I really wish dating games would take off in the US. We, as a country, are terrified of them.
They’re a big hit elsewhere in the world (often called visual novels), some of the most played games out there, and they’re often held up as an example of other cultures being “perverse”. As a bit of an example: it’s been suggested to me that I include more images in my posts, so I figured I’d do some google image searching. My Google.com search picked up this:
Note: Nearly every image is focused on a female character, pretty much all of whom are sexualized in some way, text is a tiny bar at the bottom, often an afterthought. Everything is about looking at the pictures, the story is just a hurdle for you to see more pictures. This is the Western view of dating games.
Here’s Google.jp’s return:
Looks pretty similar, but a few noticeable differences. First, note the variety: particularly the ones with text in Japanese are doing rather more interesting things, visually, with their art, with a wider range of characters. Also, the text. Whereas text covers maybe a quarter of the average image in the .com search, the .jp search text takes up a LOT more, and there’s no fear of obscuring the image with story.
I’m not going to try to claim that it isn’t predominantly showing sexualized content, but it appears not to be the sole purpose of the medium.
I’ve talked before, on the podcast, about how I’m thrilled that games are exploring emotions other than wrath, going for things other than wanton mass murder, but that I’ve quickly gotten tired of the shift from anger to sadness. We’ve figured out how to make heartbreaking games, and we need a new emotion.
I brought up dating sims above because they’re a longstanding genre that’s been exploring emotions other than “rage” and “sads” for decades, but sits in its little niche without much attention (negative attention, usually). What more emotional experience is there than detailed interactions with other people? Look at the popularity of Mass Effect– as an adjunct to the shooting/stabbing/killing game, there’s some incredible, emotive storytelling that fires on all cylinders, hitting every part of the emotional spectrum. Why not make that the main focus of the game?
Japanese dating sims get a bad rap because people hold them up and show the predominantly school-aged characters, casting aspersions on the kind of person who’d want to play a game about finding love in high school. It’s absolutely a problem, particularly in the questionable ‘adult’ segment, but it’s a problem borne of too little input. The porn association is extremely strong… yet we’re playing the same type of game in Mass Effect, just with this attached shooting and killing thing.
I’d be interested in seeing a modern dating sim focused on a twenty- or thirty-something protagonist done in the style of Mass Effect’s conversation trees. It’s fertile ground for provoking compelling emotional responses, and it doesn’t have to be a) schoolgirls or b) porn. There’s more to relationships than that.
I’d like to see games that explore relationships beyond “press all the right buttons enough times to sleep with this person”. Let’s apply the grey-area, “whatever choice you make keeps you moving forward, you just have to live with the consequences” choice structure of Dragon Age to interpersonal relationships. Even that game, which I love, quickly devolves into “talk to X person enough to sleep with them”, and there’s so much more that could be done there.