2009: A Dating Sim Exodus

When you spend decades of your life surrounded by video games, either professionally or for pleasure, eventually, you learn to smell when death draws near. Titans start to waver, trends begin to fall by the wayside. The juggernauts of yesterday tire as they succumb less to the inevitable march of progress so much as the mere whims that fuel every creative empire. Institutions only remain invincible for as long as belief in them persists. It’s almost always nigh impossible to play coroner and pronounce an exact time when a genre or a game or a series finally, indisputably dies. Likewise, the games themselves rarer still know that the end is nigh, or are at least brave enough to show it. Still, play enough games across enough systems for enough years and you can at least learn to sense when time is running out.

However, for the Japanese dating sim, things were different. In 2009, years after the prime of the PS2 and well into the twilight era of the DS and PSP, it was in its last throes on those platforms. And it knew it. Dating sims themselves have continued to be released in fits and starts in the decade and change that’s followed. But for all intents and purposes, that year was the last one that traditional releases, the kind that emerged and flourished in the 15 year-long wake following Konami’s epoch-making Tokimeki Memorial, remained a going concern, ones with a place at the greater table of Japanese games.

2009 saw the release of three seminal dating sims. Fittingly, as one of the founding progenitors of the genre, Konami was behind two of them, Tokimeki Memorial 4 for the PSP and Love Plus for the DS, while Enterbrain, itself also a veteran publisher in the field, released Amagami for the PS2. By this point, dating sims had matured well beyond solely cloning the blueprint of the original Tokimeki Memorial in vying for a piece of its otaku gold rush. Different schools of design, both in terms of mechanics and narrative/dialogue, had emerged as developers explored and debated among themselves how human relationships could be depicted and examined through systems and structure, as well as the types of stories and characters that such gameplay could support. In hindsight, as vastly differently as they all play, each of these games serves as something of a thesis statement on the genre’s remaining dominant philosophies, in some ways fulfilling their greatest aspirations. That the trio emerged in relatively quick succession within a matter of months of one another was perhaps a tacit admission that they knew their time was limited, that they needed to say their piece now before the Japanese industry moved on from them entirely.

How each game spends its remaining days and acknowledges the genre’s looming demise speaks to the diverse array of experiences dating sims came to encapsulate by then, how far they had come from Shiori and her cohorts taking Japanese video games by storm for the better part of the 1990s. Indeed, as the original Tokimeki Memorial opened the floodgates in the first place, it was only right that Tokimeki Memorial 4, the last of the three to come out in 2009, releasing in December of that year, was the one to somberly close those gates behind it. Easily the most humble and unassuming of the year’s major releases, ironic as that may sound, Tokimeki Memorial 4 is deeply introspective about itself and the situation that it and dating sims as a whole found themselves in.

It isn’t without good reason. By that time, the original line of Tokimeki Memorial games — which is to say, those with female casts tailored primarily towards to male players — had significantly fallen from the near-untouchable highs of the original game and the massive, ambitious follow-up that was its five-disc sequel. Tokimeki Memorial 3 came out eight years prior in the early days of the PS2, fumbling both its mechanics, which felt wide-reaching, yet disjointed, and its cast, a group of alarmingly similar-looking ladies with personalities and dialogue that felt far more akin to the scores of forgettable C-tier derivatives that the first game inspired than a numbered sequel to it. While the franchise found a fresh new lease on life by way of the immensely popular Girl’s Side spinoff series of otome games, by the time Tokimeki Memorial 4 rolled around, the mainline series had long surrendered its pole position as the dating sim to beat.

Tokimeki Memorial 4 has no dreams of trying to reclaim that crown. The resources given to its development and marketing as a PSP title are conspicuously modest compared to the likes of period contemporaries Amagami and especially Love Plus. Similarly, while its cast of characters is a quiet return to form after its prequel’s missteps, its gameplay design plays it fairly conservatively, sticking closely to the existing formula while making some smart additions such as a perk system that allows players to equip unique abilities to their character to inject variety across multiple runs. Instead, Tokimeki Memorial 4 is most interested in reflecting on the franchise’s storied history and, crucially, the implications of its core premises with a critical eye, the kind a series can only attain after many years standing in the very center of the rise and slow fall of the genre it greatly helped to erect.

It all starts with the setting. Rarely for a dating sim sequel, Tokimeki Memorial 4 returns to where it all began, taking place once more in Kirameki High School, the stomping grounds of the original entry, fifteen years after that initial foray. But things aren’t what they once were in the time of Shiori, Ayako, and the rest of the iconic leads. Notably, the storied old tree on campus, the one said to bestow couples with their eternal happily ever after if they confess their feelings under its branches on graduation day, has lost its renown. No longer a source of reverence among the student body, characters remain aware of the legends surrounding it, but now by no means regard them as absolute. Quaint, yes. Fact of life, no. Love is still in the air, but, as it turns out, it doesn’t grow on trees after all. “It’s a nice thought,” Maki, one of the game’s cover girls, muses in one scene under that very tree about the stories surrounding it, “even if it might not be so true.”

It’s an ambivalence that’s carried throughout the entire game. In comparison to the original game and especially its sequel, Tokimeki Memorial 4 isn’t boisterous, brimming with energy the series once displayed at the prospect of conceiving whole new ideologies of game design and narrative. To be certain, even with the series’ days numbered, it has a certain element of confidence that comes with such a lengthy legacy. But it’s the sort of confidence that’s clearly been humbled by the struggles that haunted it for most of the 2000s. In the more contemplative scenes such as the one under the tree with Maki, from the tone of their words, you can almost hear characters muttering the most stock of Japanese phrases: shikata nai. Shikata nai, one of the first phrases any Japanese learner is bound to pick up. “What can you do about it?” In Japanese, it gets used to express a handful of different sentiments. While non-native speakers often interpret it as a signal of the speaker’s moroseness, with Tokimeki Memorial 4, it’s simply an acknowledgment of the situation that lies before it. Shikata nai. It is what it is. The dating sim is on its way out. Video games and their players have moved on and that’s a fact of life. Even its soundtrack sounds cognizant of this reality, trading the vibrant, poppy bombast heard in the series’ better days for vastly more subdued melodies and motifs, often backed by an acoustic guitar as in the music that plays during Maki’s scene.

