Here’s the situation: You’re a stereotypical teenage girl with a life consisting of stereotypical teenage girl activities, like going to school, shopping, and obsessively checking celebrity Twitter accounts. It’s a pretty standard, humdrum existence until one fateful day when you find yourself whisked off to a strange land that looks like something out of your history books, only with a lot more glitter and splendor. Not long after, you get a veritable bombshell dropped on you: You’re a chosen one tasked with protecting this unfamiliar world from unspeakable evil! But don’t fret too much – you’ve got several male guardians to help you with your new duty to vanquish the vile scourge from the land.
It’s not a huge stretch to say that Koei’s Angelique was perhaps the first truly successful female-oriented game ever created.
Oh, one other important note – all of your guardians are incredible hotties. You know, maybe, just maybe, if you can figure out their complex personalities, discern what to say and do with them, and support them in their struggles, you’ll earn something more than just their sworn fealty.
It’s a fantasy scenario for many a young woman, but it’s also the sort of plot you’ll see in some of Japan’s more popular otome (lit. “maiden”) games – interactive, romantic adventures designed specifically with a female audience in mind. Although the genre has been steadily growing in popularity overseas for quite some time, otome games are now poised to become more visible to English speaking audiences than ever before.
It’s not a huge stretch to say that Koei’s Angelique was perhaps the first truly successful female-oriented game ever created. Angelique was released in Japan in 1994 for the Super Famicom platform, and was created by a predominantly female group of developers at Koei called Ruby Party, which wanted to design a title that they sincerely believed would hold particular appeal to the underserved female gaming audience. The result was widely considered to be the first otome game and the kickstarter for many titles to follow.
Angelique had a lot going for it: interesting simulation-style gameplay, a classic fantasy-realization story (train and compete to be a fantasy queen and protector of the universe alongside beautiful male aides), and some downright gorgeous guys designed and drawn by shoujo (girls’) manga artist Yura Kairi. It might seem like a very risky title to produce to a Western onlooker, but Japan has a long and rich history of producing entertainment and art geared towards women – particularly in the fields of comics and animation. It would seem only natural, then, that gaming would be seen as another form of media that women consumers embrace.
It was a gamble that paid off – Angelique proved to be a massive hit, spawning numerous ports and sequels as well as a host of supplementary material that continues to be produced to this day. The response to the game proved so strong that Koei devoted a whole branch of their development team to making several Angelique-styled game series with different settings and gameplay elements.
What is it that classifies a game as an otome game? There are plenty of Japanese games with very devoted female fanbases, such as Sengoku Basara and Namco’s Tales series, but they don’t really fit the category. It might be easy to just say “a game made specifically for a female audience,” but the actual answer is somewhat more complicated.
Otome games are primarily recognizable by their romantic elements. You, playing the role of the female lead, take the initiative in interactions with numerous exceptionally handsome male characters in order to try to win affection from them – be it in order to earn their loyalty or assistance in combat or political matters, or to win over their hearts as a romantic conquest. Otome games typically take elements from many different genres – strategy, role-playing, multiple-choice adventure games, and management simulations, among others – though the romance element is the most pronounced aspect of the title. Settings, thematic elements, and gameplay vary from title to title: Alice in the Country of Hearts is a fantasy visual novel based on characters and settings of Lewis Carroll’s classic, while Namco-Bandai’s infamous DS title Duel Love features mini-games that let you care for members of a high school’s boxing club in steamy encounters (literally – you get to help the guys bathe). The games tend to be quite text-heavy, as most of the interactions with the characters are carried out through dialogue exchanges, and since they feature large casts of potential love interests, they also tend to carry branching storylines and multiple endings. Many otome games also feature extensive voice-overs by well-known Japanese voice actors. Depending on the game and its platform, the level of romantic activity involved can vary from chaste to quite explicit – some of the PC games depict actual sex, while the console offerings will do little more than a suggestive fade to black.
DS title Duel Love features mini-games that let you care for members of a high school’s boxing club in steamy encounters (literally – you get to help the guys bathe).
