In our previous Digital Gems, Jaz highlighted a few of the best walking simulators within the subdued genre. And this week's edition couldn't be more different, honestly. So before this week's column gets started, I figured I should introduce myself. So hi! I'm Caty McCarthy, and I’ve joined the USgamer team as the shiny, new Assistant Reviews Editor. In the past I’ve written for Kill Screen, The AV Club, Waypoint, Polygon, and IGN, and I’m looking forward to writing (a whole lot more) here! To officially christen this new position, I’ll be taking over Jaz’s weekly Digital Gems column from here on out, as independently developed and overlooked games are kind of my bread and butter. As the new warden of Digital Gems, and in honor of today's romantic holiday, I've decided to spotlight a genre near and dear to my heart: dating simulators.
All too often, I feel lucky. Lucky because I don’t have to navigate the app-ridden, anxiety-inducing scene of modern dating (thank you, long-term relationship). But that doesn’t mean I’ve been let off that easy. I’ve still been to bars and parties with friends, the Tinder-frequenting type, where someone whips out their phone and suddenly we’re ooing and awing, collectively swiping through the Maybes and Definitelys and No Ways that cross the phone’s screen. Despite being an outsider to casual dating, I’ve learned that in all stretches of the definition, dating is a game.
But dating was a game even before Tinder stepped in. The act of dating has always been a challenge of navigating choices, like choosing a restaurant to eat at, or a movie to go see, or a person that piques your interest enough to pursue romantically. Dating has been lightly gamified since the dawn of courting. But the popular dating apps of today have taken dating to another level—quite literally—by morphing the age-old pastime into a virtual-bound game itself. It’s a game defined by ranking; where swiping is your tool, and matching is your goal. Where constructing the perfect Tinder profile lives or dies by an adequately snarky bio, the perfect selfie, and, of course, proving yourself as a potential good date (or hook-up). After all, ensuring that you get that right swipe is a fleeting task, and can be failed in an instant.
As for today, the most love-accentuated of days, Valentine’s Day reminds me of one of my favorite pastimes in actual video games (not of the Tinder swiping variety): dating. Whether they’re the romanceable aliens in Mass Effect, or couples you can breed for spawning children to march straight into battle in Fire Emblem, dating in games often brings the player closer to their virtual confidants, and forges a bond between the two. The romance saturation in games has slowly become commonplace by integrating itself into all sorts of genres, not simply bound to romantic visual novels and otome games.
But I’d like to shift the spotlight back to the visual novels, otome games, and other dating-centric titles that you might have missed over the years. Whether you have date night plans tonight, or plans with a carton of ice cream, or are fine with ignoring the Hallmark-branded holiday entirely, these dating sims might provide you with a lovesick click or two.
If you’re used to dealing with stubborn or downright insensitive crushes, Amnesia: Memories might feel nostalgic. Seriously, everyone is such a jerk in this. No guy in this game is nice. Or sweet, or caring, or even should warrant your cute protagonist’s attention. Alas, the start of Amnesia: Memories is awfully cliche, as you suffer from amnesia, not remembering who your alleged boyfriend is, or what led you to this predicament. But whatever, there’s attractive guys around to help you solve the mystery and recollect your lost memories. It’s just a shame they’re literally all jerks. At least artistically, developers Idea Factory are unmatched in terms of their visuals. With its crisp, detailed punk-styled dudes, Idea Factory somehow make romancing such rude boys oddly bearable, and even enticing.
Hatoful Boyfriend spurred from a desire to poke fun at the often cliche-ridden otome genre. It’s a game where you, a human girl, are admitted to a new academy, St. PigeoNation’s Institute... an academy for pigeons. So to clarify, you’re a human. And you’re seeking to befriend (and date) pigeons. Birds. Those gray, feathered creatures that hang out by convenience store curbs. It’s just as silly and outlandish as you can imagine, complete with tropes galore, and uh, flirting with birds. But be sure to stick around for the unlockable Bad Boys Love route after romancing all the birds in separate playthroughs. It’s a subversive treat that upends the entire game.
Platforms: PC, Mac
Hustle Cat is likely the most inclusive dating sim not just on this list, but anywhere. The game lets you customize your skin color, whether you present as masculine or feminine, and even lets you select your pronouns. And the potential romantic partners in this game? Everyone, really. Men or women are all ripe for the flirting. Plus, the game takes place within an adorable cat cafe called A Cat’s Paw. Hustle Cat is a visual novel with heart that thinks of every potential player, which makes it essential to any dating sim fan.
Ladykiller in a Bind
Platform: PC, Mac
Game developer Christine Love is well-regarded for her innovative visual novels, from Digital: A Love Story to Analogue: A Hate Story, and her latest title Ladykiller in a Bind is no exception. The erotic visual novel (or as its longer title bestows, My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress as Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!!) plants you as a woman crossdressing as her twin brother, navigating a cruise ship filled with hot ladies and steamy BDSM experimentation. And yet, with all those pointed hot relations and sneaky manipulations, what arises as the best thing about Ladykiller in a Bind is how natural talking feels, due to the game’s timed dialogue options. Patience can be a virtue of a better response, but waiting too long can mean the opposite as well: awkward silence. Talking to potential lovers in Ladykiller in a Bind is like communicating in real life; where the stakes are high, the banging is imminent, but mess up too bad, and it’s game over (both in the literal, or just plain unhappy sense).
Are you a needy partner? Do you have to constantly stay in touch with your significant other? Then Mystic Messenger might be the right game for you. South Korean developers Cheritz crafted a smartly-designed game that takes place only in the realm of a smartphone (which, fittingly, is playable on smartphones), as you navigate romancing miscellaneous suitors. Sometimes they’ll call you. Sometimes they’ll text you. Sometimes they do all this in the dead of night, like 3am (real time). Mystic Messenger is a game about forging a connection with a potential boyfriend (or even best friend) through digital communications that we use daily, whether it’s IMs or phone calls—something we’re all too familiar with.
Sometimes crushes form in the most natural of ways: at school. Witchwood Academy is a lovely little bite-sized dating sim about witches (think Little Witch Academia, but 8-bit). Developed during the Gameboy Jam 5 and Yuri Jam 2016 by developers Rose Abernathy (the project’s artist) and Celia (the game’s writer), Witchwood Academy is a dating sim in the style of a Gameboy game—itty bitty aspect ratio, olive palette, and all. The game has you navigate as Morgan, a budding witch, as she preps for a tough exam where studying with any of her witch pals brings her ever closer to defeating the Giant Spider of Blackwood. And maybe, just maybe, even mustering the courage to ask one out by the end. (P.S.: Lina is the best girl.)