Otome Games 101 - Origins

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乙女ゲーム —oto-me gee-mu — “maiden game”

Lately, and with increasing frequency, I’ve found myself explaining what “otome games” are to fellow game developer and journalist friends of mine at meet-ups and conferences. I do this happily and willingly, since it’s a genre that personally fascinates me, and most of the devs I talk to seem unfamiliar with but curious about dating sims in general. The people who ask usually do have some sort of familiarity with romance sim elements from other series, like Persona, Harvest Moon, and BioWare games, but the fact that there is an existing industry in Japan built around video game dating sims targeted specifically at women is often news to them.

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Otome games are typically narrative-driven social sims marketed to women where the primary objective is to pursue a romantic relationship with a suitor of the player’s choice (often playing as a female main character and pursuing one of many male characters). Otome gameplay can range from world-building simulators, stat or time management, dialogue trees, visual novel branching, thematic mini-games and/or any combination of these.

I didn’t really know about otome games myself till Arino of Game Center CX showed me a couple of years ago.

The part of the video that particularly caught my eye was during Arino’s initial interview with Matsushita Tomomi of Koei PR. She explained to him that the original version of the game Arino is about to play was developed by an all-woman team within Koei. I did some further research and found that this internal team called itself “Ruby Party” and is credited with releasing the first ever recognized otome game, Angelique, for the SNES back in 1994.

Even with my working knowledge of the Western games industry I could not personally recall a similar event occurring here. I know of women-lead indie start-ups and the Purple Games movement, but I hadn’t heard of any all-women teams being formed internally within publishers or larger developers for the sake of creating games to appeal to a female demographic. After doing more research the story sounded to me like some lady devs on different teams at Koei got bored of making iterations of their staple war simulation games, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition, and decided to team up and game jam in order to make something that they thought would appeal to other women like themselves, with the blessings of an upper management team who were worried about Koei’s uptight image and wanted to reach new markets. The resulting game, Angelique, is actually a pretty complex fantastical city/state simulation game. Your assisting governmental cabinet just happens to be made up of attractive guys who your Queen-candidate player character can become romantically entangled with, if you so choose.

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The original Angelique didn’t meet with immediate success upon release. It sounds like Koei didn’t exactly know how to market the title since they were entering uncharted territory. But word-of-mouth about the game’s quality eventually spread through the community and Koei noticed they had a contingent of loyal fans advocating for Angelique through doujinshi (unlicensed fan-created comics) and cosplay at large conventions. After noticing this Koei decided to develop and release an enhanced PC version of Angelique with prominent voice actors cast for the existing characters (something the original SNES version’s memory constraints didn’t allow) and then Koei themselves started publishing fan-focused periodical magazines to spur up interest in future game iterations and goods. Since Ruby Party’s developers were already heavily influenced by 1970s shoujo (girls) manga there were tropes found in the game that women who were manga fans, but new to video games, found familiar and interesting. The addition of popular seiyuu (voice actors) for the PC edition drew fans already loyal to their favorite actors to the Angelique video games that normally would not have considered such a product. Imagine a new Dragon Age game featuring the voice work of Benedict Cumberbatch; women who are normally a fan of his work in Sherlock may be interested in trying out a game for the first time in order to see his work. The US doesn’t have exactly the same groundwork of large existing fandoms (shoujo manga and seiyuu) that Japan had that could explain such transmedia success, so the popularity of otome games may be something entirely unique to that region. It’s hard to find a similar pattern that could potentially be applied here in the West—unless someone got around to making a Teen Wolf or Supernatural dating sim that took off.

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After the slow-burn success of Angelique, imitators followed and Konami made it onto the scene in 2002 with a girls’ version of their already immensely popular Tokimeki Memorial series, called “Girl’s Side”, catered to women and featuring a cadre of male high-school bachelors instead of the usual girls (there is a Game Center CX episode of Arino playing the original Tokimeki Memorial game as well, if you are interested). Eventually studios began to form that focused on developing these girl-orientated dating sims (such as QuinRose and Rejet) and some developers formed internal teams similar to Ruby Party in order to create the games in addition to their other games (like Nippon Ichi Software and Idea Factory with Otomate).

Currently a decent-sized market exists for otome game in Japan with a vast library of new games, remakes, sequels, and spin-off fan-disks being released regularly. Otome games certainly don’t sell blockbuster numbers, but given their relatively low cost to develop compared to most 3D games they put a considerable show, with the more popular ones appearing on the top-10 lists in Japan during their release weeks. And the market is not just limited to the games. Now some off the larger otome game series usually include tie-ins such as anime, official manga, drama CDs, music CDs, artbooks, goods (like keychains and figurines), event concerts (where the voice-over actors perform), and massive amounts of doujinshi (fan comics). Large specialty magazines such as Dengeki Girl’s Style and B’s Log are published monthly and feature details on unreleased games, just-released games, new goods, voice actor interviews, and even printed manga chapters. And otome games are not just on consoles; there are PC-only titles too, including R18+ rated titles that cannot be released on consoles due to sexual content (for women who are tired of romantic scenes that end with a fade-to-black).

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Unfortunately even given the plethora of otome games available in Japan at this point, very few make it over to the West. That’s can usually be summed down to because: 1) most of the games are developed for PSP, which isn’t considered a very strong platform over here, even with the Vita spreading; 2) while they may be cheap to produce, they are not as cheap to translate. Since otome games are mostly text-based and with many branching story paths their word-counts tend to reach the level of your typical JRPG, but without the existing proven English RPG fanbase to rely on; 3) some of the games use popular Japanese voice actors and music and it may not be as easy to license those things for international distribution as something that would be dubbed over, and dub-only releases would not go over well with the Western seiyuu fans, not to mention the added cost of hiring new actors and a voice director. It sucks, but thanks to the efforts of Aksys Games we have two legitimate recent Western releases that you can try out on either PSP or 3DS (and soon PS3)! Hakuoki and Sweet Fuse (both developed by Otomate).

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I’d like to go into more detail but I’m going to stop here since this post is just an introduction about the origins of the otome genre, and it’s already getting long. I haven’t even touched on gameplay systems and aesthetic aspects of otome games yet! Not to mention all the other transmedia elements (anime, manga, drama CDs). I would also like to use later posts to go over things like non-Japanese releases, such as some of the English-developed games and Korean games (which some of their developers translate into English), and take a peek at some of the iOS attempts that have been released in English. I feel like there is a lot to go over and it’s kind of daunting but I’d really like for more people to know about these games. Even if they’re not perfect examples, by any means, I think these games are worthwhile references when considering development of new relationship systems in future games, dating sim or otherwise.

Notes: I found this paper by Hyeshin Kim (“Women’s Games in Japan”) very useful for my initial research into the origins of otome games in Japan. If you have academic access and are interested in the subject then I encourage giving it a read!

Images (from top to bottom): Uta no Prince-sama, Diabolik Lovers, Angelique, Game Center CX (Angelique), Hakuoki, and Sweet Fuse. 

Edit: When I originally posted this I accidentally used some Japanese Uta no Prince-sama fan-art (Google image search failed to find the original Pixiv artist when I investigated initially). I’ve switched the image out with a quick scan I did of my UtaPri B’s Log Comics anthology cover. But the fanart is amazing you should check out and rate their piece! @acosmos