Update: It has come to my attention that people have been misusing this article to serve stupid agendas and express weak sympathy for marginalized communities. I have written a response about this misuse. It is also important to note that this article is not written in response to the KFC crap people are talking about for the past few weeks.
The phrase “visual novel” has always been an anomaly.
For starters, the term “VN” is not used by Japanese communities. When people talk about VNs there, they talk about ADVs (or Adventure Game) and discuss the innovations in presentation and scenario. “Visual novels” are what we the international audience came up with in order to describe these works. Lately, Japanese indie developers have taken noted of this English neologism and used it as a hashtag to promote their titles. But it is otherwise unused. An English-language history overviewing visual novels and ADVs, what they are inspired by, and what their legacy is severely needed.
Dating sims are also in a similar situation. While the genre seems to be self-explanatory, few dating sims have come overseas. There remains an aura of mystery around these games. People would be aware of visual cues and certain tropes coming from them through cultural osmosis: the influence of TokiMemo 2 for example is so massive it has appeared as a regular enemy in Neptunia MKII. Of course, many people would have never played these games because they remain untranslated.
Because there’s not much information on them, people tend to blur the distinction between visual novels and dating sims. The terms themselves are interchangeable in common dialog. That is the extent of the knowledge on dating sims we see in English language discourses.
This situation could be improved. Concepts with unclear definitions may be anomalies, but they can be refined and repurposed to be useful. The objective for a subculture blogger like me is to clarify what they mean and try to make a meaningful framework for readers. Clearly, the terms “visual novel” and “dating sims” have some utility value and we should keep them but define them harder and better.
This is not what today’s short post is about however.
It is about how ambiguity and lack of care toward defining this history can lead to the development of an awful trend.
Because they lack a common term but are so similar to each other they have defined genre conventions, I and some others have called these “ironic pseudo ‘dating sims'”. They are “ironic” because they are trying to subvert expectations found in dating sims. “Ironic dating sims” are now unfortunately the new face of the English-language visual novel world. Take, for example, the massive reception of Doki Doki Literature Club and how it has engulfed the genre. Although primarily inspired by creepypasta stories and not originally a “parody” in that sense, the work has since been thought of as a visual novel critiquing dating sim tropes. The shock value of cute “anime” girls being angsty and suicidal has given the visual novel a ton of press. When the visual novel got a Japanese translation, many people in Japanese social media praised its shlock and even the famous Virtual YouTuber Kizuna AI did a let’s play of the game.
Yet, my contention is that works like DDLC are not actually parodying, let alone, critiquing dating sims. This is where “pseudo” comes in. None of these “ironic” visual novels are parodying any specific work. Instead, they are “parodying” an imagined dating sim that has never existed. Most of their “jokes” and the “critiques” they are employing come from Japanese media that parody dating sims in the first place. To put it bluntly, these elements are lifted from actual parodies and they are divorced of any context. They are essentially watered down.
It is worth remembering that most Japanese dating sims are untranslated. Therefore, people who want to know more about dating sims will have to look into Wikipedia articles, the few blog posts out there that document dating sims, and more importantly parodies already present in Japanese media. A parody I fondly remember serves as a decent example: Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun effectively parodies how the “male best friend” is the real heroine of dating sims and the ending makes the protagonists of Nozaki-kun sniffle the hell out. Such a parody would have been one of the sources people would use to understand what a dating sim is about. This is not to say that parodies are not a great learning tool, but they cannot be the only source to understand a complex genre like dating sims.
The knowledge is utterly lacking then in what these ironic pseudo-dating sims are supposed to be critiquing. At best, they criticize trite themes like the fetishization of high school girls and the gamification of dating while conforming to the same problems they are attempting to satirize. At worst, they are Orientalist media that plays on the wackiness of the Japanese origins and advance a narrative that the West knows better and can solve these problems. These assumptions ignore the diversity and innovations of dating sims they are supposed to be critiquing.
People may not be aware that dating sims can differ wildly depending on who it is marketed to. TokiMemo 2 was aimed at a male audience, but a work like Hatoful Boyfriend is aimed at women. In the case of the latter, this dating sim is actually a parody of women-targeted dating sims. Some of these dating sims are 乙女ゲー (otomege), which is a genre of its own: you play as a character who gets to date guys or girls. What makes Hatoful Boyfriend different from many dating sims including pseudo-dating sims is that it is aware of the silliness of the market. It knows their players really like cute dashing people and all its jokes and references are strictly about elements in the market. If you played something like AMNESIA or even that new Disney soshage/mobage about hot dudes in Alice in Wonderland‘s setting, you would nod with a smile to these omissions and exaggerations Hatoful Boyfriend employs. The market for such titles is in fact very aware of its silliness and it does not need reminders from people as to what the problematic elements inside these works are.
