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I want to learn about dating sims

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
Dating simulators are a massive genre of which I know little. I'd like to broaden my horizons in that direction. I've read serious material about them, but the best way to learn is through experience, right?

So recommend me a dating sim. One of any orientation; I'm not (yet) going to be picky about whether the main character aligns with me. But I do have conditions.

I'm looking for something that's readily available in intelligible English, naturally. I recognize that this is the biggest limiting factor, but I am not curious enough to learn Japanese just for this.

I'd like it to be pretty ordinary. Something that's a balanced representation of the genre's strengths and norms, rather than committing very strongly to an idiosyncratic premise or being a deconstruction aimed at veterans who are burned out on the clichés.

And if it's on the easy side, I wouldn't mind that either.

Does such a thing exist?
 

gogglebob

The Goggles Do Nothing
(he/him)
I understand that you already have said you're unfamiliar with the genre, but what would be your definition of "easy" for a dating sim? Like, see mate, date mate is a straightforward path, or something "easy" in that the theme/writing is light and fluffy as opposed to a bad path may lead to "your" death?
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
I understand that you already have said you're unfamiliar with the genre, but what would be your definition of "easy" for a dating sim? Like, see mate, date mate is a straightforward path, or something "easy" in that the theme/writing is light and fluffy as opposed to a bad path may lead to "your" death?
I'm given to understand that these games can contain a concept of skillful play, so "easy" in the sense that it's less demanding of such skill, or teaches you how to play it forgivingly.
doesn't tim rogers or some other famous nerd boy have like an eight hour video on tokimeki memorial
I watched it, and doing so stoked my curiosity, but that game isn't in English and has been called "untranslatable." I'd definitely have already played it (or a sequel) if not for the language barrier.
 

q 3

here to eat fish and erase the universe
(they/them)
Honestly the first thought that comes to mind based on your conditions is Katawa Shoujo and I haven't thought of anything obviously better after a few minutes of thought, so that's what I'll go with.
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
Tell me more. I've heard of this game, but a lot of what I've heard is unreliable.
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
Try Arcade Spirits. You play an androgenous character in an Arcade, working there, in an alternate timeline where arcades never died. Full of nostalgia, you can date people of either gender, no matter yours. I think you can decide if you want to see adult content (read: naked people), but maybe there is nothing of that kind, don't remember. The writing is fine, the characters are fun, and there is a story apart from dating.

If you gave money to the giant itch.io bundle in 2020, you also already own that game.

Katawo Shoujo is also pretty good. Nice writing and characters, and it's free. You can decide if sexscenes are censored.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Are we distinguishing between dating sims and visual novels as sometimes overlapping but ultimately distinct genres? Because if Tokimeki Memorial is seen as the archetype (which it is, by popularity and influence at least, though Angelique is just as significant and of an equal vintage) and what's driving the interest here, then I assume its model is what's being sought in statistically-driven play instead of purely branching narrative. Katawa Shoujo is "just" a visual novel, for instance. I'm bringing this up because the conflation is persistent and ambiguous in the best of cases.
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
Thanks for the suggestions, all, and keep 'em coming.
Are we distinguishing between dating sims and visual novels as sometimes overlapping but ultimately distinct genres? Because if Tokimeki Memorial is seen as the archetype (which it is, by popularity and influence at least, though Angelique is just as significant and of an equal vintage) and what's driving the interest here, then I assume its model is what's being sought in statistically-driven play instead of purely branching narrative. Katawa Shoujo is "just" a visual novel, for instance. I'm bringing this up because the conflation is persistent and ambiguous in the best of cases.
I'm willing to be ecumenical about it, but my hope is to get a view into the more mechanically rich side of the spectrum.
 

YangusKhan

does the Underpants Dance
(He/Him/His)
Are we distinguishing between dating sims and visual novels as sometimes overlapping but ultimately distinct genres? Because if Tokimeki Memorial is seen as the archetype (which it is, by popularity and influence at least, though Angelique is just as significant and of an equal vintage) and what's driving the interest here, then I assume its model is what's being sought in statistically-driven play instead of purely branching narrative. Katawa Shoujo is "just" a visual novel, for instance. I'm bringing this up because the conflation is persistent and ambiguous in the best of cases.
I honestly had no idea there was a distinction like this in the first place. Geeze!
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
It requires delving into flash cards/emulation and fan patches, but 2009's LovePlus for DS has a translation available. It's a game that reached mass popularity in its time but quickly fizzled out, and if you ever heard of it, it didn't do you any good for its total regional inaccessibility. It comes from Konami, so they're playing up to their own TokiMemo heritage and pedigree, and is interesting as a continuation of that, and also for the level of 3D-modeling achieved on the platform when all of it is in service of hyperfixation on the dateable girls. I also recommend it specifically in this context because it's so antiseptic and generically idealized that it should serve as a good sampling of the genre at large.
 
