The evolution of dating sims: with great romance comes great responsibility


Orchestrating a romance has been a central part of a video game narrative pretty much since games had the ability to include them.

Sometimes the choices are linear, but more recent offerings have created scenarios where your protagonist can choose from a vast wealth of fictional flames. From fluctuating between alien romances in Mass Effect and choosing a stay-at-home spouse in Skyrim, to the hybrid romance options in the lesser-known PS1 RPG / hybrid encounter Thousand Arms, relationships are a part. frequent and often significant of a story.

Traditionally, most dating games have been created with one simple goal in mind: to fulfill a fantasy. In most cases, the player is presented with a series of opportunities to engage in a relationship with a character – usually a woman – where you pull all the strings, and your decisions only ever have positive consequences.

But in recent years, dating simulators have evolved to tell more complex stories, not fantasies about love and sex. They are about pain, loss, emotional well-being, and the darker side of relationships. That, and they’re not just for straight men anymore – many people in the LGBTQ + community have embraced the genre, and richer experiences have been born from creators who want to simulate the storylines they want to play, which many other gamers like. . too much.

“It’s an exciting time, because there is such a thirst for well-written romance, and most major studios are still unlikely to focus on relationships as the main selling point,” said the creator of Boyfriend Dungeon. , Tanya X. Short.

“Hopefully they continue to become mainstream commercially, because while BioWare and other titles are probably never as adventurous as more indie content, that kind of expense and standardization of gameplay mechanics brings oxygen to the game. space for the rest of us.

“I especially wanted to give the player a feeling of freedom to follow his heart, which I lacked and felt too restrictive in otherwise similar experiences I had played.”

GB – from GB Patch Games, developer of the visual novel Our Life: Beginning and Always – praises the variation in dating sims available now. “I remember in the past, slice-of-life content was at the heart of many simulation dating experiences (even if it was in a more fantastic world) and similar types of good / good-based choice systems. evil, ”they say.

“The genre was gaining a foothold, so much of it was pretty straightforward (my own games included). Over the years there has been an increase in plot-based elements, heavier gameplay features coupled with simulations of dating., and other ways that choices influence the story. It’s very interesting to see what people come up with, although I still enjoy the slice-of-life type of dating simulation as well. ”

Boyfriend Dungeon’s texting mechanic moves the narrative along with other characters

Dealing with difficult topics also comes at a cost. Developers, writers, and designers should be aware of the real-world scenarios they are recreating in their work. The penalty for not doing so is heavy criticism, despite the creator’s best intentions.

This recently surfaced in the form of a controversy surrounding Boyfriend Dungeon, due to its handling of some unsavory topics including harassment and manipulation.

Developer Kitfox Games has received requests to add an option to skip certain interactions, with some players asking that the dialogue – which played a key role in the overall story – be removed. This sparked a discussion about including such themes. Kitfox added other warnings, as well as fixes other sensitive references. Much of the content remains the same but the question remains: is there a story that shouldn’t be told in case it hurts its audience?

“It’s up to the artist and his audience to decide together – the artist considering what art is worth doing, and the audience considering what art is worth experimenting with,” said Short.

“You can hope to represent yourself, if you are ambitious, and you can hope not to alienate yourself from others, if you are considerate.”

Tanya X. Short, Kitfox Games

“Any art teaches us more about ourselves, to the extent that we can observe how we react to it, at the very least. Even a rough drawing made by a child has different meanings to each of us depending on our experiences. .

Likewise, we all bring our romantic baggage (or our expectations) to a product that claims to provide a fantasy of romance … When someone is playing dating sims, we can see what it is in that fantasy that we are. appreciate, and why, and what risks we should or should not take in our love life.

“To that end, I guess it’s inevitable that a game with an intimate, contemporary subject like dating includes subjects that cannot be completely de-identified.”

Johanna M. de Synstoria, the developer of the upcoming fantasy dating sim Imperial Grace, also comments on the tension between creative free expression and the desire to do no harm.

“I think creators should be allowed to tell the story they want, but on the other hand, I know that every work of fiction helps create our society,” she says.

