The past few years have seen visual novels go from being an import-driven subculture to an increasingly popular and mainstream medium. But within this not-so-niche-anymore sector of gaming is a blossoming sub-genre that demands a spotlight of its own: otome.
Otome games, whose modern form you can trace back to 1994's Angelique for the Super Famicom, are traditionally story-based titles typically aimed at women and girls—which isn't to say that they can't be enjoyed by anyone, but those roots are what they are. While huge in Japan, Western markets have been skeptical of them and the gendered, pink-box marketing surrounding them. As a result, otome games have at times struggled to break the preconception that they're simply flimsy and shallow dating sims. But that's changing.
Digital distribution means no more treasure hunts for obscure titles—most otome titles are to be found at online stores. And the localization efforts of companies like Idea Factory and Aksys has ensured that dialogue-heavy games are now translated from Japanese to English with greater accuracy, resulting in higher-quality products.
You may have played an otome-inspired game without properly realizing it. Both the Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape series wear some influences on their sleeves, and the bizarre, pigeon-loving Hatoful Boyfriend illustrates how the dating model can be applied to the strangest situations.
And if you've dabbled with one of those, and liked it, and want more: where next? Here are some great introductions to the world of otome gaming.
(PS Vita, Windows, iOS, Android)
Part of the Amnesia series that began on the PSP in 2011, Amnesia: Memories tells the story of a young woman who wakes up to find she's lost her memory overnight. With the help of a young boy called Orion, who declares himself to be a spirit, she attempts to find out more about her past and regain her memories.
She discovers she has a boyfriend who she must learn to trust again, despite having no recollection of what happened before. Working backwards means you get to choose the man she dates, with such choices affecting how she ends up having amnesia in the first place.
It's a potentially bleak situation to portray, but Amnesia: Memories throws in some humor to help matters. The blossoming romance that ensues is similarly warm and affectionate. While it might be a little lightweight at times, its cuteness means it's a great place to start within the genre.
'Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom'
(PS2, PS3, PSP, DS, 3DS, iOS, Android)
Based on Japan's Shinsengumi—a special police force established in the mid- to late-19th century— Hakuoki adds a hefty amount of historical references to its romantic plotline.
A young woman called Chizuru goes to Kyoto to seek out her missing father, and in doing so, falls for one of many male love interests. It sounds relatively shallow—but a wealth of political intrigue, quirky science, and some actual history is included, which lends the experience unexpected detail.
Fortunately, there's an encyclopedia to help newcomers to Japanese culture figure out what's going on, with words and phrases simply explained. It's wordy stuff, but there's an impressive amount of depth in there. Its focus on alternative history means this is a fun way to become more interested in real Japanese history.
(PSP, PS Vita)
Sweet Fuse is very, very pink. But, also, it talks of death-defying romance—and how can anyone resist that?
A huge new theme park is opening in Japan, and things go terribly wrong. Think a theme park-style twist on Saw, and you're almost on the right track, with seven days of challenges dictating everyone's survival chances.
As an otome game, there's time however to romance one of six attractive men, giving you further reason to not allow anyone to die. It's distinctly quirky and really quite bizarre at times, but having a plot that has you saving people's lives as well as wooing them means this is ideal for those looking for more objective-focused gaming.
Here's another amnesia-based game, but with a twist. The main character is forced to live in isolation because of a strange gem, named the Horologium, that's embedded in her chest. Poison runs through her veins, meaning anyone who touches her for too long dies.
Yes, it sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel, but it gets better. Mostly because you can romance literary characters such as Victor Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing and Arsène Lupin. Throw in a steampunk-style Victorian London, and it makes for a bizarre yet delightful experience. And the odd cringeworthy line of dialogue is forgivable when it's bordering on tongue in cheek in its exposition.
There is also a small but exciting array of Western otome options out there, if the anime aesthetics aren't your thing. One such delight is Cinders, a mature take on the Cinderella story, courtesy of Polish developers MoaCube. Veering away from the traditional story, this isn't an obvious morality tale like before. Instead, it looks at how a woman desperately tries to improve her life, while also examining what made her evil stepmother and stepdaughters into the people we're all so familiar with.
Currently in development, Campus Island takes a much lighter look at dating, with Westernized visuals supplementing a typically otome theme. While it doesn't look like it's going to be particularly deep, it's a sign that otome is here to stay. And another great example is Kinmoku's One Night Stand. A brief tale, it looks at the various different ways in which one can handle the awkward morning after a one-night stand. Its distinctive visuals and unique theme ensures it stands out as one of the finer examples of Western otome.