I'll be the first to admit that Kira Kira is stretching the definition of "dating sim" somewhat, given that it's a pure visual novel in which the romantic aspects are secondary at best, but it's such an interesting and enjoyable work that I feel it's worth highlighting here.
I was interested to play Kira Kira because I'd just come off a binge of watching the anime K-On! for the first time, and Kira Kira's premise sounded suspiciously familiar: a group of schoolkids team up to form a band, despite none of them really knowing what to do with instruments, and plan to put on a grand performance at the school festival. Hilarity ensues.
Indeed, the early hours of Kira Kira's narrative initially appear to be cribbing heavily from K-On -- albeit with a male protagonist -- but it's not long before things start to get interesting. We start to get hints of the characters' backstories and the struggles they are going through at home -- the bubbly, cheerful Kirari has to content with being from a poor family, for example, while Sarina struggles with health issues and an overbearing guardian in the form of her grandfater, and Chie is contending with family problems that led to her being held back a year at school.
The protagonist Shikanosuke, too, is designed to be more than a self-insert for the player (or the author), despite the usual visual novel trick of leaving him unvoiced. Over the course of the game, Shikanosuke comes to terms with a number of his own problems and starts to grow up -- though the exact conclusion of his journey through his coming of age is vastly different according to which of the three girls' routes you end up following.
What's interesting about Kira Kira's narrative is that it doesn't restrict itself to a single setting or "big event." Rather, as the game's various chapters unfold, each builds to a climax and conclusion of its own -- and each has a very different feel to it. Only the first chapter of the game, which chronicles the cast's attempts to form the band and prepare for the school festival, resembles K-On! in any way -- and even then, only very slightly in terms of premise. After that, as the band goes out on the road and takes in a tour of Japan, then splits off into several different, wildly diverse routes according to which of the three girls you favored the most with your choices during the tour, Kira Kira very much becomes its own thing -- and leads you down some surprising narrative paths.
Take Chie, for example -- or Chie-nee, as Shikanosuke habitually refers to her. Initially portrayed as the usual sort of spunky but rational older sister type -- hence the "-nee" -- seen in any number of slice-of-life anime, Chie reveals herself over the course of her narrative path to be a surprisingly fragile individual -- a fact due at least in part to her own struggles to deal with her family situation and how it has personally affected her. Chie doesn't admit the emotional turmoil she's in for the most part; she presents a front to the rest of the world as "the mature one" -- the one who's a year older; the one who can deal rationally with crises; the one who always knows what to do. It's not until she and Shikanosuke come into contact with a mysterious and deeply troubled young girl named Midori that Chie herself starts to realize what she's doing; on their last meeting, Midori tells her outright that she's too kind and willing to sacrifice her own happiness for others -- and that it's okay to be selfish. This is, as you might expect, a concept that Chie has to wrestle with somewhat.
The route that centers around the ditzy Kirari is perhaps the most interesting, though. While initially appearing to resemble Chie's route in terms of tone -- Kirari, too, is struggling with a difficult home life, though in her case it's due to poverty rather than her parents splitting up -- things quickly take a much darker tone. I shan't spoil the details, but given Kirari's tendency towards the "genki girl" end of the anime tropes spectrum, suffice to say the impact of the subsequent unpleasantness in her route is significant.
But it doesn't stop there; many visual novels would consider what happens between Shikanosuke and Kirari to be a "Bad End" and leave it at that. But instead, Kira Kira continues into another chapter detailing what happens next -- how a traumatized Shikanosuke comes to terms with the events that transpired, and what he does to try and deal with it -- and wraps up the story in a satisfying, if rather unconventional manner. At the time, it wasn't something I'd seen done in a visual novel before -- let alone in gaming at large -- and frankly, it floored me when I first played it. It's actually not that unusual in the grand scheme of the rather broad visual novel medium -- Clannad is a particularly notorious example of a VN that just keeps plowing on through tragedy after tragedy, for example, though most people in the West know it better through its anime adaptation -- but Kira Kira is a good, accessible example of how games like this can tackle some significant narrative challenges and tell a compelling, convincing and believable story about some very normal characters.
Even besides the overarching plots of the main routes, Kira Kira certainly doesn't shy away from difficult subject matter, either. The aforementioned Midori character in Chie's route, for example, is clearly expressing her frustration at life through things like self-harm and running away from home, but at no point does the game feel as if it's talking down to the player or making a blanket judgement that how Midori is acting -- or how Chie and Shikanosuke react to her -- is somehow "wrong." Rather, it presents the events that transpire in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner -- helped along by the participant narrator Shikanosuke, who tends to overthink things -- and lets the player come to their own conclusions about what is happening. It's not drenched in symbolism or metaphor or anything like that; it's simply showing life how it is, and leaving it up to the player to determine how they feel about what they're witnessing. It's refreshing to feel like the game isn't pulling its punches or assuming the player can't handle the things that are being presented to them, and it's something that narratives in more interactive games could perhaps learn something from.
All in all, Kira Kira is a visual novel that's well worth your time. It's beautifully presented, with some gorgeous artwork and brilliant music, and is available in both all-ages and adults-only incarnations depending on your attitude towards explicit sexual scenes in games. It is worth noting, however, that the sexual content of the adults-only version is both tame and infrequent -- this isn't a game about simply trying to bed your girl of choice at all -- and that the adults-only version is also available in a bundle with its quasi-sequel/fandisc Kira Kira Curtain Call, which fleshes out the stories of some of the other characters you see in the main game's narrative paths. Both the all-ages, adults-only and bundle versions of the game are available on PC via publisher/localizer MangaGamer, and there's also an iOS version available on the App Store which, naturally, does not include the adult content.
I'd love to hear about some of the dating sims and visual novels you've been playing for the remainder of Dating Sim Month. Be sure to tweet about your experiences with the hashtag #DatingSiMonth or post on this NeoGAF thread if you're a member over there. Or just speak up in the comments, of course.