“Sometimes they’re unavoidable, because the creator really wants to romanticize something particular that someone can find really hurtful. At the very least, I want writers who talk callously about hurtful topics to be aware of that, so that they can try to balance it out as much as possible, warning their potential players to make sure the line between fiction and reality is clear.

“All works of fiction can alert against toxic behavior or dangerous situations. Dating simulators can also do it. You just have to be careful that it remains a game, a story in which you want to immerse yourself and experience emotions. , not a disembodied message of prevention. “

Imperial Grace presents a rich roster of figures in a medieval setting

Imperial Grace presents a rich roster of figures in a medieval setting

Despite the move towards more serious and complex themes, dating sims are still considered taboo, due to preconceived notions of sexual content. While there is one pocket of the genre that includes NSFW content, it doesn’t represent dating games as a whole. The inclusion of this content also doesn’t mean that a game can’t tell a more in-depth story.

“It’s funny because dating sims seem to hesitate between being ‘too girly’ or ‘too pornographic’,” says Short. “On the other hand, a dating sim fan’s expectations for the types of content you offer seem to vary wildly based on their past experiences.”

Johanna also comments on how dating sims are often reduced to porn, and how creators sometimes don’t list their games under the dating sim tag to avoid the misconception, so the idea sticks.

“A lot of people play dating sims without knowing they are dating,” they say. “So maybe it might be a good idea to promote the subgenre because these games don’t carry these preconceived notions?”

Even with careful attention to how sensitive or obscene stories are told, and keeping inclusion at the heart of a project, it’s incredibly difficult to ensure that everyone’s desires are met in a mock dating. .

Short tells us about presenting a romance-themed event at Valve for Steam, with sales on various dating games and discussions about the genre. Valve was hesitant and pointed out that curating games by what is considered “acceptable” or not in terms of sexual preference, nudity, and language is nearly impossible on a large scale.

“You can never represent everyone,” says Short. “You can hope to represent yourself, if you are ambitious, and you can hope not to alienate yourself from others, if you are considerate.”

GB’s main concern as a developer is not getting its message across properly. They’re also not sure whether full representation is possible for every game, but this is made easier with customizable characters where players can select their own preferences.

“It’s always worrying that people aren’t getting what you hoped / expected from trying to bring up a serious topic,” they say.

” I do not want [representation] is possible for each game to strive. There is a limit to character size and tons of different types of people out there. However, some games may try to try it through customization and the like.

“Currently, we aim to create highly customizable main characters (in terms of appearance, personality, interests, sexuality, gender identity, etc.) so that anyone who plays the game can feel included.”

“I often see very serious things being used as a mere pretext for a tragic backstory. Unfortunately, not developing a sensitive topic often trivializes it.”

Johanna M., Synstoria

Johanna’s concern is with the unknown and how a developer can accurately describe something without necessarily experiencing it.

“I will always do as much research as possible, if possible, talking to the right people,” she explains. “Have a [sensitivity] reader is very important in these cases, to make sure that we are not giving false ideas based on our own biases, and that we are not hurting people on purpose.

“I also think that someone should only bring up a sensitive topic if they really want to talk about it and intend to expand on it. I often see very serious things being used as a mere pretext for a tragic backstory and never developed otherwise. Unfortunately, not developing a sensitive subject often trivializes it. ”

While it is often difficult to convey a difficult story properly, the overall evolution of dating sims as a genre has been positive. The popularity of storytelling-driven romantic stories has led a multitude of different creators to lean into it, and it ultimately spawned countless games that cater to a range of gamers.

“When you have amazing designers like [Ladykiller in a Bind developer] Christine Love working in space, you can hope there is room for all the different types of dating sims, even if some of them aren’t to your personal liking (or the kind you would bring back. home to play with your mom), ”says Court.

The genre has also become a haven for LGBTQ + developers and storytellers in particular, which has resulted in a positive increase in the number of games created by marginalized people, for marginalized people.

“There has also been a marked increase in queer romance options in dating sims over time, which is wonderful,” GB said.

“I think continuing to create / promote these games is helpful. Every year more and more people seem to know about the genre and find out more about it. It is becoming a pretty staple genre and it will help it look less weird. , questionable thing. “

Johanna also adds: “I had a hard time finding an LGBTQ + friendly game before, but now I have an endless backlog and so many exciting projects to follow.”

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