Busy Hands

Dating Sims Get Real


Interesting experiences often require alternative game forms, and the dating sim in particular is a fascinating bird. Since the gameplay is all about hooking up – whether gauzy romance, sexual conquest or something in between – the challenge to the designer is creating a framework that make the characters and scenarios meaningful and plausible.

That’s why I’ve always enjoyed dating sims and eroge, as the weird narrative backflips they employ are sometimes surprisingly touching, other times borderline absurd, yet always fascinating. When well-done, they hint at the intimacy games can create that other media can’t reproduce. When badly executed, playing a dating sim feels like blandly clicking through conversation options waiting for the object of your affections to get to “the point.”

Some people might say they wish real life dating was as simple as navigating transparent dialog paths until someone takes their clothes off. Most people, though, enjoy the friction of the chase, and effectively creating it through narrative and choice design is one of the fundamental challenges for people who want to make games about romance.

Fortunately, indie designer Anna Anthropy specializes in friction. And in writing smut, apparently, as she’s demonstrated with her latest text-based game, Encyclopedia Fuckme And The Case of the Vanishing Entrée’. She says the game, which resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure-style short, was inspired by her longtime partner and submissive, who was excited about the possibility of “the idea of games about dating and fucking that are written by people who actually understand human desire and interaction instead of lonely nerd harem fantasies.”

Anna is known not to mince her words or pull her punches in her indictments of the game community and what she sees as its highly-sheltered and inherently destructive culture. Most recently, she argued stridently with audiences on Twitter after being horrified by what she viewed as the exploitation of Samus in the story of Metroid: Other M, in particular the “dinosaur rape scene“, striking at the rationales offered up by those who would defend the game’s story.

But while her perspectives often provoke ire from the mainstream gaming audience, it’s hard to argue with Anna about the “lonely nerd harem fantasy” element of popular dating sims, the best known of which are Japanese-made and generally feature a roulette of slavish girls (plenty are literally about harems). Japan-only DS sensation Love Plus has spawned, if the media is to be believed, a subculture of people devoted to real-life totems of their in-game girlfriends, who buy birthday cakes and doll-clothes for the girl on the screen.

With Encyclopedia Fuckme, Anna tells me she explicitly aimed to move away from that sort of exploitive, unrealistic portrayal of interpersonal relations and female sexuality in particular. “I’m trying to reinvent the idea of a digital game about sex and dating as something hot and fun and written by someone who is happy with her sexual identity and lifestyle,” she says.

She bills the game as a “lesbian dating sim,” and indeed it opens with a dinner date between lesbians, which the player attends hosted at the home of the intimidating, intriguing “Anni.” But if the “lonely nerd” sort the designer so dislikes visits her game expecting to find a sultry girl-on-girl romance, their expectations will be quickly subverted.

The game is clearly written for those who find violence and power-playing arousing – it’s as toothy as Anna’s frustration with the genre she’s trying to reimagine. Literally. The unfortunate dinner guest quickly finds herself in a struggle for her own survival with the carnivorous Anni, who has a mind to make her dinner date the night’s actual meal. A rough cat-and-mouse game ensues, and the protagonist is often excited despite herself.

Whether or not it’s “your thing,” Anna is a sharp, visceral writer, combining the chilly humor of a B-movie slasher flick with canny, lavish homages to the archetype of the Amazonian woman, so that the player can’t help but admire her antagonist even as she’s trying to choose her way to a happy ending. There’s only one, of a kind, and it’s empowering, not romantic in the sense most people would describe it.

And yet despite all its teeth, nails and blood, the honesty of Encyclopedia Fuckme is romantic, in that it actually reflects a facet of the inner lives of two adults in a healthy, playful relationship. When Anna takes to social media to confront the gaming community forces that most commonly get her back up, she’s always joined by the distinctive, often all-caps voice of her partner Daphny, whose voice is visible in the text of the game she inspired.

“It probably wouldn’t surprise you that I’ve chased Daphny around our apartment on the premise that if I caught her, I was gonna do something bad to her (tie her up with a N64 controller cable and tickle the shit out of her, which in her case is something un-fucking-bearable),” Anna tells me, when I ask her about the extent to which the dynamics at play in Encyclopedia Fuckme are personal. “I like to externalize my desires and fantasies in my games, not just as a cruising mechanism.”

“In a community as desperately inbred as the one that surrounds videogames, I think it’s important to confront potentially sheltered players with the fact that identity and sexuality are far broader than they may have assumed,” she adds.

Interestingly, the game about a dinner date gone horrorshow has an interesting message for those players willing to look at the interplay between the two types of appetite that are on display – deny one and become a victim of the other.

“The digital game as a form can be used to communicate meaningful ideas, ones that generate dialogue and discussion,” Anna says. If players want a takeaway from her unabashed, personal textual joyride, it’s this fact: “The submissive woman’s power – and I’m talking about actual submissive women who know what they want and are capable of negotiating it, not the fantasy ideal of woman as doormat — is to dictate how she’ll have sex and where.”

“Ultimately, no matter what else happens, this is the sphere over which the protagonist retains control,” she concludes. And there’s your clue if you want to try to win the game. I mean, you definitely want to try it now, right?

Leigh Alexander is Editor-at-Large at Gamasutra and edits the games section in NYLON Guys. Among other projects, she is a columnist at Edge and Kotaku, writes about cultural issues as a contributor to Thought Catalog, and spends her free time defining “party like it’s 1999.”

About the author