Friday, February 5, 2010

The Search for Otome

Heileen, one of the few available English otome titles.
Last semester, Polecat, Starfish, and I found a number of ways of avoiding our always mounting work. In-between playing flash games (Winter Bells, anyone? Drench?), watching movies, reading the news, baking cookies, watching Buffy, and knitting, we sometimes fell into our fangirly, Manga Meditation-ish ways.

While I personally fell off the manga reading train, Polecat and Starfish continued to diligently log onto Manga Fox and One Manga and whatever other scanlation aggregates on the Internet. The three of us also continued our K and J drama nights; we're almost done with Hana Yori Dango 2, by the way.

Starfish took it further and began to delve deeper into the girly comics universe: Dating sims. If you know your shoujo manga, chances are you've at least heard of dating sims, and if you're even more dedicated, otome games.

Otome What?

The game of my childhood.
Otome games are dating sims that are special because, unlike the majority of male-focused sims featuring well-endowed twelve-year-old girls, they cater to girls and their desires for personal bishounen harems. Although made for a niche market, dating sims are extremely popular in Japan. Unfortunately, there are few officially published or original titles in America, and even fewer created exclusively for girls.

As a girl who enjoys playing video games, it's disappointing that American marketers are still ignoring a potentially profitable market. Consider the popularity of romance novels. Otome games are practically the same thing, only they're better because you get to be the girl. There's huge potential here to hook teenage girls and stay-at-home moms onto these games.

Take Harvest Moon 64, for example. I don't think I'm the first to say that, while the farming part is all well and good, what really makes the game is the romantic aspect. Wooing the five potential wives with gifts, stealing them away from your love rival, and keeping an ever watchful eye out for unlockable special events... Dating sims condense all of these aspects, just without the farming.

...And Why?

Starfish soon told Polecat and me about her discovery of these otome games, and her futile attempts at finding such games to play.

A search for "otome game," "otome game download," "play otome game," and other variations generally comes up with unsatisfactory results. While some will direct you to blogs reviewing Japanese games (which, by the way, require the knowledge of Japanese and/or the painstaking search for translations), the majority are download sites, many of which are questionable. And if you have a Mac? Forget it. The majority of dating games created in Japan are almost always made exclusively for Windows.

As mentioned earlier, such games cater to a specific market. I was on the search, however, and my desperation to just play a quality otome grew more and more. When I grew desperate enough, I started looking for just a normal dating sim.

There is the game Yo-Jin-Bo, one of the few Japanese otome games published in America. There are also the more popular Heileen and Sprited Heart games by Winter Wolves. MM tried out a demo of Spirited Heart, which was fun but eventually asked you to pay for the rest of the game. Considering we're poor college students, that was out of the question.

I searched and searched that Google engine dry, about to give up when finally I found...

Doujinshi Dating Games

They're fun! They're free! They're (sometimes) good quality! Did I mention they're free?

After my long, arduous search, I finally found a few quality doujinshi otome games.

Let's be honest here. The majority of amateur works are not the greatest quality. The writing, for one, is usually terrible, poorly planned, and riddled with grammar and spelling errors. The art is usually laughable, and clearly just a supplement to the sub-par writing. Characters are often drawn as variations of the same character, with the appearance of drawings traced by a person with an unsteady hand on MS Paint.

But then came a bright, bright light at the end of the tunnel.

Lucky Rabbit Reflex

Screen of Lucky Rabbit Reflex's dev blog.
I eventually came across this topic at Lemma Soft Forums and a download for a demo of Lucky Rabbit Reflex (see the creator's development blog here; it's worth a look).

It's only a short demo, but the quality is very impressive considering it's all created by one person. If you take a look at the dev blog, you'll see that the creator is adding increasingly complex aspects to the game that require a lot of programming knowledge.

The art is cute, and the CG's are good quality. The art style is not what one would typically expect from a dating sim, but it's an interesting, fluid style that's unique to the creator. Not only that, but the writing is great; while it's still a campy otome game, it has witty humor and fun, interesting characters. The interface is awesome; it's complex yet clean. Needless to say, I look forward to Lucky Rabbit Reflex's official release!

Love Blossom

I also came across a small list started at the My NeoRomance forum compiling available English otome games. Under "doujin" was something called Love Blossom which led me to this topic at the same forum. The game was apparently created to celebrate My NeoRomance's birthday.

This game is well done considering it's simply a free birthday gift to the members. It doesn't feature any sound, but includes two potential boyfriends, CGs and, of course, multiple endings.

The art looks pretty informal, but it's certainly acceptable for just a fun, quickly put together game. While I prefer Lucky Rabbit Reflex, Love Blossom hasn't had as much time put into it, and it's clearly more just as a gift to the members rather than a widely distributed game. Overall, I suggest taking a look at it.


Katawa Shoujo

Screenshot found at Katawa Shoujo's website.
Mmkay I might be treading into more controversial territory here for two reasons.

