Dating simulators are games that do exactly that - they simulate the experience of trying to date someone. Or well, they kind of do! Well, if real life was like a video game where you could improve your chosen stats to improve your chances with your crush. If only, right? The failings of reality are why we turn to video games yet again! Dating simulators started in Japan, but have become an international game genre. Not only have Japanese games been translated into English and other languages, but other countries have started making their own games as well. These games have found a lot of success on outlets like Steam, or in the mobile market. From famous Japanese titles like Amnesia to Korea's incredibly popular Mystic Messenger, and free fan-made games like Re: Alistair++ - dating simulators are here to stay!
If you have never played a dating simulator before, here are the basics. You take control of (usually) a character played in the first person, so that character can be YOU. Then, in whatever plot and setting the game has, you choose which person you want to try to romance and win the heart of. Typically this is done through conversations where you choose which options to say, as well as elements like gift-giving and dates. Many dating simulators also give you a chance to level up stats like charm or physique to help you win over your crush. And they often have time limits, so you have to keep your goal in mind. Imagine a visual novel meeting a choice-driven role-playing game - that's the basic gameplay of a dating sim.
How intense and serious a dating simulator can be is your choice depending on what you want. Some have sexual content, while others are more of a chaste romance. Some let you romance all possible characters, and some realistically will punish you for flirting around. Some have serious background stories and plot, while others are just romantic or sexy fluff. Whether you're looking for a serious game or a causal one, with varying levels of romantic content, there are enough dating simulators out there that you can probably find one. But first, let's take a step back and look at where these games came from and just how widely varied and different they can be even though they come under the same genre title! Get ready for What is a Dating Simulator?!
Romantic Simulation Games
Dating simulators are known as "romantic simulation games" in Japan. They have been around for quite a long time, though of course, the games have changed since their debut. However, the point of a dating sim must always remain the same - to successfully romance the character of your choice. How you do it, and what extra factors there are (such as time limits, affection bars, gifts, and raising your own abilities) vary from game to game and have become more and more complex over time. But the point is still the same - you the player takes the role of someone trying to win over the girl or guy of your choice!
The earliest dating simulator games, such as Girl's Garden in 1984, did not have English releases. Our next example, True Love, was one of the first to get an English release! It came out in 1995, showing just how long dating simulators have been around!
True Love ~Jun'ai Monogatari~
- System/Platform: Microsoft Windows, PC-98
- Publisher: CD Bros. (JP), Otaku Publishing (EU)
- Developer: Software House Parsley
- Release Date: Jun. 9th, 1995 (JP), Jan. 1999 (NA)
In True Love ~Jun'ai Monogatari~, you take the role of Daisuke, a 19-year old Japanese boy who is just beginning to live on his own. You have two goals to complete - the first is to find what direction Daisuke should take academically to determine his future. And the second, of course, is to find a girlfriend! Each morning you decide Daisuke's schedule for the day from a number of choices, and these choices determine what stats he raises if he earns money, and how is romance goes with girls. It's a very choice-driven game, and what you decide to do will definitely change the outcome!
True Love shows just where dating sims came from and where they are going. It has most of the elements found in today's games, such as being able to improve your personal statistics to help your chances with the girls and having a time limit system in place forcing you to carefully manage and plan each of your moves. These themes are in a lot of today's games as well! If you're looking to play a classic game some time to expand your dating simulator knowledge, True Love is still a fun play through. Of course, it's not the same as today's games but it's a classic for the genre and helped dating sims become more popular with English-speaking audiences!
Do You Prefer Girls…
Ladies first! Let's start with dating simulators aimed at those of us who prefer women. Many older dating simulators will have been aimed primarily at men, meaning the player character will be male. However, more recent ones (like the one in our example) will let you choose your gender from the beginning. Dating simulators with girls to win the hearts of are traditionally what people think of when they imagine this kind of game, and for good reason. They are very popular and have been being produced for a long time! That means there are lots of titles out there to fit most interests for a backstory, setting, or plot. But let's talk about a slice of life game that has gotten lots of people in the dating simulator scene talking....
- System/Platform: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux
- Publisher: Ryan Koons
- Developer: Ryan Koons
- Release Date: Jan. 19th, 2015
HuniePop follows the main character (you!) who can be set as male or female as they attempt to seduce a handful of women in their hometown. Luckily for the player, they have the help of a Love fairy named Kyu who is determined to help them succeed in love (while teaching you how to play the game as well). Each available girl is very different from the others, with everything from a super confident porn star to a shy book nerd - and more! There's no limit to how many of the girls you can romance as well, so you might as well try them all and get the most out of the game. They all have unique stories to tell and personalities to discover, and you'll only learn everything about them if you successfully romance everyone!
