So I’ve been playing the Doukyuusei remake, one of the classic dating sims, first released for PC-98 in 1992, and just rereleased in English and Chinese a few weeks ago with redone art. I bought it on a whim, more or less assuming it would be cringey and badly designed, but figured it might be worth checking out since my only other experience with datings sims has been Love Plus, Tokimeki Memorial, and the girlfriend system in Judgement. As expected, there is so much weird 90s borderline-misogynistic dialogue presented as humor – but there is also way more actual sincerity than I could have imagined, and I’ve found the (very simple) gameplay mechanics to be pretty engrossing. If your only exposure to datings sims has been Tim Rogers’ Tokimeki Memorial video, Doukyuusei might be interesting to you as an example of a game that is going for a very similar effect, but does so in a completely different way. Also it’s available in English, so it’s a lot more accessible to non-Japanese speakers.
So to give myself a place to talk way too much about this game (I didn’t want to pollute the one Tokimeki Memorial thread we have, since most of this has nothing to do with it) I’m making this thread. Like I said, I know next to nothing about dating sims and visual novels, so I’m curious to hear what thoughts other people have. I feel like a lot of what I say below might just be standard themes that people who play lots of these games have already discussed to death years and years ago. This can also be a place to talk about “the canon” of dating sims. I’m at least somewhat curious about the other Elf games
My thoughts about Doukyuusei below. There’s so much to unpack in this game, and I probably don’t have the ability to do it properly, so curious to hear what other people think. CW: Lots of spoilers and sex stuff (but no NSFW imagery).
To start out with, here’s a brief rundown of how this game works: You’re a high school student on summer vacation, living alone for (I think?) unexplained reasons. For the first half of summer vacation you were busy with your job, but now you’re free, have spending money, and want to make the most of the last three weeks of your summer vacation. The game begins with you in bed, receiving a call from your friend Kazuya asking you to accompany him to the boutique to help him pick out a gift for his girlfriend Kurumi.
Right from the start your character says stuff to Kazuya like “Why would I waste time spending time with a guy??? I only go on dates with girls.” He then makes jokes about how he’s seen Kurumi naked, and when Kazuya gets mad asks if it’s because he’s been masturbating too much. That’s the tone a lot of the dialogue in this game takes. I feel like this must be off-putting to a lot of people (and some of it is completely indefensible), but as I played the game more, the fact that your character has an actual personality and is established immediately as a wannabe womanizer from the start allowed for (in my opinion) a lot more interesting (if (perhaps intentionally) discomforting) dynamics than what I’d seen in Tokimeki Memorial.
Unlike Tokimeki Memorial, your character (the default name is Takurou (which I think is the reading of 拓郎? nobody ever says his name aloud and my Japanese is terrible, so I’m always paranoid I’m getting the reading of names wrong), so when talking in the third person about him that’s what I’ll refer to him as – though because of the nature of the game, it sometimes feels better to use the second person) has known most of the women in the game for years and already has established relationships with them. He talks to each of them differently. For example, Misa and Satomi are Takurou’s childhood friends. Misa is on the track team and gets all mad at Takurou when he shows up at practice since she’s worried he’ll say perverted things to them. She calls him baka a lot, and her attitude seems to be “you’re allowed to act like this around me, because we’re friends, and also I’m capable of retorting, but if you talk this way to anyone else I’ll beat you to a pulp.” Satomi, however, is portrayed as more mature, and the way Takurou talks to her is way less sexual. She works at a cafe that Takurou often brings women to. Later on if you go back to the cafe alone to talk to her after a date she’ll give her thoughts about your various relationships. So it’s a completely different dynamic.
On the other hand, around his three other female classmates, Mai, Miho, and Kurumi (his friend Kazuya’s girlfriend), Takurou behaves in a completely different way. Miho and Kurumi are both portrayed as “still children,” (which as you might imagine leads to some very problematic stuff happening if you pursue them (which you sort of have to do to unlock certain other character’s events)) and as such Takurou tries to behave very delicately around them. In particular, Kazuya keeps pressuring Kurumi to have sex with him, which makes Takurou mad, advocating for her until eventually Kazuya abandons her to pursue an older girl he met at the boutique.
Finally, Mai is unquestionably the “canonical” love interest, in the same way that Shiori Fujisaki is in Tokimeki Memorial. Whereas Takurou treats Miho and Kurumi gently because they’re still immature, he is gentle around Mai because she has an “innate pureness” that he feels he’s not worthy of. She’s the child of rich protective parents, who don’t want her to be spending time with any boys other than this one rich boy, who occasionally appears to threaten you.
The actual mechanics of the game are pretty simple. Since it’s summer vacation and you’ve already finished your job, you have nowhere you need to be and nothing you need to do. Instead you can walk around town aimlessly, visiting whatever area on the world map that you’d like. Sometimes there will be people there. Sometimes they’re people you want to talk to, sometimes they’re boys who are after the girls you like and who say all sorts of terrible stuff to you. The characters are all on a schedule and have areas that they tend to frequent. In the remake there’s classic mode, where you have to figure this all out, and easy mode, which tells you who is in what area and has a calendar of all the events that need to happen to make each character love you. I played on classic mode, which is a lot more interesting I think, because it forces you to wander around a lot more, and have a lot more interactions than you would otherwise.