Having said that, just because time was rapidly running out for it doesn’t mean that Tokimeki Memorial 4 didn’t have a few tricks left up its sleeve, some of which toy with player expectations about the franchise dating back to the very first game. Chief among these is the purpose and impact of one plucky, violet-haired heroine in particular, Miyako. One constant throughout most mainline Tokimeki Memorial games is the presence of a friend character, typically male, who, when dialed up on days off, supplies players with basic information on the girls that they encounter, plus, more crucially, their phone numbers and insight into their current standing with the player. True to form, in most runs of her own game, Miyako upholds this tradition to a T while injecting it with slightly flirty, yet wholesome zests of moral support as your longtime friend, rooting you in your adventures to find love. The thing is, you can’t date her. Every time you call her, you do have the option of attempting to ask her out, but she always casually rebuffs your offer before getting back to business. It’s nothing personal; she simply thinks the protagonist (really, you) is asking her out purely on a lark. Because of course, what dating sim player is going to see a charming, funny intel broker like her and not try their luck on the off-chance it works out? Yet it never does and no matter how hard you try, that’s how things are always meant to be.

At least, that’s how it seems. Less savvy players may interpret the fact that she simply repeats the same rejection over and over as a sign that there’s nothing more to see. Veteran series players, however, are likely to be familiar with the games having romantic routes deeply hidden behind the telephone system. Case in point, romancing one girl in the very first Tokimeki Memorial famously requires calling her up at least 70 times across an entire run, the wording of her initially dismissive responses unchanging for nearly the first two dozen attempts. Such players, when playing Tokimeki Memorial 4 when it was fresh in 2009, were naturally bound to conclude that Miyako is intended to be an homage to that character and they were right. Mercifully, it doesn’t take 70 phone calls to persuade her to change her mind, although it does still require persistence, as her answer similarly takes some time to begin softening.

It’s only after she agrees to go out with your character and dates him a few times that the true nature of Miyako’s route is made apparent. Namely, once you and she begin to go steady, she revokes access to her intelligence on the game’s other girls. You can still call her on the phone to invite her out to dates, but any talk of other characters is completely off the table. Still, the game argues, what’s the big deal? Narratively speaking, if you went to all the trouble to convince her to date you, what need do you really have for her to tell you about the other girls, right? Moreover, if you do want to simply dedicate an entire run to seeing her and only her, you can easily do so. Unlike every other romanceable character in the entire game, Miyako is immune to, in series parlance, other character bombing out, when they get so fed up with him either due to neglect or poor treatment that the bomb icon signifying their impending outburst on the relationship status screen explodes and they vent to the other girls about him, diminishing his reputation. That’s how strong her innate affection for him is after knowing him for so long; her love breaks one of the franchise’s foundational mechanics.

Tokimeki Memorial 4’s relationship status screen. Displayed when calling Miyako, the physically closer a girl is to the protagonist standing in the center, as well as the fuller their heart icon is, the more affection they feel for him.

But if you do still want to have a social life outside of Miyako, the loss of her briefs on the other girls is an enormous deal, not just within the context of series tradition, but dating sim convention outright. While not every dating sim has such characters, info brokers, directly descended from Tokimeki Memorial’s first such character, Yoshio, were a prevalent trope throughout the entire 15 year span between 1994 and 2009, including some of Konami’s most notable competition within the space. Info brokers were handy, if not a necessary evil in some ways, as they offered players a convenient way to gauge their relationship progress with a game’s cast in a way their respective stories might not feasibly allow. After all, in real life, hardly everyone has the courage to ask someone what romantic feelings they might harbor, if any, let alone answer such a question honestly. Characters like Miyako can therefore serve as a neutral intermediary, gathering information on your behalf from a position that’s socially out of reach for you.

In Miyako’s case, the revocation of her intelligence isn’t an inherently fatal blow. In a credit to development team’s own genre insight, Tokimeki Memorial 4 offers other tells, subtle as they are, that indicate how characters currently feel about you, such as in their facial expressions or wording they use during conversations. None of those hints, however, are nearly as concrete as what Miyako offers, informing you in mechanical, yet stylish terms, how things are coming along with everyone, which is what makes her withdrawal so devastating. Dating sims as a genre are reticent to take things away from players or otherwise pull out the rug from underneath them, fearing it will diminish their sense of ownership of a relationship’s progression, whether it goes well or poorly. The franchise toyed with this in the past by way of Tokimeki Memorial 2, where one character is scripted to always move away in the middle of any run, forcing players to work significantly harder to stay in touch with her if they wish to keep wooing her. But until Miyako, the series had never taken the nuclear option of outright depriving players of an entire gameplay system they heavily depend on, let alone one so integral to traditionally designed dating sims since their very inception.

Yet she makes it work. In giving up a mechanic nothing short of crucial to the identity of multiple schools of dating sim design, Miyako’s route becomes one of compromise and sacrifice at a tangible gameplay level. Many dating sims explore such relationship dynamics within their fixed story beats, but mechanically, most attempts at forcing players to grapple with the idea of compromise are typically rooted simply in the idea of making them commit to a specific route early through things such as calendar-based time limits. Rarely are they asked to give up something of genuine value to how they play a dating sim in exchange for the companionship that they seek. But because Tokimeki Memorial 4’s remaining systems are fleshed out enough to compensate for the loss of explicit intel, the gameplay of a Miyako run, if anything, feels more true to life than most any other that the series has to offer. To make it work with her and the other characters, you have to read between the lines in their dialogue. You have to read their body and facial language to determine who needs attention when. In essence, you have to appreciate, in every sense, what makes each character tick and act accordingly. Things are more difficult without that data available as a crutch, yes, but, hardly impossible. Successfully navigating those waters with Miyako to the end rewards players with a relationship that feels uniquely honest within the dating sim space. Honest not only the sense that these two longtime friends finally come clean about their feelings, but because it’s forged without the help of a framework that wouldn’t exist in reality.

