Lots of players get turned onto these aspects from story and character-driven BioWare games like Dragon Age, and if you're a fan of those, I have a few recommendations to help welcome you into the otome genre.
While all you need to be "good at" is reading and making choices — don't worry if you don't normally play games — there are some important things to know about how these games work. Generally you meet several characters, and will have to choose one to court. In Japan, dating sim characters are referred to as "capturable" — whether that means you capture their hearts or their bodies depends on the game. But you'll need to focus, as playing the field can result in an unsatisfying ending, and no one likes that.
These games are often designed to be played multiple times. Tools like multiple save slots, quick-save features, and the ability to skip text and rewind help players efficiently pursue every potential partner character and reveal every story path.
It's like backwards-engineering a narrative database — and you may be surprised to find how much the story changes when you focus on a different partner each time. Gotta catch them all?
Hakuoki is a period piece, taking place in the Bakumatsu period of Japan at the time of civil unrest between the Emperor and the Shogun. You play as Chizuru, who disguises herself as a man to travel to the capital of Kyoto in search of her missing father. She accidentally gets tangled up with the local police, the Shinsengumi, and the story evolves from there.
Oh, and blood-thirsty demon hybrids are involved. It's a samurai history lesson with a Twilight twist.
The Shinsengumi are a genuine part of history with many modern pop culture adaptations, tropes intake. Souji Okita will almost always be tragic and tubercular — if you Google his name, his historical Wikipedia profile will appear alongside art of his Hakuoki incarnation.
It's hard for me to think of an equivalent phenomenon in the Western canon—what if developers allowed us to date the historical figures found in Assassin's Creed games?
Hakuoki has a full voice cast of stars, some of whom would be familiar to fans of subtitled anime.
Hakuoki is one of the only examples we have of a traditional console-style otome game available in English. Aksys Games originally licensed and localized the game back in 2012 and has been using that translation to release ports to other platforms. The Hakuoki series has many different incarnations in Japan, including a version that transposes all the characters into a high-school setting.
Aksys Games also released another otome game, Sweet Fuse, in 2013, which features a modern setting and non-traditional characters. In Sweet Fuse, you play as the niece of Megaman creator Keiji Inafune, and suddenly get trapped in a game-of-death at the theme park he's just about to open.
Both Hakuoki and Sweet Fuse are made by studio Otomate, a subsidiary of Idea Factory that focuses on only making dating sims for women, and they have quite the extensive existing library in Japanese. Last year Idea Factory opened an International publishing arm in the United States and many otome fans were hopeful that this would mean an opening up of Otomate titles in English , but so far they have only released further rehashes of their Hyperdimension Neptunia games and some RPGs. One can hope they eventually figure it out.
Hakuoki is available in English on a wide range of platforms. You can buy it on PSP, download it to PS Vita or TV via PSN, buy or download it for Nintendo 3DS, or buy/download it to the PS3 (and even stream it via Playstation Now). There is also an iOS and Android mobile versions in English that the mysterious Otomate World company released, but it's unfortunately only available in Asian App Stores, outside North America. Not sure what's up with that.
RE: Alistair++ is a free game that was made originally in English by fans of the otome genre using development tool Ren'Py back in 2010. Ren'Py is the same game engine that Christine Love uses to make her visual novels, and is accessible for beginners to work with, too.
RE: Alistair++ is a relatively short game where you play as a girl who enjoys MMORPGs. In one of her games, a rude character steals an item from her — and she later learns that character's player goes to her school.
This game is of the stat-raiser/simulation variety, dating sims that utilize player-chosen level-up statistics in order to unlock character routes and event successes, similar to the old Princess Maker games or any Dungeons & Dragons system. This one has a low barrier to entry, and it's a good example of Western fans being influenced by and borrowing gameplay styles from Japanese dating sims. Developer sakevisual has since gone on to make a fully-voiced commercial visual novel called Backstage Pass, which is currently up on Steam Early Access.
Shall we date?: THE NIFLHEIM+
The Niflheim+ is probably one of the best free-to-play mobile otome game examples that I can give. The game has a bold art style with intense flourishes, and while you play as a Shadow Every-Girl, all your your potential partners range from bratty kings to zombies to ghosts. There's even a talking skeleton adorned with roses who will chat with you on occasion and give you romantic advice. Compared to similar games on the app stores, this one has extremely good localization and copy-editing.
Sloppy localization can often let dating sim fans down. For example, Alice in Wonderland is a popular theme worldwide and the manga based on the Alice in the Country Of the Heart otome game series regularly tops the New York Times Manga Best Sellers list. But I can't recommend the iOS/Android port of the game, because of its atrocious, machine-like translation. It's such a pity, because I think a game of that caliber would have been perfect to link to people asking me for good examples of dating sims.
No, Thank You!!!
Boys' Love (yaoi) games feature men in relationships with other men — created by and marketed to women. But the game genre has languished over the past decade. Part of the problem is that most of the games aren't just extremely niche, they're erotic 18+ products and as such difficult to market. While BL game DRAMAtical Murder flourished in popularity on Tumblr, licensing problems means nobody has taken advantage of the audience. Ladies like porn? Imagine that!
