Here’s my paper! Hopefully the formatting works.
Romance Videogames: Selected Topics
Presented at the 2010 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference – Romance Area
April 2, 2010
This paper will first introduce romance videogames, since very little has been written about them. There will be a short comparison of the features of romance videogames to those of romance novels and romance movies, and some words on how these differences affect the user experience. It will also discuss some common tropes in the genre, and whether romance videogames can be feminist.
Romance videogames, though almost unknown in the English-speaking marketplace, are a substantial and growing industry in Japan. They are played on consoles such as the Playstation 2, mobile phones, handheld gaming devices, and personal computers. The games usually target either boys/men or girls/women. In addition to heterocentric games, which are the majority, there is also a niche market for male/male romance videogames targeted to women. This paper focuses on games targeted to girls and women, featuring successful heterosexual relationships as their common goal , or ‘otome games’ .
Otome games range from games where the only interactivity is through dialogue choices, to intricate, role-playing game (RPG) and/or simulation gameplay requiring long hours building up characters. In addition to the common goal of establishing a love relationship, otome games usually also have other, plot-driven goals such as solving a mystery or making a business succeed.
Comparison to Other Romance Media
Compared to romance novels, videogames are a multimedia experience. This gives the user a fairly full sensory experience at the expense of the user’s exercise of her imagination. Also, novels can only be read by the participant, while games can be shared experiences similar to movies. This means that romance games can be played in a social setting. Compared to both movies and novels, the time investment and length of entertainment gained from a videogame is longer, anywhere from 10 to 40 hours, and in some cases even longer. The longer timeframe means that the user can get more invested in the characters. However, videogames are significantly more expensive than novel or a movie ticket, so the time-money value is similar.
Compared to all other forms of romance media, romance videogames are unique in that there are always branching storylines, and multiple heroes (sometimes multiple heroines as well).
Since there are multiple heroes in each game, certain character archetypes become obvious as the user plays several games, such as the dependable childhood friend, the smart but unfriendly student president, and the misunderstood ‘bad boy’. In character-driven games, often these characters subvert their surface archetypes in new ways to keep the user’s interest.
The most common setup in otome games is to feature one heroine with several heroes. Though there are usually other sub-characters, most interaction focuses on the main characters. To obtain a situation of one female and several male characters, often ignoring or downplaying other relationships such as the heroine‘s family and friends, several common romance game tropes are used.
One common trope is the heroine being ‘dropped’ into an unfamiliar environment to intensify the story and remove distractions that would come up in the heroine‘s normal life. This often takes place in a fantasy setting, where the heroine is swept away from her regular (usually high school) life in contemporary society, to a different time or even a different world. This action often goes hand-in-hand with another common trope; that of the seemingly average heroine who has some quality or power that places her in a special position, which she was unaware of prior to the game.
Often, in these games, the heroine is either the key to a spiritual or magical power that no one else has. This is often the explanation given for her to have a group of heroes protecting her , and often going on voyages to find or use the power .
Another common trope is for the heroine to be a leader of an all-male group, such as the captain of a spaceship (Little Anchor ), head of an army (Sangokuren Senki), or ruler of a continent (Angelique). The many fantasy games where the heroine has special powers can also fall into this category. The heroine’s leadership position is often more symbolic than having any real power, but she sometimes grows into her position .
Another feature that is more common in videogames than other romance media is the ‘invisible’ heroine. This describes the situation of the player, watching the screen, and having the other characters face out from the screen. Because the game is intended to have some effect on the player’s emotions, games usually try to make the player feel as if they are the heroine, rather than simply watching a movie and following along. To do this, the heroine rarely has an avatar that shows up onscreen the same way as the other characters. Often the heroine is either shown as a small picture beside her dialogue, or not shown at all. Also common is that the heroine is not voiced. This situation is reminiscent of a debate in the romance novel industry, where readers sometimes split themselves into those who put themselves in the heroine’s place and those who don’t, and read the book as a third-party observer . To achieve this ‘invisibleness’ in romance videogames, the heroine’s personality is sometimes made bland and unassuming so the player can focus on the other characters’ personalities.
Feminism in Romance Videogames
The romance novel genre is often criticized as reinforcing of patriarchal gender norms. Otome games can be criticized the same way, and on the surface it is difficult to argue that any of them are feminist. Many plots include the heroine being protected by a group of men, and the whole idea of having to choose the ‘correct’ path, or even worse, improve parameters such as looks and fashion, to ‘win’ a character’s love sounds archaic. However, there is another way to look at this. In some games where the story is decided mainly by dialogue choices, the heroine’s personality can skillfully be presented depending on dialogue choices. For example, if a hero teases the heroine, the player deciding to react by blushing and looking down may be interpreted as the heroine having a meek personality, whereas if the player decides to react by teasing the hero back, or even getting angry, a different personality can be developed. The fact that dialogue choices affect the heroine’s affection level with heroes could be explained as the player choosing how they would react, and therefore the relationships that develop would be dependent on ‘compatibility’ with the hero. Also, in simulation games where the player focuses on one or several activities to raise parameters, those activities often involve or are shared as hobbies by the hero who ‘requires’ them for his route. It is true, though, that most relationship routes in current games demand that the heroine act in a stereotypically feminine manner and choose options that flatter or agree with the heroes to a large extent.
In games where the heroine is the nominal leader, the leadership position mentioned before is often more a figurehead position than anything else; it’s common for other characters to direct what the group does, with the heroine making few decisions of her own, or if she does, to be inept at leading. Very few otome games feature a heroine who is competent at her game-related job from the beginning.
However, there are several romance videogames that are feminist either in plot or characterization, or both. In the RPG Harukanaru Toki no Naka de 3 , the heroine is swept away to another world and chosen as the priestess of a dragon god, fated to protect a city by summoning the dragon, and in turn being protected by a group of men. However, she is determined to protect her companions as well, and learns how to use a sword. This is an important evolution from Harukanaru Toki no Naka de 1 and 2 , where the heroine could not directly fight, only help her guardians by healing and cheering them on, and may reflect a preference of consumers for more feminist games .
In the popular PC romance videogame Alice in Heartland (loosely based on Alice in Wonderland), the heroine is sarcastic, cynical, and untrusting. Compared to most romance game heroines, who are often meek, overly trusting, and naïve, Alice does not perform femininity in her behaviour and refuses to change her personality to catch one of the heroes, yet still is able to find love.
The current state of the the otome game industry in regards to feminism could be likened to that of the romance novel industry of the 1980’s. It is enjoying a surge of popularity and is branching out quickly into new settings and types of stories, but in many ways it is still limited in that most relationships shown are heterocentric and involve strict gender roles and not much true equality. It should be mentioned that one aspect of romance movies and novels that is often decried as stereotypical and not representing a true range of relationships is mostly absent from romance videogames. This is the strong emphasis on marriage and a nuclear family as the norm and ultimate goal. This absence is likely due to the difference in cultures between Japan, where most otome games are made, and Western (especially the US) countries, regarding marriage, as well as the obvious fact that most romance videogame characters are in their teens, and thus marriage would seem less realistic or desirable as an end goal.
In conclusion, otome games as a subset of romance videogames, while growing in breadth of subject matter and character types, are often hampered by strict gender roles for the heroine. However, there is much reason to hope that as the industry matures, a broader range of relationships and personality types will be written and games can be chosen not only for their subject matter and art style, but how well the writers create three dimensional characters.
Phew! It looks really long in blog form, hah.