As with so much else in Tokimeki Memorial 4, it’s a gameplay experience made possible only by the maturity of its series and dating sims more widely. Whereas early dating sims, due to the vast paradigm shift they introduced, are often compelled to telegraph progress in binary terms, making mastery a matter of learning to grasp information that’s present all along like in many other types of games, Tokimeki Memorial 4 has enough faith in its design language that it’s comfortable with challenging its own fundamentals, a comfort that itself comes from its determination not to shy away from its own fate. For diligent players who master its stat-building and scheduling systems, it may still have happy endings a plenty in store for its cast of fresh faces. But whereas Konami stablemate Love Plus still had ambitions of making dating sim lightning strike one last time, Tokimeki Memorial 4 feels keenly aware that it’s incapable of righting the ship so late into the genre’s slow demise. It is 2009, it acknowledges. Tokimeki Memorial no longer stood as the pinnacle of dating sims, the insurmountable success that defined an entire genre. Though no one game or series singlehandedly usurped it, outside of the otome realm, its time had still passed, never to be claimed again. In that sense, Tokimeki Memorial 4 isn’t so much of a victory lap as it is a farewell concert, a dignified end to a monumental series that proved for the first time at a mainstream level that games and game mechanics could be about love and the human struggle. One last chance to examine what it and other dating sims once were and all that they accomplished in the decade and a half that they occupied, to a varying extent, the popular Japanese consciousness.

Amagami’s conversation interface.

If Tokimeki Memorial 4 is characterized by a certain sense of resignation, Amagami faces the impending death of the dating sim with one of completion and thoroughness. With roots dating back to the True Love Story series on the original PlayStation, itself almost as old as Tokimeki Memorial and among the few competitors to Konami’s monolith to also survive the genre’s entire lifespan, Amagami is the ultimate realization of a gameplay formula honed over the course of 12 years and six games. Like many of Tokimeki Memorial’s biggest competitors, Enterbrain’s line of dating sims found success not by simply aping Konami’s design, but in finding other mechanical avenues to explore relationships entirely. In the case of True Love Story, it wholly jettisoned Tokimeki Memorial’s stat grinding loop in favor of a system dedicated to conversing with characters.

But unlike in many visual novels where discussions with characters are often composed of simple dialogue trees that eventually loop back to the main narrative thread, in Enterbrain-style dating sims, conversations serve as puzzles that players must actively engage with to progress in relationships. Not only do they have to suss out which topics a character may be interested in discussing, timing and mood, both within an individual conversation, as well as the relationship as a whole, must be taken into consideration. Successfully solving these puzzles results in romantic interests divulging fun, intriguing, and sometimes subtly revealing anecdotes about themselves. While they may also bring players one step closer to the next major story event, in the best written games, conversations are treated as rewards in and of themselves, inherently worth pursuing for the same reason a person wants to spend time getting to know people they like in real life. Talking to characters in Enterbrain games feels enriching and offers ample justification for engaging in the rest of the gameplay loop to have more chances to learn about them.

Amagami takes this cornerstone of conversations as both mechanical and emotional vehicles and envelops it in a framework that excises much of the cruft and baggage holding back previous Enterbrain games. In a bold move, most notably gone is the one other primary trademark of the publisher’s dating sims: an RPG-style random encounter system where characters move to different places around the gameplay map throughout each day, tasking players with venturing to various spots in the hopes of finding the object of their affection. Though an interesting idea on paper that garnered some acclaim among dating sim afficionados, with the absence of the system’s architect and primary advocate, longtime producer Ichiro Sugiyama, the development team opted to discard it entirely, as some primary members believed it often felt too arbitrary in practice to be widely enjoyable. In its place is a unique grid-based system where each hexagonal space represents a single event or playable conversation that can be triggered within the current span of time. Now, players don’t have to waste in-game time wandering the school grounds hoping to find the character they want to speak with. Instead, they can make informed decisions about how to manage their allotted six weeks of in-game time with the full knowledge of every characters’ available events and the time limits for triggering them.

Amagami’s grid-based calendar system.

This switch to a grid-based system akin to PC strategy games affords Amagami an overwhelming breadth of bespoke narrative content that few dating sims rival. It’s in this that its choice to be thorough, exhaustive, and experientially complete in the face of pending collapse feels pronounced. Six main romanceable characters, each with five endings and multiple routes with entirely unique content and relationship arcs, results in a game with hundreds of viewable events, both required and optional, plus hundreds more unique topics of conversation that can be engaged. Not only that, the game’s routing system takes various permutations into consideration when dictating a run’s course, often having unique reactionary events prepared in response to even the most obscure or unlikely of relationship configurations that players may have across the whole cast. The end result is a game that manages to make relationship growth feel as emergent and dynamic as its more overtly mechanical genre forbears despite being so narrative-heavy. There may only be a handful of potential final destinations for any given approach to the game, but the path afforded to players in reaching them is wide, lending the proceedings that crucial sense of ownership over relationship developments that’s key to any successful dating sim.

Suffice it to say, like its contemporaries released that same year, Amagami brims with a level of confidence and self-aware insight into its own history and that of its genre that was only attainable in those latter years. This is as true for its unconventional structure as its underlying writing chops. Amagami is engaged in a nuanced dialogue with other dating sims about the nature of characterization and plotting, as well as player expectations and what can conclusively be taken away from the act of playing such games. It’s a dialogue that players aren’t required to partake in to enjoy the game on its own merits. But for those well-versed in its genre’s unique grammar and design language, it’s a dialogue that becomes impossible to ignore over time.