One is that Katawa Shoujo is not an otome game, but rather of a common dating sim format featuring a male protagonist and bishoujo love interests; more than that, it's really more a visual novel than a dating sim since players cannot do much outside of making choices within the plot line. The second reason is the game's topic matter.

The game stars a high school boy who discovers he has an arrhythmia, an issue concerning the rhythm of the heart. He is told he'll never be able to live a normal life again, but he is allowed to go back to high school. The difference, however, is that the high school is made exclusively for disabled students (as far as I can tell it appears to only focus on physical disabilities).

This is where it gets a little tricky. As the developers have noted, the game will include sex scenes with the girls. That in itself is not unique in the realm of dating sims, but having sex with physically disabled girls? I won't use the crude term, but some believe that this sim's premise could easily result in a distasteful fetish game.

I decided to download the demo off of Katawa Shoujo's website, which turns out to actually be Act I of the game.

First of all, this game is incredibly impressive. I don't know how experienced the developers are in terms of game design, but the current product they have on their website practically looks and reads like a professional game.

The art, for one, is the best I've seen out of a doujin dating sim. The character art has a generic style, but its drawn and colored with a lot of skill. The backgrounds appear to be Photoshopped photographs, but they also fit the tone of the story, and the colors complement the characters well.

What is perhaps even more impressive about Katawa Shoujo's art is the amount of variation and detail. Backgrounds have morning, afternoon, and night versions; and characters not only have a variety of poses, they have changing faces, moving limbs, and various combinations of all three. The animation is also very smooth.

The writing is also very good; the style is usually very fluent, and at times even eloquent. It does tend to get a bit verbose at times, but am I really one to talk?

Now for the disability factor. While perhaps there are some things that could have been changed in the game for it to be even more acceptable, Act I is generally sensitively written and at times even realistically written.

The protagonist is characterized as cynical as a result of his degraded health and rapidly changed circumstances. When he comes to the school, he is somewhat uncomfortable with meeting the other students, and often does not know how to act around them. My thoughts may change in the future, but at the moment I think this is a realistic portrayal of most people's reactions.

The disabilities do play a factor in the game, but they usually are not featured in a heavy handed fashion and are often subtle enough to simply be viewed as personality traits.

Of course not everything is realistic; it's a dating sim, after all. But considering how such subject matter could have been handled, the developers did an excellent job. If you are extremely sensitive to the premise of the game (though you could do much worse), you might consider holding off on downloading. However, I still encourage at least a look at the game, even if you're a girl like me looking for an otome game. It's an admirable piece so far, and pretty innocuous in terms of potentially offensive material.

Otome DIY Adventures

Find developers' games at the Ren'Py's site.
While frustrated by the lack of computer otome games in English (a pretty specific request, I soon found), I stumbled across the Ren'Py Visual Novel Engine, a free program to create visual novels. Many designers, however, use the Python-based engine to create their own dating sims; the three featured in this post all use it. Which got me to thinking:

Why not create a dating sim of our own?

Starfish, Polecat and I do actually posses some semblance of talent which would be useful in creating one. Starfish is our resident programming expert, Polecat has doodles worthy of art galleries, and I'm an aspiring writer. Not only that, but Polecat and I have some experience with Python.

As one should expect, it's been a lot harder getting it off the ground than our initial enthusiasm made us believe. But if one should be interested in putting a dating sim together, the "keep it simple stupid" adage is perhaps the number one rule.

Since finding playable dating sims on the Internet like the previous three, our interest in the project has waned a little (that "life" thing also cropped up once in a while). However, it hasn't been abandoned entirely; I hope that it will eventually see the light of day.

Helpful Hints?

Here are a few resources that I found while on my vast otome adventure. Such things won't be useful for everyone, but you can also just use them to find out general information on dating sims, programming, whatever.

Ren'Py -- The visual novel engine. With the limited exposure Starfish and I have had with the program, it seems that it's most useful if one has a working knowledge of Python.

"Write a Dating Sim" -- An article from TV Tropes. Pretty extensive. While it's not the absolute high authority, there is some good advice on avoiding the usual writing pitfalls.

NeoRomance Forums
-- Yeah, yeah, it's a forum. But it's dedicated to otome games! It's also where I found Love Blossom. Take a look at the main My Neoromance page as well if you like.

Lemma Soft Forums -- This is a more broadly focused forum, but it does deal with ren'ai (romance) games, as well as the use of Ren'Py.

Otome Games -- Has good information on officially licensed English otome games. This means you also have to pay for them. Regardless, take a look at the free demo links if you're so inclined; still fun, even if you don't have the money!

And of course, the best resource is your own experience from playing good games. See what you like and what you don't. Don't fall into cliches. Pay attention to your art. Write something original.

Easier said than done. But this is mostly advice to myself.


PS: Developers, if you'd like any of your images taken off, please let us know! Every posted image is linked to its source.

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