BAD ROMANCE

What dating a Japanese sim taught me about love

Elena Scotti/FUSION

There I was, sitting in a swanky hotel bar with my boyfriend of two years, feeling smug. We had just moved from Japan to New York City for his career as a bestselling novelist, and that night, I had finally scored the engagement ring I knew I had coming. Sure, I had to fish it out of some expensive champagne, but goddammit, I GOT THE RING. Want to see a picture of it?

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Jealous??

Yep, that’s my fiancé, Ryoichi. If you weren’t too distracted by the size of that rock, you might have noticed that he isn’t real. No, my super rich Japanese dreamboat is technically a character in Seduced in the Sleepless City, a dating simulator that allows players to reap many of the rewards of romance without having to make physical contact with another human being. By the time I got my ring, I had been playing obsessively for a week.

For the uninitiated, Seduced in the Sleepless City is an otome, a genre of video game geared toward women and defined by choose-your-own-adventure romance plots. The word “otome” means “maiden” in Japanese. Like real-life dating apps, many of these games are played on phones and allow maidens users to choose from a selection of male suitors. Unlike real-life dating apps, the suitors all look like manga characters—and every last one of them wants you.

With my real-life love life proving to be as fruitful as a bowl of Crunch Berries (that is, no fruit), I decided to give simulated dating a go—partly out of curiosity, partly for fun, and partly for this story. While I was exhausted from playing games with real dudes on Tinder, the notion of playing an actual dating game felt refreshing. And besides, we spend so much of our romantic lives on our phones, could dating an algorithm be all that different from dating a human?

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The first step in my video game romance was choosing which otome to play—was I looking for a lover who would pamper me? Scandalize me? Challenge me? After previewing a handful of the hundreds of otome available in the Apple Store and the gaming platform Steam, I finally discovered Seduced in the Sleepless City. When I read the description, I knew it was the one for me:

You are an editor at a women’s magazine covering the opening party of a casino in Roppongi, the nightlife district of Tokyo. There you meet a famous actor, bestselling novelist, charismatic plastic surgeon, and a top F1 racer. Your personal interview is arranged in the VIP room. A totally gorgeous—and slightly dangerous—love is waiting.

I downloaded the game onto my iPhone for $3.99 and found myself whisked away to Tokyo. No longer was I Isha Aran, the reporter for Fusion—I had officially become Isha A., the reporter/editor for Cinderella, a fictional Cosmopolitan-inspired ladies rag, and I had a big decision ahead of me: Which suitor to choose?

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Decisions, decisions.

In a process that felt eerily similar to swiping left on Tinder, I began making eliminations. First there was Yuzuki Kitaoji, the 24-year-old heartthrob actor. While attractive, I could tell he thought he was better than me. No thanks. I also turned down his mature and very polite 30-year-old brother, Satsuki Kitaoji, the “prince of the business world,” because, well, he seemed boring AF. And because I find car racing about as fascinating as a game of Go Fish, I wasn’t especially titillated by 22-year-old Formula One star Noel Aijima.

That left Ryoichi, described as a 26-year-old sadistic novelist. I also learned that he is 5’10” and blood type B—in case, you know, I needed a transfusion down the line. Because I try to steer clear of assholes in my real dating life, I thought—why not go for an imaginary asshole, one I knew I could win over? I could use the validation. And besides, each character comes with two possible endings based on the choices you make in the game—”good” and “happy”—so I was pretty sure I’d get a positive outcome.

What I did not know, however, was that I had stumbled into a psychological Christian Grey-lite situation. According to the game, Cinderella was courting Ryoichi to write a special serial for the magazine—and I was in charge of “handling” him. Throughout the first few chapters, Ryoichi consistently put me down, calling me “simple” and dumb—while also making passes at me. Luckily, being the strong woman that Isha A. is, I didn’t take it lying down. (Until later 😜.)

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Isha A. had no problem telling Ryoichi how she felt about him.

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While new to me, romance sims are not new to the world—especially if you live in Japan. The games have been around since the 1980s, but for years, they catered only to straight men. A typical dude-geared dating sim, known as a bishojo, follows a heterosexual male character who chooses from among several girls to date. If he plays the game well, he is rewarded with either sex, a relationship, or marriage.

Then in 1994, the gaming company Koei released Angelique, created by an all-woman cadre of developers known as Ruby Party. The game was influenced by popular shojo manga comics, whose stories are geared toward teen girls—an influence that can still be seen in otome today.

“[Otome] kind of dovetails off of shojo manga,” explains Amanda Cosmos, writer and otome expert. “Stuff that is popular in manga will start getting popular in games.”

Between the release of Angelique and the first decade of the 2000s, gaming companies released very few romance-themed games for women compared to the hordes of their dude-oriented counterparts. And most of these games could only be played in Japanese, since, as Cosmos explained, translating a video game takes considerable time and money.

But the last several years saw several breakthroughs for the genre. As otome expanded beyond gaming consoles and became accessible on smartphones and tablets, they found an English-speaking audience. Then in 2012, an otome called Hakuoki, a historical romance set in 19th century Kyoto, was released in English for PlayStation Portable, a handheld device from Sony—helping to bring the concept to the mainstream in this country.

“I remember thinking it was such a novel concept,” Cosmos says. Love was not just a subplot within a game—it was the game. “You don’t have to do any of the other stuff, you just choose a person and pursue them.”

Since then, Japanese (and a smaller number of Korean) companies that specialize in otome have begun to recognize the potential in English-speaking markets and released an increasing slew of translated games. Voltage Inc., the company that makes Seduced in the Sleepless City, currently offers a total of 80 games—and more than 40 of them have been translated.

Industry leaders are now taking the genre “more seriously,” Cosmos said. “It’s no longer a joke. It’s worthwhile, and it’s being marketed the right way.”

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As anyone who has ever fallen in love knows, the process involves the mind as much as the heart. This is something Seduced in the Sleepless City seemed to capitalize on by making the game 13 chapters long, each comprised of lengthy narratives about my budding romance with Ryoichi. I was surprised how much reading was involved in the game, but the words were intended to seduce—in a teen-romance-novel kind of way. Each chapter included between two and five prompts like the one below, my answers dictating what happened next:

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In the second chapter of the game, for example, Ryoichi decides that he needs some romantic inspiration for the story he’s agreed to write for Cinderella—and asks if he might set me up with some of his celebrity friends. (You know, for material.) I agree, and soon find myself in the most meta moment of my dating life so far—in which I, a real-life writer who is fake-dating a sim for a story, is playing a fake writer who is fake-dating my sim’s friends. For a story.

The lines between my real life and simulated life were blurring, which made my romance with Ryoichi start to feel weirdly realistic. On top of that, after almost every chapter, I would receive an “email” from Ryoichi in my actual Gmail inbox.

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As if my actual work emails weren't demanding enough.

But the crossover didn’t stop there. After the second set-up with one of his buddies, Ryoichi decides that he isn’t satisfied with the material I’m giving him. So he takes matters into his own hands, whisking me away to London for a day. There, my character hurts her ankle, forcing Ryoichi to take care of me, proving that he does, indeed, have a heart—very important when you’re dating an algorithm—and enough muscle to carry me around princess-style.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the week before this episode, I, Isha Aran the Fusion reporter, actually sprained my ankle at Denver International Airport and was still recovering.

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This shit was getting way too real.

Before long, Isha A. was falling for Ryoichi. Even though he still mocked—or in his words, “teased”—her, she somehow perceived that the ribbing was out of love:

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Um, thanks?

The game made it clear: Ryoichi needed Isha. He loved her, and she him. But where did I fit into this picture?

As much as I enjoyed living vicariously through Isha A., I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing a role. I was a version of myself, to be sure—a submissive, gooey-eyed version—but not quite myself myself. Which makes sense, given that a Japanese developer I’d never met wrote my character before I even downloaded the game. Despite the free will I had to “choose my adventure,” I was only dictating a fraction of the narrative.

And as a result, I didn’t feel like I was being wooed. I sort of just felt like a wingman—the girlfriend who is highly suspect when a new guy comes around, but roots for the relationship anyway. I enjoyed escaping into Isha A.’s reality, but it wasn’t quite mine.

And yet, this was still a game, after all—and I found myself wanting to win. I didn’t just want the good ending, I wanted the HAPPY ending. Whether or not I really truly liked Ryoichi, I still wanted him to keep calling. If anyone was going to be doing the rejecting, I wanted it to be me. In that one regard, the game did feel like real-life.

And so, I strategically began to make less confrontational choices. I stopped calling Ryoichi out on his shit, and I just sort of acquiesced to him. Like so many women before me, I tried to change myself to make him love me. When I finally reached the end of Chapter 13, however, I only got the “good” ending, which consisted of Ryoichi telling me he wanted to tease me for the rest of my life in front of a beautiful fountain. Romantic, I know, but I didn’t really appreciate the gesture’s sweetness because I was too busy feeling like a loser.

It’s possible I didn’t “win” because I wasn’t being true to myself, which never leads to a truly happy ending. It’s also possible I was destined to fail. You see, for more money, Seduced in the Sleepless City also offers an epilogue, two sequels, and a “special” story.

Obviously I wasn’t done with Ryoichi yet.

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While my romance with Ryoichi was psychologically steamy from the start, you may be wondering about actual sex. For the first 13 chapters, Ryoichi and I remained celibate. But in the epilogue, things heated up. Yes, for an extra $3.99, I got to experience—that is, read tactful allusions to—otome sex.

Shortly into the epilogue, Ryoichi and I take a weekend trip to the mountains to get away from the city so that he can write the final installment of his serial for Cinderella. Ryoichi likes to go there when he gets writer’s block. And that’s when the Charmin ultrasoftcore porn phase of our romance began.

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Wait for it...

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Houston, we have lift off.

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Mee-yow.

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Pretty sure he sent this immediately after the sex scene.

While the games didn’t show any real sexual imagery, the scenes were cute, benign, and fun. Ryoichi was clearly more experienced than Isha A., who would often play coy and say she was “embarrassed” or “shy” before eventually giving in. She viewed herself as a student and Ryoichi as a teacher.

For me, well, I appreciated that the scenes were hot, especially in such a tame context, but they didn’t outright turn me on. Maybe I just had a mental block about having sexual feelings in response to a game, even though in theory I know that would have been a natural response. Maybe I was actually afraid of the idea that I had found more intimacy in a fictional character who was kind of an asshole than I had with a real-life human being at that moment.

Or maybe the scenes just didn’t last long enough. :]

While my character just sort of let things happen to her (with her consent) and let Ryoichi do all the work, the girl did have her moments if she, er, I wanted.

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Work girl, WORK.

They say sex changes everything, and sure enough, the allusion to fictional sexual intimacy kind of did. Suddenly, I began to see Ryoichi’s teasing as the gimmick that it was. Plus, the sadistic novelist had softened. Sure, he was still a dom and she his sub, and he still had a petulant streak—but Isha A. was no longer the target of it. He even began to rely on her for emotional support. For example, at one point, Ryoichi wants to write a story about a blind person and a deaf person falling in love, but he isn’t sure if he can pull it off. Know who he turns to when he’s doubting himself? ISHA.

While my character was deeply touched by the new level of depth in their relationship, I felt like his trust was just another achievement that I unlocked. The sequels only had one ending—happy—so it’s not like what I chose to say or do actually mattered. Eventually I realized that I was just playing for the story, playing just to see what happened. I may not have grown to love the players, but I did enjoy the game.

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By the time I found that ring in the champagne glass at the end of the aptly named “Proposal Sequel,” I wanted it, and I knew I had earned it (and paid for it). I gave into the escapism that the story offered, and I was pretty pleased with myself.

Of course, that’s the point of otome.

“When women finish playing our game, we want them to feel happy and romanced,” says Yuka Gray, the manager of localization for Voltage—she’s in charge of adapting games for the American market. “The point is to kind of get away from your reality, and take a break from your life, or maybe if you’ve had a tough day and you just want to feel good about yourself.”

Gray and others are still working on adapting the games for an American audience beyond simply translating them into English. “American women prefer a strong heroine–not so much in Japan,” Gray explained, noting that Japanese women typically prefer embodying a personality that’s more kawaii, in which attractiveness is equated with cuteness.

While Isha A. was smart and hardworking, for example, she was docile—she was mostly just waiting to be rescued from her own self-consciousness, a trope I recognized from manga comics and other forms of Japanese pop culture.

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How could he love a mere plebe like me?

Gray did note that the most popular male characters among both Japanese and American audiences are the “aggressive” types—like Yuzuki Kitaoji, the popular actor I passed over. Coming in at a close second were the “sadistic” types, like my Ryoichi.

“You think, ‘He might not be into me! Oh, why is he not nice to me? Maybe he’ll show some sign. Oh actually, he might like me! He’s very sweet!’” Gray explained, essentially outlining my entire emotional journey with him. Was I really that predictable?

Yes—I was. But you know what? After years of attempting to navigate the unpredictable world of real-life digital dating, I didn’t mind finding temporary comfort in cliches.

The game also served as a healthy reminder that being indecisive doesn’t generally lead to love. As someone who has been known to spend days debating whether to send someone a message on Tinder, being forced to make definitive choices—and deal with the consequences, whatever they may be—felt like a breakthrough.

Besides, I just started playing another Voltage otome called Butler Until Midnight. In this game, instead of having my love interest walk all over me, he caters to my every need—drawing baths, cooking fresh dinners, and showering me with compliments.

So I think I’ll be okay.

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Now this is the type of teasing I can deal with.