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Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
I looked at some posts by Tom James, The Daigo Umihara Of Dating Sims, and saw:

As glad I am Love Plus is playable in English, it's really not the best intro to traditional dating sims and how they play

Your thoughts?
 
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Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Maybe not strictly mechanically, because it has its own extrapolations of what it's riffing on and a sort of real-time system that isn't really the convention, but experientially it has just the kind of male-perspective exclusively heteronormative fluff aesthetic and tone that you absolutely have to be into/have a tolerance for if you're going to interact with the genre to any greater extent. In that sense I think it's instructive, and "tradition" is a lot to lay on newcomers for something that's so brazenly niche in the first place, in its native cultural context or not.
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
You're saying that it's a good introduction because of the assumed identity and orientation of the avatar?

Don't worry about that. Disregard that as a criterion. I want to see how these things work, and to that end I'm capable of correcting for whether the subject matter aligns to my taste. Later on I might end up playing one for pleasure, but this is study.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Not just orientation, but in the fundamental level of exploitation that's part and parcel of the usual subject matter for the genre, which tends to be best highlighted in the most archetypal examples of it that LovePlus derives from regardless of its own tangents. All of this stuff preys on really base aspects of the human condition and often with a very narrow view of what that encompasses, so you can get familiarized with that pervasive sensibility from a lot of different examples since so much of the genre is so unmoving in that regard.

I also made the recommendation not because I have any affinity for LovePlus as a game but because of the detailed "academic" context, as it's one of the instances of the genre that made it exceptionally big and popular, and so is one of the historically significant works that represent it, no matter what genre enthusiasts think of it. You really can't be too choosy with this stuff if you don't have Japanese as a language skill as so much of it simply isn't available. Something like Sakura Wars is (or to be more accurate, was) absolutely colossal but what's there to really lean on from an English-language angle? The fifth game on PS2 that closed out the series for a decade and a half and the recent revival game for PS4 which just sort of came and went? Neither do much to capture the multimedia zeitgeist that catapulted the series into stardom in its peak years.
 
So I'm really unfamiliar with the genre* so can't say how normal or not it is, but I played Bustafellows a few months ago and enjoyed it. Visual novel but also solving murder mysteries. The exact mystery varies depending on which guy you pick to date, I can't remember a specifically gory scene but be warned that there's definitely blood shown and a lot just-offscreen violence happens.

The voices are in Japanese and the translation is pretty good, although some cutscenes are missing subtitles for no reason. None of them contain information you need to figure out what's going on so it won't affect your ability to play the game though.

*the only other things I've played that even remotely fall in the genre are Hatoful Boyfriend and Boyfriend Dungeon which are definitely not typical ones.
 

q 3

here to eat fish and erase the universe
(they/them)
For dating + numbers go up, I'm gonna recommend Hanako's Magical Diary series (same developer as Long Live the Queen). Horse Hall for female protagonist, Wolf Hall for male protagonist (both have love interests and platonic friendship interests of multiple genders). They both have substantive demos and go on sale on Steam and itch.to pretty regularly.

Persona 3 - 5 are technically dating sims with stat building mechanics
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
I think that strike-through is really relevant to an inquiry and exploration like this because it's likeliest the genre has "infiltrated" more widely played games and so introduced its concepts through that angle to larger audiences. Fire Emblem is essentially a dating sim in how it plays out, and increasingly so over the years--you won't hook people with just simulating conversation and daily routine but killing and politics make it palatable. That's not just being glib either, as what did Bioware build their fame on, really, other than dating sims for the computer and console RPG audiences, and they never could have done it if they had exclusively focused on that type of design only to sell the concept. The full-on examples of the genre are often too uncomfortable for people to contemplate, while the ones that integrate some of the hallmarks get to reap the rewards of the inherent appeal through that relative remove that doesn't draw the lens too revealingly close.
 

muteKi

As charming as a grinch
Something like Sakura Wars is (or to be more accurate, was) absolutely colossal but what's there to really lean on from an English-language angle? The fifth game on PS2 that closed out the series for a decade and a half and the recent revival game for PS4 which just sort of came and went? Neither do much to capture the multimedia zeitgeist that catapulted the series into stardom in its peak years.

