Three Awful Messages Dating Sims Perpetuate

Let me start by explaining the concept of dating Sims for those of you lucky enough never to have crossed paths with the concept before. Dating sims are a derivate of games known as “visual novels”: a type of game that is akin to “choose your own adventure” books.

In visual novels, the player gets to read a story from the first person point of view. There is usually a point where the main character (often referred to as MC) will need to make a choice and that’s when the player decides which choice the main character will take. Usually, the choices the player makes affect the events and/or the ending of the game. There are many genres of visual novels including horror, adventure, mystery, and romance. However, even when many games take elements from visual novels (choices made in Telltale games or games such as The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age that include decision making and character romance) pure visual novel games are often seen as inferior or not considered true games at all. Dating simulators or dating sims are visual novels that specialize in romance. Generally, people make a distinction between dating sims aimed at men (gal games) and dating sims aimed at women (otome games).

Of all visual novel games, dating sims are probably the most well-known and the most despised. Dating sims would probably be an even more obscure genre, were it not for the world of anime. Despite the negative bias against dating sim players, media built from and around dating sims have become quite popular and celebrated: for example, the manga and anime series The World God Only Knows which uses and comments on popular tropes of the dating sim. There are also a number of dating sim titles which have gone to become celebrated anime series such as the Kyoto Animation trinity: Air, Kanon, and Clannad.

For me, personally, dating sims tell a story of gender representation and mating rituals. I have decided to list here three of the things I believe dating sims have to tell about our society:



1) Romance is marketed differently for men and women.

Usually in a gal game, you will play a character and according to your choices, you will end up romancing a character in the story (or none!). There are probably exceptions to this rule, but in general, it’s the way things play out: go to the library and find the timid bookworm girl, wake up early and go to the race track and connect with the active jock girl, go to the art room if you want to romance a sensitive artsy girl. In gal games, you’re always on the hunt. Even some games give the player the option to have the elusive (but totally achievable) ‘Harem ending’, where you manage to “conquer” all of the girls at the same time. Not so much so for otome games.

Otome games like to have you take the backseat in the story: you’re not going to choose who you want to end up with in the middle of the game, you choose that before you even begin the game proper. I think this is because most dating sims come from the standpoint that women are supposed to value monogamy over anything else and men are supposed to be promiscuous. See, it’s ok for a guy to choose who they’re going to woo during their gameplay, but women are supposed to be committed to a route from the start. Sure, there are exceptions like Cinders, Re:Alistair, and Hatoful Boyfriend but the majority of otome games will give you a quick introduction to the story, showcase the characters and then ask you to pick one before you can continue the story. There are also gal games that will have you pick a route early on, such as Katawa Shoujo, but I haven’t experienced that to be extremely common and you were allowed to go around during the whole first act hunting wabbits, I mean, girls. In otome games, it’s not even possible to link events from one storyline to the next (mostly because the stories are completely different other than the characters’ personalities). You will hardly have a game where you gain insight about the events by playing different routes. They’re altogether parallel universes.

I think this is probably all tied in with the idea that men are supposed to hunt for a partner, while women need to be wooed. I wish more games allowed female characters to woo their partners, but instead we are left in a position of improving ourselves: you need to buy specific clothes in order to attract your man! Most free to play games end up with an internal coin system and a set of character dress-up trials as if telling you “you have to be this tall to be on this ride”. And speaking of rides, why is it that dating sims for men have so much fanservice and sexual content, but dating sims for women are satisfied after showing you a chaste kiss? Where a gal game will have plenty of nudity and reward its players for treating its conquerable characters as sexual objects (press “P” to make Vanilla’s boobs wiggle- it’s an achievement!). Otome games rarely go beyond a kiss and main characters are supposed to be prudish virgins who will faint at the sight of a bare chest (“how dare you show yourself naked from the waist up? You pervert!”).

Otome MCs make for such bland and stupid characters, most otome game adaptations in any other medium come off as cliché, corny and stupid (Amnesia: Memories, anyone?). The gal game MC can be quirky, funny, tough or cool, but the otome game MC’s main trait is often being sweet and forgiving.


MC: “It’s OK, Toma, I know you only put me in a cage because you care!”

2) Not being in a relationship is the end of the world.

I understand that the point of a dating simulator is to simulate dating someone in real life. Having said that, I have a feeling I should be allowed to break up with any virtual partner if they bug me enough. A good example would be most of the cast of Amnesia: Memories or The Men of Yoshiwara. Some of these characters are excessively controlling, abusive and domineering but your character is supposed to forgive all that because otherwise you cannot achieve the “good ending”. You could dismiss these games as bad games and leave it at that, but I think they have a good enough following so there’s clearly a market for this kind of content, so dismissing them as bad games just because I disliked the characters sounds too subjective to me. Not all games suffer from this problem. Cinders, in spite of being way patronizing and preachy (show, don’t tell!), manages to convey stories that lead to a good ending regardless of whether your main character found a partner or not.

I think that in the same way that you shouldn’t agree to marry a person you met on Tinder before your first date, you should be allowed to choose to say no to 2D character’s advances. I also think that representing the idea of being single as a ‘bad ending’ or ‘bad outcome’ is harmful. Not everyone who plays a dating sim is already in a loving relationship, in fact, I would dare to say most people who play that sort of game are not in a relationship. Telling your audience they are living the ‘bad ending’ can do funny things to a person’s self-esteem. I think games should be open to the idea that it’s ok to be single, no matter what.

As an aside, I also wish they would stop stressing the importance of age, beauty and wealth. Because you know what? Maybe I don’t want to marry the young and handsome new CEO of the company. Frack that guy, he’s an a-hole.



3) Nobody cares if you’re LGBT.

As a heterosexual female, I can’t quite tell whether there are a lot of LGBT dating sims out there. As far as I have seen, I’ve found a couple of them on steam, but really I would probably be able to count them on one hand. It’s not that I have looked very hard, but at the same time, I do feel there should be a way to romance same-sex characters in normal games. I have read more than one review of an otome game asking for a supporting female character to become romanceable. I can totally understand that feeling. Sometimes supporting characters are more interesting than any of the MC and let’s face it some of these characters are there for MC in ways that none of the love interests are. Quietly and lovingly looking over us. I don’t think this should only be available in otome games, but also in gal games. If you want a stronger argument, look no further than episode 4 of Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun.



All in all, I know this all sounds very pessimistic, but hopefully, it comes across as a loving criticism rather than pure criticism. I think that dating sims are incredibly fun games that tie in storytelling and decision making to deliver sometimes incredibly moving love stories (eg. Clannad), but I also think that many of the conventions these games operate under are outdated and harmful to their audience. I hope the future brings about new visual novels and new dating sims that everyone can find enjoyable and use to unwind for a while and just feel loved.