Japanese Dating Sims

When I originally created my Dating Sim, I thought I was being original.  I knew about games like The Sims that had dating scenarios in them, and I knew about interactive stories, adventure games, and the “choose your own adventure” books, but I figured that my combining all these elements together was an original concept.

It wasn’t too long after releasing the first version that I discovered I was wrong.  A whole genre of “Dating Sims” had risen and declined in the decade before my game.  My ignorance can be forgiven since all of this happened in Japan, and nowhere else.

Before I go on about the Japanese Dating Sims, I should point out that the Japanese never called them “Dating Sims”.  They have Bishoujo games (beautiful girls),  and Ren’ai (romance) games,  both categories do not necessarily mean “dating” as literally as I took it.

The term caught on, because the Ren’ai games released in the early 90’s like Tokimeki Memorial, True Love 95, and a bunch more relationship games seems to have “getting a date” as a major objective. These are just some of the ones known here in the US.  In Japan there have been hundreds of these titles.

A well known sub genre of the Dating Sim is “Eroge” (Erotic game, aka hentai game , or H-game), and Dating Sims themselves are part of a broader genre known as Visual Novels, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

I do not know what is considered to be the first “dating sim”, the early H-game  Dokyusei (1992) seems as good a candidate as any.  Games with sex and nudity existed before, but it was just straight porn or “strip poker” type games.  Dokyusei actually had plot and a gaming objective before the sex and nudity came into play. Like many early titles, eventually non-H versions would appear on consoles, and even Anime based on the game would be made.

I do know that Tokimeki Memorial is the first real breakout title, released in 1994.  It was an all ages program from the beginning, and its gaming style influence many titles to come. It and numerous sequels, have been released onto many consoles and even on cell phones.  Another breakout was True Love (1995) another “eroge” title.  An MS-DOS version in English was released in the US with nudity intact in 1999.

Before you go track these down,  most all the characters in these games are “manga” style drawn characters.  This convention has largely remained throughout the visual novel genre, which is probably why the genre has never caught on outside Japan.

The general settings of these games are also very Japanese.  The most common setting is Japanese prep school, and all the girls are in school uniforms.  The games start out letting you pick what kind of character you are RPG style where you distribute points between, looks, charm and intelligence.  As you move through the school, you meet many girls, and the object is to find girls that your style allows you to “score” with which you must do by the end of a set time period, usually a semester or school year.

It is not always a school setting, but there is always some arbitrary time limit involved.  The games usually also involve many different possible endings making the games re-playable.  Even though the settings often differed, the formula did not.

After about a decade, the formula got tired, and the popularity declined except for small cult followings.  Recently a resurgence has been happening as video game makers have been interested in games for pre-teen and teen girls they have dusted off the old formula, removed the eroge stuff, and reversed the genders making games where girls have to get boys.  These are called “Otome” or GxB Dating Sims.  Gay themed dating games exist as well, but only from indie sources.

College Romance – A simple flash romance virtual novel, PG-13 contains adult situations but not nudity.
Sim Girl – A flash game that pretty much includes all the stereotypical Japanese dating scenarios, including the H ending.
True Love 95 – The ms-dos game in english, in all of its 256 color glory, downloadable for free. Contains a reg file to allow it to run in windows. In vista or 7 see this note.
Dating Sims at NewGrounds – A big collection of flash H-dating sims, most are probably crap.
Wonderland Days – A PG rated Otome dating sim for girls.

Similarities and Differences with Ariane’s Dating Simulator

While mine is made up of rendered 3D while most of these are hand/computer drawn, the idea that live photos would be way too creepy is a shared idea.  Like mine, most all of these Date Sims adhere to the first person perspective (I thought I was being very original here, but I was just like everybody else).  All dating sims, including mine, occasionally pause the plot for some mini game or puzzle you have to solve to go on.  Mostly still images mixed with occasional animation, is also a shared trait.  The biggest alike quality is of course the multiple possible ending scenarios.

The key differences: Most dating sims allow you to pursue multiple girls, while mine is limited to one.  The advantages of the first is you can construct multiple personality types, mine is stuck with one type.  Other dating sims go on for pages before you have to make a branching decision, while mine has multiple branching decisions every other page.  The advantage of the first method is that you can actually tell a story, mine has to be designed with small story elements that can be told out of order thus sacrificing any semblance of plot.  Another key difference, all other dating sims are made up of “sprite” images overlapped on still backgrounds, while mine are all fully rendered stills.  Their method is a lot less work, believe me.

The biggest original concept on my part (and I wouldn’t recommend it to others) is to code the whole thing in html/javascript.  There are free programs out there that automate the whole process for people  interested in making your own.

The Dating Sim Formula in Other Game Genres

As games have gotten more complex over the years, the Dating Sim seems to have gotten demoted from genre to story element.  One cannot play these Japanese Dating Sims without being reminded of Leisure Suit Larry games for example, though that series was more arcade skill oriented and linear stories.  While The Sims added Hot Date in 2001, it was The Sims 2 expansion pack Night Life that included simulated dates where you had a certain amount of time to impress your date or lose a bunch of friendship points.

But the most complete inclusion of the Dating Sim element into a larger game I have seen is Dragon Age: Origins, where an optional sub plot of the game involves getting friendly, or better yet romantically involved, with your party NPCs. Like the above Dating Sims, this usually involves chatting them up, and responding in ways that gets them to approve, as well as buying them gifts and doing special personal favors for them.  No doubt these formulas show up in other RPG games, but DA:O is the most obvious example.