Many of the women’s stories are tied together in mutually dependent interlocking events, so to get certain characters, you kind of have to pursue everyone. It’s interesting to compare this to Tokimeki Memorial, which enforces a similar play style through its bomb mechanic. The bomb mechanic is a sort of abstract placeholder though that’s meant to represent the interlocking friendships of your various classmates, and because of this abstraction it allows for dynamic situations that you have to handle strategically, each playthrough being slightly different. In Doukyuusei on the other hand, everything is scripted. I suppose this is slightly more “low tech,” but I found the characters in Doukyuusei a lot more real feeling because you actually see them interact with each other, instead of imagining that they’re interacting with each other, which is what mostly happens in Tokimeki Memorial.
I might be giving Elf too much credit, but the game feels like a pretty deep meditation on straight male sexuality. In Tim’s Tokimeki Memorial review, he talked about the weird feeling of emptiness he felt after getting Shiori to fall in love with him, and each time seeing her face contorted in that mindless blush. He felt like he did something horrible to her. In Doukyuusei, I find that feeling even stronger, mostly because the story arc of each character ends when you have sex with them. Every single sex scene is portrayed as something you should feel terrible about. You’re either corrupting girls, turning them into human dolls, taking advantage of their loneliness, or, in Mai’s case, partaking in something you don’t deserve. All of this is communicated very clearly, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t just my interpretation. Once you have sex with them, your relationship with that character descends into a irremediable chasm, until the last day of your summer vacation, when you pick the character you “truly love,” and get to watch Takurou repair the relationship, then the game ends with a brief heartwarming montage of your future together.
So even though there isn’t that much sex in the game, it’s the axis everything else revolves around. When Takurou is alone, looking at random environments, he makes comments like “Humans are the only creatures that have sex for reasons other than procreation. God must have made a horrible mistake when making them.” There’s a male study-monster classmate who for the first time has developed an interest in the opposite sex, and as such, you watch him slowly descend into insanity because of it. Sex is this all-permeating object of paranoia, and the only way Takurou knows how to deal with it is make jokes about it.
Despite that, most of the female characters have problems and frustrations that don’t directly have to do with sex. Compared to Tokimeki Memorial, I felt like the emotions expressed in some of the conversations were a lot more accurate to what I was feeling when I was 18. Since a lot of the women you talk to are slightly older than you, in their early 20s, working jobs that they hate, going to college, harboring unfulfilled dreams that they’re to ashamed to admit to you outright, sometimes not even knowing how to talk about their interests – the game has this mixture of emotional maturity and immaturity that I wasn’t expecting, and which I find very relatable. Even if each character’s story arc isn’t that long, the characters are all very fleshed out and a lot of complexity is hinted at.
Like a lot of heterosexual males, the first time I ever heard someone talk articulately about complicated emotions that they didn’t know how to handle was with a girl. All of my male friendships were pretty superficial, whereas my earliest first-hand encounters with someone else’s depression, self-hatred, anxiety about the future, intense jealousy, loneliness and all of these other feelings that I’d read about in novels and in different degrees felt myself but never actually heard a real person talk about, came from conversations with women in my late teens and early 20s. Some of the people I talked to were extremely messed up! I mean, not necessarily in a bad way – in a very human way. But no one had ever been close enough to me before for me to see their messed up parts. So in many ways, those first relationships I had with women were pretty disturbing. Which is to be expected, because all emotionally intimate relationships have the potential to be disturbing – but because of my position as a heterosexual male who had mostly only had superficial relationships with other heterosexual males who didn’t talk about their emotions, I was sheltered from any emotional intimacy. (Of course, I’m just talking about high school. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, but I also don’t think it’s a particularly uncommon one. Anyways, since then I’ve eventually been able to have actual meaningful not-at-all-superficial friendships with other men.)
I think that’s why I find Doukyuusei such a relatable portrayal of early adulthood. Takurou is experiencing all of these things for the first time, having his first real deep conversations, and finding people like Mai, who before seemed to exist on a completely different plane of existence, actually care about him. The women characters are all sexualized of course (especially your two teachers) – though they’re also very fleshed out and human. The way Takurou is simultaneously interested in all these characters sexually one moment, but in another just sees them as normal human beings, feels very high school to me.
That all being said, some of the sex scenes are so incredibly disturbing. One of the characters that I haven’t mentioned at all (I’ll let you guess which lol) reminded me way too much of someone I knew in real life. While her story arc was probably one of the tamer ones, playing through it, and seeing the exact way that she was sexualized, which all felt slightly too realistic to me, made me feel very sad.
I guess why I feel so weird about the game is that it has actual things to say, and even actual things to say through its sex scenes (which is why I felt like I had to play the uncensored version), but the world view that created this game is also sort of messed up, and as such all sorts of barriers are created that keep me from the characters. Each time I watched one of the “heartwarming” ending montages, I felt like a gross and pathetic human being.
I’m not sure how much the designers intended this. A lot of the writing I’ve found about the game is just like “look at all these hot babes,” which I suppose is what has kept me from exploring the dating sim genre in the past. For a (very NSFW) example of what I’m talking about, you can look at captions people wrote on some of the screenshots on MobyGames.
The fact that this game made feel so weird reinforces to me that dating sims are very powerful medium for exploring certain themes. The genre is so vast, and I know so little about it, so I feel like some of the games must do very interesting things with it that I can’t even imagine – though I’m also not sure how much I want to play another 90s game about sex right now. Maybe it would be interesting to at some point see how some of the otome and yaoi games approach this all though.
Anyways, I feel a lot of this reads like it could be an Onion headline: “Man sees porn for the first time / Says he’s ‘not sure how he feels about it.'” Though like I said at the beginning, this game, and sexualization in games in general, has so much to unpack, and I only talked about maybe one percent of what there is to say.