TokiMemo 2, on the other hand, is one of the most ambitious games of the 90s. It incorporates raising sim elements (gotta work out to impress the girls) and random video game elements as parodies. If your stats are not high enough, you may be in trouble when you enter a random encounter in the park and have to fight people ruining your date with Final Fantasy 7-styled mechanics. You don’t always “date” in dating sims as TokiMemo 2 shows; there are many minigames that break up the tedium of raising the stats and romancing. In fact, the different mechanics inside the game as well as the difficulty of getting the girl of your dreams while placating the rest of the cast have actually inspired a small competitive scene with TokiMemo 2 and the other games.
The innovations do not stop there. The PawaPro Pocket series at first looks like a simple spinoff series of the famous Power Pro baseball games. However, it actually follows the TokiMemo 2 lineage by developing the “Success Mode” (think Career Mode in other sports games) into an odyssey spanning through the protagonist’s education up until he goes pro. The games have multiple endings depending on how well you have performed the objectives and which girl you got along with. The dating/raising sim structure allows players to explore how the team should be managed. For example, if you drink the sports drink your manager girlfriend gives you, the other players may look it at this with envy and decrease the teamwork rating. The games’ light-hearted tone in writing and fast-paced nature make them replayable games with a lot of value to be had.
Many ironic pseudo-dating sims do not take note of these innovations and nuances. While a good deal of this comes from the lack of translations and documentation, it is in the opinion of the writer a poor attempt at researching the genre. They are creating a work in a genre they remain unaware about and they dare attempt to critique something they do not actually know. The ironic pseudo-dating sim crowd merely approaches the genre as if it is a static thing that has never changed in the past thirty years.
Because dating sims are perceived by ironic pseudo-dating sims to be unchanging entities, the critiques and absurdist humor they offer are lacking. They are seen as revolutionary however because the general audience is also committing the same mistakes as they are. Works like Persona 4 are considered to be games with “dating sim” elements. Because they are essentially the only sources for information on dating sims, people found it cool that these works are darker and edgier critiques of these shallow works. But if you ask people what the titles of these “shallow works” are, I am sure they won’t be able to come up with an actual name.
This is because these “dating sims” the ironic pseudo-dating sims are critiquing have never existed. This is why I am calling these works “pseudo”. They aren’t even criticizing dating sims. My belief is that they are criticizing nothing and what they are parodying is essentially what people believe dating sims are. What I find most interesting too is that these visual novels tend to blur into one another because they are parodying the same trope, same archetype, and so on. They have become a genre where the only thing they do is parody things that don’t exist. Look closer and you might even think they are parodying themselves.
This bizarre and awful world of ironic pseudo-dating sims is parodying itself. Their sole existence is to parody a thing that does not exist and this warps around so much that they are parodying themselves for doing this. That’s what happens when you allow irony to extend itself without restraint.
So what should we do about this mess?
For starters, it is worth highlighting what we don’t know. There is plenty I am unsure about in the market for women’s games for example. We need to find sources and experts to fill in those gaps.
This is also a matter that affects the indies, not just criticism. English language visual novels that are honest in their explorations in the medium and want to contribute their own take should also get their spotlight in the news too. I don’t speak just as a member of a English-language yuri studio; I speak as a person who wants to promote subculture media. Talking about games like DoraKone is a good start to repair the reputation of English language visual novels, which is now a space for queer creators to explore ideas that will never be accepted by current mainstream gaming. We definitely need to push back the idea that English language visual novels are just this trash. There are creators who need our help.
We should also not give any more attention to these ironic pseudo-dating sims by not naming them ever. Some of the more politically offensive and even racist titles out there are using the shock value to get reported in video game journalism and social media. We need to resist the temptation to say their names. Deplatforming these works should be of utmost priority to anyone who cares about helping out the indie world.
Lastly, we need to call Orientalizing and the toxic usage of irony in these games out if they do become the topic of the week. Talk about how they are using dating sims, that “wacky Japanese genre”, for their own bullshit.
Ironic pseudo-dating sims are an anomaly that is unfortunately a part of video gaming history. There is still time to revert the damage it has done if it is degraded as a fad. But if it does not happen, this will be more than just the trend by a bunch of people who think they can do better than Japanese dating sims.
And no amount of fixing and clarifying definitions can fix that cynical rewriting of history.