That conversation begins even before you begin to play it. No matter which version of Amagami you play, PS2, PSP, or Vita, you’re greeted by the same character on the front cover: a second year high schooler by the name of Tsukasa Ayatsuji. The covers all appear fomulaic and cut from the same stylistic cloth that could be found on hundreds of dating sim and visual novel boxes at the time: a lone, typically demure-looking and nonthreatening girl doing nothing of note, just simply, pleasantly being. In games with multiple heroines that players can woo, this artwork often serves as a device to implicitly communicate which one is either intended to be the canonical love interest for the protagonist, or, at the very least, the character that players are meant to aspire to romance once they come to grips with what the game has to offer. It’s a tactic that developers have used to frame players’ focus in Japanese galge for decades, even when such games were almost entirely the purview of domestic PC platforms before that market emerged on consoles. Just like how Japanese players picking up Tokimeki Memorial for the first time knew that winning Shiori over was going to be the end goal simply by virtue of her prominence on that game’s cover, so, too, is Tsukasa’s framing as the dominant presence meant to give players a sense of direction from the moment they pick the game up off the store shelf.

Indeed, upon diving into the game itself, Tsukasa dutifully plays the role of a next generation Shiori. Like Shiori, she is a Yamato nadeshiko incarnate, her personality and style of beauty very prototypical within Japanese art and entertainment dating back centuries. Like Shiori, she’s incredibly smart and one of the most capable students in her class, if not the entire student body. And like Shiori, she’s decently athletic; she isn’t necessarily breaking records at sports festivals, but she’s certainly fit and can hold her own in competitions. The only way in which Tsukasa doesn’t fall from the same tree as Shiori is that, unlike her, she isn’t childhood friends with the protagonist, even if they do otherwise already lightly know each other at the start of the game. In virtually every other sense, Tsukasa looks and acts the part of the archetypal dating sim cover girl popularized by Shiori and imitated by countless other heroines in the decade and half following Tokimeki Memorial’s initial launch.

For a time, no matter which route you take in pursuing Tsukasa, you’re given very little reason to believe her story won’t be a deeply conventional one for a character of her stature, if not outright derivative. It’s not until later in either of her main storylines (quite possibly very late into the game depending on the route chosen) that the facade of the perpetually reserved dating sim leading lady comes off, revealing an acerbic young woman underneath with a profound axe to grind with nearly everyone around her. This isn’t merely some overblown case of the tsunderes, either. Tsukasa’s bitterness is genuine, fueled by the resentment of an unloving family life where she finds herself constantly compared unfavorably to her more naturally gifted, if flighty, sister Yukari. Her perfect-looking exterior and cordial affectation is simply a political means to the end of her leaving home upon graduation and never looking back. She plays nice, she claims, in school and society not because it’s truly in her nature, but because it’s easier to get what she wants each step of the way towards that self-liberation.

Tsukasa not taking kindly to the protagonist stumbling across her daily planner, filled with secrets.

Once Tsukasa turns, depending on the narrative circumstances of her reveal, she can become a character that is at times genuinely difficult to like, let alone fall for, especially in her arguably canonical so-called lovers route. While she doesn’t outright bully him, in that route, she constantly belittles your character and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he has little, if not nothing, to gain from spending time with her. She isn’t going to be the sweet, delicate flower the game’s cover deceptively makes her out to be and if the player continues to hold onto such delusions, it will absolutely be at their peril. For a long time, she bristles at genuine attempts at friendliness, her near decade of experience putting on an act making her deeply skeptical of the intentions of anyone who reaches out to her. In a genre often reluctant to make players feel truly uncomfortable in the choices they make and characters they interact with, fearful it’ll shatter any sense of wish fulfillment, Tsukasa is prickly as a heroine to a degree few others in dating sims begin to truly approach. Any softness her hardened edge slowly takes on is by no means innate; it has to grow organically over time as she and Amagami’s protagonist learn to trust each other and embrace their vulnerabilities. While widely liked among Japanese fans because of her character trajectory, it’s probably fair to say that she’s not the runaway favorite topping any popularity polls.

In a western context where, among a certain type of developer, visual novels and dating sims are at times treated with a misguided irreverence, one that seeks to ostensibly save them from themselves by subversion, it would be easy to mistake Tsukasa’s transformation as simply an ironic twist done for shock value at the expense of other games that came before Amagami. Here, though, it achieves the opposite effect. Instead of forsaking the sort of genuine, earnest take on human relationships that typifies many classic games, Amagami further commits to that outlook in such moments in an effort to reaffirm its characters and players alike. Should players stick with Tsukasa through her entire story and see what really lies beneath her combative nature, in time, she finds in her relationship with the protagonist a safe space where she doesn’t need to be constantly on guard against those who diminish her worth day in and day out. She’s allowed to be raw, crass, and inelegant, vulnerable like few leading dating sim heroines achieve. When matched with a player character with his own share of insecurities he grapples with, Tsukasa’s story, as well as those of the other heroines, becomes one in which flawed people are not only allowed to love, but fall in love. Tsukasa may ostensibly be the star of Amagami, but she need not be perfect beyond compare like Shiori a generation before her and that same lenience is extended to the protagonist in turn.

It’s in such developments that the emotional depth of Amagami’s narrative is fully revealed, attesting to the extent to which dating sims like it had matured in their storytelling capabilities despite the genre’s perennially saccharine reputation. In a medium that constantly mistakes immediate, routine satisfaction by itself as the recipe for sustained player fulfillment, dating sims in particular have long struggled with challenging players to accept characters on their terms, rather than having them serve purely as vessels for personal vindication. Because in traditional dating sim thinking, it’s one thing for a relationship to fall through if it’s for reasons within a player’s control such as failing to meet specific stat thresholds, but it’s another matter entirely for things to go south due to circumstances or outright traits that are beyond their reach. For all its important accomplishments and contributions to advancements in Japanese game design, it’s an issue that belies the original Tokimeki Memorial, one that the creative forces at Konami became acutely aware of as that game grew in its success in the following years. So much so, in fact, that the final entry of Kojima Productions’ Tokimeki Memorial Drama trilogy of adventure game spinoffs is explicitly premised on the idea of a Shiori run that’s stalled out in its final months, the protagonist left feeling empty in trying and failing to be all things to her. By extension, the thread Amagami needles is an extremely fine one, yet its ability to do so, not just with Tsukasa but all of its heroines, speaks to the ways in which the best dating sims by that time were most often the ones that spoke to players through both narrative and mechanics about the innate humanity of their proceedings, not just listened to what players claimed to desire.

