Originating in Japan, dating simulators are a type of video game that falls under the simulation sub-genre. They focus on developing romantic, and sometimes sexual relationships in a format similar to a choose-your-own-adventure style or statistical butterfly-effect games.
It is no surprise that Japanese dating simulators are wildly popular in Japan, given their origin. However, dating simulators have slowly been bleeding into western culture. Whilst this means that Japanese-made games such as the Doki Doki Literature Club and Haotful Boyfriend are gaining popularity in the west, it also means that new western, or western-inspired dating simulators are being created, such as Misty Hollow.
Eastern versus Western Art Style
One key, easily identifiable difference between Japanese dating simulators, and their westernised counterparts is the game’s art style. Japanese dating simulators are always animated with a manga art style, whereas the western games will be drawn in comic. This is due to cultural influences. The first example of this can be seen in pacing. Western-style animation can be described as action-packed, fast-paced, yet static, whereas Japanese-style manga builds stories slowly and delicately with much emphasis on emotion. Secondly, the western comic style is usually associated with children or family media and is much less often viewed as for adults. Whereas manga is made for all ages, with adult, sexual, and outright pornographic content being quite popular in Japanese manga, (Manga Big Bang, 2017.)
The Westernisation of Japanese Dating Simulators
Dating simulators, which are often described as ‘visual novels’ in the west, first gained traction in the west when the dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend released its English-language version in 2014. Since then, dating simulators or visual novels gave gained immense popularity in the west after the release of Dream Daddy in 2017. Dream Daddy is a gay dating simulator that was crafted by a group of YouTube gamers known as the Game Grumps. Dream Daddy follows the story of a new-to-town single father who is taken on a whirlwind adventure of befriending and dating the other ‘Daddys’ in the neighbourhood. Its popularity is drawn from its LGBTQ+ nature, as well as the Gamer Grumps existing fan base who made the game go viral online. (Romano, 2017.) Not only is Dream Daddy inclusive as it is a dating simulator that centers around gay men, but it also includes transgender representation. One of the datable Daddy’s is a transgender man who makes references to his gender throughout the game. Additionally, when you create your character there are options when you select your body type to allow your character to wear a binder, (Mulkerin, 2017.)
Misty Hollows is described by its Asian-American creators as a “monster-themed visual novel that focuses on love, friendship, and mental health.” As someone who has played the entirety of the game, I can confirm that it is most definitely a dating simulator. I personally believe that this western trend of disguising dating simulators under the term ‘visual novels’ is due to the stigma that they hold in the west. Popular Australian gaming publication Koatlu Australia once wrote an article titled ‘I’m Embarrassed To Play Dating Sims — And I Shouldn’t Be’ where they made the point that “for some reason, while it is OK to immerse yourself in the role of a space marine slaughtering endless hordes of aliens in a game, it’s bad to do the same in a story about falling in love,” (Eisenbeis, 2014.)
I believe that this stigma of dating simulators in the west is likely due to the cultural differences between the east and the west. Firstly, the way that the ritual of dating is practiced in the east and the west is very different. For example, casual dating in the west is incredibly common and holds no stigma whatsoever. Whereas in many eastern cultures casual dating is less common, or sometimes even forbidden. Following the uses and gratifications theory, the escapist fantasy of casual dating has more need in the east than in the west, (Unknown, 2017.) Casual dating is so common in the west, the use of dating simulators could signal a person who is unlucky in love, which might be where some of the stigmas are drawn from.
Additionally, traditional Japanese dating simulators hold traditional Japanese values which may clash with western values. This is particularly prominent in the portrayal of women. Many Japanese dating simulators with a female protagonist can easily be “won” by adhering to Japanese ideals of women, which include their ability to be selfless, meek, to cook and clean, and to support their love interest in achieving his goals. Furthermore, the men in these games are often rude, aloof men waiting to be changed by a woman’s love.
“Since the goal of most female-oriented dating simulators is to build romantic relationships with game characters, the game settings and game characters should consistent with cultural identity and aesthetic of female group,” (Qie, 2020.) It is no surprise that this portrayal of men and women would not be received well in the west, particularly from the female gaze. “To an American feminist, a narrative centering around a weak-willed female protagonist swept off her feet by a mysterious, verbally abusive, floppy-haired stranger sounds ridiculous, if not outright offensive,” (Dickson, 2021.)
Overall, as dating simulators become more popular in the west it is understandable that they will transmute from the traditional Japanese dating simulators. This is due to the cultural differences underpinning dating culture in the east and the west, and therefore, the different uses and gratifications of dating simulators. I predict that western dating simulators are more likely to portray stronger female characters, and represent different dating and family structures outside of a monogamous and hetronormative context. Furthermore, Misty Hollow proves to be a great example of the globalisation and adaptation of Japanese dating simulators. I am sure that we will see many dating simulators or ‘visual novels’ follow in its footsteps over the coming years.
EJ Dickson 2021, ‘Can Japanese dating simulators tap into the Western market?’, The Daily Dot, updated 30th May 2021, viewed 26th October 2021, https://www.dailydot.com/debug/voltage-japanese-romance-simulators/
Eisenbeis R 2014, ‘I’m Embarrassed To Play Dating Sims — And I Shouldn’t Be’, Kotaku Australia, 30th April 2014, viewed 28th October 2021, https://www.kotaku.com.au/2014/04/im-embarrassed-to-play-dating-simsand-i-shouldnt-be/
Gray A 2013, ‘Japanese dating simulators are all the rage’, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 24th 2013, viewed 28th October 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/japanese-dating-simulators-are-all-the-rage-20130924-2ub26.html
Qie R 2020, ‘Female Dating Simulator Gamers’ Motivations and Developing Parasocial Relationships with Game Characters’,.
Mulkerin T 2017, ‘We talked to trans gamers about why ‘Dream Daddy’ is such a win for inclusion’, 26th July 2017, viewed 28th October 2021, https://www.mic.com/articles/182664/dream-daddy-trans-inclusion-damien
Romano A 2017, ‘Dream Daddy, the game of the summer, was an ode to evolving queer narratives’, Vox, 14th September 2017, viewed 28th October 2021, https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/9/14/16126768/dream-daddy-queer-fandom-culture
Sofi Papamarko 2017, ‘Dating games as training grounds; Fun simulators such as Dream Daddy can help users explore flirtation’, Toronto star, p. E6–.
Unknown 2021, ‘Learn about Dating Culture Differences between East and West’, Your Devan, 13th January 2021, viewed 30th October 2021, https://yourdevan.com/2021/01/13/dating-culture-differences-between-east-and-west/
Unknown 2017, ‘Western Comic Style vs. Manga’, Manga Big Bang, 14th May 2017, viewed 28th October 2021, http://www.mangabigbang.co.uk/blog/western-comic-style-vs-manga