Examining why I play the games I do sometimes yields surprising insight. It's become clear to me that many of the games I like... are kind of dating simulators, despite what the presentation or marketing might suggest. I don't think I'm supposed to admit that, though. To say something like that feels like losing legitimacy as a "real gamer", as if that idea even means anything. Worse: to say that seems so stereotypical, because I'm a woman.
The genre seems harmless enough as an idea: they're just romance-driven games. Romance is a part of most people's lives, what's the big deal?
I've yet to meet anyone who says they play the Mass Effect franchise for the combat. Despite this, Bioware has focused on refining the combat enough that by Mass Effect 3, the franchise has a multiplayer mode that relies entirely on the action — and it's considered addictive. Even so, the acclaim for the third person role playing shooter still rests largely on the interpersonal relationships you foster with your crew mates. The combat being OK is just a bonus.
The only reason the fate of the galaxy matters is because of the people you've met along the way. Without the people, none of the politics, choices or consequences in Mass Effect mean a thing. Mass Effect 2 outright concedes this — the game revolves around the acquisition of your "dirty dozen" team. The real danger isn't with the Collectors, or with the destruction of the galaxy, but rather with the possibility of losing those team mates in the suicide mission. This is also why the memorial wall in Mass Effect 3, which lists fallen comrades, carries weight with players. Mass Effect isn't about the choices, it's about people and your relationships with them.
So when fellow Kotaku writer Evan Narcisse states that you need the combat in Gameological's video series The Digest, I couldn't help but muse over the viability of a combat-less Mass Effect.
Something that would focus only on what makes the series so good: the characters and your relationships with them.
Sounds like — gasp! — a dating sim to me.
Actually, a lot of games could totally work as dating sims. The idea that games need combat in order to remain interesting doesn't sit well with me. I don't think it's true. Plus, we have an over-abundance of violence in games, but not nearly enough love.
Here are a few examples of games that with some refocusing could function as dating sims, from titles with strong writing and characterization, to a few silly ones because why the heck not? Hey, if there is a dating sim about pigeons, I'm convinced there can be a dating sim about anything.
Some, Like Mass Effect, Would Lend Themselves Well To It...
The possibilities for juicy drama here are endless. We can probably assume Bioware will use some of their usual tropes when it comes to pursue-able characters: the difficult, cold but sexy one (Miranda, Morrigan), the meek, kind but bright one (Tali, Merrill), and so on. Aside from that, to stereotype, each race has specific issues that can yield interesting results when explored in the context of intimacy. Quarians have to deal with being out of the suit, Asari tend to be overly sexualized, the way the Volus communicate is obtuse, for instance.
The special app released with Mass Effect 3, which sent players messages from the characters, could be put to good use here, too. Imagine composing text messages to your prospects, like you can in Catherine. If Bioware must include some sort of "morality bar", it should work like Dragon Age 2's friendship/rivalry bar — meaning, there's multiple ways to get to know someone, depending on your approach.
If there are toothbrushes with tiny mass effect fields, I wonder if there's lingerie with mass effect fields, too? There better be, because that's what I want to gift my lover on the night before the suicide mission.
Some, like Animal Crossing, would be amusing...
Domesticity and small-town life isn't complete without romance, and so I think Animal Crossing can become more of a dating sim. This is a franchise that could take on the dating sim genre in a whimsical way.
The absurdity of having the various critters available to the player can't be denied. Still, the possibility for endearing relationships are there, especially when you consider the bizarre but amazing dialogue found in the franchise.
Imagine explaining to your beau that you're late to your date because damn Rosetti wouldn't let you go. Or sending a saucy letter to the giraffe next door with the world's most cacophonous gyroid attached. Perhaps sharing the stresses of having Mr Nook breathing down your neck for payment of your house with a significant other. Or throwing a bottle out at sea, with an earnest hope that that special someone will receive it and reciprocate your blindly-thrown longing.
I'd play that.
Some, Like Persona...Kind Of Already Are One
Honestly, I already play this role-playing franchise as if it was a dating simulator. Persona brings out the worst in me, romantically. Since there's no penalty for pursuing every potential love interest, I kind of just... become a womaniser. I'm going to blame the "gamer neurosis" of needing to experience everything in one go and not some latent Casanova nature in me, though. Yeah. Let's go with that.
Speaking seriously, like Mass Effect, much of what makes Persona so superb is in the characters. The game as a whole is an exploration of intimacy, particularly so in Persona 4, which had players help characters through the most personal of insecurities and fears. Learning to play Persona effectively is to learn how to maximise your time outside of the dungeon, to spend as much time as possible with the people. Traversing through the dungeons feels like the unimportant after-school activity that it is when your calendar is a mess of dates with lovers and friends.
The school setting is perfect for the genre. There would be 22 characters, one for each of the major Arcanas, each equipped with a captivating personal narrative for players to discover. The part about shadows and deities can still stay, since the franchise wouldn't make sense without that element. Really though, in trying to describe how this would work it just becomes obvious that the game is already built like a dating simulator.
All I ask is that in a more "romance-centered" Persona game, there be more options to destroy your friends when they get in the way of your dates.
And some, like Fallout, are getting made into them
I'm cheating, here. This game already exists — someone is working on it. Hailing from Tumblr, a place that is no stranger to the type of fan service that this game caters to, is the Fallout New Vegas dating sim.
So far it looks as if the pursuable characters include Butch DeLoria (the only Fallout 3 character), FISTO, Cass, Oliver Swanick, Veronica, Joshua Graham and Vulpes Inculta. Not the characters I'd think of first (I wanna date Moira, from Fallout 3!), but it's a rich and diverse cast.
Also included: a tsundere character, Ouran references, Hellboy references, and a karma system. And yes — Butch DeLoria delivers his infamous "Tunnel Snakes Rule!" line.
The game's Tumblr states that the game will come out relatively soon. As proof of concept, it works wonderfully to prove that games you might not expect as dating sims could still work under that genre — with the right approach.
The list goes on. Metal Gear Solid could be a hell of a soap opera dating sim, complete with overwrought dialogue and labyrinth-like plotlines. Well, if confusing as heck plotline is what we're looking for, then perhaps Kingdom Hearts could be a better choice. God knows what's going in in THAT franchise, but it's dramatic enough that it would fit just fine. Saints Row could have players recreate a Romeo and Juliet-type romance, with rival gangs fighting to keep you and your lover apart. Really, there's a ton of games that could work as dating sims.
Granted, getting people to brave the stigma of playing the genre that is widely taken as the epitome of uncomfortable nerd wish fulfillment might be difficult. At the same time, many popular franchises — like Mass Effect and Persona — are good because of the near-dating sim elements they posses. I think we collectively like to pretend otherwise, though — thinking of some games as 'dating simulators' seems kind of shameful. It shouldn't.
We definitely don't need combat to make a game worthwhile; sometimes that's the least interesting aspect of a game.
And sometimes, it would just be funny to make a game that's not meant to be romantic, be romantic.