Dating simulator games, also known as otomes, are games in which the player can flirt and be flirted with by different characters. Usually given a large cast of partners to choose from, the player is encouraged to replay the game to see the multiple storylines or routes for each pairing. Characterwise, there are many popular and well-used tropes in dating sims, from love triangles to character archetypes like the bad boy or the guy who is tough on the outside but soft on the inside. The main character is usually referred to by fans as MC since many dating sims allow you to input your own name.
Dating sims usually have a visual novel user interface, which is text-based with static images of characters that change throughout conversations. Both visual novels and dating sims usually employ an anime art style and often use voice-over audio for characters’ dialogue. Dating sim players experience good and bad endings depending on their choices, and some players go so far as to try and see both endings to fully understand a game’s plot. Most otomes also have a true ending as well, in which one character is set as the “best match” for the player character. However, some fans go against this, saying that each player will have their own true ending with their own favorite character.
The dating sim genre originated in Japan in 1994 with Koei’s Super Famicom release of Angelique. While the game was not popular at release since relatively few girls were looking for video games at the time, the Angelique series continues to this day. In fact, the most recent addition to the series, Angelique Luminarise, was released on May 20, 2021, for the Nintendo Switch. Angelique has also bled into many other forms of media, boasting manga and anime series as well as vocal and soundtrack CDs.
In an interview with Vice, Keiko Erikawa (co-founder of Koei) explained that she knew there was a need for more women in the game development industry as well as more video games targeted toward female players. However, the team struggled at first to find women with computer science or programming experience, which slowed the initial development of Angelique. After 10 years of prioritizing female hires, though, Angelique was developed and released by an all-female team. Most female-targeted dating sims are developed by all-female teams, which creates an amazing new form of by-women, for-women entertainment. After all, women know what women want!
Recently, mobile dating sims have become more prevalent, with ease of access and online popularity pushing interested people to become invested players. Some mobile dating sims use a system of tickets to progress the story, in which players will have to complete tasks to collect tickets or buy them with an in-app purchase. Others focus on a time mechanic where players wait until certain times to be able to play the next part of the game. More than 400,000 Google Play reviews, averaging a 4.6 out of 5 rating, prove that the dating sim Mystic Messenger is arguably the most popular in the genre. The game uses timed chat rooms to allow players to feel as if they are using a texting app on their phone to connect with the characters. Fans of the game have even pushed developer Cheritz into creating new routes for characters that were non-romanceable at release. NTT Solmare is another extremely popular mobile otome developer, and their app Obey Me! — One Master to Rule Them All has been keeping the online otome community pleased for many months now. This newest installment in NTT Solmare’s Shall We Date? series has joined many other fan favorites — with 35 different titles, fans can easily find a plot and characters that they can fall in love with.
Many dating sims offer only heterosexual relationships or lock the player character into a particular gender when playing the game, but some games have started to change this. In addition to having an amazing plot, the dating sim The Arcana: A Mystic Romance has been praised by the LGBTQ+ community for allowing players to choose their own pronouns. Your pronouns have no effect on gameplay besides how characters address you, so players of any gender can date characters of any gender. Another popular game, Dream Daddy, is a gay dating sim where you play as a dad who’s looking to date other dads. Weird and funny dating sims are popular too, from games like Hatoful Boyfriend, which lets you date and talk to pigeons, to I Love You, Colonel Sanders!, which lets you … date Colonel Sanders? One comment from a new Colonel Sanders stan on Steam wrote, “This game was one of my favorite games of all time. I got it as a joke, but played it for the story.” These less conventional games offer a lighthearted parody of the dating sim genre that fans find just as fun as the more serious and romantic games.
Additionally, some games aren’t considered dating sims but have mechanics or aspects of dating sims that are added into the game for an extra personal touch. The Persona series has dateable characters, and while it’s not the exact same as our original definition of an otome, the routes you take with the different characters allow the game to expand their backstories. In Stardew Valley, you can give gifts to townsfolk to increase your friendship and become even closer. The game allows you to marry an eligible bachelor or bachelorette, and even comes with perks like having your spouse help you manage your farm. You can get married in Skyrim and be gifted a Bond of Matrimony ring that cheapens the cost of your restoration spells. While these games function differently than traditional otome games, everyone can use a little extra love in their video games.
Dating sims are one of the most unique forms of video games, and they are still evolving by branching out to mobile games. VR could be next, but it might cross into the uncanny valley, so who knows what the future of this genre looks like. Players can’t sub in their virtual boyfriends for real connections, but some people have turned to otome games during the COVID-19 pandemic to feel less alone. My opinion is as long as you aren’t marrying your favorite otome love interest while on vacation in Guam, more power to you.