Last week, Twinfinite took a look at a few great games from the visual novel arena, several of which enjoyed some time in the spotlight and some of which went largely unnoticed by the larger part of the gaming population.
Most of those games contain elements of gameplay best described as “dating sim,” a broad term used to categorize games where the primary gameplay theme is increasing the protagonist’s intimacy with one the of many non-playable characters. While their attention hasn’t always been positive, the dating sim element is present in many games, though it probably wouldn’t be classified as such.
While the focus isn’t always on forming relationships with other characters, the dating sim element is critical to most games. Most traditional visual novels, after all, are simply this element distilled into a character-driven, branching narrative.
Paving the way outside of Japan was BioWare, now famous for their NPC characterization and quality of immersing players in well-written narratives focused on unique casts of almost-human characters.
Every single RPG this company has developed includes NPC’s written to the point of humanity. Whether the game itself was a hit or not, it was inevitably praised for including characters that reacted and behaved like believable people, and from Baldur’s Gate II onward – a title that was released in 2000 – each game featured a “romance” system.
For BGII, male characters could start relationships with one of three female party members; female characters got one male. Nowadays the options are decidedly more diverse, and the progress made from such humble beginnings to something like Dragon Age II includes a few important milestones.
The years after Baldur’s Gate saw more releases along the same lines: Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and Jade Empire all carried the same critical dating sim element. Then Persona 3 and Persona 4 hit North America towards the end of the PS2’s life in ’07 and ’08, and the popularity of the concept soared. Though they feature a heavy dungeon-crawling element, their highlight and major selling point came in the form of the Social Link System.
Persona stands out as one of the best blends of RPG and dating sim. The protagonist, in forming relationships with a diverse cast of classmates and townsfolk and spending time with them, develops “Social Links” which in turn increase his (or her, in the P3 re-release) affinity to a matching persona arcana (type), increasing the power of persona created in that arcana.
And shortly after Persona 3 made its ripples, BioWare released the long-awaited Mass Effect. Bringing the dating sim element wholly into the “mainstream,” the popularity of the romance system embedded in an action-packed and riveting story rose once again.
It’s a design that works wonders for BioWare, Persona, and also for the Fire Emblem franchise. With the exception of Shadow Dragon, the Fire Emblem games have always featured a deep support system focused on developing the relationships between the numerous characters.
With the recent addition of Awakening on the 3DS to the series, the franchise once again took the main stage, excelling in its challenging tactical combat, sharp new graphics, and of course it’s dating sim-esque support system – with a new twist.
In addition to the drastic “in-game” bonus where characters who are buddy-buddy or perhaps sharing a bed gain substantial combat bonuses based on the intimacy of their relationship, valid lady characters, when paired with a gentleman, will also unlock their child as a playable character, inheriting their skills. Now adding even more incentive, gamers in the West found themselves exulting in a gameplay mechanic known to Japan for years.
Fire Emblem: Awakening probably represents the most freedom in terms of how romances and relationships can be established, with Dragon Age 2 tied for bringing sexual diversity to the forefront (though having every NPC be essentially bisexual isn’t the whole of it). Other games that include relationships and romance may appear to have dating sim elements, but the key here is the player’s freedom to play matchmaker with their protagonist (and sometimes others).
None of the games mentioned here would ever include in their genre description “dating sim,” yet its importance to their experience is unquestionable. While games such as Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love are decidedly centered around the mechanic of the main character developing relationships with potential partners, the elements of the dating sim are pervasive throughout gaming. Despite the oftentimes negative press the genre generates, it still manages to be fun and popular in its subtle ways.
Let the age of the visual novel begin!… but probably not. For now, it’s enough that those dating sim qualities continue to be used in games, so that opportunities to cross over and experience new genres and media will be in great supply.