Last year MangaGamer, a publisher usually known for its 18-and-older fare aimed at men, announced that they've licensed and are translating two new titles in an attempt to appeal to underserved audiences, mainly women and queer men. One of these titles is PC otome game, Ozmafia!!, slated to release on Steam, and the other is unique 18+ boys love game, No, Thank You!!!
In general, comics made by gay men for gay men have completely different aesthetics and conventions than Boys' Love for women, as can be seen in Fantagraphic's fantastically informative collection Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It. But No, Thank You!!! attempts to balance both audiences' tastes in an intriguing way.
In No, Thank You!!! you play as amnesic Haru, who is an exclusive top to his partners, whereas traditionally in BL games you'd be playing as a bottom. This creates a very different relationship dynamic, since you are inside Haru's head and are the active pursuer, rather than the pursued. NTY also features a cast of targets with a much wider range of body types than found in typical BL games, with some of the men well past middle age and even body-hair toggle options for different preferences.
I say "targets" because all the men you end up in relationships with are billed as "straight" and Haru is an overly-energetic, horny puppy who admits he partakes in "sexual harassment" as a work pastime. This can be off-putting to some friends, so I usually warn them ahead — you can always first check out the game's demo to see if it's right for you. Haru can be pretty pushy and consent can seem hazy at times, but all the relationship routes in the game play out in a compelling manner and Haru's prodding of boundaries leads to intriguing character insights. And No, Thank You!!! is not just a constant sex romp — it's got a pretty extensive private detective and mafia story leading the actors along, and not always to the happiest conclusions.
For Women's History Month, MangaGamer interviewed women game creators and localizers, and one of them was No, Thank You!!! artist Shigeo Hamashima. Most of her experience is of drawing women, and NTY was her first venture into the BL genre.
"The hardest thing was probably the fact that you have to get both of the guys' faces on screen at the same time," she says. "Generally, eroge for men are drawn in POV style, and you do what you can to keep the man's face out of the shot, but BL is the complete opposite."
"Most of my research was focused on figuring out how far I could push a more explicit approach to sex and still appeal to other women," she adds. "I consulted with other women about whether I could get away with a more masculine approach instead of a sparkly-clean, romanticized one."
If No, Thank You!!! isn't your style, then consider Coming Out On Top, an 18+ gay dating sim made in Ren'Py. While it was initially influenced by Japanese BL games, it covers more Western sensibilities.
Nameless ~The one thing you must recall~
Korean company Cheritz has been releasing their Japanese-style dating sim games into English for a couple of years now, and recently got those games onto Steam through Greenlight. Their latest, Nameless, is quite beautiful and differs from their last entry, Dandelion, in that it does not contain stats and instead is a straight up visual novel. And while their games seem cute, don't let that fool you: the endings are bittersweet.
In Nameless you play as a woman who likes to collect ball-joint dolls, and who recently lost the grandfather she grew up alone with. One night, her dolls suddenly come to life as a group of fully-sized hot men. It sounds ridiculous, and she reacts to the situation as pretty much anyone would. But the relatable protagonists and good writing make the game a charming experience — I often find the game's writing mirrors my own responses. While the pacing can be slow like a juicy Korean drama, you definitely are getting your money's worth.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a popular game where you date pigeons. Seriously. But it was created from and works best with an existing knowledge of how otome games operate. While you go through the game repeating each school year to pursue your next pigeon of choice, it quickly becomes apparent that something is very off about the world you live in — besides the whole pigeon-dating thing.
Eventually upon reset the game asks if you want to "fulfill the promise" and that's where the real experience begins. The initial dating sim parts are actually only extended character prologues meant to get you attached to the birds, and the final Bad Boys Love route tears all you love down. It's very effective storytelling if you see it through to the very end. Publisher Devolver Digital will soon be releasing Hatoful Boyfriend on PS4 and Vita as well , and maybe a port announcement of the game's sequel, Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star, will follow.
Hopefully you'll find this a helpful overview for dipping your toes into the otome genre. Japan has a vast library of these types of games particularly for women, with large glossy magazines released every month featuring the latest games, upcoming series, available goods, drama CD tie-ins, and voice actor interviews. But Western publishers are still apprehensive because of past failures and the large up-front script translation cost with an unsure audience. Some publishers see that times are changing and are taking a chance, with MangaGamer's two new titles and Sekai Project, which has had a lot of success crowdfunding translation of men's dating sims, stating that they would like their next project to be an otome or BL game .
Addionally, with the opening of indie game platforms like itch.io allowing smaller-scale English-developed otome games to find audiences, such as Spirit Parade, and New York-based developer Date Nighto working on their flexible HTML5 visual novel engine, it's a hopeful time to be a forward-looking otome game fan. Even if all those cool-looking Japanese dating sims don't make it out in English, a new generation of Western developers are being influenced by the genre and putting their own twist on it. And that is exciting!