I’m here to make a confession today: I love otome games.
Fine, if you read this site I’ll admit you’ve probably already figured that out by my series “Let’s Get it On,” but I’m mentioning this specifically because it’s super nerdy. Plus, although I sneer at my friend’s romance novels, I really have no room to talk here in my glass house. [Ed.: anyone who says they don’t live in a pink-tinted glass house of smut is lying or deluded, or perhaps just lives a sad, sad life (unless you’re asexual, you’re perfect and we heart you too)—official G-vesc position on romance ♥]
Otome games are also sometimes called dating sims and generally fall into the visual novel category. Visual novels tend to be extremely story-driven with the outcomes determined by the choices you make along a branching story route. Dating sims often have you scheduling your character’s time in order to raise specific stats by doing certain activities. While all three terms are often used interchangeably (by me at least), my definitions overlap more like rectangles and squares: all the otome games I’ve played are visual novels, but not all are dating sims.
As a quick peek at Wikipedia shows us, otome games are literally “girl games.” They’re aimed at a female audience and are evidently a fairly new genre. They’re most popular in Japan, but from what my personal anec-data show me, the genre is quickly gaining a bit of traction in the U.S. as well, and is especially popular with indie creators. I could go on with the stats, both real and imagined, but seriously just go read that article. It’s short and actually pretty interesting.
Anywho, back to my main point: After dipping my toes into the water of Bioware’s dating-sim-lite Dragon Age: Origins, I quickly found myself sliding down that slippery slope into visual novels and full-on dating sims. It was really no surprise to anyone, with my existing interest in anime & manga. But it leads us to confession time #2: My husband is an otome-enabler. He’s the one who convinced me to play DA:O in the first place and got me my first indie dating sims. He’s also the one who buys me the latest localized game on pre-order before I even know it’s out. As a side note, did you know otome games should be considered a marital aid? You get the thrill of a new romance, with the accompanying discovery and excitement that brings, all while remaining faithful to your existing monogamous partner (if you have one). It works out well for both of us, at least.
Now, in the interests of “full disclosure,” I’ll also tell you I have a vested interest in trying to convert as many people as possible to the otome genre. I figure the more of you I can convince to spend your hard-earned dollars on these games, the more incentive we’ll give developers to make and translate more. And I want, no I practically NEED, more games! At this point I consume them at an almost voracious pace.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get jaded after binging on a few; they often have the same types of guys and the storyline tropes can get eye-rollingly common. This is particularly bad with Voltage iOS games. Each game starts with 5 guys and each time there are the same types—it’s clear copy/paste. Don’t get me wrong—despite all that, I still loved 10 Days with My Devil. But taking breaks to explore different games and genres is important to keep them fresh for when I find a new one. Nevertheless, I inevitably comb the internet after a few weeks and come back to the rapidly dwindling supply of games I’m willing to play.
I have some standards (surprising though that may be to some of you), and at the top of the list is that the game cannot be too lackadaisical with issues of consent. I don’t personally have any trigger issues, so I may be more forgiving than some, but even I can’t get past the intro of a game wherein the “desirable” male character(s) sexually threaten the main character like it ain’t no thang.
So with all that said, I suppose I consider myself somewhat of an expert in the genre, and I *certainly* consider myself to be an expert in taste, so I here present to you (in no particular order), my Top 5 List of Amazing Otome Games/Visual Novels You Need to Play Right Now!
This game is pure Harry Potter wish fulfillment as you play as a new student at a magical school. It’s simply the best indie stat-raising/visual novel hybrid I’ve played. Most stat-raising games I’ve played focus so much on the stats that the storyline seems poorly tacked on. I’ve found it easy to spam the right activities to get the best ending, and generally felt like I didn’t even get a story in the process. That’s not the case with this one. You raise your stats in various magical subjects to get new spells, which then provide you with multiple ways to solve your tests. You also make some friends and enemies along the way. It’s got a good story, good writing, and 6 romanceable characters in it. It was my very first foray into indie otome games and I must say I was not disappointed—and you won’t be either.
Hakuoki is one of the few localized, professional Japanese games available in the U.S. This means it includes great voice acting, beautiful art, a complex storyline & interesting characters. It’s a historical drama with (of course) a supernatural twist. You play as a girl on her own in the big city at the end of the shogunate era. She inevitably falls under the protection of a group of riff-raff/law enforcers known as the Shinsengumi. I played the shit out of the first release on the PSP, and then did it all again when Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi came out for PlayStation. If you have the platform, I would recommend you get Stories instead of the original game because it includes the entire first game plus tons of additional, mostly romantic, content. This one should not be missed.
If you like alternate fairytale stories, à la Wicked or Once Upon a Time, you NEED to play this game. Cinders is beautiful & thoughtful, with the best variety of endings I’ve ever seen. The developer describes it as a “mature” take on the classic fairytale Cinderella. You already know the protagonist, the side characters, and the set up, but luckily there are a lot more ways you can end the story than the simple prince + marriage = happily ever after. The art is gorgeous and while it might not have any voice acting, it has a good soundtrack and character animations. This is from a small indie developer but it ranks right up there with the big-money professional jobs in quality.
Speakeasy Tonight is a one-of-a-kind iOS game with its spunky protagonist and Roaring Twenties setting. This has some of the most explicit and hottest romance writing I’ve ever seen in a game. You play as the Ice Box Flapper, a partying girl from the sticks who’s sent to the bustling city of prohibition-era Chicago as…punishment? It’s seriously ineffective as a form of discipline but provides plenty of ways to get into more exciting trouble, mostly involving illegal alcohol and men. It deserves a full review, if I ever get back to replay it, which is actually somewhat likely as the guys’ point-of-view stories recently came out. These POV stories are a fun aspect of Voltage games that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I enjoy seeing the developing romance through my love interest’s eyes. Another interesting aspect of Voltage games I’ve yet to try is entering your email address to receive messages from the characters. In theory it sounds awesome, but I’ve always been too self conscious to try it, so if you do it, let me know how it goes. I have some issues with the Voltage pricing scheme for this game (you have to pay for the “top notch” ending for example) but this is definitely the best of their games to start with.
While this game is a bit old now, as a visual novel it holds up well to the ravages of time, and it’s still one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. Unless you get the bad endings… sweet Jesus, please use a guide so you don’t get the bad endings. You play a high school girl who swaps places with a princess of olden times, just in time to save her life and find a hubby, as it turns out. I squealed with so much delight at the raunch in this game. It doesn’t have as many characters to pursue as others I’ve played, and I only really liked about half of the guys, but it’s still worth a try because it’s irreverent and hilarious. I thought it was out of print and hard to find, but evidently you can get a digital copy for a pretty reasonable price at the link above (just click on the picture).
So there you have it! Five games that will keep you happily busy for quite a while. Please give these developers all your money so they will make new games for me to play, too.
Jen R. is seriously having withdrawal and needs a new fictional dude to romance stat. She’s so desperate she’s back to playing a game for the second time.