Being famous on YouTube might seem flashy, with some channels accruing millions of subscribers and views. But for the most part it's just someone in their house, chatting intimately with a viewer as if they were old friends...or lovers. Enter Asagao Academy, a video game about dating YouTubers. In 2014, video game and pop culture channel NormalBoots was getting ready to relaunch after a hiatus. They'd taken a few years off because they weren't sure what direction to take the site. The shows have about 7.5-million subscribers and one billion views between them, so coming back was a big deal for them and their followers.
As part of the celebration, artist Danielle Hargrave and writer Cara Hillstock approached the hosts of NormalBoots with a wild idea: they wanted to make a dating simulator. Specifically, Hillstock and Hargrave were interested in creating a visual novel, which is a video game genre popular in Japan in which most of the action happens through dialogue. The game would be a silly and tongue-in-cheek release that would let fans imagine what it would be like to date their favourite YouTubers.
"I honestly didn't know what to expect," Danielle Hargrave told Kotaku. "I didn't know how many people were going to be able to get over the weirdness that a YouTube dating sim sounds like."
Asagao Academy is one of the only dating sims about real people, and it's impossible to ignore how weird the idea sounds at first. The player stars as Hana, a pink-haired transfer student who yearns to join the Normal Boots Club, a competitive gaming group that features the nine guys from NormalBoots. The Normal Boots Club has nine members, and Hana has the option to date at least seven of them. While the guys aren't exactly the stereotypical tropes found in animes like Ouran High School Host Club or Haruouki, they definitely fall into categories. PBG is the sensitive slacker, Shane from Did You Know Gaming is the mean one who's hard to please and YouTuber JonTron is the theatre geek.
Asagao Academy was released for free in April and has been downloaded about 58,000 times since then. The original plan was for a small game: simple and fun, with 14 different endings and minimal voice acting. Instead, Asagao Academy came out with 43 endings, 16 songs and 340,000 words, some of which are voiced by NormalBoots members themselves.
The more Hillstock and Hargrave worked on Asagao Academy, the more serious the visual novel became. A few months into production, the pair realised the project was getting too big to handle by themselves, especially as word of mouth spread. The developers put Asagao Academy on Kickstarter, hoping to bring in $US12,000 ($16,473) to amp up production a bit. Instead, hundreds of people donated more than $US26,000 ($35,691) to make the game a reality.
It took the pair two years to put the game together, and at least six months of that time was spent on the story alone. One of the YouTubers featured in the video game, Austin Hargrave (also known online as PeanutButterGamer), knows first-hand how hard they worked on the project: he's Danielle Hargrave's husband. Some nights, he'd walk by his wife's office as she was drawing or coding, only to see her still working when he woke up the next morning.
"It's funny because at first I don't even think they thought it was going to be this serious of a project," Austin Hargrave told Kotaku. "The more they delved into it, the more people seemed serious about it."
Hillstock, who watched several of the YouTubers before being brought on the Asagao project, said it was hard getting over the awkwardness that came from writing dating scenarios about guys she was already a fan of.
"It was really weird the whole entire time, especially before I'd met any of them," Hillstock said. "There were a couple of times where Austin [Hargrave] was in the next room and I was writing a romantic scene about him and I was like, 'This is the the creepiest thing.'"
As a visual novel, Asagao Academy plays it straight. The art is done in an outline-heavy anime style common to some Japanese visual novels, also known as "otome", and the gameplay is traditional. The player is mostly a silent observer who reads conversations and sometimes makes decisions, such as whether to have Jirard from That One Video Gamer show Hana around campus, or which Normal Boots member to ask to the Flower Festival.
The story can drag at times, especially for people who aren't already fans of visual novels. But the choices still matter, with one wrong phrase meaning the difference between love and loss for the protagonist, as well as her suitors.
It makes sense that YouTubers would be the stars of a dating sim, since they have such a close relationship with their followers. YouTuber Jirard Khalil said people identify with online creators like him because there's less of a barrier between them. For the most part, YouTubers create and distribute their own content, as well as handle their social media accounts, so fans feel directly linked to what they're producing.
Despite the intimate personal image the YouTubers featured in Asagao Academy had at stake, they didn't have any say in how they were portrayed in the game, according to Jared Knabenbauer, known online and in-game as ProJared. There are elements of their identities in there, but the storylines take liberties. For example, in-game ProJared is a philanderous male model. Real-life Knabenbauer doesn't walk the runway and is happily married.
"I'm fully aware that every single character in there is essentially fulfilling a trope," Knabenbauer told Kotaku. "But being essentially cast as the super hot womanizer dude of the school is kind of a little flattering, all things considered."
The characters are archetypes, but they aren't "Marty Stus", or male versions of the Mary Sue trope. They're not perfect; they have flaws and make mistakes. For example, PBG's character gets rightfully chastened by Hana after he walks off without her during the Flower Festival, leading to her getting elbowed in the face.
