Fifty Shades of Otome: A Mobile Market of Devotion or Defilement?
I can’t recall how I became interested in mobile otome games—I think it began with a game that was on sale on Steam. It renewed my interest in visual novels in general and eventually led me to the mobile market to further whet my palate. For those not aware, “otome gēmu” (pronounced “OH-TOE-MEH”) means “girl game” and is basically a dating simulation in which you play as a female character romancing various available male (and sometimes female) characters.
With my curiosity peaked, I searched Android’s mobile store to see what the market was like, as I had also seen games such as Burn your fat with me!! before and knew an otome version was in development. Anticipating the selection would be meager, I was shocked at the breadth of the mobile otome market. Many of them featured the same game mechanics, but with a variety of genres, including medieval fantasy, wizards, detective/police, office romances, and feudal Japan. There’s a flavour for everyone.
I toyed with the idea of playing one or two titles from what appeared to be the major developers, doing a quick comparison, but then shelving the idea for some reason. Last month, I saw tweets from Wendy where she and friends were playing the same otome games I had passed up. I suddenly felt silly for not pursuing the idea earlier and was spurred on to give them a go.
My first problem was my own preconceptions. I knew (rightly, it turns out) that the stories would have the same main female character and the same basic archetypes of male characters. Our leading lady is, invariably, most or all of the following: helpless, clumsy, childish, easily flustered, and sexually reserved. She is generally that fabled innocent virgin with a heart of gold and a face of vermillion from all the sexually-suggestive hijinks she lands in. Anyone hoping to play a forward, strong female need not apply—in most cases. I’ll get to the exceptions later.
Each game will, 90% of the time, have three lead males. The first character will be in some way arrogant or pretentious, probably from a privileged upbringing or lifestyle. This will make him short-tempered, rude, and condescending. Our second male lead will be a womaniser of some form. He believes he is God’s gift to women and that they would be crazy not to want to sleep with him at the drop of a hat. Our third male character will be the silent, brooding type. He may be blunt sometimes, but he is generally just quiet and misunderstood. He doesn’t know how to socialise, so he can come off as cold, distant, and even abrasive. Most of the time, he will have some dark past (or curse) that everyone except the main character knows about, and it scares everyone else away.
You may get some games with more characters that portray other archetypes—the one that appears sweet but isn’t, the stern but caring “big brother,” the clueless but noble one (these tend to be a relative, for spice), etc—but the three aforementioned will always be there first and foremost as your leading men.
I initially wanted to discuss the two prime models for these types of mobile games. Both appear as free with in-app purchases, but approach gameplay and monetisation differently. The aim was to determine whether these models are worthwhile, especially if you don’t want to pay a lot or at all.
The first model uses a daily power-spend system, as seen by developers such as NTT Solmare Corp. and their Shall We Date? series. You will get so-many power points per day, which replenish every X-amount of hours, and you use them to play parts of the main storyline, one male lead at a time. You can spend money to buy these power points if you don’t want to wait, but if you are a patient person or playing sporadically, you can get by without paying anything. In addition, there is usually a side stat that needs to be raised each day, where the main story will require such a threshold. For example, one game might have “training” points you do each day and a particular part of the main story will require you to have x-training points to proceed with your romantic endeavours.
One caveat to this is that developer NTT Solmare Corp. uses a mechanic called the Love/Romance meter, which determines whether you get a bad ending, good ending, or best ending. You can purchase items to boost this meter outside of the choices you make in the story. What I have not discovered yet is if it is possible to get a best ending, or even a good one, naturally and without paying for meter boosts. If you can get a best ending through choices alone, it’s a decent albeit slow model. However, if it turns out you can’t get a good or best ending without spending, then the whole thing is a farce and one that takes ages to realise—I’m sure many people just end up buying the boosts because they’ve spent so much time getting towards the end. Verdict: the jury’s still out.
