Are They All Just For Kids?
By mikey
Monday, March 7, 2005

Bishoujo games, visual novels, ren'ai games, dating sims... They are my favorite game genre. And many people asked me just why this is so. I feel like naming a thousand reasons, beginning with being able to run them on almost every machine and ending with them being the best symbiosis of the interactivity of a game, the imagination and story of a book and the clean feel of anime/manga.

Unfortunately, almost none of the people I know share this passion for these games with me. They come and see how the games look - then write them off for being childish. But me, I can't do it. I wish, I really wish I could, because it would spare me so much disappointment. But I don't love these games because of what the majority of them are, but because of what some of them can be. The problem is simple:

Are the games childish because they feature kids? Perhaps that question is not put correctly. It's not about the games being childish. When you're going to school, these settings usually appeal to you. But sooner or later, you get enough of them. Then, stories revolving around school life, no matter how inventive, will just not do it anymore. The story and the general feel you look for does not mean you want something "for grown-ups", it simply means you want something different. Many of the games do in fact have an interesting and inventive story, but every so often one just feels the producers insisted that the idea of the story had to be carried out in a setting that involves characters from 14-20 years, typically of course this is a school.

The core of my problem is therefore the fact, that no matter how adult the story, I will just not accept it, if it's not presented in a corresponding way. How would you feel if there were 16-year olds reading your daily news? And what's the use of having a story when you simply can't relate to it because it just has to involve the typical children's setting (the school) and gettable girls that look like your daughters? Is it really so hard to give me a bishoujo game where the characters are (and look) at least thirty years old? It seems, that in Japanese mainstream anime and games such as JRPGs and bishoujo games the characters reach retirement age with becoming 23, and anyone older hardly gets any spotlight in the stories.

If you look at Western adventure games (take the classics like Gabriel Knight 2, Broken Sword, The Dig, or new productions like The Longest Journey), almost none of them features their heroes as young as in their Japanese ren'ai VN counterparts. Admittedly, the Western games traditionally shy away from bringing the element of love into their gameplay, but on the other hand, their plots are free from the must-have school setting and have much more freedom in exploring the scenario they like, be it deep mystery, advenure & conspiracy or space adventure. Still, for those seeking ren'ai, it seems the only way is to just accept underage girls in Japanese productions (although the
Western localizations will state the girls are already 18).

But it's the above mentioned potential (and the occasional exception from the "must have school-related something" rule) that makes me love the games. I just need to think "what if"... and the sun is shining again. That's the ambivalence - these games are fantastic, and have so much to offer... and suddenly I am willing to forgive everything, and mostly the fact, that the devastating majority of the games is targetted at an audience of 14-25 years at most.

Yes, I am not 16 anymore. I don't want to date girls, I want to date women. And I have little or no games that respect this. One older woman (stepmother or teacher) is often my only choice. But it isn't really a choice. As the girls I go out with turn to women and change with me, so should the games. And they don't.

So sue me for not going crazy over yet another fantastically melancholic story in a Japanese game release - no matter how great it would be, it takes just one screenshot for me to know it's just another one of those games that are all schoolgirls. And while I really DO understand and fully respect the iconic status of a schoolgirl in Japanese (manga/anime) culture, sometimes it gets too much. I'm sorry. I am not Japanese. I am European. Western. Occidental. Whatever you like. And the truth is, I want English visual novels that I can relate to. At least once in a while. Please. It's funny in this respect how three of my favorite games (Desire, EVE Burst Error and Phantom) all have an above average non-Japanese elements count in them.

You know, when I finally had all the means, all the technology to make my own game, I was so happy, because I felt I can be myself now. I didn't make the story of Black Pencil non-schoolgirlish because I was frustrated by the games I had to play. I made it because I finally had the freedom to make a game. A while later, in an interesting e-mail exchange one player wrote me that he liked the game, but that there was something strange and it was hard for him to play it. I asked him the obvious and he answered "actually... yes". He was missing a school or at least a reference to it.

Many people just don't feel like playing a romantic game featuring people who are "older", because it's not fitting. The High School seems to have monopolized the right for pure, true love. It's partly because you experience those feelings for the first time at that age and often feeling special you just don't think anyone else is capable of feeling what you are experiencing. And especially the adults who are in the reality of life and lost all romance. But twenty years later, when your heart is racing the very same way in the presence of that gorgeous woman, hopefully you (and especially game developers) will come to realize ren'ai is not dependent on age.

Being a free game maker, I have an advantage. I have no boss, no guidelines and no market dictating the rules of game design. I can afford to make my games different. But I don't do it because I want them to be different. I want them to be mine. So, they may not feature cute girls who scream baka when you make a remark about their panties (calling the hero "supid" or "pervert" is the classic laugh you get in Japanese anime teen romantic comedies). I understand that they will not appeal to everyone. But it is my game, and if it will only appeal to just one fan, it's okay. And I'll be able to live on even if it doesn't appeal to anyone. But it's not being cold. It's not being ignorant. I want my main characters to be 32 years old. And if others can't do it for me, I will do it myself. For me, this is the true freedom.

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mikey runs ATP Projects, has released several English bishoujo games and maintains the
English Bishoujo Games Encyclopedia.

"Are They Just for Kids?" © 2005 mikey. All rights reserved.
Contents of this article are purely the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect those of Ren'Ai'ai

Content© 2005 &, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.