The guys are there to fulfil a fantasy that's more for the audience than the YouTubers' egos. In Asagao Academy, Hana is the centre of the guys' world. It's like fanfiction come to life, which is no surprise considering the prolific amount of fanfic already out there about NormalBoots.
Even though Asagao Academy is a fantasy, all of the YouTubers I interviewed said the game did a great job capturing their personalities. For example, there's Jirard, who is based on Khalil. On YouTube, Khalil goes by The Completionist because he completes video games. In Asagao Academy, his character Jirard completes toy collections, and his obsession when the game begins is a fake version of My Little Pony. In real life, Khalil isn't a Bronie, but he said his character's journey still resonated with him.
"Cara [Hillstock] wrote my scenario," Khalil told Kotaku. "The parallels she draws between the character she created and me were incredible …There are things about me and who I am that are in this game from start to finish, and I got chills from beginning to end."
Khalil pointed out one scene where some Asagao students make fun of Jirard for collecting the so-called Itty Bitty Kitty figurines, saying it reminded him of when he was made fun of in high school for collecting video games.
“I do think that there’s an appeal to YouTubers that perhaps other celebrities don’t have, because it has the sense that anybody could do it.”
That wasn't even the most intense moment for him, however. He said he had to take a walk after playing through Jirard's romance storyline. Khalil didn't want to spoil the ending, but he did say what happened in the game was strikingly similar to an experience in his own life, one he'd never actually shared with the developers.
"It's supposed to be all not true, it's supposed to be based on original plot lines, but there are a lot of qualities in the game that portray us honestly," Khalil said. "The game has been really therapeutic for me."
The characters resonate with players so much that fans are willing to go the extra mile to date their favourite YouTube star. Asagao fan Thom B. said it took him an entire day to romance Shane and get the best in-game ending in which he and Hana fall in love.
"Seeing such a quiet, direct and mostly rude and sarcastic character bond with Hana feels great, and I felt a lot of accomplishment," Thom B. told Kotaku. "Also, his best end scene is literally the cutest thing I've ever seen. I became all warm and fuzzy inside while watching it."
It's not all serious character development, though. There are funny moments, including references to other popular visual novels. During one scene, Asagao Academy's soccer team plays a team of pigeons, clearly an homage to the bizarre pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend.
But really, in true visual novel fashion, the star of the show is Hana.
Hana starts out just as stereotypical as the guys. In the first chapter, she is constantly upset, including one scene where she cries because ice cream was spilled on her school uniform. However, the game subverts the traditional stereotype and gives context for Hana's breakdown: she's too poor to afford a new one.
"When we had the idea of Hana, it was based on the otome stereotypes. Then we gave her this backstory, and how the backstory would influence the situation she's in," Hillstock told Kotaku. "She's very emotional in the beginning in an annoying way, but that's part of her character arc. By the end of the game, she's not the same."
As Hana gets to know the members of the Normal Boots Club, as well as her friend Mai, she grows as a character. This includes repairing her relationship with her father, coming to terms with her mother's death and embracing being one of the only lower-income students at an upper-crest academy. She also becomes an awesome gamer.
Given her relatable character arc, an entire fan Asagao Academy community has spawned online, including a dedicated subreddit. The biggest following is on Tumblr, where there's a lot of fan art and fanfiction. Most of it is about Hana and her various suitors, although there are some pictures dedicated to the love-that-never-was between Hana and Mai. Some people have cosplayed as Hana and other characters from Asagao Academy. One fan even made a music playlist inspired by Hana's relationship with PBG.
Some of that fandom comes from Asagao Academy's story, with one fan calling it a "heartwarming roller coaster of emotions" on Twitter. However, there's also the inescapable fact that it's about real online celebrities. One person on reddit said they'd never played a dating sim before Asagao but tried it mainly because it was about YouTubers they liked.
"It was actually really fun, being able to bond with their game characters, who were actually really similar to their real-life counterparts," Thom B. said. "I think it differs from fictional, made-up characters as you can actually relate to YouTubers."
Austin Hargrave agreed with this sentiment. "I do think that there's an appeal to YouTubers that perhaps other celebrities don't have, because it has the sense that anybody could do it," he said. "With a YouTuber, it's just them, more often or not, in their home just in front of the camera."
Despite its subject matter, Asagao Academy largely avoids the topic of internet fame. While members of the Normal Boots Club are the most popular guys at the academy, none of the characters are actually YouTube stars in-game. It is a design choice that makes the game more palatable for players who aren't already fans. In fact, one player wrote on Twitter that Asagao Academy got her into watching the guys on YouTube, not the other way around.
Asagao Academy is a testament to the changing nature of fame. Celebrities on YouTube are a lot like the guys from the Normal Boots Club. They're cool, and they're smart, but they can only stay in the game if Hana, the fan, wants them to. After all, there are hundreds of millions of people on YouTube, and every one of them is vying for viewers. That's why online celebrities have such an intimate relationship with their audience, in this case even helping fans play out romantic fantasies. Without the fans, YouTubers wouldn't exist. So YouTubers work hard to keep their fans happy, because happiness means the relationship goes on. It's all part of the game.