The second model, as seen with developer Voltage, Inc., is a bit cheekier. The game is also free to download and you are allowed to play the prologue and first chapter. In order to play chapters two and onward, you need to pay for the storyline. I must admit, while playing the former model, I wished for a game where I could just pay to play the whole thing—and then I found this! The problem? Each storyline costs around £2.50 (£6.00 if you want to buy all four for each guy at once), which doesn’t sound bad, until you realise the game has six male leads, each with a storyline to be purchased. Now you’re talking £15 for an app game for just their Season 1 stories. That, quite frankly, is ridiculous. On top of this, the side stories each cost as well, increasing the overall cost more and more. If I was going to spend that kind of money, I’d pay for it on the PC and expect music, sound effects, some sort of animation, and probably some voice acting. Verdict: if you aim to play more than one guy, then this is an absolute rip-off. In my opinion, they should have listed the game as a demo, and then made the game available for purchase in full. Even buying the Story Bundle, which includes all four parts of a season for £6.00, that’s still £30 for part of a mobile game, and don’t forget Season 2! Really, it’s a bit steep for those that want a full game on a mobile device.
Now that we’ve covered the basics and the most popular models, we’re onto the review, right? Sort of. As I said, my initial aim was to report on whether the games were worth the time, especially if you don’t want to drop a lot of money. And while I continued to play them, with some vain hope of finding an answer to this question, a more pressing issue arose.
I began noticing a pattern with the games—there was almost always some sort of sexual-creeper vibe present. For example, in Shall We Date: Angel or Devil+, you have only seven days to live after a car accident. Vying to claim your immortal soul for their side are angels, devils, and reapers. One of the games with more than three love interests, your first trio of love interests comprises of the angel Latis, the devil Diaval, and the reaper Ruvel. I chose Ruvel as my LI, since I seem to be attached to the quiet and misunderstood brooders. But within the first chapter following the exposition of the story’s premise, Diaval tried to jump into bed with me! Sorry, a correction, into my hospital bed with me. It was only until Ruvel showed up to save the day and ward him off that things were fine. At first, I didn’t think anything of it—after all, my LI saved me. But then, after speaking with others, I found that Diaval does this whether it’s his story or not. In his own storyline, he also tries to jump your bones while in the hospital! Given how shocked our protagonist is, you can tell she did not consent to this sort of behaviour and is probably mentally screaming for the police. I’m a little afraid to try Diaval’s story to know what happens when he’s the one meant to be “wooing” you…
The theme continues into other games of the genre. In Shall We Date: Wizardess Heart+, Luca harasses you for kisses while hinting at more in exchange for helping you find your dorm. In most games, there is at least one (and sometimes several) male love interests who are crass, vulgar, lecherous, overly-sexual, and downright ignore the word “no.” This disregard for the protagonist’s feelings can extend from the verbal to full-on aggressive Fifty Shades manipulation. You are left with an icky feeling, like something was just violated, and you’re not sure why you weren’t warned about the possibility of being molested.
Our Two Bedroom Story by Voltaire Inc. has made me the most uncomfortable out of the eight games I’ve sampled. Diaval from Angel or Devil is pretty sleazy and may require a rape whistle to keep his libido in check, but Chiaki from Our Two Bedroom Story gives the distinct impression that consent would actually be a turn-off for him. On the surface, Chiaki seems like a sweet, affable guy who is your junior by a year. But you quickly see that something isn’t right with him when he’s all smiles to a woman who gives him cookies and then promptly throws them away with an icy look as soon as she’s left. This might just flag him up as being fake, but the internal thoughts of your protagonist quickly reveal where his character is going. She constantly comments that he is two-faced, scary, and probably a dangerous man. During a meeting between your parents, he touches your leg unbidden under the table while wearing a constant sweet smile to your parents. When you awkwardly move in together, thanks to Chiaki’s father being a ditz, he makes comments about how vulnerable you are, that you are too easy to trap and trick, and that you are too over-trusting, and then promises to try to not be the big bad wolf and “gobble you up” in the night. I’m sorry, but when your protagonist comments constantly that he seems to have a split personality, and within the first chapter you know something is wrong. I’m sure they’ll play that he has some damaged past (mostly childhood trauma, if his chapter one is anything to go by), but is that really any excuse for putting a sexual predator in a romance game?
I have to wonder if there is a thing to this, following from the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Are there so many women, or teenage girls as the case may be, that really want men who are manipulative? Do they secretly enjoy when a man is using them? Is it hot when lawful consent is not an absolute, but rather a game of cat and mouse? Or is this some sort of messaging being pushed on consumers in a round-about mind-break attempt that someone else thinks women should be fine with this behaviour and want to be treated this way?
I’d like to make the distinction that I’m not against darker romantic interests in a game—just because someone may be harsh or critical does not mean that they can’t be interesting or lovable. However, a game purported as a dating simulation shouldn’t confuse romance with physical and sexual subjugation, fueled by lustful possessiveness. I know the “Good Girl and the Bad Boy” are a common, classic troupe, but this is like that on steroids. Angry, raging, nad-shrinking steroids—the kind that get you disqualified from the Olympics. I like dark drama as much as the next girl, but there is an overwhelming theme for borderline, if not outright, emotional and sexual abuse as “passionate.” Whoever is teaching these girls that passion is a guy being emotionally-dismissive, aggressive, possessive, and even violent—just stop. Stop right now. That is not passion—that’s a sex crime.
Which brings me, oddly, into my exceptions. And the first one is a story about an emotionally-dismissive, aggressive, and possessive guy. I hear you yelling “Hypocrite!” Hear me out for a second.
I’ve recently found a third developer of otome games, called KOYONPLETE Inc. Their games are similar to the ones mentioned above, albeit with a slightly-altered third model. For many of their games, you can download each guy as a separate app. This means you can download only the guys you want or download them all and play them concurrently. It gives you the opportunity to experience the same story in multiple ways at the same time rather than one after the other.
They use a system similar to daily points, in which you spin a roulette wheel each day, randomly giving you an amount of “jewels.” From my (frankly horrible) math skills, it seems to be that each progressing line of dialogue is worth three jewels. To start with, you get over 1,000 jewels, so you can get well into chapter two before you run out at the first go. After that, you can win 30, 60, 90, 100, up to 150 jewels a day. Once you’ve used those up, you just wait until the next day or buy more. They also give you an option for a Novel Passport, which means buying that guy’s storyline in full. It’s about the same amount of money as Voltaire’s model, but you still have the free option (unlike theirs). They have a few other features, such as community commenting (I turned it off) and a history log for your session. A nice addition is that they tend to include music with their games, and some even have voice acting. The name you chose for your gamer profile is the name used by all of the female protagonists, so pick something you like! You can change it, but it changes it for all of the games then.
One of the things I like about KOYONPLETE Inc. is that they make it obvious which games are lighthearted and which are not. Usually, the word “forbidden” is involved. One of my “hypocritical” exceptions is the game Devil in My Arms. There are two versions of this game—one for younger audiences and one for mature audiences. Make no mistake, the “younger” audience version still involves sex and adultery. The mature audiences version is explicit, to say the least. It’s all text, but someone was brushing up on their smut-writing skills (and not badly, I must say). The game plays more like a visual novel than a dating sim (at least so far for me).
The game stars your self-named female lead, a young university student. She’s dating her sweetheart (who also looks like a prick), but isn’t actually that into it. Dragged to a club by her friend and then ditched, she is talked up to by smooth-operator Michael. After teasing her about being an innocent little kid, she retaliates by downing way too much alcohol. Leaving the club, the two have a lovely conversation on how neither of them believes love exists (this woman has a boyfriend, remember). They then see a hotel and decide to bang.
Cut to the next day and we are now following Michael, which is not something the other games have done. Michael completely acknowledges that he’s a son of a bitch, but seducing women is just too tempting. Oh dear, here we go again… He is just starting a job at the local university as an English professor and attends his first class to find that his drunken fling is one of his students. Michael stays cool on the outside, but we get an inside into his head, which reads something like, “OH SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. WHAT. NO. SHE’S MY STUDENT. MY JOB, NO.” Wait, is this a womaniser who acknowledges that there are consequences to his womanising ways? What am I reading?!
Michael asks his fling to come to his office after class and we cut back to our protagonist’s point of view. Her boyfriend tells her that he can speak to the professor instead, but she refuses and goes herself (though he waits outside for her). Michael now does something else I haven’t seen in the other otome games—he acknowledges that what they did was stupid and he’s willing to either leave and get a different job or transfer her to another class so neither of them jeopardizes their futures.
Let’s throw in another curve ball. Our protagonist agrees to move on if that’s what he wants, but declares that she will not forget about that night because, and I quote, “That was the best sex I ever had and I won’t forget it.” Well, that just tore that neat little package to ribbons, now didn’t it? The two then make out passionately (or things more intimate, if you’re reading the adult) against the door, where her boyfriend is waiting on the other side.