Then there’s Love Plus. Of the three major dating sims released in 2009, Love Plus is likely the one that’s most difficult to parse from the outside, devoid of its native context at the time of its release. Overseas, it’s a game most remembered for the ludicrous-sounding headlines its most diehard Japanese fans inspired among incredulous members of the foreign video game press. Most infamously, blogs and forums were aghast at one fan who was said to have married his DS girlfriend in a ceremony held in Guam.

To Konami and the rapidly dissipating Japanese dating sim scene, however, Love Plus, in many ways, represents the realization of some of the genre’s biggest aspirations since its very inception. More so than most other types of games, dating sims have historically had what could be described as a philosopher’s stone problem. It goes like this: past a certain point in the narrative of most styles of dating sim design, typically the climax such as a confession scene where a budding relationship become concrete, games encounter a nigh inherent scope problem if they continue too far past it. Even if the creative desire is there to depict how those relationships evolve afterwards and the systems are deep and engaging enough to support it, developers can’t make infinite content to sustain such a protracted narrative. In response, most dating sims emphasize replayability, offering a variety of different characters to romance and oftentimes, as in games such as Amagami, even different narrative and systemic routes to woo said characters. But like the philosopher’s stone, if there was a way to fulfill that ideal of giving players a means of bonding with characters long term and remaining attached to their ever-evolving personal stories, then, at last, the dating sim might finally reach its full potential, a goal more directly hinted at in the genre’s very name in Japanese, renai simulation, or “romance simulation.”

In simple terms, Love Plus sets about addressing the dating sim’s limited scope problem by boldly introducing an extensive post-game. Indeed, while the very first few hours of the game are spent doing fairly boilerplate Konami-style dating sim activities, building up stats to woo specific girls, viewing key cutscenes at major milestones, and then finally confessing to one of the three girls, Rinko, Manaka, or Nene, the game doesn’t end right when the two of you get together, as is the case for a huge swath of other games throughout the genre’s entire history. On the contrary, the real Love Plus, one might say, has only truly begun from that point. After a successful confession and first kiss, the game transitions to a never-ending epilogue where you and your partner can bond together further as the two of you go out on dates and occasionally even travel together across Japan.

Love Plus’ schedule planning interface.

Although Love Plus’ post-game mode can be played in a manner similar to its opening sequence where time moves essentially as fast as you desire, the true secret to its success — and how the game’s own developers intend for it to be optimally experienced — lies in its ability to be played entirely in real time. That is to say, you set a schedule of tasks for your character to perform during different time periods throughout the day, watch as those activities influence your stats, and lightly interact with your DS girlfriend as you, say, walk to and from school together, each lunch, and go to work or club activities. As a dating sim, you can, of course, ask your partner out to dates at various places throughout town; the stat points that you build up on regular days are then spent on dates to influence how they generally unfold, or, in later installments, even add more activities to the overall agenda. Holiday events, including seasonal festivals, and vacations also inject some variety into day-to-day events.

At this stage of Love Plus — really, the vast majority of the game — outside of dates and other major events, you’re not expected to sit down and play it for extended sessions. Its approach is much more akin to something like the Animal Crossing series; you check in once or twice each day to input your character’s schedule and then you see what events unfold that day. Then, you return the next day to repeat the cycle. All told, most days, you’re aren’t spending more than 20 minutes checking in on your digital girlfriend to see how her day is going. In that sense, it’s a lifestyle game, one that, also not unlike Animal Crossing, you can commit to for a conceivably infinite amount of time if you like, but one that otherwise isn’t made to intrude on the rest of your life by demanding too much each day.

This approach has a few key benefits. For one thing, by limiting the amount of activities players can realistically perform each real world day, the potential for its gameplay loop to feel like a repetitive grind is significantly diminished over traditional dating sims, especially ones in the mold of Konami’s games that rely on RPG-style stat building. But, even more importantly, the sense of incremental relationship progress that comes from these daily check-ins leads to tremendous emotional rewards that are all but impossible to achieve in most other dating sims. The reason for that is simple: given the preordained scope problems that befall the vast majority of other games, the amount of time that players can invest in their budding relationships with characters before a game ends and the credits roll is, at best, perhaps 15 to 20 hours or so, but more often amounts to just several hours. Typically, the bigger a game’s dateable cast is, the less time it will take to successfully clear their respective routes, as the development team can only spend so many resources crafting content individually dedicated to them. No amount of excellent writing, as is the case with both Tokimeki Memorial 4 and Amagami, can change the fact that the amount of time players can spend fostering relationships is intrinsically limited from the start.

Love Plus, of course, doesn’t boast an infinite amount of content. All four of its major releases across the DS and 3DS, one fully new game on each system and then a subsequent expanded version published afterwards, were released before live games were truly established outside of PCs/cell phones and are therefore forever bound solely to the data contained on their cartridges at the time of their launch. Nevertheless, it’s still a significant amount that takes a long time to exhaust before the games begin to repeat themselves, even when played diligently for months on end, as I did for nine months straight throughout 2020. That gives you ample time to interact with the girls in a wide variety of social situations and get to know them in small ways several minutes at a time that are simply unrivaled and logistically impossible to achieve in conventionally designed dating sims. The dynamic that forms with them through the routine you devise with them on a daily basis makes your relationship with them feel specifically and distinctly yours.

