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How to understand and play dating sims

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The first ending many people experience when playing notorious pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend involves being ambushed by ninjas for "failing to display sufficient intimacy with the birds." You are unceremoniously killed and brought back to the main menu to start over from the beginning or are forced to resume from an earlier save point.

Dating simulation games like Hatoful Boyfriend most often take the form of visual novels, interactive text adventures with images and animations accompanying the branching story. You won't be selecting every dialogue choice during your character's involvement with the game’s world, but you will be occasionally prompted to guide your hero or heroine along different paths, and depending on your prior actions these could result in good or ill.

Dating simulation games demand extensive experimentation, trial and error. They are built to anticipate and encourage that style of play. Many Western players new to the genre miss out on that fundamental aspect of the experience, writing dating sims off as shallow and basic after dipping their toes in.

We’re going to offering some hints at how to get the most out of all manner of dating sims, along with some places to start. If you’ve ever been curious about the genre, this is your excuse to jump in. Trust me, it's worth it.

All’s fair in love and war

Bad ends, like the aforementioned assassination, exist to teach players how to engage with most dating sims. Since dramatic romances are often the main focus of these games and are necessary to lead the stories along their branching paths, you are expected to fulfill your obligation as a good sport and at least attempt to fall in love. Or else the game really won't know what to do with you, and thus you will be punished.

If you walk off the path, you'll be pushed back onto it. But don't worry! The path is where one finds the fun.

Non-romantic visual novels do exist for those who don't want to opt in to this particular character-focused experience, but for this article we’ll be limiting ourselves to the love simulation variety. The systems in these romance-focused visual novels are usually not robust enough to support complex social sims, they're more like long and pretty choose-your-own-adventure novels. The player must accept their limited role in these spaces and do what they can in order to dig the interesting bits out of these games’ juicy narrative databases.

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Some dating sims even go as far as avoiding a common-route affection rating approach entirely, like that found in Hatoful Boyfriend, by prompting the explicit choice of what character you want to pursue during the beginning of the game. This is usually done after a short introductory prologue and being given a narrative reason for the choice presentation, such as picking a classmate for a school project.

While the tools offered by these games tacitly encourage narrative manipulation, such as skipping of prior-read text, jumping directly to decision points, massive amounts of save slots, gallery completion percentages, and new game plus content, unfortunately the user experience design isn't there to train someone completely new to this experience. And this is where us in the West run into misconceptions about the depth of these games.

Many folks never see Hatoful Boyfriend subtly transform into its final revelatory route that blows everyone's minds. It isn't a good game because it’s hilarious to date pigeons, it's a good game because of what it does to you after you become attached to all the pigeons and then play again one last time in order to "fulfill the promise." The epilogue is the real story.

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Gotta catch ‘em all

Another hurdle I see people experience when starting out playing dating sims is that they spread themselves too thin. They shop around like they would when playing a BioWare game, interacting with all the different available characters for too long and find they are suddenly railroaded along a generic path that usually results in a normal ending where you don't kiss anyone, or worst-case-scenario: a harsh death.

At this stage I advise friends new to the genre that they need to focus on a chosen character early and aim for that goal ceaselessly. And I assure them not to panic from this seemingly premature decision, because dating sims are specifically designed so that you will want to see all the available characters, each attempt requiring its own separate playthrough on a different timeline entirely. This isn't Persona 4, you can't get away with dating them all at once.

Japanese dating sim players often refer to the romanceable characters in the games as "capturable." Whether you want to interpret that as literal or prefer to see yourself as "captivating" the various characters’ attentions is up to you, and sometimes up to the particular game’s themes. But when playing dating sims you are actually being quizzed on how much you know about a particular character you’re after, either learned through attentiveness or knowledge of tropes.

Approaching the games in this manner leaves one much less disappointed when they don’t deliver a true vicarious romance experience. It’s a troubling view of human relations in general but it’s one that simple gameplay mechanics can handle.

Live to love another day

So now we come upon the quantum conundrum of dating sims. As you repeatedly go through one of these games with your different romantic focuses each loop through you'll notice that things in the story can change pretty drastically after a designated turning point, depending on how that particular sim is laid out. Characters who are hale and hearty in one route will up and die in another, enemies become friends and vice versa.