HuniePop is a unique dating simulator in a few ways. Firstly, it's not Japanese - in fact, if was started by a Kickstarter, and has a very Western style of writing and dialogue despite being set up similar to a Japanese visual novel game. It means the style and delivery are different from its Japanese counterparts, but that just makes it extra intriguing! HuniePop also successfully combines the elements of a dating simulator with a puzzle game. While you have to say the right things and give the right gifts for the girls to agree to go on dates with you, to have a successful date you have to solve tile puzzles within a certain move limit. And that tile game also comes into play if you make it to the bedroom and want to have successful sex as well! It keeps HuniePop fun to play and saves it from getting too repetitive, and as the puzzle games continue to become more and more difficult the game becomes more challenging. HuniePop is a great example of a dating simulator for those interested in girls as it's edgy, sexy, and fun to play. Don't write it off just because it's not Japanese - the creators definitely did something right with this dating simulator.
HuniePop Release Trailer
It probably doesn't come as a surprise that dating simulators were initially targeted mostly at men who are interested in women. But of course that left an entire market untapped - and thus the otome game was born. These dating simulators are aimed mostly at women (though anyone who is interested in men can enjoy them) and have the same basic idea as the original romance simulators - except of course you're picking your favourite boy to pursue! These games have become incredibly popular in Japan and are breaking into the West too with lots of art of beautiful anime boys with all kinds of settings and plot lines. Dating simulators for those who like men are definitely on the upswing.
Hakuoki: Shinsengumi Kitan (Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom)
- System/Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation Portable, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
- Publisher: Aksys Games
- Developer: Idea Factory
- Release Date: Aug. 26th, 2010 (JP), Feb. 14th, 2012 (NA)
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is the perfect story for someone who likes Japanese history. Or demons. Or preferably both. It is set in the Bakumatsu time period of Japan when the Emperor and the Shogun were not seeing eye to eye. The player takes the role of Chizuru, a girl who clearly takes her inspiration from Mulan as she disguises herself as a man for try to rescue her father. She gets wrapped up with the Shinsengumi, the local police force - and that's where all the boys come into play. Interestingly, the Shinsengumi are a real part of Japanese history, and the characters available to romance are all based on real people...just much prettier bishounen versions of course. And did we mention demon hybrids? Just to keep things extra exciting!
Hakuoki is made by Otomate, one of the biggest producers of otome games in Japan. Hakuoki is one of the few games though that is available in its full console version completely translated into English and available on several different game systems. This means that it's easy to access for Western fans, and the translation is actually well done and easy to play. Plus, it's part of a larger series, so if you are interested in playing a game in Japanese and like Hakuoki, you can enjoy its spin-offs like all of the characters being in a high school setting. But even if you don’t speak Japanese don’t fear – several other Hakuoki titles have had official English releases as well! It's a great game to get started with if you have never played a dating sim before, especially if you are interested in Japanese history.
And Now For Something Completely Different
We have games for people that like girls. We have games for people that like boys. There are games for people that like both and have a choice. But Japan, as usual, is never satisfied with "normal." And dating simulators fans don't have to be, either! Of course, there is even more out there - more than boys and girls, you ask? Yes, we answer. And we aren't just talking about outside of the usual gender binary either. Thus we present to you where the technology and ideas of dating simulators can take us (whether or not we should go there is another question entirely).
- System/Platform: Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4
- PlayStation Vita Publisher: MIST[PSI]PRESS, Devolver Digital (remake)
- Developer: PigeoNation Inc., Mediatonic (remake)
- Release Date: Jul. 31st, 2011 (JP), April 13th, 2014 (worldwide)
Hatoful Boyfriend puts the player in high school, each year being able to pursue a new romantic interest. Those romantic interests just happen to be, well, pigeons. That's right! Hatoful Boyfriend starts out as a pigeon dating simulator. Each pigeon has his own story for you to discover as you successfully romance each one during the school years, getting the player very attached to them. But Hatoful Boyfriend has a surprise waiting in store for its final route, so be sure to click to "fulfil your promise" when the game eventually asks it. This pigeon dating simulator has a surprising twist and a shockingly well-delivered story to tell.
While it may sound like a strange premise (who are we kidding, it is a strange premise) Hatoful Boyfriend is a really good story. It was quite popular in Japan and has gained popularity in the West as well. It draws people in with the weird concept of dating pigeons and then manages to keep players as they become invested in learning the truth of what is happening. It plays like a typical otome game, just with pigeons instead of beautiful men, so it's easy enough to pick up for people that have played dating simulators before. But you have never played a game quite like Hatoful Boyfriend, that much we guarantee. So if you're looking for something completely different, or are just entirely intrigued by such a unique concept, play Hatoful Boyfriend to see just where dating sims can take us.
So whatever tickles your fancy, there's sure to be a dating simulator for you. Whether you like something casual or something more intense, and however much time you have to devote to playing, there's enough variety in the market that you're sure to find one to enjoy. Dating simulators aren't just for boys or just for girls, they're fun games for everyone full of puzzles, role-play, skill levelling, choices, and love of course! So if you're ready, check out some titles that might be a good fit for you and get playing! The dating sim craze is only likely to keep growing.
Have you tried any dating simulators before? What did you think? Do you think there will be more made outside of Japan in the future? Are there any other gaming terms or ideas you would like to see a "what is" article about in the future? We love seeing your comments!