There's at least the GBC game now! I seem to recall that the PC ports of the main 4 games also got a Russian translation, of all things, but I don't think anyone has done the work to bring any of them into English. Or maybe it was even a retail release in some form -- it has been a while.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
I don't think it is. To me, Doki Doki Literature Club! is a shallow and exploitative piece of shit engineered to be consumed and enjoyed by people who are unfamiliar or frustrated by the medium it's supposedly "deconstructing", only it doesn't actually have anything truly critical to do or say from that perspective nor build up some kind of better alternative to what it's in such a hurry to dismantle. It isn't some fresh and radical insight, because the ills of the genre are common knowledge to almost anyone with even cursory familiarity with it, so using those conventions for "shocking" metafiction about tired "hey isn't this all a bit fucked up" nudging and then dedicating the entire runtime to moeblob anime girls being subjected to physical and emotional torture to... accomplish what? Comment constructively on the subject matter? No, they're just satisfying a gore and violation of innocence taboo and masquerading it as a work of incisive self-reflection and profiting off the ostensible shock factor. What this kind of media does is just maintain the status quo propped up for decades by uncountable other works that think introducing violence into nominally saccharine subject matter is going to read as revolutionary instead of propagating the worst bad-faith material that actually makes the baseline examples of the influences look benign and worthwhile by comparison.
 

muteKi

As charming as a grinch
There was stuff being made a decade ago that was of a similar tenor but better. DDLC is incredibly shallow and fails to land for me because of how much of the progress and design of these games its seemingly ignored in the process of making its...metacommentary? It's not even a particularly novel use of messing-around-with-game-files, either. I mean, I don't know that I would go out of my way to recommend Yume Miru Kusuri, certainly not to someone just starting the genre, but at least it doesn't pretend it's revolutionizing the medium somehow.
 

Paul le Fou

24/7 lofi hip hop man to study/relax to
(He)
I actually disagree that DDL is a dating sim or even a "deconstruction" of the dating sim genre at all; I'd call it a psychological horror game that uses tropes of the dating sim VN to disguise and inform its horror. If DDLC has a message, it's about empathy and games (or even media) more broadly, and the dating sim trappings just serve as a part of the delivery. It's when the game breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, that you get to its intent, and by that point we see that the dating sim genre is almost tertiary to the central idea. The reason it seems like a vapid or shallow entry to dating sims or a weak commentary on them is that it isn't trying to be either of those things.

What it does most effectively is, as a psychological horror game, set the player up with the most saccharine onboarding you can get - a fluffy pink high school dating sim with all the cliché tropes solidly in place - and then chip away at those, slowly at first and then drastically. It's a cheap but effective tack, because dating sims are a style of game literally made for the express purpose get the player to immerse themself in the story and characters so much that they form strong emotional bonds, "falling in love" (with or without quotation marks) with the characters and world. Beginning with the trappings of a dating sim is an easy way to draw your empathy and affection into the world quickly and directly, to get you immersed and therefore more susceptible to the horror, character-related or otherwise. Many of those moments do revolve on "oops, it's violence!" shock factor or "All this happy-seeming stuff is sad, actually!" kinds of "drama." It's definitely not particularly deep or mature in that regard. I will say, that very first big reveal - walking in on your childhood friend having hanged herself - is really effective from a visceral shock standpoint because of the whiplash, even if you absolutely know it's coming (I first played it a few years ago, but while I didn't know exact details I knew full well that it was a Fucked Up Game and not an actual normal dating sim).

But even more than that, oddly enough, the moments that really stuck with me and Actually Scared me were the glitches as things started falling apart. Getting kicked back to the title screen as though nothing happened, welcome back, let's play a sweet dating game! was effective as a discomforting, uncanny moment. I know that this isn't a new concept in games, but the a/v design and timing of things starting to glitch out, to break down as a game, even the "jump scare" glitches out of nowhere, really made an impact on me. I think the format of the VN/dating game also helps inform a few of its segments like the tall girl's suicide. The horror of that scene, to me, lay not in the brutality or shock of the violence, but the lack of control/runaway train feeling. Iirc you can start trying to steer things away, try desperately to defuse the situation or escape, but between tech/reality glitches you keep getting dragged back in as you see the inevitable continue to approach, and by the time she actually stabs herself it's not so much horror at the violence as sadness that you saw coming. Then getting stuck in there with the body for days was also, while gruesome, effective insofar as you were literally stuck with the grim results staring you in the face.

The last act with the reveal and denouement of the in-game character gaining sentience and being mad about it was interesting enough, the "infinity room" was memorable, the game files mechanic was neat, etc. But at that point I think it's pretty clear the game is more about empathy, desensitization and emotional connection in literature and games in general, with dating sims as a jumping-off point and a pointed example, because as as exercises in empathy, they are particularly strongly suited to the message the game is making, as a genre.
 

muteKi

As charming as a grinch
I still don't know that I would recommend DDLC over what is probably their most obvious inspiration in Higurashi: When They Cry. None are what I would consider "dating sims" but coming from the perspective of tracing the history of the wider story-game genres that dating sims sit inside I'd rather recommend the more established title. Even then I don't know that I love Higurashi, as I think it shares a flaw where the hyperviolence of both comes across to me more comedically than serious or horrifying.
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
It turns out that I do, in fact, already have Arcade Spirits, meaning that one's the most accessible to me, so I'll probably start with that one. Second priority will be Love Plus, because the way it has been described sounds interesting.
 
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