For those of you who missed last week's installment, we're currently in the middle of Dating Sim Month, a community playalong organized by GAF poster and online acquaintance Anne Lee.
During Dating Sim Month, the aim is to get people trying out relationship-centric games in all shapes and sizes, ranging from full-on traditional dating sims to romantically-themed visual novels or eroge. Last week, we took a look at Aselia the Eternal, a lengthy fantasy epic that was originally an eroge but which was subsequently rewritten into an "all ages" formula, and a game that blends elements of dating sims, visual novels, strategy games and RPGs to create something enormously compelling. This week, we're taking at something a little different, in a number of ways.
For starters, this week's game isn't of Japanese origin at all, though you'd be forgiven for thinking it was from an idle glance at the screenshots. Secondly, it's an otome game -- a game where you play a female protagonist and, in this case, pursue relationships with people of both genders. We're slowly starting to get more of these in the West, but for the most part relationship-themed games that get localized from Japan are still largely of the bishoujo variety, where a heterosexual male protagonist pursues relationships with one (or, occasionally, more than one) of the impossibly attractive female cast members. Oddly enough, it's Western developers rather than localization teams who seem to be leading the charge for otome games among English-speaking audiences, but the situation is gradually changing thanks to titles like the excellent Sweet Fuse. (Aside: I was actually tempted to write about Sweet Fuse today, but I've said most of the things I want to say in my review, so be sure to check that out if you're interested.)
The game I've had on my mind for today's column is Hanako Games' Magical Diary. In this game, you're cast in the role of an extraordinary high school student -- you have magical powers! Consequently, in true Harry Potter fashion, you've been sent to a school that's suitably equipped to deal with your unique talents, and over the course of the game it's your job to refine those powers into something that's going to get you through your exams. These are no ordinary exams, of course; being a magical school, they naturally involve you being transported into a dank, smelly dungeon and tasked with finding your way out using the spells you've managed to master in the preceding weeks.
This is Dating Sim Month, however, so as you might expect a significant part of Magical Diary revolves around the pursuit of romantic relationships with a number of different cast members. Exactly who you get the opportunity to make puppy dog eyes at depends on the actions you take at school -- do you perform well in class, or do you concentrate on building up your non-magical abilities? Do you agree to help out with school events, or do you prefer to sulk by yourself in your room? Eventually, you'll find yourself on one of several different paths to the game's ending, each of which explores your character's relationship with a very different type of person.
None of the paths are a particularly easy ride, however; relationships are complex affairs, and this is something that author Georgina Bensley clearly understands intimately. One pathway in particular slowly makes it horrifyingly apparent that you're actually stuck in an abusive relationship, and explores the ways that people choose to deal with that situation -- getting overly defensive, denying there's a problem, alienating the people who care about them and doing more and more unreasonable things in the name of what they mistakenly believe is "love." There are few ways this path ends particularly well, and a number of difficult to watch events along the way, including a scene seemingly intended as a non-literal allegory for rape.
Don't get the wrong impression, however; Magical Diary isn't just about relationships that are bad for people. No, in other pathways it explores concepts such as the blurred lines between close, intimate friendships and romantic relationships, and what to do when cultural rules and regulations force you in a direction you might not expect. At heart, it's a story about growing up and coming of age, and of the friendships and relationships you build that help to define the person you'll become later in life. You're quite literally building your character as you play, too; the choices that you make throughout, whether it's scheduling your time for going to classes or deciding what you do with your free time after class has finished, help define you as a person -- how strong and smart you are (not mutually exclusive concepts); how cute and weird you are (ditto); which particular aspects of magic you're skilled with. By the end of the game, you'll have a good idea of exactly who your character is, what they're good at, what they're bad at and whether they're in a relationship that is likely to last. Then you can go back and play the whole thing again to have a totally different experience, with your previous experiences immortalized in an online yearbook. (Spoilers!)
Magical Diary really highlights one of the best things about dating sims and relationship-centric visual novels: the fact that the relative lack of other "gameplay," for want of a better term, allows developers and writers to focus on exploring characters in an extremely in-depth manner, both as individuals and as parts of a relationship. By playing through a game like this and enjoying its multiple possible narrative perspectives, you can obtain a remarkably detailed mental picture of the characters involved and the sort of people they are -- as friends, as lovers, as rivals or as enemies. It can be a curiously intimate-feeling experience to spend virtual time with these characters, and it's something that simply can't be replicated in quite the same way by games that divide their attention between this sort of thing and more "gamey" mechanics.
If you'd like to get involved with Dating Sim Month yourself, you can take part in several ways: comment on our pieces throughout the rest of this month, post on Twitter with the hashtag #DatingSiMonth or share your thoughts on this NeoGAF thread. Magical Diary is available on Steam.