protagonist is, and what you want them to be!

anime ashamed
I don’t have to say out loud, do I?

Most of the time the answer is: really, really stupid. That’s the type of person those main characters are. But it also helps me realize the type of person I want to be. Screening at my screen because I can’t have a smart ass sarcastic response or because I’m forced to be tone deaf and insensitive makes me consider how I respond to people in real life. The fact that I love magnificent bastards but hate them the second they fall into the just bastard category has shown me how fickle I can get. I rag a lot on meek, agreeable female characters, yet I go after them in harem games every time!…

These little diversions have done absolutely nothing to prepare me for a relationship but I doubt any other category of games has led to such introspection. Also they’re often so stupid they’re hilarious you guys. If you like movies like The Room, you need to play a bad Dating sim at some point in your life.

Here are some people that can point you in the right direction:

anime yuru yuri video games

14 thoughts

  1. I once tried talking to my friends about dating sims.

    Most of them joked saying it’s for “Singles” and “Loners”.
    Two of them got interested.

    So I still considered it a win. Lol.

  2. Dating Sims are vvveeerrrryyyy gradually getting an audience in the West, but overall its not a genre that’s heavily pursued in this region.

    Like you pointed out, I also believe they can help you better understand what kind of person you want to be and what philosophies you gel with and which ones you don’t.

    While I’m here, I’m going to shamelessly plug Katawa Shoujo as a recommended dating sim for enthusiasts or those who are curious about giving one a shot. It forced me to tackle topics that I previously gave little or no thought to and in a way changed how I approached certain social situations moving forward.

    1. That’s a good starter. It’s much more accessible than most as it is a Western dating sims so there’s less of a culture clash and it’s free! Plus it attempts to deal with some pretty serious subjects.

  3. I’m not that familiar with dating sims. Most of the time, I’m only playing them if they’re a side aspect of some other genre (such as Agarest War, which is a combo with a strategy rpg). There’s usually the pay-off scene where your surrogate gets closer with your chosen one. For nearly all the game, the sprites occupy the right side of the split scree, only moving towards the centre for important scenes. In the end, they get really up close, though, so they cover almost the entire screen. And that feels… silly. It’s supposed to make me feel closer, but instead I’m worried she’s going to bump into the camera and hurt herself. This particular stylistic flourish just doesn’t work for me. Oh, also flushed, maybe embarrassed, sexy poses… I have yet to see a pay-off scene I can take seriously. (But I haven’t seen all that many.)

    Personality-wise, I’m much more of a voyeur, so I tend to prefer main characters with a personality of their own, rather than a virtual nobody which I have to fill with the best bad approximation of who I might be in a situation I’d probably have avoided.

    Don’t get me wrong; the games are fun. Choosing alternative dialogue is fun. The stories can be good, but most of it is all about cuteness. The pay-off scenes, though? They just feel silly to me.

    Finally, one thing I’ve noticed: I tend to go straight for the weirdos. That’s where the real fun is. (Also, I want to play Hatoful Boyfriend, with the pigeon avatars.)

    1. The weirdoes are my favourites as well. Hatoful was surprisingly…delightfully odd. I quite liked it.

  4. Irina! You are such an amazing author that you can even get an old man who holds such things in utter disdain interested.

    Well, not that kind of “interested”. My wife wouldn’t like to hear that. More like disdain eliminated? Grudging respect added to the mix?

    I have a great idea. How about a dating sim for an existing couple? Two MCs and a bevy of attractive people to chose from. The MCs can’t date each other but maybe they can share the same person. People can learn what the other is looking for and show what it is that turns them on. They could try out in fantasy what they are afraid of trying in reality..

    We can market it to marriage counselors and couple’s therapists, write silly self help books and make lots of money.

  5. This was a good read! I also hate the stereotypes about dating sims (and myriad other nerdy things) being for lonely losers. I enjoy dating sims way more than I’d ever admit and I am definitely not lonely and I don’t think I’m a loser :p

  6. I’m gonna be that annoying guy and point out that “dating sim” and “romantic/sexual visual novel” aren’t the same thing… although to be fair, even the localisers tend not to make the distinction any more, JAST USA in particular have been calling their bishoujo visual novels “dating sims” for years.

    But anyway, there is a distinction, and the reason I bring it up is that it’s worth exploring. You lay out some great reasons for exploring galge/eroge/otome/yaoi visual novels above, but an actual dating sim (by the traditional, stricter definition) provides a very different experience that is enjoyable for different reasons.

    A dating sim is a game in which there is a strong focus on building relationships, but rather than passively watching things unfold as in a visual novel (albeit with occasional choices in most cases), you actually have to engage with game mechanics, which are usually inspired by role-playing games. You know what that means: stats!

    Yes, in dating sims you typically (though not always) find yourself building up extremely mundane stats like “academics” and “sportiness”, and the dateable characters you have the opportunity to bump uglies with depend on particular combinations of these stats, as well as the events you trigger on the way according to how you choose to build them up. Consequently, you have a game that combines the enjoyment of watching numbers get bigger from role-playing games with the fun of seeing boobies and knobs. Sounds like a win for everyone involved.

    For some good examples, check out True Love (playable online at https://tss.asenheim.org/true-love.html ), which was one of the first (and only) actual Japanese dating sims to get localised into English, as well as the more recent work of Western developers Winter Wolves and Hanako Games, the latter of whom has a strong otome/yuri focus, and the former of whom tends to have pretty inclusive character creation options in many of their games where it’s appropriate.

    I particularly recommend True Love, despite its shaky translation, along with Magical Diary, Always Remember Me, Spirited Heart Deluxe and Long Live the Queen. The latter is arguably more of a “see how many ways you can die” simulator rather than a dating sim, but there is dating among all the death if you can stay alive that long. Plus it’s a great game with a super-cute heroine.

    I’ve written about a few too, I should explore/write about some more sometime…


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