October 5, 2008 4:00 PM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is is a biweekly, sometimes 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.]
Ah, the much-lauded Choice in Games. We can analyze and discuss until we’re blue in the face those titles that have allowed us to make meaningful decisions, and we can write entire essays in search of the elusive game that lets us make the kinds of decisions we’d really like to make in our fantasy lives.
But there is perhaps no choice more important than the selection of our lifelong mate – and there are quite a few games that let us evaluate, elect and consummate our decision of partner. Not only are PC dating sims (sexual or otherwise) a surprisingly broad genre, numerous adventure games have incorporated pair-up mechanics for their protagonists.
Dating sim mechanics really shine when they’re used to enhance the sense of humanity in otherwise unemotional titles. The long-running Natsume-published Harvest Moon series, for example, adds partner selection and marriage to place a sense of real life alongside what’s largely a farming/raising and resource management sim; Natsume’s latest offering, the Cave-developed Princess Debut, places dating sim elements alongside a rhythm game in a young maiden’s quest to get ready for the glamorous ball.
So you certainly don’t need to be a hentai game fan to be familiar with dating sim elements. In fact, after even only a little bit of exposure, you may notice a few repetitive archetypes.
…Okay, more than a few.
Remember when we rounded up some of the most common archetypes of eroge games? Well, dating sims – and games containing elements of them – are a bit like that, even though they’re non-sexual. Of course, it’s somewhat different, too – after all, you as player are considering a lifelong love partner for your protagonist, in whom you’ve already invested a lot of gameplay hours, as opposed to being a passive observer at a buffet of often-clichéd sexual fantasies.
But still, the options you have available are likely to be generally predictable once you’ve played a few of them. And because of that, you’re likely to find that you often gravitate toward the same preferred type as your character’s wife or husband.
So what does your dating sim archetype of choice say about you? Measure yourself a hefty dose of salt, plant your tongue firmly in your cheek, and hit the jump.
The Bookworm: This character archetype needn’t necessarily be an academic. She’s characterized by her generally frail appearance, and is usually pale, commonly with dark hair. She may have a poor constitution or even an autoimmune disorder of some kind – the key is that she has poor social skills and is painfully shy. If you select this type, you may be a nurturer, or perhaps you simply like a challenge – wooing her generally involves challenging dialogue trees designed to bring her out of her shell.
The Sexy Fox: This is most often the character modeled most conventionally on Western archetypes. She’s usually blonde and well-endowed – in contrast to her appearance, she often has a sweet, if excessively outgoing personality. She may or may not be the town bartender; she might also be a retired actress or some kind of celebrity. If you choose her for a bride, you likely have a more conventional red-blooded appetite; she tends to be more easily won than other archetypes, and her tendency to prefer alcohol or sweets for gifts might suggest you like indulgences.
The Girl Next Door: This character tends to be a rather common-looking sort, as you might expect; she’s usually positioned as the daughter of the town leader, your parents’ friends, or some other figure of authority. She may even be your childhood friend. She’s usually frank, possibly even tomboyish, and most often a hardworking, optimistic type. If you choose this girl, you have a preference for familiar things and a desire to precede romance with friendship. The best tactic for wooing this girl is to give her or show her things you made yourself, which means you’re less of a risk-taker.
The Pragmatist: This character is distinguished by her marked unsentimentality. Her appearance can vary wildly, but she often wears glasses. She tends to be career-minded, and will most often talk to you about her current career ambition. When the Girl Next Door does not take the role of token tomboy, the Pragmatist does, and might even be a focused athlete. Selecting this girl may indicate that you have difficulties navigating femininity, and perhaps have had past relationships that fatigue you of catering to the whims of more capricious girls. The Pragmatist likes useful gifts, usually food – don’t ever bring her chocolates or flowers.
The Ice Queen: The Ice Queen compensates for her distant chill by being one of the most beautiful women in the game, emphasizing her unattainability. This archetype can often merge with either the Pragmatist or the Supernatural, creating a distant scientist or an ethereal, inhuman ghost, for example. Fans of the Ice Queen definitely love a challenge – wooing her often takes completing additional objectives or sidequests beyond what might work for the other possible brides.
The Supernatural: This bride may be either a priestess or herself a deity. Players will have to go off the adventure’s beaten path to discover her much of the time; it’s possible for her to be some sort of mythical creature, like a mermaid. The prevailing identifying trait is that she requires the player’s rescue in some way, usually to end a curse or free her from a witch. She’s often distinguished by either especially long hair or strange markings related to her supernatural status. If you elect this bride, you’re a creative individual seeking a way of life beyond the mundane. You may also have a rescuing-type personality, and you also don’t mind spending a lot of money – she tends to prefer gifts that are expensive or rare.
The Jailbait: Whether or not she’s literally underage, the Jailbait looks very young. She might even be unavailable for marriage, even though there are a confusing number of ways to earn her favor as if she were a legitimate bride. In edgier titles, she might even be the protagonist’s younger relative. Emphasizing her unsettling status, she may act especially flirtatious or suggestive. If you select this bride, you simply spend far too much time on obscure internet forums, or have played so many eroge games or dating sims that only the most aberrant bride interests you. Either that, or you're totally pedo.
The Geek: Shy, sweet and slightly-built, The Geek is usually that nice boy from town struggling to allow his gentle personality to escape the confines of his shyness. He’s usually nervous when you talk to him, often has a short haircut and glasses, and loves the simple things in life. He may literally be a computer or technology nerd, but just as often, he’s simply a good person who often hesitates. He may have inadequacy issues related to a poor relationship with a relative. If you select this husband, you enjoy feeling adored, and also love the sense of nurturing. This may also indicate that, on a subtle level, you like to be in control. You may also prefer the easy path, as The Geek is easily wooed with simple gifts.
