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In the World of Otome Games, All Routes Lead To Romance

by Molly Lee,

Have you ever looked at an anime boy and thought, "Man, I wish I could make you blush"?

My name is Molly Lee, and I am a professional translator of light novels and visual novels. My first experience with otome games was nearly ten years ago, in 2011—you know, back when image macros were still the height of internet comedy. I was already a big fan of hybrid visual novels like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors on Nintendo DS, and I'd discovered the joys of vicariously dating anime characters through JRPGs like Persona 4 for the PS2. Basically, if it was an anime game that offered dialogue options, I played the hell out of it.

But when it came to the Western market, generally speaking, "games where you can romance male characters" were not really A Thing yet, outside of BioWare games, and I didn't own any modern consoles. Not that I minded too terribly much—Chie is still my P4 wife—but the absence of male options felt like a glaring oversight.

Then I learned about an English fanpatch for an "otome game" called Starry☆Sky ~in Spring~. A visual novel in which three anime boys vie for the attention of the female(!!!) self-insert main character. And one of them is tsundere. Lord help me.

As I would soon learn, otome games function a lot like other visual novels in that most of the story is text-based, with occasional moments in which you're offered some Choose Your Own Adventure-style options to determine your fate. In some visual novels, like the Zero Escape series, choice points can have you stumbling blindly toward your own demise. In otome games, however, choosing the "right" option often results in hearts, flowers, sound effects, or some other feedback, letting you know your decision has increased affection points with your chosen guy. (This is a feature I sorely miss in real life.)

After I discovered Starry Sky, I was hooked... but pickings were slim. The only company releasing ANY official localizations of otome games back then was visual novel publisher JAST USA with Yo-Jin-Bo, and I had money to burn. So when Aksys Games announced an official English localization of Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom (An otome game! In the mainstream Western market!) to be released on Valentine's Day 2012, I went out and bought a PSP just to play it. Then I picked up Fate/Extra and Persona 3 Portable, too. Female protagonist options abound! For once in my life, I could romance 2D guys! (And not just as a punchline, like in Kira☆Kira!)

These days, however, dating anime men is a lot more mainstream. Following the success of Hakuōki (and later, Code:Realize), Aksys Games in particular has continued to localize otome games for the console market. Additionally, JAST USA recently returned to the otome scene with TAISHO x ALICE episode 1, and a third visual novel publisher, MangaGamer, has since entered the fray with OZMAFIA!! in 2016. So what makes otome games so good, anyway?

The Boys

We've all been there—sometimes you just need to surround yourself with anime boys. Fortunately, you're in luck: otome games have boys of every flavor. Here are some of my favorites!

The Childhood Friend: He's known you for years and still somehow likes you! Probably a little too much, actually!
The Tsundere: He totally DOES NOT like you. AT ALL. Definitely blushing for unrelated reasons. SHUT UP.
The Sunshine Boy: Pure energy! Loves to have fun, bonus points if it's with you!
The Brat: Younger than you and won't let you forget it anytime soon. Gets his kicks by messing with you. If you enjoy thinking to yourself "I'm gonna kill this little twerp," this is the type for you.
The Kuudere: Why won't you open up to me? Who hurt you?
The Kuudere Megane: Extremely intellectual. Will probably make you do a math test to get on his route. What, you think I'm joking?

The Soft Boy: One look at him and you just know he gets bullied for being a geek. We must protect him.
The Playboy: He flirts with anything that has a pulse, but ONLY YOU see him for the real him and not just his bangin' bod. Probably has a tragic past.
The Extremely Normal Guy Who Is Just Overprotective: Nothing to see here, it's just that one guy who cares a lot about you. You know, the one you think of as an older brother type? You turn to him with your fears, and in return, he puts you IN A CAGE WHERE YOU WILL BE SAFE. NOTHING CAN HARM YOU NOW. LISTEN TO YOUR ONII-CHAN.
The Crazy Axe Murderer: "What? Why would you want to romance a crazy axe murderer?" Because I like to live dangerously, Mom, okay? Sometimes you just need to go on a date with a guy who's literally trying to kill you. You know, to cope.

Granted, with otome games, the characters aren't the only draw. There's got to be more to it than that, right? Of course there is!

