27th Sep2018

The Strange and Wonderful World of Romance Games

by James Smith

Since the dawn of text-based adventure and 8-bit pixel art, video games have fought for love. To save the princess, to win the kingdom, to live out cross-species, alien queer romance. Be it a part of the story or the basis of the plot itself, romance is fondly found across gaming media in all its forms. All cool, right? Storytelling needs its lovers, after all; Romeo and Juliet, Mario and Peach, Shepard and Liara. But alas, the genre doesn’t end there.

Introducing the odd concept of dedicated dating simulation: a virtual partner made of code.

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In the Beginning

In the beginning, there was Japan, techno hub jewel of the 1990s, and from that country’s befuddling game devs appeared the first true dating simulations. Most often centred around a male protagonist and his host of love interests, these console and PC pioneers took place in many different worlds and universes, including our own. There might be magic, there might be demons, or there might otherwise be a perfectly normal high school or local city as a backdrop for drama. These were concentrated bursts of the lewd and the lovely, and certainly not to everyone’s taste – especially if you couldn’t speak Japanese.

And, then, in the West, The Sims rolled around with the turn of a new millennium. Suddenly virtual dating wasn’t on train tracks anymore, but customisable around the globe. You could craft, create and live vicariously through the lives of pixel men and women in The Sims. Their jobs, homes and especially their romance were up for grabs. Awesome. Whilst love wasn’t the focus of the game, it was certainly a key draw and element of any Sims life and, from then on, dating games have continued to evolve across all platforms, for the most part having kept pace with all the latest tech (even VR). Perhaps to a dangerous extent.

24/7 Love in Your Pocket

Modern iterations on the genre are both humorous and inventive. Take Dream Daddy, for example. It spins the romance sim on its head as players take to the helm, wining and dining the single Dads of the game world as man or woman. Or Immortal Romance, a casino slot on Vegashero that combines cash daring with the allure of online Flash-generated love. Most interestingly of all, however, are the romance apps.

The gaming industry as a whole was valued at $136m dollars in 2018, with up to half of that profit stemming from mobile games alone. This newest of markets brings in huge audiences, is portable and continues to grow each quarter. And it just so happens that smartphones are the perfect platform for romance sims, to boot. The phenomenon finds its home on Android or Apple systems. Games which create a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend, someone to have conversations with, someone to ‘date’ are becoming more and more popular.

Their biggest audience? Japan. The genre’s come full circle.

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The Future of Virtual Love

Who can tell the future of virtual love? Well, in all likelihood, the romance game market will continue to grow. Virtual reality is knocking at the door and technology continues to improve. The experience can only get better as a result and, if we’re all increasingly isolated, by distance, by tech, by work, it might just become the easy option going forwards. Maybe.

The world really can be a strange and wonderful place sometimes.
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