The dating sim is a game type you may have heard of, but probably never played. For the readers that haven't played one, dating sim games are cultural staples of Japanese electronic media. They're simple little games with little interaction (some are rather complex menu-driven simulations), mostly centered around telling a story through still images and dialogue. Some games even let the player work on a few relationships, picking the right guy/girl for the hero of each game. But I digress.
Dating sims have made an impression on American game design in ways we may not have expected, but they'll never make the leap across the pond due to some major and interesting cultural differences.
Dating Sims are of every shape and color. There's ones more about innocent romance, ones more about violent love affairs, ones about anthropomorphic women living with you in a big house, ones about older women, ones about girls chasing boys, boys chasing boys...etc. Whether known as Dating Sim, Otome Game, or Visual Novel the games all take the player through a story about something: love, science fiction, horror, sexcapades or even just heavy emotional train rides designed to elicit tears (Crying games). They're easy to make and easy to find online, so if you've never played one here's your chance: Both Ren'Ai Archive and VisualNovelGames.com have free games for download. Head on over and give one a spin, let me know what you think in the comments.
Your standard dating sim game has a few staples, or at least a few tropes we can touch on. Things to expect: Dialog to read/hear, Characters represented by still sprites over still backgrounds, simple choices in the dialog and the possibility of multiple endings. There's a pace to these games, and "pace" is really the best word for it. Other games from Japan like RPGs and certain action games, all have this pace feeling too: the feeling that the game wants you to proceed at its pace. It's as much a part of the experience as the graphics to me, and something that either you fully embrace or completely detest. Once you get past it, dating sim games are chances for the designers to showcase their writing skills. Game play is takes second fiddle to narrative, a risky move when you're making a game.
Story and game play are natural enemies. In my opinion, story and game play simply do not mix. You get one or the other. Only a few games make conscious effort to blend the two, and most leave massive gaps in the story for the player to fill in with game play. Think of most modern action games: linear stages cut together with location specific missions and objectives. The game play is mostly cutting through swaths of enemies with your assembled skills. If it read like a story it would say "And then Marcus fought his way through more waves of Locust, going up the stairs and then fighting five more locust. Then he died a few times, stood perfectly still for two minutes, and ran around the battlefield collecting all of the ammunition he could find before proceeding." A story has a single author, a beginning middle and ending and a uniquely objective feeling that game play simply ruins. Game play strives to give players agency in a system of rules, control over their fates and some say in the destiny of the game. All games can be won by definition...so how do you win a story? Sure, there's ways around it (Parts of Heavy Rain and Mass Effect get real close), and some games get pretty close. But ultimately the story will take a sideline to the game play...or the story should be in comic, movie or other non-interactive media. This rant could go on for a while, but I want to point out that despite story and games not mixing well...that hasn't stopped us from trying. And the dating sim's method for handling character interactions has made an indelible impression upon modern gaming.
The truth is we've been using the dating sim model more and more in Western games, slowly but surely, as Eastern games have slowly been integrating them into games we'd consider more main-stream. The Persona series of RPGs uses a calendar system to keep track of in-game time, and emphasizes that going out to arcades, movies or meals with your classmates will improve their opinion of you, letting you benefit during the game by powering up your demons. In Dynasty Warriors' Empires spin-off series, during the campaign your leader can get married, make major decisions of policy and befriend various officers more or less by giving them important tasks/posts. And lo! Mass Effect's dialog system, minus the animation, is the Dating Sim model to a tee: Two talking heads go through various and possibly looping conversation options, some resulting in bonuses and some resulting in battle or worse. Look deeper. Shepard is written as a unique entity in the world of the game, with a history and speech pattern and behaviors like any other human in that setting; He's written like a Dating Sim protagonist, designed to be imprinted on by the player but never too much ourselves in his world. He even has a choice of girls/guys to end up with, even has to digitally court them in order to win their affections. And let's not start with Dragon Age II (Gift giving, specific bonuses dependent on character's disposition towards you...)
But between all that similarity in Western games is shooting guns, swinging swords or otherwise. There tends to be a disturbing amount of game play in our dating sims, according to the visual story model. But it works because they were meant to be games in the first place. Games have always been about delivering a system that was meant to be mastered and conquered. The competitive spirit keeps games striving for new mechanics to give to players, and it's evident in the complexity of our controllers, the depth of our competitive community's game play and the way we thirst for new ways to interact with the medium. Dating sim games say to hell with all that, and focus on delivering an emotionally wrenching, immersive and interactive experience on the complete and total other end of the scale. It's important to remember, however, that no matter how much freedom it feels like you have most games with a story will end the same way, or one of only a few ways. You as a player have no say over whether Shepard will stop the Reapers, but you get to choose if he keeps the Collector's base. The reins are always carefully out of the player's reach, and in the author's grasp.
And that's why a game that focuses on story more than game play just doesn't cut it in the American market. We've tried a few times, even. Sprung, now there was a classic dating sim. Developed for the US by a company I could find hardly any information on (Guillemot, Inc.), and met with abysmal scores/reception, it didn't seem worth mentioning. But it is, because it's a straight up dating sim. Moving forwards, games like 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors mix the visual novel with the "room escape" sub-genre of puzzle game to great effect, but these types of games have a home on handheld consoles and the iPad, no longer on the consoles. In Japan the PS2 and Dreamcast are home to many famous or well acclaimed visual novels, in the US that is simply not how consoles work. We still get games like Sakura Wars for the PS2, and the Indie Marketplace sometimes hosts them. But the appeal isn't there for a wide release, it's just not our bag. The American romantic story market is designed for adults, where the conflicts of adults trying to find love/peace greatly outweigh that of the High-Schooler in love. And if we're going to have a love story, we want to watch it go by (tv, books and movies). There's still, however, important lessons we can learn.
We thank the dating sim for giving us a way of looking at a way to blend narrative and game play. There's two roads to walk down: every action in the game is narrative (Heavy Rain, Mass Effect), or the narrative is most of the actions in the game (Clicking your way through a visual novel, making simple choices to affect a predetermined set of outcomes). By adapting the detached approach to the protagonist, where the hero of the game and the player are different people, and by working with the idea of choice in narrative, we can see that there's value in the dating sim model. Big value that big titles are starting to mimic in their attempts to bring emotional depth to game play. We can't achieve heart breaking emotional depth when the guns are drowning out our words. In the end we see that truly emotional moments are between people fighting through circumstances that fate has set down. Either for love, against fate...or for whatever reason we decide to wake each morning. You simply don't get that from shooting a gun, and if we as game designers and game players are serious about trying to develop meaningful emotions in games, we're going to look everywhere to find it.