Alone on Valentine’s Day? I feel your pain, brah. But there are worse things than being dateless on the most romantic day of the year — at least you aren’t spending the day whispering sweet nothings into your DS.
Everyone is familiar with the basic genres that most games fall into: shooters, RPG’s, action-adventure games, platformers, etc. Every one has their favorites, and people are usually pretty open about their tastes; I love RPGs and old-school platformers, and chances are you know a dozen guys who will openly express their love for Call of Duty or Battlefield. One genre you won’t find a lot of people (at least here in America,) openly admitting to liking are dating simulators, which, thanks to the very name, are often mocked and stigmatized as only appealing to lonely, unattractive otaku who could never get a real date.
Men crowd into a Japanese 7-11 for the opportunity to download exclusive content from the store’s 3DS download kiosk. (via Andriasang)
Now, depending on your opinion of these games, that last sentence either sounded hilariously true or was an unfair, mean generalization, but I’m not here to judge fans of these games (okay, well, maybe just a little,) but today I’m going to discuss one game in particular, it’s effect on Japanese culture, and the merit of the game itself. The game in question is Konami’s Love Plus for the Nintendo DS, a game which has managed to enthrall fans of the genre, while simultaneously reinforcing every negative stereotype about it and its fans, and has ended up becoming a sort of bizarre, strange cultural event in Japan.
Love Plus differs from most dating simulators in that the main crux of the game is about maintaining a relationship, not just getting into one. Most games in this genre start when the player meets a girl and end once you win her over; Love Plus encapsulates the initial wooing process in it’s tutorial prologue, and you spend the rest of the game maintaining your relationship with the girl of your choice by taking her out on dates, buying her dinner, basically, doing everything you can to keep her happy. To simplify it in the most misogynistic and patronizing way possible, Love Plus is sort of like Nintendogs, except with a Japanese schoolgirl instead of a puppy.
In Love Plus players earn points by studying or playing sports, which in turn level up stats that make the player character more appealing to the girls in the game. Like Nintendogs, the girls respond to simple phrases spoken aloud into the DS microphone. Unlike real girls, it’s always pretty clear what you should be doing and saying to keep them happy, and if you’re especially socially inept, there are plenty of guides online (even a few in English, even though the game hasn’t [and probably never will,] been released outside of Japan,) that will tell you how to transform yourself into some sort of smooth talking, underage, Japanese Brad Pitt.
Now, Love Plus is obviously grossly over simplifying and misrepresenting the intricacies of a romantic relationship, but it’s unique formula and cast of eager to please, simple to understand girls seems to have struck a chord with lovelorn Japanese youth. While sales of Love Plus haven’t quite reached Dragon Quest or Monster Hunter levels of popularity, it has a very dedicated fan base that absolutely eat up anything Love Plus related.
In fact, an entire cottage industry has sprouted up around the game: in addition to the usual manga adaptations and plastic figures, there’s been Love Plus limited edition DS’s, clothing, body pillows, sheets, art books, an officially licensed stand that will hold your DS aloft so you can keep your hands free while you play the game (insert easy masturbation joke here,) snack foods, and even a series of audio radio-drama CD’s. Konami even recently launched a service where, for a small fee each month, the company will send you regularly scheduled, in-real-life emails and private messages under the guise of one of the game’s girls to add further depth and realism (read: delusions) to your Love Plus experience.
Love Plus fanatics even plan real-life vacations for themselves and their virtual girlfriends. The Japanese resort town of Atami was once one of Japan’s most popular vacation getaways, but by the time Love Plus was released in 2009, the tourists had stopped coming and it looked like the city’s glory days had passed.
While the general Japanese population had forgotten about Atami in favor of more exotic vacation spots abroad, the city became a sort of otaku Mecca once it was featured as an in-game vacation event in Love Plus. Not content taking their (virtual) girl on a virtual vacaction, Love Plus owners began flocking to the city in real life, with their DS’s in hand, in order to recreate the events of the game in person. While this type of hardcore, fanatical otaku obsession is looked down upon by the general populace (even in Japan,) the residents of Atami welcomed this flood of otaku (and their money) with a smile. The city that was once Japan’s favorite honeymoon destination completely rebranded itself as the must-visit vacation spot for a very different breed of lovers.
The owner of one of Atami’s Love Plus focused restaurants, posing with a character from the girl. (via Wall Street Journal)
Hotels and restaurants in the area signed on with Konami to offer special rates and packages for Love Plus pilgrims. The city even designated special areas where players could take pictures with their imaginary companions. Every step was taken to pander to players’ fantasies: dinners were served for two, hotel rooms rented out to single men with DS’s were set up with honeymoon style accommodations, and the staff at these businesses addressed players’ Love Plus equipped DS’s as though they were actual real girls. Sad as it may have looked to an outside observer, the residents of Atami were grateful for the renewed business that the game had brought to their town.
