In Japan, there is a video game genre that caters almost exclusively to women. You might have even heard of it: otome games.
Otome Games have been a fixture in Japanese gaming for some time, but are still gaining traction in the U.S. These games are visual novels, dating sims, or some combination of the two, and are mainly narrative driven.
The main goal of these games is to romance an extensive cast of diverse characters, correctly wending one’s way through a vast series of sometimes silly, sometimes complex decisions. The mechanics are built to encourage multiple playthroughs, allowing players to fast forward through parts of the game you’re already familiar with. It’s fascinating to see how drastically the story can be altered depending on the different paths you opt to take.
While these games have a huge following in Japan, with anime and merchandise built up around them, the genre is still gaining traction in the West, mainly through the efforts of fans and independent developers. Localizing these games is tough due to cultural differences, and some publishers fear they simply wouldn’t sell.
Still, there has been an upward swing in independently made otome games, many of which you can find on Steam for under $10.
Some are surprising in the deep narratives they weave, while others are just downright wacky in the best way. Below is a list of some exemplary entries in the genre that are great if you’re interested in trying something new.
Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi (3DS)
Part historical drama, part vampire romance, Hakuoki: Tales of the Shinsengumi is a thrilling adventure through Kyoto set at the end of the Edo period, as tensions between the Emperor and the Shogunate came to a head. Hakuoki is actually one of the few Japanese otome games to receive an official localization.
Players assume the role of Chizuru, a girl travelling through Kyoto in search of her father. Chizuru gets in the way of some Shogun shenanigans in the wee hours of the night. Lost and in danger in the winding Kyoto streets, she’s rescued and taken in by the Shinsengumi, a band of beautiful samurai. As Chizuru begins to be treated less like an outsider and more like an equal, she starts to form bonds with the six men, but it turns out all is not as it seems.
The pacing in this visual novel is great—the variety between action packed scenes and slower character building moments is wonderfully balanced. This game will suck you in. It can be challenging to figure out what each character wants, but the game encourages you to use multiple save slots and allows you to fast forward through the parts you’ve already played. It’s a pretty accessible game overall, especially for a niche genre. The production helps a great deal, as well. The game is fully voice acted (Japanese only), the art is truly brings Edo Kyoto to life, and the musical scoring effectively sets the mood.
Hatoful Boyfriend (Windows, OSX, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita)
Hatoful Boyfriend took off as a cult smash. You’ve probably heard of it—it’s the one where you date pigeons and other bishounen fowl. You, the player, are the sole human student in an elite high school for birds. The game takes you through the different romance options, all of which are surprisingly well realized. You’ll be surprised at how much you relate to a flock of adolescent pigeons, owed in part to the game’s excellent writing. The game presents itself as a (mostly) typical otome game before springing you with a surprise twist that reveals the darker underpinnings of the Hatoful Boyfriend universe.
Hatoful Boyfriend will surprise you - it’s bizarre, laugh out loud funny, terrifying, and wholly engrossing. This is one of the rare Japanese otome games that got an official localization, and what a gift it is. The game was originally designed by manga artist Hato Moa, inspired by an April Fool’s game she created.
Cinders is a Polish take on the Japanese visual novel and a gorgeous re-imagining of the Cinderella fairy tale. The game is brought to life by stunning hand drawn graphics replete in deep russets and golds offset by warm lighting and beautiful shadows.
The original telling of the story presents a Cinderella who is dealt a tough hand and wins out in the end by being patient and kind, even to those who abuse her. We can sympathize, but Cinderella doesn’t have any real agency of her own. This time around, you, assuming the role of Cinderella, take charge of your own fate. Will she stand up against her evil stepmother? Will she go to the ball or find something more productive to do? Will you choose the prince, or maybe there’s another, more interesting handsome stranger? Maybe she’ll forgo romance altogether to pursue bigger and better things. Cinders recasts the passive Cinderella as a heroine who is intelligent, independent, and actively seeks a better life for herself.
Analogue: A Hate Story (Windows, OSX, Linux)
Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story is a mystery visual novel, but it’s underlying themes run much deeper. Analogue centers around a lost generation ship that had been sent into deep space with the hopes of establishing a human colony. The ship, Mugunghwa, is discovered thousands of years after its disappearance. It’s the player’s mission to uncover what happened on the ship with the help of a surviving AI and remaining private letters exchanged between passengers.
The game has five distinct endings for the player to discover while exploring themes of love, hate, misogyny, and the consequences of a patriarchal society that oppresses women. The game is loosely based on Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, which was infamous in its treatment of women. It’s many layers of meaning and the game’s sinister overall air of mystery will enthrall you as you try to unveil the truth. Analogue: A Hate Story will stay with you days after you complete it.
Code: Realize (PlayStation Vita)
From the same folks behind Hakuoki, Code: Realize transports us to London, where we are introduced to our cast of prospective suitors. The twist? All of them are characters from Victorian literature, including Victor Frankenstein and Abraham Van Helsing. Players take on the role of the mostly silent protagonist—Cardia, who is ostracized because her skin carries a poison that will melt or rot anything it touches. When London’s Royal Guards attempt to capture Cardia, she is rescued by the dashing Arsène Lupin, and from there we are thrown into a tale of steam-powered gizmos, dashing literary dudes, and secret organizations.
This game leans pretty heavily on anime tropes, but its steampunk aesthetic and fast paced story are compelling. While the characters are cliched in many ways, their back stories are well thought out. Code: Realize is pure guilty pleasure, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
That’s our list to get you started! If you’re looking for more, I recommend checking out the otome listing on Steam or English Otome Games, a well-maintained fan-made resource that keeps an updated list of English otome games. Date Nighto, too, is doing great work creating a number of well-written web-based visual novels for a diverse audience.
While otome is still a very niche genre, the efforts of independent developers and fans to widen its audience is quite admirable. This list only scratches the surface, but exploring what’s out there is great fun in itself.