The Adventure

Times like these, when everybody's going stir-crazy in their houses, sometimes you just need to get away from it all with a little escapism. That's where otome games come in! There are lots of exciting options, including (but not limited to):

  • Crossdressing as a samurai in feudal Japan*
  • Crossdressing at an all-boys academy to punch your crush*
  • Trapped in a mansion with a bunch of hot vampires*
  • Trapped in an MMO with a bunch of hot gamers*
  • Solving crimes in Shinjuku*
  • Solving crimes in Victorian England with sexy literary characters*
  • Steampunk shenanigans in Victorian England with sexy literary characters*
  • Mafia shenanigans with gender-flipped fairytale characters*
  • Crafting potions so you can buy a middle-aged JRPG husband*
  • Literally just the plot of Nobuta wo Produce, but with porn*
  • Flirting with humanized versions of animals you found in your room*
  • Flirting with humanized versions of ball-jointed dolls*
  • Flirting on a chat app that randomly installed itself on your phone*
  • Flirting in teenage purgatory*
  • Flirting with birds, like, literally just birds*
  • Flirting on a big spherical spaceship and everyone has magical powers, and also there's time travel, but it's not really a plot point... Okay, maybe I don't know how to explain Norn9.

As you can see, like with visual novels in general, otome games have a little something for everyone. There's no shortage of safe indoor entertainment here. But be warned: just because romance is a critical element of otome games, it doesn't mean the plots are always sunshine and rainbows. What if you're looking for something a little more, shall we say, dangerous?

One of the otome games I'm playing right now, nEroErosso, is about a sassy female assassin for hire named Evangeline (Eve for short) who can transform into a panther at will. When a violent criminal syndicate moves into her hometown, her adoptive father Logan orders her to get in good with the bosses so they won't see her as a threat. What follows is a shadowy game of cat and mouse in which Eve must curry just enough favor with her chosen target to put herself in his good graces… all the while edging ever closer to the man at the top, who she believes killed her birth parents. It's a dark fantasy story with even darker romance, for those of us who prefer spice to sugar.

But while the action, mystery, and/or zany antics are a big part of the fun, what is it that really keeps otome fans coming back for more...?

The Emotional Catharsis

In my favorite otome game of all time, you play as the spirit of a girl who died in an accident. In one route, you fall in love with a fellow spirit from the 1920s, only for him to pass on to the afterlife shortly before you yourself are brought back to your previous life. When you search the real world for any trace of your beloved, you learn that he is survived by his great-grand-nephew who is the spitting image of the young man you met in purgatory. He's not really the same person; you know that, and indeed, he knows that. But nevertheless, you fall in love all over again.

This is, I think, a metaphor for how I experience otome games. Although many recycle the same tropes, plots, or character archetypes, no two are ever exactly alike. But in each of them, I see something I recognize. Something I yearn for. A nostalgia I can't quite place.

In 2013, I was fired from a toxic job that was destroying me. On one hand, I was grateful to be free, but on the other hand, I had absolutely nothing lined up afterwards… and, you know, an apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area that I needed to somehow pay for. As the stress built and built, with no income to do anything but sit at home alone, I quickly fell into a deep depression, medicated only by YouTube channels and video games. One of those games was Dandelion ~Wishes Brought to You~, which is where I discovered Heejung, the most relatable otome protagonist of all time.

At the start of the game, Heejung is just sort of coasting through college life. "I don't even know what I'm doing right now," she thinks to herself. "I have no idea what I'm working so hard for... How can I find my calling? How can I learn to enjoy what I do? No one taught me those things." Like a lot of young adults, she has no clear vision of the future. But then she wakes up to find a basket full of cats and rabbits in her bedroom, and those animals later transform into… well, hot guys, yes. But more importantly, Heejung is suddenly surrounded by people who actually care about her as a person, rather than what she can accomplish. It felt like the game was saying, "I see you, Miss Overachiever, and I give you permission to not have your life together."

In the end, it was that period of unemployment that gave me the push I needed to finally dip my toe into Japanese-to-English translation. Years later, now that I'm a paid professional, I pay it forward by translating otome games whenever I have the opportunity. My dream is for the media I work on to inspire people the same way Dandelion and countless other titles have inspired me.

So if you haven't played an otome game yet, what's stopping you?

Maybe you'll favor the more headstrong protagonists of Western otome games over the "blank slates" common in Japanese otome. Maybe you'll prefer Korean voice acting. Maybe you'll choose happy endings over the tragic ones. You don't have to share my tastes in order to have a good time; the games I've highlighted here are just a drop in the bucket compared to what's out there.

So get out there already! Your routes are waiting.

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