There has been a lot of talk lately about Japan’s radically changing society. It started with an article in the Guardian with the viral headline “Why have young people in Japan stop having sex?” The headline was terribly misleading, young people in Japan are having sex. They are just getting married a lot less and having fewer babies. The notion that lower marriage rates and lower birth rates equals less sex is a terribly old fashioned notion. The truth is, it is all economic, and it is not just in Japan.
But that is not what I want to talk about, feel free to follow the links if your interested in learning more. The funny side topic that kept popping up was this notion that virtual girlfriends were partly to blame. Specifically, virtual dating sims, and more specifically Love Plus for Nintendo DS and its sequel Love Plus + for 3DS. These two are far and away the best selling virtual dating sims ever, and I wanted to find out why.
A little searching led me to this article, which makes me want to play the game more. Good plan, but to quote Doctor Who, “there are only three flaws with this plan as far as I can see”: 1. I don’t own a Nintendo DS, 2. the game is not available in this country, and 3. I don’t speak or read Japanese. Luckily as Doctor Who is a master of time and space, I am a master of the Internets. I won’t go into boring detail except to say problem #3 was solved by going here.
Having played Japanese Date Simulators before, the first part of Love Plus looked very familiar. I start as a junior in prep school, I have 100 days to improve my characters stats and meet / become friends with girls at the same school. My stats are built by doing 4 different activities each day. I mention all this because this is pretty much the exact scenario for every Japanese Date Simulator I have ever played (granted I have only played two others, but what are the odds?). I don’t see the attraction at all in this scenario, which is why Something’s In The Air involves a more American friendly scenario of meeting 20-something aged girls in bars. Japan apparently enjoys fantasizing about young love in grade school, and so Love Plus continues the proven trend.
Some immediate differences become apparent. First, there are only three girls to meet, and the game code guarantees you meet all three by the end of the second week. Second, the three girls are not still drawings most of the time, but animated 3D renders. Third, the girls are completely voice acted in Japanese, but even if you are like me and Japanese sounds like “Simlish“, I still like hearing it as it helps bring out the personality and tone of the text. It’s like a Japanese film with subtitles.
Most importantly, the three girls are not just stereotypes, but well written characters with back stories to explain their demeanor. Even with the literal and unnatural English translation the personalities of the three girls comes through to the player. The characters are written well enough to seem like real girls. This is a standard I am going to have to push on myself in my future games.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that Rinko Kobayakawa is the girl for me. Early on she comes off as sort of a bitch (point = 1), but she is more of an emo/loner/geek (point = 2). First thing I learn is she likes to read (we meet her in a library — point = 3). Next I learn is she likes to hang out at an arcade well past curfew playing Street Fighter (point = 4). But the thing that really won me over was her love of second British Invasion music, and a distaste for J-POP, and Visual Kei, which I totally agree with (point = BINGO!). Bonus: she likes cats. Once I realized that, I focused on my Intelligence and Sense skills (my typical day was science, social studies, library, hobbies) until she fell for me.
Now with every other J-Date Sim, getting the girl would be followed by an eroge hentai scene and the game would be over, but Nintendo will not license games containing sex or nudity on their DS platform. Instead the game completely changes into something very different. Welcome to the virtual girlfriend tamagotchi game. For those not familiar, a Love Plus virtual girlfriend is like a Sim from The Sims, but instead of worrying about trivial things like eating and bladder, your worries are of a more romantic nature. Getting too low, results in an unhappy girlfriend.
To keep your girlfriend happy you got to take her on dates, study with her, call her, email her, and touch her. It is all more complicated than it sounds. Lets start with the touching part: It is like a mini arcade game. You must touch her in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and there is a high failure rate. The opportunities are kind of rare and last only a few seconds. Email is random thoughts, riddles, questions, comments, and it is best to answer right away with the exact best response. Calling is how you get dates and study dates.
Lets talk about dates. Before you can even set up a date, you have to master a skill which is done by doing four daily tasks each day just like the first part of the game. Once you got a skill maxed out, date venues and events open up depending on the skill. To go to an event you have to plan to attend when the event happens, then call your girlfriend to set up the date and time to meet, then when the date arrives, you play out the date, taking advantage of the rare touching sequences, and then when the date is over, your skills drop and it is time to start building skills again.
Here is the kicker: Dating is best done in REAL TIME!! It uses the built in DS clock and calendar functions to advance the game in real time. Set up a date for Sunday at noon? Better have your Nintendo DS ready to turn on wherever you happen to be at Sunday at noon, because if you miss the date, your virtual girlfriend gets upset. Need to skill up to be able to go on a date? You will need to play the game every day to get the skill points, and check the game emails and phone messages, then find something else to do for the next 23 and a half hours.
These Love Plus girls are high maintenance. Luckily there is a “skip mode” which lets you play a few days at a time, but mixing modes is not allowed, and skip mode skips birthday and holiday content. That is why REAL virtual boyfriends play in REAL TIME.
There are many reports about players neglecting real life to satisfy their virtual Love Plus girlfriends. There are also weird stories like the one about the guy who married his virtual girlfriend. I’m sure crazy stuff and life neglecting stuff happens because I know gamers, but I am also sure most of those reports were probably written by the marketing department of Konami Games.
Could Love Plus work outside of Japan?
Short answer, no. If they released the game as is, with the English translation as is, it would sell a few copies to the curious, and that might be enough. If they took the literal translation and further made it into conversational English, and then hired English speaking voice actors, the game could sell better, but it would still feel a bit too Japanese with the whole Manga looking characters in a Japanese prep school.
If they just took the gaming engine, and wrote a whole new game for Western audiences, featuring a trio of cute teen boys, and marketed the game to teen girls, it would probably end up a fairly big hit. That would require a huge investment in a game formula that has never proven to work with western audiences. Probably not worth it.
There was an attempt by Konami to make a similar game in English called Brooktown High, but it never really sold well. I think they have stayed away from the market ever since.
In conclusion, this has been a fun little research activity, It brings me some new insights to my future game projects, especially insights into building a more realistic dating companion. Could I implement some of these concepts in my Date Ariane update? I am still in the design phase of the project. My projects tend to get really huge before I chop them down to a reasonable level. Something to think about anyways.