Why Dating Games Were the Best Thing at 2016’s Tokyo Game Show
All photography by Alex Davis


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Why Dating Games Were the Best Thing at 2016’s Tokyo Game Show

Women are queuing up to get up close and personal with real-life, actual human men – all in the name of flogging some new games.

Women are queuing for 30 minutes to sit at a laptop while one of two suited men peers over their shoulder, pretending to comment on their office work. The men play different characters: the one who is more terse and forward will eventually, sternly, physically bridge the player's chair – one hand on the backrest, the other on the desk – holding his body over her, positioning his face too close above hers, but never quite making physical contact.


Perhaps the only reason the line isn't longer is because this is not the only booth at Tokyo Game Show offering a peculiarly similar service. (But unfortunately, due to restrictions on photography at TGS, we can't show you these experiences as they were happening. Sorry about that.)

They're re-enacting some of the drama of OKKO's Office Lover 2. It's a dating game – though you'd call anything in this specific subgenre "Otome", which roughly translates as a relationships-centred narrative game aimed at the female market – about getting hot for boys at your office. It's probably preferable to the real-life experience of half-listening politely as a colleague rehashes banter from his weekend Airsoft retreat.

On the other side of TGS's massive show floor, I peek into Team Ninja's booth for a look at samurai battler Nioh. It looks a lot like Dark Souls. I don't stop for a go, because firstly I've played Dark Souls before; and secondly, where's the hottie pinning me to my seat? Missed a trick there, Ninja.

Dating games aren't new. They've been around long enough for pretty much every possible variety to exist – up to and including the pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend. But this up close and maybe too personal mode of advertising new games seems entirely unique to the otome market – and even then, it's perhaps more specifically Japan-centric than genre-wide. I can't tell you a single other time I've experienced something like this: a real display of the feelings and themes these games are trying to evoke, channelled through live character performance.


Just around the corner from Office Lover 2, at the Tenka Touitsu: Koi no Ran – Love Ballad stand, a longer line lets women choose between two scenes set in a traditional ryokan inn. Players can either knock at the front door, to be welcomed by a good-natured and effete sweetheart; or carry a tea set through to a Bad Boy waiting at a floor-level table. The men – real men, that is, not on-screen avatars – are each wearing distinctive Yukata and hand-fanning themselves. They both whisper a sweet secret nothing in the player's ear, covering their face with their fan so no onlookers can spy on the exact details. Then, either the doors close, or a curtain lowers, and the newly introduced couple is gone from view. Three minutes later, the cycle repeats. I never see one woman leave. I'm not sure that I want to. At the line's entrance is a board with photos of the boys available to flirt with today, so at least the women know a little of what they're in for.

Is this just marketing departments working around a limitation? The feeling these dating games aim to arouse in the player is an erotic respite from their everyday weariness. That's difficult to summon in a sweaty and loud exhibition hall merely through the medium of text and a cartoon image of a boy with an occasionally altering facial expression. You need to clear an evening at home in your calendar, perhaps light some candles, to get the real benefit of that. It seems better and more appropriate here at TGS to have the premise made literal – to actually feel the heat of someone's breath on your skin, or smell their cologne. I absolutely should have waited in either one of these lines, I'm only now realising.


Another booth features body-length monitors, each one displaying its own cartoon girl, to advertise a tie-in game for BanG Dream!, a cross-media promotion blending music and performances by five fictional (all-girl) groups with an upcoming anime. There's a dating side to proceedings, too, as you decide which girl from which band you'd like to have "live" inside your phone: maybe the bassist from alt-rock group Afterglow, or the nutcracker-clad drummer from the marching band Happy World (it's not my fetish, but I can understand). Then you can have a chat with them, whenever you fancy.

You can't interact with these massive screens. They're basically running a series of bespoke trailers. It's less interesting than the 3D boys. It's just a big version of the actual game, but there's not a single place at this booth where you can try the game for yourself. Nevertheless, I still love it. It is, again, working with the limitations of the show-floor experience in a way that's more truthful than just showing the game off "traditionally". Visitors are encouraged to take a selfie with the screens. They're my real girlfriend! Don't you see? They're as big as I am!

There's a robot at one of the booths exclusively designed to be groped, its purpose to demonstrate a robust reactive animation system on a corresponding screen. But visitors groped the robot so hard that they broke it. We don't have any pictures, mainly as I couldn't personally find it at the show, presumably because it's just a pile of dust now.


Bungou to Arukemisuto's booth is a mock-up library, in which a robed scholar hovers over participants sat in leather chairs, as if he's as intrigued by you as his studies. Capcom's Incarcerated Palm, a game about loving a wrongfully convicted prisoner and visiting him during his trip upstate, is advertised with a strong piece of plastic covered with a vinyl print of the lead character holding out his hand. You're supposed to put your hand on his, close to but prevented from making any real contact, like they do in the movies.

I'd go to a thousand more of these trade shows if more of the games on display were offered up like these dating sims, in a way that didn't seem dull and insulting to attendees. To wait two hours for an experience lasting an eighth of that time, which can be replicated in a few months when the game in question is actually out, is surely a waste of time. If developers really wanted to reach people that way, they could just send out download codes for the vertical slice or demo they're showcasing. I'd much rather that than being told to mostly stand motionless, in a line, inside a massive arena or warehouse.

I want performance, and these booths at TGS provide that. I want being present at an event to provide an experience that's different to me just playing the game in my own home. Basically, I want a cute boy in COG gear to pin me a chair to convince me that I need Gears of War 4.


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