The Athlete: The athlete tends to manifest like a man obsessed. He’s largely focused on a personal challenge – climbing that mountain, beating his best time, putting to rest an ancient rivalry. Although sometimes the Athlete is also the Asshole, he’s usually positive, friendly and upbeat, perhaps even laid back when not pursuing his objective. But in order to really get his attention, you’ll have to support him in his personal quest, usually with food or medicinal gifts and frequent dialogue to hammer home your vote of confidence. His training is the most important thing in the world to him, but nothing beats the moment when he realizes he can’t do it without you by his side. That’s why choosing the Athlete might mean you like to be needed; you may have traditional “stand by your man” values.
The Asshole: He’s got a chip on his shoulder a mile wide, and is a loner, possibly a wanderer with a dark, sad story in his past. He’s characterized by longer, more mature features, narrower eyes and a perpetual frown, and tends to be a man of few words. But if only you can figure out the way to his heart, you begin the steep uphill climb of getting him to open up slowly, until his one-word responses and icy rejections melt into sparse fondness. If you like this type, you most likely have problems trusting men’s expressions, and feel more comfortable with a guy who’s hard to win over – then it proves he really likes you, right? You may also have “Daddy Issues.”
The Spiritualist: This is somewhat the male version of the female Supernatural – this person is most often a man of the cloth, or a woodsman deeply in touch with the land, possibly with an animal companion. Just like the female Supernatural can sometimes merge with the Ice Queen, the Spiritualist often merges with the Asshole – although while generally arcane and distant, the Spiritualist tends to stop short of being a jerk. He’s more concerned with matters of God or Nature than love, but he often aids with quests and has vague wisdom to dispense about the nature of the world. He’s most likely located someplace that’s difficult to visit, and so persistence is required to woo him. He’s also most likely to be repelled by poor decisions the player makes in the game in their dealings with other characters. Choosing the Spiritualist might mean you’re yourself a spiritual person, possibly moral-minded, and interested in a mutual quest of lifelong education with your man.
The Humanitarian: While the Spiritualist has some of these aspects, the Humanitarian gets right into the trenches of human suffering, rather than being removed or philosophical. He’s usually a doctor, one well-reputed and passionate about his healing work; he may also be a well-intentioned town leader. At first, he treats you like just another patient or person to help. But when through repeated gift-giving and attention it finally becomes clear to him just how you feel, he realizes that he loved you back all along. If you choose the Humanitarian, you might be a more traditional type who’s stirred by a plain old good guy. You may also be a bit of a masochist, vicariously touched by the Humanitarian’s response to suffering – and interested in suffering yourself as you always come in second to his larger commitment to the good of mankind.
The Lady-Killer: Here’s your tall, dark and handsome, with a charming grin and a flirtatious mien. He tends to be a bit of a wayward cowboy; expect other characters to dislike or disapprove of his wild ways. He’ll be wooed easily – by you and by anyone else. He’s the most likely character to have curly hair, oddly; the Lady-Killer might also combine with an Athlete for a double dose of ultra-masculine appeal. Expect to catch him greeting other ladies in cut scenes, but because he’s usually the best-looking in spades (especially as compared to the Geek or the staid Humanitarian), you usually pursue him anyway. Oddly, he tends to enjoy receiving the same kinds of gifts that female characters enjoy – because he’s giving them to his other lady friends, perhaps? If you like this guy, you may be a superficial type, hoping to win over the eye candy that all the other girls want. You may also be a rebel, interested in deliberately eschewing the values of your community.
The Royal: ‘Someday my Prince will come,’ goes the song, and here he comes. The Royal may not necessarily be a prince; he also manifests as an aristocrat, land-owner or mansion-dweller. He is polite, but genuine responsiveness might be difficult to evoke at first – he has high standards, and courtesy doesn’t indicate romantic interest. Sometimes the Royal is an Asshole or a Humanitarian, but more often he’s just generally inaccessible. He might even be a “special” bachelor that requires additional steps to marry. Choosing the Royal might indicate that you’re an idealist – perhaps you even have unrealistic standards in life. You may also have a fragile self-esteem that needs validation via a high-profile partner.
So what have we learned? Aside from the fact that your columnist is wholly unqualified to analyze you, one interesting observation is that it’s much easier to define physical appearance as part of the female archetype, whereas the male characters don’t always have a distinctive look to go alongside their classification.
And what could that mean? Part of it is that the large volume of dating sims are targeted at men, and therefore involve pairing with women. This means that, with relatively more games, repetition is much more likely – doubtless there are plenty of nuances among female archetypes as well, but the most common in a wider field have risen to the top more distinctively.
It’s also possible that men play dating sims to achieve a subconscious experience of sexual conquest in which appearance plays a key role in actualizing the fantasy, whereas women may play dating sims for an intangible romantic experience where it’s more about the idea than the visuals.
Something else you might notice about the male archetypes is that, beyond being less defined by appearance, the archetypes for bachelors are more nuanced. This doesn’t necessarily make the bachelors more compelling as characters, but it does make them slightly more complex from the perspective of personality.
Is there a conclusion to be drawn about male and female player preferences? Could the stereotype that men tend to focus on a partner’s appearance, while women tend to focus on things like personality and job, be borne out in dating sims? And finally, if the point of adding relationship-simulating elements to games is to flesh them out with some humanity, why do we see such simplistic, repetitive constructs?
Who knows? In games, whenever a pattern arises, it’s tempting to take a close look at what it could mean. But analysis is all in good fun – and at the end of the day, if you ask a pal about why they chose their video game husband or bride, your pal will most likely shrug and say, “because (s)he’s cute.”
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer