Love Plus Imagination – Part 1: Dating Sims and other Simulations

“Thank you for saving me!” she says, planting a kiss on the hero’s cheek. Indeed, the hero who saves the damsel in distress had become the fantasy many gamers wanted to live out in their video games. Of course, books and films had the same appeal – people identified with the heroes, and liked to see the happy ending where “the good guy gets the girl at the end” (though it doesn’t always work out that way). But it’s the virtual world that allowed people to experience and overcome the challenges themselves. They could make mistakes without real risk, while feeling the accomplishment of completing their task. Then, in the 1980’s, game developers started to wonder: Instead of making “getting the girl” the end result, why not make that the entire game? And so we have today a wide selection of what are known as “dating simulation” games.

A History of Dating Simulators

The Foundations

Dating simulators, or “dating sims,” essentially have players work to win someone over. This is why dating sims are often called “Love Adventure Games” (恋愛アドベンチャーゲーム) in Japanese, or just “love games” (恋愛ゲーム). In 1984, Sega created the first video game which entailed even a remote semblance of “dating.” The game was called “Girl’s Garden,” and it was only released in Japan. It was essentially an item-collection adventure game. The main character was a girl who would pick flowers for her boyfriend, with the strategy being based around when to pick them for an appropriate bouquet, as well as various obstacles on her way.

The following year, the unknown company JAST created what looks much more like one of today’s mainstream dating sims. The game is “Tenshitachi no Gogo” (Angels’ Afternoon); and though it may have been the first big step into the direction of dating sims, it did not launch the company into popularity. The story revolved around a high school student who wanted to seduce a girl in the school’s tennis club. On the way, that meant getting on the good side of people around the school, including her friends. The game is actually mildly pornographic, but the more pornographic games become, the more they move into the “eroge” genre. Eroge, or “erotic games,” are more about sex and less about dating. Not all dating sims are eroge.

...Though brief shots of underwear - or more commonly, cleavage - are pretty normal in dating sims

First of its Kind

The first”eroge” actually predates both Girl’s Garden and Tenshitachi no Gogo. In 1982, Koei came out with the game “Night Life.” Early games like this gave Koei the success that really got them started as a series gaming company. You can see the caliber of pornographic material here; the graphical limitations are obvious. Regardless, the appeal of dating sims was not always the same as that of eroge. Playing dating sims usually meant working hard for an outcome, whereas eroge usually involved more easily-accessed sexual visuals.

Night Life, in fact, was marketed as a way to spice up a couple’s sex life. Considering the “dirty board games” that are available, as well as sex-game packages made by companies like the popular women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, there’s no reason why this should be considered any more weird. It’s just on a screen instead of a card.

As a quick side note, Koei (who are today known as Tecmo Koei because of a merger in 2008) owned a subsidiary, Team Ninja, which would produce one of the most graphically sophisticated series of its time. That is, the intentionally sexualDead or Alive” series. The series consists mostly of arcade-style fighting games, but there two games (abbreviated as “DOAX”) that feature the series’ busty female characters playing volleyball – or doing whatever else one might do on vacation – on a beach. These games were developed because of popular demand, and were successes both in and outside Japan. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This tangent is just to compare 25 years of graphical improvements (DOAX is not actually a dating sim).

Curiously, the actual volleyball required only one hand, because the game used a button-timing system, not a character-position based one. But I'm sure the developers thought "long and hard." ...About the gameplay mechanics, I mean.

The lines between eroge and dating simulators are actually quite blurred. For example, the first genuine dating sim is considered to be “Dōkyūsei” (classmates) – an eroge – which was developed by ELF in 1992. Unlike the Tenshitachi no Gogo game, Dōkyūsei had over a decade of sequels and various ports, as well as some brief stints as a TV show. And though ELF didn’t gain immense fame because of these games, they were certainly successful enough to keep the series going for so many sequels.

Dating Sims Taking Off

One of the most successful dating simulation series began soon after, in 1994. “Tokimeki Memorial” (“Heartbeat Memorial”) was created by Konami, who are particularly famous for works like “Metal Gear Solid,” and “Dance Dance Revolution.” Since then, they have made a slew of games, released ports for everything from computers to mobile phones, and even produced an anime in 2006. In fact, this is one of the unique companies that even developed a number of games specifically geared towards playing as a female. That means all the objects of the player’s affection are boys. That probably hasn’t been seen since… well… Girl’s Garden.

By the mid-90's, dating sims like Tokimeki Memorial all looked like anime

Ever since Tokimeki Memorial‘s success, dating sims as well as eroge gradually increased in numbers. Now, there are tons of games of this sort, the majority of which will never be translated into English, and are unlikely to gain mainstream popularity. These games are basically relegated to the shelves in the shops of Tokyo’s electronics district, Akihabara, and other such shopping districts.

Yet there are enough people in the small subculture of Japanese gamers who buy these games to perpetuate demand. And while less popular titles pile up on the shelves, dating sims are still going strong, and every year there are a few that gain mainstream popularity.

Non-Dating Simulators

Sims in the City

In order to explain the appeal of dating sims, it would be useful to compare them to a simulation game outside of the dating context. What’s considered to be one of the first (if not the first) commercial simulation games was “Utopia,” developed by Mattel Electronics in 1981. Players would build a little town on an island in an attempt to govern more effectively than their opponent. Natural disasters and random events would make things more difficult, and the one with the most points at the end would win. While this was basically the first commercial simulator, the game that really put simulators on the map came in 1989.

“SimCity,” the game that let you build and manage an entire city, was a hugely acclaimed title. It won tons of awards, including those for entertainment as well as education. It was such a success that they have had several well-received sequels. In fact, this well-made game motivated other developers to make similar games of different content, such as Caesar (in which the player must build a city in Ancient Rome). But the really interesting thing that happened was when SimCity developer Maxis decided to take the everyday-life-simulation to a new level – a personal level.

In 2000, “The Sims” took the gaming world by storm. It is simply the most successful computer game ever made. Instead of governing a city, players could tell individual family members (a “Sim”) what to do, and watch them interact in the neighbourhood that they were creating. The game was influenced by a much earlier title, “Little Computer People” which in 1985 was one of the first such games (if not the first) to have players watch and interact with a regular character at their home. But The Sims changed it all, raising the popularity of “Life Simulators” so much that it caused other developers to make similar titles like “Space Colony” or the hugely popular “Second Life.” Second Life is particularly popular because users can interact with one another online, so it has had millions sign up, and hundreds of thousands currently active.

The Sims had superb graphics for its time, and a Sim’s entire lifecycle, as well as those of neighbours, could be watched and manipulated before one’s very eyes. Players quickly started trying to build their Sims’ social lives, find creative ways to kill them off, or turn their homes into brilliant works of architecture. The following video basically shows the appeal of the series, as a reviewer for IGN relates the newest sequel (The Sims 3) to its predecessors:

Virtual Pets

Separate from the games above are the “virtual pet” games, where the player takes care of a digital animal or entity. The appeal of these types of games were elusive to people who did not play them, but they are nevertheless very popular. For example, a handheld device called “Tamagotchi” was released in 1996 from the Japanese company Bandai. Unlike the digital-pet software that came out earlier or around that time, Tamagotchi was actually very popular outside of Japan as well as inside. And the really surprising thing is that it wasn’t the regular gamers who were enjoying it – it was non-gamers. Authors Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh wrote the heavily-researched book “Girl Culture.” In it, they say:

The appeal of Tamagotchi […] to girls lies not only [in] their cute and feminine design but also (and foremost) in the female maternal instinct. Instead of playing with dolls and dollhouses, which after a certain age are considered “babyish,” girls can own a trendy and aesthetically pleasing toy and have a project to work on.

[…] The lifespan of the pet depends on how well it is looked after, which makes it more appealing to girls than to boys (who, at the time the Tamagotchi were introduced, were more preoccupied with another of Bandai’s products – the DigiMon, a digial monster).

If we flash forward a decade later to 2005, Nintendo had just released a game called “Nintendogs.” Aside from the appeal described in the excerpt above, the game was essentially a success because of its “cuteness factor.” Still, gaming website 1up included this in their list of five revolutionary games of the 2000-2010 decade (along with Phantasy Star Online, Halo, World of Warcraft, and Guitar Hero). 1up contends that Nintendogs “Drew non-gamers to console and portable systems, and established the ‘new’ Nintendo.” The following video is a review from GamePro of “Nintendogs + Cats”, which shows you what the game looks like and how it works.

Stimulations of Simulations

Dating simulators, as well as non-dating simulators, each have their own appeal. Some people like creating towns, some people like taking control of a family, and others enjoy playing through a story with the characters they control, or interacting with characters they don’t. Whatever the case, there is something to be said for the appeal of nurturing a relationship. This is regardless of whether we consider ourselves gamers or non-gamers.

So it’s no wonder that people like taking care of cute puppies or trying to win someone over.

In Part 2, we’ll look at what a visual novel is, and their popularity in the gaming industry, and in the Japanese market. (click here to see Part 2)

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2 Responses to Love Plus Imagination – Part 1: Dating Sims and other Simulations

  1. 6 8 10 says:

    While a lot of Western gamers laugh at the Japanese dating sims and can’t believe people play that sort of thing, I have to wonder how many of those same gamers have played (and re-played) games like Bioware’s RPGs that have a potential romance aspect between your main character an party characters. Several of their games have had conversation bits throughout the game with choices that, along with some of your actions in-game, could lead to a relationship between your character and one of the NPCs (with multiple different possibilities among them). Jade Empire, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and probably several others, have had this as one of the side features of the game. It wasn’t necessary to play those options to finish the game, but looking at some of the threads on message boards for the games shows that some people re-played the games trying to hook up with different characters. A couple of the games even allowed for same-sex relationships if you pursued that option.

    • Ryo says:

      I absolutely couldn’t agree more!! This is one of the most frustratingly hypocritical things I always hear from Westerners.
      Like… what did every single player (ummm… ever?) want to do when they first played the Sims? They wanted to have their Sim character bang another Sim! And that’s pretty much what every player tries to do in RPGs such as the ones you mentioned, regardless of whether they’re Western-made or Japanese made. In fact Western RPGs make you work harder for the romance than Japanese RPGs do; but somehow there’s still that odd hypocrisy.

      I suppose they think it’s lame to have the whole game based on that aspect of the game, but I don’t think any one of these gamers has ever played such a game (because they’re almost never translated into English). So they’re really saying the same thing their parents do about their own video games – “I can’t see how anyone can actually like that!” And yet they argue “You’d like it if you tried it” or “you just don’t understand.”

      As the icing on the cake, I guess I’ll end with this apparent wedding ceremony from the game Skyrim: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFfR7Z4gEAE

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