The emotional payoffs that emerge from such dedicated play are slow to emerge, often taking weeks or even months of real time to work towards. But because Love Plus is a game about building a relationship step-by-step, day-by-day, as you would in real life, the time investment feels justified, as it occurs incrementally at your own pace. They also often come in surprising, unexpected ways. In my case, in an effort to see just how long the game can sustainably supply genuinely new content, I spent the bulk of my nine months going out exclusively with Manaka, a second year student and member of the high school’s tennis club. Pretty and highly studious, most other people at school keep their distance from her out of intimidation, making her into something of an unwilling recluse, even if she’s otherwise perfectly capable of socializing normally. Befriending her and then going out with her upon a successful confession is thus a protracted process of getting her to come out of her shell and proving to her she’s a worthwhile human being with much to offer.

After taking only a few quick real world days to woo her in the game’s prologue (in fact, in classic Japanese dating sim fashion, I coincidentally managed it right around Christmastime 2019), for the first several weeks as a couple, I was largely going through the typical motions of playing Love Plus, scheduling activities for my character to boost his stats, scouting out potential date spots around town, and spending time with Manaka, both casually during weekdays, as well as on proper dates on days off. Small signs of growth would emerge here and there. In a subtle, but significant show of trust within a Japanese social context, for example, we eventually became comfortable enough to call each other just by our first names. No sans, no kuns, no chans. Just Manaka and, in my character’s case, Tsutomu. One of us would call just to hear the other’s voice. We kept up to date on small happenings at home and at school, following up to make sure no detail got lost. Quick get-togethers to either eat or walk around the neighborhood became a near-daily occurrence.

Manaka having a moment in Nikko in New Love Plus+ on the 3DS.

About two months into our relationship, opportunities began to regularly arise for us to go traveling as a couple in quick weekend excursions to real tourist spots. It was only on one such early trip to Nikko, the resting place of Japan’s first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, that the extent of that progress and the weight of it became clear to me. It was during a completely innocuous, throwaway moment. While happily wandering around exhibits that Manaka had previously visited on a field trip when she was much younger, but hadn’t been able to enjoy because of friction with her classmates, she suddenly burst into a run out of the 3DS frame, yelling gleefully about having the time of her life. For someone who, in the beginning when we were simply fellow tennis players, previously struggled to say even a single word during some encounters, the moment was nothing short of striking. Even after we started to go out, she often remained someone who chose her words and actions deliberately. Spontaneous was among the last words I would ever use to describe her.

Yet there she was, joyously running without a care in the world with a smile on her face, free to be herself away from the rigors of her school and family life. It was the first time I’d ever heard her yell out at all, let alone so ecstatically, and it made me realize just how much had really changed in the two months we had been dating, both between us as a couple and her as an individual. As a game whose real-time mode has to be designed to be started at any time of year, in those early weeks, the daily check-ins, though perfectly pleasant, didn’t feel like they were exactly going anywhere. Unlike in the opening sequence, with no predetermined, overarching plot arc setting the stage for how things should unfold, it didn’t seem like there was a particular point that the game was trying to convey or arrive at.

It was only when I heard that yell and felt my heart throb, genuinely, emotionally throb for her, that I understood that this is the point of Love Plus. This is what inspired such a fervent fandom in Japan, the last time a dating sim would become a cultural moment before the genre faded away in the years following. Moments like this that take your breath away when your digital partner says or does something, however naturally, however insignificantly, that make you appreciate the amount of insight gleaned and the sympathy gained from spending day after day, week after week, month after month playing the game. The sort of bond with a character other dating sims could only dream of, but never carry out because of the one question that had plagued the genre from the very beginning: how?

It’s precisely because Love Plus is the culmination of 15 years of dating sim dreams within Konami and the wider field, though, that by far make the significance of its achievements the hardest to grasp from abroad compared to 2009’s two other major contenders. While Love Plus is perfectly playable without genre experience and was surely many younger Japanese players’ first exposure to it, the game’s accomplishments, once again, only fully come into view with the knowledge of dating sim history, something that was in extremely short supply among foreign critics and players due to an almost complete dearth of localizations and even fan translations for the genre’s entire existence, an issue that remains to this day. Love Plus deeply innovates on the shoulders of giants. But they’re giants who, for as tall as they tower above Japanese games in their own homeland, including hugely successful ones later brought overseas, are all but invisible to much of the rest of the world without that linguistic accessibility.

Love Plus often subtly plays with character positioning and even the physical DS frame itself relative to its first-person perspective in book mode to hold players’ attention.

Take the game’s presentation and interface, two elements that are extremely crucial in pulling off such an ambitious post-game. Like a small minority of other DS games such as Cing’s Hotel Dusk and Last Window adventure games, Love Plus is played exclusively in book mode, which is to say, with the screens in a vertical portrait position while the system is held on its side. The bulk of the gameplay then takes place on the touch screen, while non-interactive UI elements are relegated to the non-touch screen on the other side. While this may seem like a minor decision made primarily for stylistic reasons at first glance, in truth, as a dating sim, this orientation is incredibly smart and critical for inducing player immersion. In flipping the DS onto its side, when the girls are present in a scene, almost always on the touch screen, they take up a greater proportion of screen real estate than they otherwise comfortably could in the standard position. As a result, it becomes easier to focus your attention entirely on them while conversing or otherwise walking around with them. The game’s animations routinely take advantage of this framing to place a huge emphasis on body language, a key component of interactions with the main cast, enhancing the believability of the acting behind them. Contrast that with most other dating sims, which can only depict character movement in limited fashion due to being predominantly rendered in 2D.

