Home > Cultural Explanation > What the heck is: a dating sim?

What the heck is: a dating sim?

Excel Saga explains everything you need to know about early dating games
Note: Contrary to the byline, this post is a joint effort by myself and threeheadedmonkeys, although the captions are all mine.

Whenever we cover a unique cultural aspect of Japanese or otaku culture, we usually try to do it within an article about a related work. But sometimes, that concept is just too complicated or too weird to explain satisfactorily without completely drowning out the rest of the review.

Visual novels are a medium almost entirely unique to otaku. They developed out of simple PC games in the 80s which consisted of simple stories framed by anime-style artwork. At certain points, the player would be offered a choice, and the story would branch based on that choice.

It needs to be said that most of the interaction in these games consists of clicking to see the next line of the story. There’s not nearly the kind of interaction common in Western adventure games, or any other Western game genre. The closest comparison I can think of is to a particularly low-key and narrative-driven piece of interactive fiction.

White Album is probably my favorite dating sim adaptation. It has excellent direction, with shots that look like they were drawn with colored pencils, like this one

These early games were designed as a delivery vehicle for anime-style pornography. The player was teased with some sort of suggestive situation, that played out in low-res graphics of characters having sex, but only if he made the right choices.

In the 90s, as 2D graphics became easier to store, games grew more sophisticated and less focused on pornography. Tokimeki Memorial, released by Konami, a mainstream game company, was notable for a complicated game system, reminiscent of a role-playing game, that had players balancing relationships with different girls. It also featured no pornographic content at all, instead being focused on developing a relationship with one or more of the girls.

Seven years after the release of the first game, Tokimeki Memorial was still popular enough to warrant its own anime

Tokimeki Memorial was hugely popular, enough to keep Konami out of bankruptcy, and spawned a series that continues to this day.

The 1999 release of Kanon by Key (mostly written by Angel Beats! writer Jun Maeda) further established the medium by demonstrating that it was capable of using its mechanics to tell a quality story. The game itself is a branching story, that explores the problems of one of five girls, depending on the choices you make in the game.

Although it still had limited sex scenes, the focus was more on the story that unfolded based on the relationship between the unseen protagonist and the girl he had chosen’ rather than being merely a way of getting people to pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time to see images of naked girls. The popularity of all-ages versions of Key games (that is, versions with the pornographic content removed) shows that their products aren’t just a mechanism for delivering sexual content.

Kanon's Ayu Tsukimiya is a divisive character between me and 3HM. He doesn't like her and I really do. That's right, I like a moe character. (I feel so dirty)

As stories in these games grew more complex, anime companies, seeing a target audience already built in, began to produce anime adaptations of their stories. Since these games have branching stories with multiple paths for multiple girls, this is easier said than done. Often one or more girls’ story will get ignored or dramatically shortened, just because there was no way to make the story make sense in the linear narrative of the anime.

The first really good visual novel anime adaptation I’m aware of is Kyoto Animation’s 2005 adaptation of Key’s Air (also written by Jun Maeda). Although, that roughly corresponds with when I started seriously following anime, so it’s possible that there’s a good series that predates it, and I’m just not aware of it.

This is the only dating game I've ever played, Type Moon's Tsukihime. Type Moon's Kinoku Nasu is one of the best known visual novel writers, but his games are cursed with bad anime adaptations. Akiha, the character in this screenshot, had her arc removed entirely for the anime version

Since then, there have been a rash of anime adaptations of visual novels. There’s always at least one per season, and some of them have been pretty good. After a fairly poor version in 2002, there was a very good second try at Kanon, also by Kyoto Animation. Some other notables include School Days, a dark and twisted show based on a game known for its dark and bloody bad endings, Ef, whose anime has an unusual visual style that seems divergent from the original game, and White Album, which handles the juggling of multiple simultaneous romantic relationships that such adaptations usually require better than any other show I’ve seen, and does it all with a subtlety that is unique not just for the genre, but for anime in general.

School Days has some of the most infamous bad endings of any dating game

Dating game adaptations have also had an effect on the broader anime market. Given that most visual novels are told from a first person perspective, with the player acting as the male protagonist, most dating sim main characters tend to be undefined, so the player can put his own imprint on the character. This means that the protagonists of most anime adaptations are similarly blank, often turning into bland, milquetoast characters that don’t do much more than stumble around while the much more interesting female characters inexplicably fall for dullards like them. (Key works provide a notable exception to this rule.)

Unfortunately, this trend has creeped into shows that weren’t even based on games, which aggravates me to no end.

The other, more controversial, development is their influence in the spread of moe characters. Given their erotic origins (and most visual novels to this day have sexual content in one form or another), visual novels led the charge in popularizing attraction to 2D characters. While not the only reason for the trend in anime towards all things cutesy and faux-feminine, dating games remain one of the biggest sources of these kinds of characters. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Kyoto Animation, who got their start adapting Key visual novels, are now the most prominent creators of moe anime.

Beyond being a good dating game adaptation, Air was simply a good anime. Although the influence its character designs had on moe culture should be evident

Which brings us back to why things like dating sims exist. One of the recurring themes in otaku culture is an escape from reality, with the consumer vicariously experiencing fantastic situations such as fighting monsters, saving the world, and going on a date. Dating sims provide an opportunity for otaku, who for reasons real and imagined see themselves as locked out of the marriage and relationship market, to experience a “relationship” in a more interactive format—complete with a sexual payoff for the finale.

Of course, otaku don’t need dating sims to pursue fantasy relationships with non-existent women. But such material is heavily influential on the overall market for romantic material aimed at the male demographic. This in turn means that the characteristics that define dating sims, including the universality of moe, lifeless protagonists and a “harem” setup involving multiple girls, also bleed into anime, manga, and light novels.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of fan devotion, Eternal Fighter Zero is a fighting game starring the cast of early Key/Tactics games. It plays kind of like Arc System Works' Guilty Gear series

Narratively speaking, dating sims have come a long way from just being overly complicated porn (although some games are still not much more than that). The development of real stories within the medium has provided another avenue for creative works, and another source from which anime studios can draw. The unique features that make such sims viable as games, however, don’t always translate well into other formats, and with those same features being the driving source of their popularity, having the rest of anime take their cue from this particular genre has not been without its share of problems.

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