The genre’s impact has been such that many mainstream Japanese titles, several of which are commercially available in English, have also introduced otome game elements into them. Persona 3 Portable features a choice between a male and female lead character, and offers the potential to engage in a romantic relationship with some of the male characters during socialization sequences. Avalon Code is an action/RPG with a similar choice between a male and female lead, and allows the female player character to form a romantic bond with the male NPCs. The heavily shoujo-manga influenced rhythm game Princess Debut has the player taking the role of a young girl learning to dance to impress one of several potential prince mates.
The market for otome games isn’t quite as huge as for genres like RPGs and action games that are geared towards a more broad demographic, but the fans of these games are fiercely devoted and loyal to their favorite series and characters, and are quite willing to purchase games and spinoffs across multiple platforms. Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side, an otome spinoff of the male-oriented Tokimeki Memorial date sim series, has largely eclipsed its progenitor in terms of ongoing popularity, with the core series largely forgotten in favor of the now far more profitable female-oriented edition. Even Sega’s massively popular Sakura Wars franchise is changing its image to appeal to women. The latest Sakura Wars multimedia project is Sakura Wars Kanadegumi, where a female protagonist finds herself amongst a secret demon-fighting army consisting of attractive men. The Kanadegumi spinoff is a collaboration with popular manga magazine Hana to Yume, and a comic preview introducing the characters and setting has already begun publication.
Merchandising is also a big business for otome games – a successful title will often spawn manga and anime adaptations, figures, music and drama CDs, even clothing and accessories. (Some of these are the primary means by which Western fans experience otome games – both Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time and La Corda D’Oro have had their manga adaptations published in English by Viz Media, while Sentai Filmworks sells DVD sets of the Neo Angelique and La Corda D’Oro anime adaptations.) It’s a viable enough genre that entire companies like QuinRose can subsist strictly on their successful titles.
Despite the burgeoning popularity of shoujo manga and anime in the West, very few efforts have been made to bring otome games beyond the land of the rising sun. What few titles are available, such as the iOS Shall We Date series from NTT Solmare, have been quickly translated and tossed into the market with little fanfare. Western fans of the genre are rising to the cause, however. Several independent Western development teams have sprung up in the past few years to create their own takes on the genre. The advent of freeware adventure and visual novel scripting software tools has made the process of planning and creating such a title significantly easier. Examples of such efforts include Lucky Rabbit Reflex, a UK-developed title that combines otome game themes with time management elements, and Love and Order, a Canadian-developed effort by Winter Wolves incorporating mystery and simulation motifs. (Love and Order is particularly noteworthy in that it also offers the option to romance another female character, which is exceptionally rare for the genre.) English-speaking fansites, blogs, and communities devoted to the genre also pepper the web.
Despite the burgeoning popularity of shoujo manga and anime in the West, very few efforts have been made to bring otome games beyond the land of the rising sun.
An interesting new development in the English-language otome game scene has arisen, however. Late last year, localization company Aksys Games put a survey on their site asking if there was interest in localizing otome games for the North American market. While Aksys has never divulged the exact results of the survey, the company announced that they would be bringing over the first game in the hugely popular Hakuoki series for the PSP in early 2012.
Ben Bateman, the lead of localization on Hakuoki, noted that the sheer amount of interest the survey itself drew was a big catalyst for the decision. “It showed us, by virtue of how many people were talking about it when it went out, that there was a significant amount of interest in the genre. We’ve seen the same (reaction) happen when we announced Hakuoki … it was getting a lot of discussion in certain corners of the internet.”
“We really want to break into the genre, since it hasn’t been tapped into (in the West) yet,” notes Frank deWindt II, Aksys Games’ Director of Production. “We got the opportunity with Hakuoki, and now we’re going to see if it pays off.” Bateman shares similar sentiments: “On a personal level, I really do like the idea of having more games out there that are not necessarily targeted at the typical male audience. Women are kind of an ignored group, and it would be nice to see more games on the market that suggest to them that they shouldn’t be ignored.”
Heidi Kemps is a freelance game journalist based in the SF Bay Area with an intense fascination for fandom subcultures. You can find her daily musings on subjects both pressing and peripheral on her twitter feed (@zerochan) or her tumblr (devilrei.tumblr.com)