Strangely enough, romantic get-aways to beach side resorts aren’t the most extreme example of Love Plus obsession: in 2009, a seemingly normal 27 year old Japanese man announced to his friends and family that he planned to marry his Love Plus girlfriend. While the marriage wasn’t legally binding, the man put on a full ceremony, complete with a real priest and a full audience of his closest family and friends, and he broadcast the entire ceremony over the internet. While the groom admitted the event was a sort of half-serious joke, the story was weird enough to get picked up by major news outlets like CNN and The Telegraph.
While most simply laughed the stories of genuine in game “love” off, some saw gamers’ obsession with the dating simulator as a troubling trend. Jilted real women took to the internet in droves to complain how their boyfriends and spouses seemingly liked their virtual women more than their real ones, and some pundits semi-ironically mused that Love Plus was a sign that Japan was doomed: for decades Japan has been afflicted with a historically low birthrate as younger generations spur parenthood and serious relationships, and many saw Love Plus and the growing obsession with moe anime culture as a catalyst that would finally push an entire generation of Japanese men into a life of self-imposed celibacy.
Man making a sand castle on the beach with his Love Plus girlfriend. Notice he put a flower in her, uh, hair, I guess.
While it’s (very) easy to make jokes or derive some schadenfreude at the expense of the Love Plus infatuated, the level of obsession that some have displayed towards the game has caused serious alarm for others. Japan has long had a problem with “hikkikomori’s,” disenfranchised youths who withdraw from society, coop themselves up indoors at all times, and spend all their time engaging in escapist fantasies via videogames and manga, and some argue that Love Plus provides these shut-ins with a proxy for real, healthy social contact.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to say if Love Plus has had a positive or negative effect on its fans’ lives: while the level of obsession shown by many players does seem unhealthy, others would argue that the game has managed to inject some happiness (however shallow and ultimately empty) into the lives of some very lonely men, and what’s wrong with that? Depending on who you ask, Love Plus is either a dangerous placebo for real human contact or simply an innocent fantasy that some men have gotten a little too attached too. What do I think? Well, I think it’s simply hilarious and that’s about the extent of my opinion, but then again, I am a hopelessly unkind and uncaring person (which may be why I’m spending my Valentine’s Day writing articles about videogames. Alone.)
Is Love Plus Worth Playing?
Despite all the wacky stories and debate that the game has stirred up, the actual Love Plus game is pretty innocuous: like I said earlier, it’s basically Nintendogs with girls, plus some basic stat grinding and an occasional special event. Speaking from a purely gameplay perspective, there is a bit of basic reasoning skill required to figure out how to please your girl and what her interests are, but you won’t find anything resembling the complexity or challenge of your usual adventure game puzzles. Once you figure out what your girl is into, you can basically grind for points in the related stats and that’ll pretty much be enough to keep her with you forever. Like I said earlier, Love Plus doesn’t exactly paint a complex or nuanced portrayal of women, and if you’ve ever seen a harem or romantic comedy anime you’ll likely know what to expect from this game’s cast of recycled archetypes.
There’s also a substantial language barrier, so if for some reason I’ve piqued your interest about this game and want to give it a shot, you should be warned that you’ll need to be able to read and speak Japanese at at least a basic conversational level. Despite being a few years old, the game has managed to retain it’s value, so don’t expect to be able to pick it up for a discount price either — as I’ve stated many times over at this point, Love Plus has the strange ability to make players develop a strong attachment to it, so understandably there are very few used copies of the game floating around out there. I mean, would you trade-in your girlfriend for Gamestop credit? …Don’t answer that.
Love Plus makes for an interesting curio, but don’t expect any deep gameplay or a compelling story. Other games, such as Atlus’ Persona games and spin-off puzzler Catherine, as well as most of Bioware’s RPG’s, have featured romantic subplots that succeeded in actually telling interesting stories with fully fleshed out characters, where as Love Plus is designed more to pander to players’ fantasies rather than keep them engaged with an on-going narrative.
I suppose if you find real girls to be 3d pig-disgusting or if you’re one of those otaku who are saving themselves for that Japanese girl they’re destined to meet who will totally tolerate their collection of nude plastic figures and K-ON! doujinshi, then yes, Love Plus just might be the *ahem* relationship you’re looking for. Anyone looking for a genuinely compelling game might be somewhat disappointed, as the actual game in question here is far tamer than the human interest stories it has spawned.
Now if you excuse me, I’m going to go spend the rest of my Valentine’s Day playing Skyrim or Zelda while slowly drinking a bottle of $2 wine. By myself. *sniff*