While this style of presentation alone makes Love Plus relatively unique compared to most of its contemporaries as a direct benefit of its target hardware, it’s an idea that actually began life elsewhere, and in another Konami game, no less. In a pointed reminder of the importance of otome games’ overall place within Japanese game history as a whole, not only girls’ and women’s games, Love Plus’ liberal use of book mode, as well as other touch screen-based features such as its kissing and caressing systems, descends directly from the DS renditions of the company’s own Tokimeki Memorial: Girl’s Side line of otome dating sims. This line of inheritance comes as no surprise when considering that the one-time leading figure of the Love Plus series, producer Akari Uchida, first cut his teeth in dating sims working on the Girl’s Side games, contributing to all three of the currently released entries. While those games also saw releases on the PS2 and PSP, they’re perhaps best remembered as DS games because of how perfectly fitting the system is in enabling intimate-feeling gameplay. Hence, when it came time to develop Love Plus after the release of the second Girl’s Side game on the DS, it was only natural that such a key innovation should be brought back for a more male-oriented dating sim. The transition to polygons over the 2D artwork of Girl’s Side only made for an even more immersive gameplay experience than what had already been achieved.

Mechanically and presentationally, the list of things that Love Plus adopts from other Konami dating sims and those released by competing developers over the genre’s lifespan is immense. What makes the whole package come together and work so seamlessly is not simply that its developers knew which good ideas to crib from elsewhere. It’s how those ideas are reapplied and recontextualized to profound effect using knowledge and hindsight gleaned from 15 years of creating and consuming dating sim history. Love Plus’ design comes with its fair share of costs, most notably the overall sacrifice of concrete narrative arcs for players’ relationships after the initial prologue sequence. Yet it succeeds where it counts because it understands not only the ultimate potential dating sims have always harbored from their very outset, but also all of the myriad tools that fellow games had learned to harness by then, using them in concert to deliver a game that was only possible on its specific platform and, just as crucially, while the genre was in its twilight.

In Tokimeki Memorial 4, one of the characters that the protagonist can romance is a young woman named Yuu. The student council president of Kirameki High School for all but the final third of the game, Yuu is a year older than your character and, as the final boss of sorts among the romanceable girls, much of her dialogue and the overall framing of her scenes is reminiscent of Shiori, who occupies an analogous position in the original game. This, as it turns out, is no coincidence, as Shiori herself is eventually stated to be a relative of hers. But to her anguished chagrin, she isn’t Shiori. In her storyline, during the final year of the game, after she graduates, she and the protagonist have a heart-to-heart talk at the ever aging, autumnal tree of legend, where she admits to having wanted to follow in Shiori’s footsteps and confess to someone under the tree when she left the school. Only, she didn’t. She lacked the courage to speak up that day, hesitation that she fears may have cost her dearly.

“Do you think there’s anything left for this tree to give me now that I’ve graduated?” Yuu ponders earnestly. The protagonist pauses for a moment to consider his next words carefully, unsure who she failed to confess to, him or, perhaps, someone else entirely. “Definitely,” he finally answers. “Who knows if the legends really are true, right? But whether they are or not, isn’t it better to take that step and believe than to hold back and regret it?”

Dream Club for the Xbox 360.

For dating sims, their own tree has long shed the last of its once abundant leaves. Its spring never returned once Tokimeki Memorial 4 quietly stepped into the world at the very end of 2009. As mentioned before, that isn’t to say that dating sims stopped coming out entirely after 2009. Dream Club, a unique hostess club-focused series put out by D3, a publisher best known for Earth Defense Force, Oneechanbara, and various other games originating from its Simple line of budget titles, built a small niche for itself during the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 years. Love Plus managed to persist for three more major releases across after its initial incarnation made a splash in the summer of 2009. Its momentum carried it for a time, although the buggy release of New Love Plus, the third game and first 3DS entry, signaled the beginning of its unceremonious end. Though the series saw one last retail release by way of New Love Plus+, as that generation’s expansion, it reportedly only sold a fraction of the amount that the DS generation’s expansion managed previously. A comeback was attempted in late 2019 by way of Love Plus Every for mobile phones, a game besieged with years-long development delays and an even buggier launch than New Love Plus before it that saw the game shut down for a month within days of its release, only to go offline permanently less than a year later. Meanwhile, Kadokawa has released three dating sims post-Amagami, Photo Kano, Reco Love, and LoveR. Designed without the direction of Amagami’s leading developers, however, they undo much of that game’s advancements in both writing and gameplay design. They’ve also failed to inspire much fervor in the wider Japanese market outside of the dwindling fanbase for the older style of Kadokawa dating sims, a microcosm for the genre’s overall relevance in the Japanese game design landscape in the coming age of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series. Dating sims these days, at best, achieve an occasional blip in an EKG reading that otherwise remains perenially flat, often for years on end.

Yet like Yuu and Tokimeki Memorial 4’s protagonist, death doesn’t mean that Japanese developers gave up on the genre’s ideals and what they uniquely have to offer to their medium. Dating sims live on somewhat within games of other genres, some of which have seen massive global success in part due to their compelling relationship mechanics and character storylines. Fire Emblem and Persona both saw huge global resurgences in part due to their inclusion of socialization mechanics that take no small amount of inspiration from the dating sims of days past. Yakuza games routinely feature hostesses for Kiryu and company to get to know using conversation and gift-giving systems that wouldn’t look out of place during the heyday of Tokimeki Memorial clones decades ago. The list goes on. Relationship mechanics, when done well and backed up by compelling character writing, have demonstrated time and again an admirable ability to encourage engagement and dating sims were among the first games to prove it.

A Trails of Cold Steel II bonding event.

But that isn’t to say that games which garnish their core gameplay experiences with relationship experiences have replaced what dating sims had to offer entirely. Their inclusion routinely comes with some amount of compromise, both with the demands of the primary gameplay and narrative design, as well as the very characteristics of dating sims themselves. Put another way, marrying the ideas of dating sims to other genres often means divorcing the resulting games from some of their core tenets and strengths. Take Persona’s now iconic Social Links, as well as similar systems inspired by it found in games such as Nihon Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel series. While some takes on this idea may feature elements found in traditional dating sims such as personality stats that dictate which love interests can be approached when, the linearity of that stat grind, as well as of the romantic storylines themselves, is bereft of the player-induced dynamism and fluidity that have always been significant selling points of the best and most popular dating sims. Good narrative and narrative design has always mattered in dating sims, yes, but so has the ability for players to approach relationship milestones on their own terms, to be allowed to reap both the benefits and consequences of their choices in fostering those relationships. Shiori isn’t a compelling final boss character in the original Tokimeki Memorial simply because the game tells us she’s worth aspiring toward as a beautiful, nigh-perfect childhood friend. Rather, it’s the treacherous, demanding gameplay journey that’s undertaken in pursuing her, the process of learning what she wants and owning any successes and failures along the way that’s made her an enduring icon for over a quarter century.