Why have I regaled you with this? Because in a genre where the leading ladies are innocent flowers, the female lead here is not. She is forward, ill-content with her relationship, unfaithful, and lustful. Those aren’t traits that will win her any popularity contests (well, maybe lust will), and many people will despise her character and this story for it. But she’s different. What’s more is that her relationship with Michael is not the healthiest, but she consented to this relationship. Hell, she’s the one who insisted it continue after their one-night stand! While most women don’t like to be spoken to like Michael speaks to his “angel,” some women do—and that’s the distinction. There isn’t this “she really likes it deep down, secretly” that chauvinists use as justification. She openly (well, as open as an affair can be) acknowledges that she enjoys this from the very onset of their dalliance. In the other seven games I tried, I never felt that the female lead wanted the overly-familiar sexual attention they were receiving from the more “forward” male interests, and that always left a vile taste in my month. With Michael’s angel, I understood very quickly that this was her kink and no one was forcing her to be there—kudos to her then. I can only hope this theme holds out as the story progresses and my little heart isn’t rent asunder.
I’m still torn on Michael. He does come off as our stereotypical womaniser—cocky and prone to jealousy and possessiveness. However, when the story switches to his point of view, we get some insights we don’t normally see. He is, in fact, just as worried about his jealousy as we are and knows he shouldn’t behave that way. Hearing his internal panic at realising he is professor to his one-night stand is amusing and also makes him more real. He’s calm on the outside, but freaking out internally. It’s not a story for everyone, I’ll give you that. But it’s something I’m willing to ride out a little longer.
Most of KOYONPLETE Inc.’s other games are much tamer and play more like a dating sim with choices. Yet their heroines do differ a bit from the norm. One game sees you as a tsundere half-youkai girl able to hold her own in a fight and with a massive chip on her shoulder. Another has you taking over your father’s sushi shop in his absence, after admonishing him for being negligent. Another game, Seal of Lycoris, gives you more grey choices. When your choices of male leads are the vampire that seems to want to kill you, the kitsune that wants to save you but has no regard for other human life, and your “relative” who is wounded and unable to protect you, who do you pick? It sounds like a stalemate, but each choice actually makes some sense in the context provided. Fair warning, none of those contexts are romantic. This is a choice for the lesser of three evils to survive and protect, not to date (also, if you choose your “relative,” you get a “girl power” moment akin to “SCREW YOU AND SCREW YOU, TOO. I’M OUT.” She said what I was thinking, and that made it all worthwhile).
I suppose the long and short of it is that it’s nice to see that girls are being catered to with an upsurge of dating sims specifically for us and so readily available right on our phones. And while there are some games that give you a feel-good flavour or deliciously-flawed characters all around, there are enough titles showcasing mentally-abusive Romeos on the market that it feels you are navigating a rape-minefield. It’s a sad state when you feel like you need to bring pepper spray into your dating sim adventure.
There have certainly been male-centric dating sim games with dark themes such as assault, rape, and coercion; however, they tend to be a special market niche, fairly easy to identify, and greatly outnumbered by titles without these themes. What does it say when the smaller selection of otome games are not only littered with tense, potentially trigger-inducing themes in almost equal parts to more innocuous titles but they are also not openly identified as such like their male counterparts?
The otome game market seems to have only recently come into the mainstream now that companies have figured out that the women enjoy games as well. And while this is admirable, the consistency in which misogyny and sexual abuse occurs in these titles is shocking and unsettling. What’s worse, these instances are not always from some “other guy” for your beau of choice to save you from—he sometimes is your love interest. It begs the question whether women actually want to be used, abused, and manipulated in a relationship or whether this is some message (whether on purpose or not) from the game companies on how they think women want to be treated. Either way, it is sending the message that these sorts of consent-less relationships are okay, and they most certainly are not.
There are titles that are good and don’t feature these themes, but it’s hard to weed out the bad from the good at this point. If you are faint of heart, I don’t suggest trying to dive in to the market as it currently is. If, however, you are willing to look around with some thick skin and an iron constitution, then have fun—there are some genuine gems to find amongst all the biohazard. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a hazmat suit, a chastity belt, and a taser so I can finish some of these games.