-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

If you’re a regular reader of The Aberrant Gamer, you know by now that hentai game stories tend to hinge on implausible conventions – exaggerated male fantasies that serve as a vehicle for the action. Generally, the h-game protagonist is a markedly ordinary young male of high school or college age, whose poor luck and relationship difficulties are suddenly reversed by a stroke of impossible luck, wherein he finds himself suddenly surrounded by eager beauties. Those women too, follow certain archetypes, and thus we have a formula.

In that respect, The Sagara Family is formulaic in every way; the protagonist, Yusuke, is sent by his father to board nearer to his school with a family consisting of a beautiful, youthful widow and her four equally nubile daughters. The game is billed as “the ultimate homestay fantasy,” and indeed it is – Mom wears skimpy lingerie as she swills sake late in the evening, and the youngest daughter, Ruruka, gets the urge to crawl into bed alongside Yusuke at night. By the way, she’s young enough to be considered innocent in doing so – yet, says the game, she’s 18, of course.

The first sex scene takes place between Yusuke and his host mother, Maria, not ten minutes into the story’s unfolding, once each female and her general, two-dimensional nature has been introduced. With h-game stories often comprised of rather long, elaborate narratives – essentially, the player must click, click and click through a great deal of text to get to the action – it’s not unusual to throw the first bone, so to speak, early. That the game is stereotypical and cheap is apparent – but if you’re a regular reader of the Aberrant Gamer, you know by now that there’s always something else going on.

Lock Up Your Daughters

-First, the four daughters. Eldest girl Arisa is sweet, patient and even-handed – emotionally. Physically, she’s a bit of a klutz, and her manner of spilling things everywhere softens her comparatively serious personality. The game can’t seem to make up its mind whether she’s a school nurse or a kindergarten teacher, but she enjoys spending much of her time surrounded by kids, with whom she deals with admirable kindness and patience – even during a particularly awkward scene where the oblivious kindergarteners insist on flipping her skirt up and groping her innocently.

Red-headed tomboy Sanae seems to be an age peer to Yusuke, and from the beginning, she tells him she won’t accept a male living in her house. She has a habit of being sloppy about locking her doors when she’s engaged in her dressing routines, and well-intentioned Yusuke, as a result, is always stumbling upon some awkward situation or another with the bold girl. Unforgiving and difficult, Sanae is wont to deliver a swift punch or kick to the family boarder despite his lack of ill will whenever things between them become uncomfortable. The tomboy is an h-game archetype, but so is the dominant woman, always ready with a “comic” physical beat-down whenever the nervous, retiring protagonist lad unwittingly steps on her toes.

Emiru is so shy and quiet that her own family tends to forget about her; unassuming and unassertive, she sleeps late and eats little, and her withdrawn, nonverbal personality would probably suggest some kind of mental illness if this weren’t an exaggerated fantasy game. But, of course, it is, and Emiru’s alarming degree of reservation here makes her seem both vulnerable and intriguing. Where her sisters wear their hearts on their sleeves and prance about earnestly, only Emiru’s true nature is beyond the protagonist’s reach.

Little carrot-topped Ruruka is the curious one, with a clever, savvy nature and the innocence of age that frequently excuses her inappropriate behavior. And yet, among her flighty mother and temperamental sisters, Ruruka’s the reliable one around the house, preparing everyone’s school lunches and performing the housework, and thereby creating an odd contrast between intellectual maturity and physical and emotional childishness.

Just Being Male?

-The girls’ mother, Maria, lost her husband to an illness just after her youngest daughter’s birth. “Because he wasn’t strong,” she explains, and when Yusuke is able to do things like slay bathroom cockroaches or eat several bowls of rice, it seems to please her enormously. Maria is incredibly sweet, easy-going and forgiving – the h-game definition of “maturity” that Maria embodies seems to involve awareness, understanding, and gently-amused, good-natured forgiveness of a teenage boy’s clumsy lecherousness. Should Yusuke have a new spat with Sanae or otherwise butt heads against the rules of an all-girls house, Maria is quick to forgive, to take his side and diplomatically explain the conflict away to her daughters fondly, with something to the effect of, “But, he’s just being a male.”

The game never goes any deeper, or gets any more complex than this, and one must assume the audience appreciates that – after all, games like Yume Miru Kusuri take several hours to play through, and the erotic scenes are not always frequent. With The Sagara Family, the relationships seem transparent and your path seems clear – as you will, of course, end up with one of the family’s women, it’s often apparent which option favors which female when you’re presented with a decision tree.

Tricky Sitches

More than a harem fantasy, the game actually feels quite a bit like a simulation on navigating relationships with women. Yusuke’s an alien in the Sagara household on many levels – his mother isn’t mentioned, and he has a clearly difficult relationship with his father, who never appears in the game. When the father’s mentioned, it’s with neutrality and even minor hostility. And, not uncommonly, at the game’s beginning Yusuke is a virgin, his inexperience with girls a source of consternation and confusion. And yet he must acclimate to a house full of perplexingly different women; the questions you most often have to answer to branch the story revolve around how to react to a girl’s loaded question, or balancing a desire to help the family with a desire to avoid interfering.

-It makes sense, then, that likely age-peer Sanae represents the most difficult challenge for Yusuke – she tells him numerous times she won’t accept him in her house, and whenever he attempts to get closer to her, he ends up taking a crack to the nose or a kick in the balls. Furthermore, the direst consequences often result from the best of intentions – the confusion, frustration, and alternating anger and vulnerability provide a startlingly accurate capsule to the experiences of real teenage or adolescent males regarding the inscrutable behavior and social signals of girls.

Family Sim?

The family dynamic here is certainly, primarily a device to a quick-fix fantasy – what’s better than a cute girlfriend, besides her cute mom and sisters who all love you, too? But in terms of the game’s narrative, the plot conflict hinges around Yusuke’s alienation not only in a house full of women, but in a family situation in which he struggles to be dutiful. The sexual action often takes the form of resolving the formation of emotional bonds – as if the ultimate conclusion to finally feeling one has a family is to sleep with them all. Obviously that’s not the case, but all of the game’s action to that point highlights Yusuke’s loneliness and his difficulty being an outsider searching for a way in.

Similarly, Yusuke’s position as observer in a close-knit house of fatherless girls makes the women more than simple sex objects – though they are, of course, exploited liberally in the erotic scenes. Their behavior, though difficult for Yusuke, makes a bizarre sort of sense in context. The key to choosing the most constructive answer for success with each Sagara girl lies in sensing – or attempting to sense – the girl’s actual emotional need. Sex in this game is a given, but the conflict in the gameplay revolves around a young boy learning to navigate family issues and gender relations.

The protagonist, then, is sympathetic – the player doesn’t need to be a boy during his turbulent years to step into the shoes of one. Through Yusuke, even veterans of the most successful high school wars can find a point of empathy as he struggles to make sense of the hormonal household and attempts to resolve respect and affection with unbidden, uncontrollable urges. It becomes a little clearer, in a game like The Sagara Family, how many consider even superficial hentai games to be emotionally stirring experiences. The sex is on the surface, with a whole slew of issues underneath.

[Special thanks to JList for providing us the game for review in this column—you can purchase the game or check out more NSFW screenshots at their site.]

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, Destructoid, Paste, and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]