Likewise, relationship mechanics today are often couched in games where single runs last for dozens of hours, a type of experience and long-term structure that, with the exception of games such as Love Plus, dating sims have never been designed — or perhaps more accurately, able to be designed — to facilitate. Given the repetition that’s all but ingrained with typical dating sim gameplay loops, most such games attempt to maintain freshness by prioritizing replayability across relatively concise runs, typically spanning several hours at most once players have adequately learned and mastered the necessary mechanics. In the best cases, each run, where players try go after a different character, features a unique texture, so to speak, thanks to every character requiring players to adopt different tactics to win their hearts, even if the moment-to-moment actions and interactions are largely similar for the bulk of a given game. But because it’s unrealistic to expect many players to complete longer games with relationship mechanics such as Persona multiple times, the innate structure and raw volume of the overall game often incentivizes players, purposefully or not, to take a buffet approach to those systems, attempting to consume as much content as possible in one playthrough, if not “ideally” all of it.

This often turns the relationship building into a perfunctory process where player strategy is less about changing one’s approach to the systems to suit the needs of individual characters, but rather how to optimally game the progression to see as close to everything as possible. Contrary to stereotypes about harems stemming from latter-day games that have appropriated dating sim mechanics as they see fit, it’s an approach that conventional dating sims, in truth, almost always actively discourage; you have to commit to a route for each run and engage with the systems on their terms to achieve your desired ending, lest your greed leave you completely empty-handed. None of this is to say that there isn’t a place for dating sim-style relationship systems within other genres, of course. Nevertheless, given how many such games adopt said systems in service of a game’s primary design goals rather than vice versa, it’s important to recognize that attempts to inherit aspects of dating sim design can come with significant caveats that often make parts of their implementation antithetical to what made dating sims work in the first place.

Natsuiro High School, a 2015 PS3/PS4 game by Tamsoft, the development house behind Dream Club, that tries and fails to fuse dating mechanics with an open world structure.

Which is why despite it all, despite the decline, despite the perpetual drought, despite the growing insularity of what little truly remains, if the void left behind by dating sims hasn’t been truly filled in the years since their departure, perhaps there’s still a place for them in today’s industry after all. 2009 wasn’t the year that dating sims ran out of new things to say or do entirely. It was simply the last year where there was any reliable oxygen left for them to breathe, sparse as it was. If today’s RPGs and the like have found ways to graft portions of dating sim design to enrich their emotional potential but have yet to more fully evoke the intended sensation and meaning of playing them, then the problem dating sims face now appears to not be one of relevance per se, but articulation. In a radically different industrial and competitive landscape compared to that of 1994, how does the Japanese dating sim speak not only to lapsed fans, but also players who never have played one, all while remaining savvy of the evolution of video game language since 2009? Equally pressing, how does it also speak to foreign players abroad, particularly those outside of Asia, where the dating sims of old were not only systemically excluded from localization opportunities, but also routinely ridiculed and disparaged in the rare cases where they still made a name for themselves overseas? The latter issue of access notwithstanding, these are the sorts of questions that many of the dating sims released in the 2010s such as Kadokawa’s LoveR have failed to address satisfactorily, making them little more than exercises in self-indulgence for an aging, dwindling demographic that exacerbate the meager status quo rather than earnest attempts to reemerge with a sense of urgent relevancy.

If you look in the right places, however, clearly, a simmering interest in dating sims persists. In recent years, popular Japanese vtubers such as Tsukino Mito have done live runs of games like Amagami to great success, their influence sometimes having noticeable ripple effects on the prices of used copies well after the fact. Even in foreign spheres, long overdue efforts to properly reconcile dating sims, both male and female-oriented, with the greater historical canon of video games are slowly beginning to take shape. I’d be remiss, for one, not to mention Tim Roger’s own relatively recent six hour-long review of Tokimeki Memorial, a video whose earnest, thorough dissection has done much to make an entire branch of gameplay design digestible to western players and critics alike, as well as earned the game passionate new fans, even if many lack the Japanese skills necessary to play it. More broadly, other games whose DNA sits at least adjacent to dating sims are also increasingly going global, including the latest Sakura Wars game from Sega. Taken as a whole, the evidence, however scattershot, suggests that both within Japan and the rest of the world, an appetite exists for dating sims. Or, in the case of the latter, to be more precise, an appetite that has always been present to some degree from the beginning is now allowed to exist.

All of this seems to point to dating sims not being inherently impenetrable, too culturally cloistered within Japanese socialization and styles of storytelling to ever matter or have things to say and teach to those who aren’t already equipped to parse them. In an environment where western AAA developers such as Bioware can stake the identities of massive, expensive games partially on their relationship mechanics, rudimentary or not, where marginalized and underrepresented indie developers especially have long made mechanics out of relationships so that they can see their own lived experiences portrayed within games, where the term dating sim itself is no longer an automatic pejorative in English as games and media across the world embrace it, it feels ludicrous to think they can’t have a living, growing — and, most of all, international — place within the spectrum of games once more. In a medium of second chances and extra lives, death precludes nothing, not even a future.

Tom James is a Japanese-English video game translator with credits in games such as Monster Hunter Generations and Tales of Berseria. You can find him proselytizing about the dating sims of the yesterday at his Twitter account here, as well as get in touch for professional inquiries via his portfolio website here.

Freelance Japanese-English video game translator. Monster Hunter Generations, Tales of Berseria, and more. Work site: http://www.freelansations.com

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