Your character may speak of destiny and true love, but you as the player know better and are keeping a meta tally of all your conquests. Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma wrote in his translated book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals about the contradiction of the dual desire for small narratives and grand non-narrative databases, little quantum set-pieces at the expense of a linear canon story. There are some people who dislike this disjointed storytelling style, such as those found in transmedia properties, so these types of games may just not be enjoyable for them.

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999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward director Kotaro Uchikoshi spoke of his attempts at harnessing the player's experience and perception of a game's story during multiple playthroughs. He pointed out the lack of gravity a character's death has in these kind of games, stemming from seeing the main character and surrounding characters die so many times and how to work with it.

"So basically, rather than the desire of 'I don't want the character to die, so I'll try to avoid it,' we put emphasis on the desire 'I don't want this story to die as is, so I'll try to avoid it,'" he explained. So sure, you may all die at one point or another, but at least it’ll be an interesting story.

Seasoned players of dating sims endeavor to experience all the junctures, all the good and the bad, ultimately seeking out their best of all possible worlds. This is a very different philosophy from Western-style role-playing games, where one generally finds it more satisfying to select with your gut and accept how the die is cast.

Both approaches have merits, but I enjoy digging into a dating sim and seeking out all the various endings and full gallery completion. If I can't handle a particular character at their worst, then I sure as hell don't deserve them as their best. But it's a pity there is such a steep learning curve conveying this key aspect to Western players, who are not used to games expecting or supporting aggressive multiple playthroughs.

One should think of this approach as a feature and not a bug. Imagine watching a season of your favorite show multiple times, focusing on different characters, with different things happening. Doesn't that sound great?

It’s also curious how often the character that interested me initially ends up not being my favorite route. If I had not been encouraged to experience all the stories offered I would have missed out on fascinating details only provided from different points of view and would have pre-judged a now-favorite character who ultimately experienced the best development arc.

Many of these games also allow you get to explore an antagonist’s motivations by becoming close to them, usually after starting again and already knowing what they intend to do.

Dating sim trope subversion is probably one of my favorite things. The genre has been around for so long in Japan that games start to get creative when reflecting back in on themselves. Nitroplus' Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi involves one of the romantic interests learning she's been manipulated on a supernatural level and coming to the realization that she is a character within a game.

She then jealously, and quite literally, destroys your idyllic world. She takes over the game, prevents you from quitting out, deletes the game's save files and gallery information that involve a rival love interest. Ultimately she starts going after you, the player controlling the game, instead of the superficial character that you control. It’s delightfully twisted.

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So ultimately there are three things to keep in mind when 2D dating:

  1. Focus on one character at a time
  2. Find out what’s behind all the doors
  3. Save often!

If all this dating sim stuff is completely new to you but you want to try out your new-found knowledge on how to play, here are a couple of personally recommended games to get you started. And while the gameplay systems in dating sims can be applied to both dating sims aimed at women and those aimed at men, my background and experience applies to games aimed at a female audience, so that will influence my pool of recommendations.

Hakuoki is probably one of the most accessible, available on PS3, PSP, 3DS, iOS, and Android. It’s more of a historical samurai drama with supernatural elements, and some chances at romance. A lot of folks find it easy to start with because it doesn’t go heavy into the relationships early on and has a pretty interesting story surrounding the budding love, though the game does require some dedication to complete fully.

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For the PC side, I really enjoy the games by Korean developer Cheritz, which you can easily demo and buy on Steam. They’re a bit pricy but they pack an emotional punch that I didn’t expect at first. Dandelion uses social sim elements, such as planning out your days in addition to pursuing relationships based on stats, while Nameless has traditional visual novel branching. Their upcoming game Mystic Messenger has an intriguing cellphone theme and what looks like a potential female love interest.

In addition to these titles I’ve written a more in-depth introductory list of games to get one started in the dating sim genre. But as explained here, first learning the context of their creation and cultural expectations of these kind of games is key to getting the most enjoyment out of playing visual novels of any kind.

2015 is looking to be a good year for dating sims, particularly otome games, with three big releases already confirmed and a potential fourth on the way before 2016. And studios like Sekai Project have been steadily announcing, successfully Kickstarting, and releasing games at a good pace!

The Dating Sim tag on Steam is progressively growing bigger as more games are coming over in English in addition to ones being made domestically. It’s a perfect time to see what dating sims have to offer.

AM Cosmos (@acosmos) used to work in AAA video game development, but she got out. Now she occasionally writes about media that interests her (otome.sexy) — particularly animation, comics, and games made by and for audiences of women. And she gets real emotional when thinking too hard about sports anime.